This impressive river runs through the heart of the National Capital Region. Cyclists, swimmers, walkers, and sight-seers pass by the river every day, but there’s much more cultural and natural history in these waters than meets the eye. Below, we’ve outlined some major characteristics and information to build your understanding of this dynamic waterway.
About Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River)
Names: Kichi Sibi (Anishinàbemowin) | Ottawa (English) | Outaouais (French)
Photo: Martin Lipman
Home to Algonquin Peoples, habitat for more than 24 at-risk species, hiding the longest underwater cave system in Canada, and serving as an interprovincial border, Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) is a truly unique waterway. Leader of the Ottawa Riverkeeper organization for 14 years, Meredith Brown is an advocate and activist for Kichi Sibi. When asked what makes Kichi Sibi so special, she emphasized its intricate impact on its surroundings: “The river shapes our land, impacts our well-being, and is the lifeblood of our communities.”
Name origin: Kichi Sibi means “Great River.” In Anishinàbemowin, “adàwe” means “to trade.” This led to the English name, “Ottawa.”
Headwaters: Lac des Outaouais, 250km north of Ottawa, and 290km northwest of Montreal
Length: 1,271 km
Elevation: Kichi Sibi drops about 400m from an elevation of 430m above sea level at the headwaters to 20m at its mouth.
Watershed (Area of drainage basin): 146,300 km2
Trading and Transport: Covering a large geographic area and with direct access to Kaniatarowanenneh (St. Lawrence River), Kichi Sibi has always been an important trade route for First Nations. Later, it became a major route for the fur trade, before morphing into a central transport route for the logging industry.
Landscape: Flowing through more than 27 provincial parks and wildlife reserves, Kichi Sibi travels through boreal forest near its headwaters and then across Canadian Shield before flowing south through mixed forest and into Kaniatarowanenneh (St. Lawrence River). There are more than 50 major dams in the Kichi Sibi watershed. A map of those can be found here.
Fauna: Kichi Sibi is home to more than 30 species of reptiles and amphibians, 53 species of mammals, and 85 species of fish, as well as 300 species of birds. About half of these birds migrate through the area each year, but migration isn’t just for the birds! Some aquatic species, including American eels, migrate as well.
Wildlife spotlight: American eels spawn in the Atlantic Ocean before migrating to freshwater for most of their adult lives, and Kichi Sibi is an important migration route and destination for them. The construction of hydro dams has interrupted their migratory route. Notably, the Carillon dam near Hawkesbury left American eels isolated from other areas of the watershed. In collaboration with the Canadian Wildlife Federation, 400 eels have been trapped near the Beauharnois Dam in the St. Lawrence and released into Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) near Petrie Island, bypassing the Carillon Dam and helping to combat the interruption of their natural migration path.
In addition to the American eel, Kichi Sibi is home to 23 species on the Ontario Species at Risk list, such as the Spotted turtle, Cerulean warbler, and Blanding’s turtle.
Places to visit around Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River)
Explore Kichi Sibi on foot along its paths in urban centers, through the lens of your swim goggles, by canoe or kayak in the Nation’s Capital, in remote provincial parks, or by roadtrip. This map can help you plan your trip to historical and cultural points of interest, while this map will help you plan your water-based adventure.
“It has been easy to fall in love with the Ottawa River and her tributaries,” says Meredith Brown. “People protect what they love, and I certainly feel a great sense of responsibility to protect and restore Kichi Sibi, the great river, the Ottawa River.”
Though we are striving to be as accurate and respectful as possible in our use of Traditional names of places and Peoples, we recognize that we are bound to make mistakes. Please reach out to us anytime – we welcome the opportunity to listen, to learn, and to connect with you. email@example.com
A group from Bishop’s College School finds joy – and mud – at the water’s edge
Author: Jennifer Kingsley
Bishop’s College School group on the Muteshekau Shipu. Standing: Caleb Aubut, Evan Jones, Emma Andrews, Yan Goyette (guide), Krysten Lamb Chaimber Condo, Liam Condo Sitting: Luis Cao, Barbara Rowell, Emma Hopkins, Maeve MacLachlan, Jess Zajko (guide).
Eight students. Two teachers. Fourteen hours. One van.
It was a long trek for the paddlers from Bishop’s College School, in Sherbrooke, Québec, to reach Magpie Village on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence. They were happy to see that their guides, Yan Goyette, Maxime Girard, and Jessica Zajko, had already set up the tents.
Hiking the north shore of the St. Lawrence before flying in to begin the river trip.
After a night’s sleep, the group met Lydia Mestokosho-Paradis and her aunt Rita Mestokosho, who are both Innu from the community of Ekuanitshit. They conducted a ceremony to prepare the student group for eight days on the Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River), including gifts of red bracelets and bandanas to protect them.
“The Magpie River is everything for us,” Lydia told Global News earlier this year, and the send off she prepared helped the students to understand that.
Teacher Krysten Lamb remembers how important that idea became as they paddled the river’s clear water. “One thing they mentioned,” said Krysten, “Is that every three to five days all of the water in your body is replaced. You actually become the river.”
For this group, becoming the river meant throwing themselves into everything, including the river itself. “This was the first time I had people asking if they could float down the river,” said guide Yan Goyette, who has paddled the Magpie nine times. “They loved the water.”
Kayarafts are easy to inflate en route and give people a chance to paddle on their own.
The students involved were chosen by their teachers, Barbara Rowell and Krysten Lamb, who applied for funding through the school’s Ondaatje Endeavour, which has supported annual adventures for students in several countries. This time, they stayed in Canada to visit what paddlers widely recognize as an ideal waterway for rafting.
The rapids are nearly continuous in many sections, which makes it a wonderful setting to learn new skills on the water, something that all of the students grew to love. But the learning was not limited to their paddling time.
Take Luis Cao, who is in grade 10 this year. Everything from fishing to camp cooking was new to Luis on this trip, and he wanted to learn it all. “Anything anybody was doing,” Krysten said, “He would say, ‘Can I try that?’ You didn’t have to ask him. He would ask you.”
Luis Cao (centre) has asked for fishing gear for his birthday.
“He was mostly quiet and listening at the beginning,” said Yan, “and by the end he was more involved and making jokes. That’s what rivers can do.”
By the end of the week—after days of rain according to the teachers and “pretty good weather” according to their guides—the students didn’t hesitate to pull the rafts through mud that came up to their knees and even sucked their shoes right off.
“Everyone was in a positive mood,” Barbara said. “It was lots of fun in the end.”
Nothing beats the weather like a solid tarp set up.
The fun that comes with ecotourism may have an important role to play in the river’s future. Indigenous and non-Indigenous governments in this region came together to make the Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River) the first ecosystem in Canada to be granted the same legal rights as a person. Hopefully this landmark decision will let the water flow free and clear forever.
Though we are striving to be as accurate and respectful as possible in our use of Traditional names of places and Peoples, we recognize that we are bound to make mistakes. Please reach out to us anytime – we welcome the opportunity to listen, to learn, and to connect with you. firstname.lastname@example.org
Author: Willa Mason, Whitewater Guide and Instructor
After your first experience on the river you may be left wanting more but wondering what the next step is. We know that the dynamic environment of flowing water can make it intimidating to venture out on your own, so we’ve broken down some great options based on the experiences you might be looking for.
The bottom line: take action! Join a club or learn with the guidance of outdoor professionals. Becoming part of the local outdoor community can give you access to expertise, equipment, and time on the river that you can’t get on your own.
Join a club:
Local paddling clubs offer instructional sessions, as well as organized trips on local rivers. If you’ve dabbled in rafting, canoeing, or kayaking—paddling clubs are a fantastic way to improve your skills or try a different watercraft in a relaxed and informal environment. See our sample list of clubs at the bottom of this post.
Take a whitewater kayaking or canoeing course:
Building your own skills is the key to independent decision-making and being able to help your friends out. Taking a course is a great way to do that, and there may just be a paddling school not too far away from you. Madawaska Kanu Centre (Barry’s Bay), Padder co-op (Palmer Rapids), Paul Mason’s Canoe Instruction (Ottawa Area), Aquabatics Outdoors (Calgary) are just a few of many paddling schools scattered across Canada.
While clubs offer great opportunities to get on the river and meet people, formal instruction can create the unique learning environment best suited to some people. Paddling schools generally have smaller group sizes, allowing instructors to tailor the program to better fit your goals. Outdoor professionals who spend their full time developing their skills and teaching abilities always have lots of tips and tricks up their sleeve to help accelerate your learning curve, setting you up for success and preventing hours of potentially frustrating trial and error.
Learn safety and rescue skills:
Whitewater rescue and wilderness first aid skills go hand in hand with paddling skills if you’re going to be venturing out on rivers.
Often, beginners think that they should get experience before taking a swiftwater / whitewater rescue course, but actually—these courses are a great way to start because you’ll:
Practice and get comfortable swimming and self-rescueing in rapids
Open your eyes to risks you aren’t even aware of—and allow you to differentiate ‘real risk’ from ‘perceived risk’
Aquire experience and judgement so you can make good decisions about which rapids to run
Gain confidence and competence setting up safety for other boaters
A foundational principal of whitewater rescue is ‘work with the water, not against it’—and practicing this will make you a better paddler too.
Paddling Club Resource List:
Ottawa River Runners (ORR)
With a whitewater facility in the heart of Ottawa, ORR offers instructional kayak programs and camps for all ages and skill levels, as well as slalom paddling programs for those looking to refine technical skills. ORR also hosts recreational pool sessions throughout winter.
Recreation Association Canoe Camping Club (RACCC)
Based in Ottawa, RACCC has a whitewater program, flatwater program, and family program, all centered around friendship, volunteerism, and environmentally-friendly recreation. Organized river trips, training sessions, and camping trips will help you explore local rivers with people who are already familiar with the rapids.
Club de canot-camping Pierre Radisson
Based in Gatineau, Club de canot-camping Pierre Radisson organizes courses, day-paddling excursions, and multi-day river trips. This club specializes in whitewater canoeing—and is very active, with groups going to different local rivers every weekend from spring through fall.
Carleton University Kayak Club (CUKC)
Hailing from Carleton University in Ottawa, CUKC runs pool sessions throughout the winter, and river trips throughout the spring and fall seasons. Introductory lessons are organized for newer paddlers, while seasoned experts can join a group on challengning local rivers. CUKC has something for everyone.
Kawartha Whitewater Paddlers (KWP)
Organizing pool sessions, paddling festivals, and day trips on a variety of rivers, the Kawartha Lakes area is home to KWP and is a great option for paddlers living between Toronto and Ottawa.
Guelph Kayak Club (GKC)
With Elora Gorge as their home turf, GKC is based in Guelph hosts paddling sessions twice weekly, including pool sessions and river trips.
Based in Montreal, Les Portageurs is a paddling club that values good food and good humour, while learning to paddle. Their 2021 calendar includes day outings on rivers of all difficulty levels, multi-day camping trips, and online virtual gatherings to learn about heritage canoe camping traditions.
Le Club Rabaska
A community of over 225 paddlers, Le Club Rabaska is based in Quebec CIty and aims to facilitate safe canoeing and kayaking on Quebec rivers. With introductory lessons each year, as well as skill refinement clinics, expeditions, and winter activities, this outdoor club has something for everyone.
With the goal of growing the paddling community, Kayak Valleyfield has a river-front home base just south of Montreal. The club offers instructional sessions, weekly informal group paddling outings, and high performance competition training.
I’ve never met my grandfather. He passed away nine years before I was born, so it’s through the stories around me that I understand the impact he had on so many people’s lives. You may recognize his name as the author of Path of the Paddle, Song of the Paddle, and Canoescapes, or as the filmmaker behind Paddle to the Sea and many other National Film Board films. A playful and adventurous dad and friend, Bill Mason was also known for pulling his family headfirst into adventure and his paddling partners headfirst into the river. Though his work has immortalized his passion and perspectives, I wanted to learn more about Grandpa Bill’s accomplishments within the context of my family. An essential character in those stories is my Grandma Joyce.
Grandma Joyce was Bill’s wife and partner in adventure. She is soft spoken and one of the kindest people I know; she’s pragmatic, humble, and always willing to give her time to those in need. Because she never casts herself as the main character, it has taken me many afternoons curled up on her couch to begin understanding her role in the family adventures.
Five years ago, Joyce moved from the family home on Meech Lake to an apartment in Ottawa. There she runs the resident library and is spearheading a project to bring all of the residents’ life stories together into one shared album. Due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, I haven’t been able to sit on her couch since December 2019, but when I chatted with her over the phone, I could hear her become more animated as we delved down memory lane and into her 1988 Nah?ą Dehé (Nahanni River) trip. It was my grandfather’s last canoe trip, and an experience I’ve always understood to be special for our family, but I had never heard Grandma’s side of the story. She mentioned two things in particular: the feeling of smallness, and the day she joined the “Bill Mason Swim Club” – a capsize that illustrates the dynamic of the trip.
A nurse by trade, Joyce married Bill in their shared hometown of Winnipeg. Together, they moved to Chelsea, Quebec, a place where Bill could better pursue film work. After choosing to share life with a canoeist, she quickly learned the ropes near their home on Meech Lake. There, she raised their two children Paul and Becky in a house full of laughter and friends. You can catch her in some of Bill’s films, but her role was much more instrumental than some might think. From editing books and sorting camping equipment to mending plaid shirts for the films, Joyce was always involved in the projects. She quickly accumulated extensive canoe tripping experience on Lake Superior, Georgian Bay, and local rivers, but it wasn’t until 1988 that she took her first trip to Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Fascinated by the geography of Nah?ą Dehé (Nahanni River) and its UNESCO World Heritage site designation, Bill had already travelled down the river with both of his kids. He had planned to share the river with Joyce in 1989. In June of 1988, Bill was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine, and he didn’t pursue treatment. After years of being scattered between film shoots, art schools, and whitewater guiding work, it was time for the Mason family to be in the same place at the same time for Bill’s final river trip.
Leading up to the departure date, the whole family was fully immersed in editing Canoescapes and Song of the Paddle. While they were busy with the books, family friend and then-owner of Blackfeather, Wally Schaber, packed food, secured equipment, and gathered a team to paddle the Nah?ą Dehé (Nahanni River) River. Bill and five others started at the Mooseponds section on July 19th, while Joyce and the rest of the crew joined at Island Lakes on July 26th.
With excitement and trepidation, she boarded the small plane from Łı́ıd́ lı̨́ı̨́Kų́ę́ (Fort Simpson) headed towards Island Lakes. Joyce felt excitement to paddle the river she had heard so much about and excitement to see the sky-scraping cliffs and turbulent waters that filled her imagination. She had trepidation about paddling through the famous whitewater, and she worried that Bill might not be well enough to enjoy his last trip down this special river.
Joyce had been looking forward to hugging her husband, but after landing at Island Lakes and making the small trek to the group’s meeting point of Moore’s cabin, he was nowhere to be seen. He was up climbing a mountain, and she wouldn’t see him until nearly sunset. She was inwardly relieved to see that he still had enough energy for his usual adventurous explorations. When faced with soaring peaks promising a new perspective and streams flowing from a valley waiting to be explored, it’s hard to sit still.
Years later, Joyce still remembers feeling very small when she heard the roar of Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) a few days into the trip, long before the waterfall was even in sight. Thirty-three years later, I could hear the awe in her voice as she described the faint rumble, growing louder until it was impossible to ignore: “You don’t forget that. The loud noise. Being so far away from the waterfall…” Hearing the sound of far-away thundering water was her first taste of Náįlįcho’s impactful presence. The history and grandeur of spaces like Nah?ą Dehé (Nahanni River) made her feel small and humbled.
After a few more days of portaging and paddling, the group approached the horizon of Figure 8 Rapid. Joyce could feel the apprehension building. After scouting the rapid, she was nervous about the strong currents that threatened to push their canoe towards a looming cliff. Joyce said she wanted to portage, her son Paul said, “Stern paddlers always do this one paddling on the right,” and Bill said “Follow my lead…”
The roar of the turbulent water bouncing off the rock face was all she could focus on. The rebounding wave hit the canoe broadside, pushing the right edge upwards. As Bill was paddling on the left, he had no anchor on that side to help flatten the canoe. Joyce felt the water reach her neck as she tumbled into the turbulence, and it was impossible to tell which way was up and which was down. Before too long, she popped up and her hands clung to the first thing her fingers found: solid rock. With her yellow dish gloves carefully selected for their windbreaking properties, she hung to the cliff just above the waterline with all her might. Quickly, Bill’s head came up: “Follow me!” “Not a chance, never again!” she thought to herself. She knew that Bill was skilled at understanding currents and orienting himself underwater, but Joyce couldn’t say the same about herself. Certain she would die if she let go, she hung on tight. From across the river, Judy, Paul’s wife, saw her mother-in-law clinging on for dear life and thought, “I guess we’d better go get her.” Downstream, Becky and Reid fished Bill out of the river. In his hypothermic state, he couldn’t spot Joyce and would not calm down until the group was fully reunited.
They regrouped downstream, slightly shaken and very cold. They double checked their gear and mentally prepared themselves to get back in the canoe. Doing jumping jacks to warm up, Joyce had an overwhelming sense of apprehension, but she knew the only practical option was to push aside the fear and continue downstream. Later, at their campsite, they warmed up with a little drink, “And it wasn’t tea or coffee!” Joyce told me with a mischievous grin. My dad Paul added, “I’ve paddled this river 18 times, and the only canoe I’ve ever had flip in Figure 8 rapid…was my parents’. Welcome to the Bill Mason Swim Club, Mum!”.
Over the next few days, Joyce’s confidence slowly grew back. As the group cheered, laughed, and helped each other pick their lines down the rapids, Joyce’s trepidation about the trip began to fade. She was feeling more comfortable, and she was relieved to see that the cancer wasn’t impeding Bill’s usual joy of whitewater. She felt fortunate to share this place with him, and he never once complained about his health. Sometimes though, she noticed that he would quiet down or retreat to his tent for alone time, a reminder of the weight of his diagnosis.
In a riverside hot spring, someone unearthed an inflatable crocodile pool toy from their pack. With lighthearted laughter and joyous innocence, the paddlers let the sulfur stench strip away the river trip dirt and the luxurious natural warm water thaw out creaky muscles. It’s easy to laugh when the sun is shining and the water is warm, but I get the impression this group of friends kept spirits high for most of the trip. Laughter is truly the only productive way to respond to a humbling faceful of water.
When the weight on her shoulders required serious thinking and decision-making, the river gave my grandmother the permission to play and something to laugh at. When it comes to picking campsites, Grandma Joyce likes spots with wind to blow away the bugs, medium sized rocks to hold down the tents, a few trees for shade, and a nice view for her bathroom breaks. For the first two weeks on Nah?ą Dehé, sites like these are easy to find, but downstream of the hot springs, they are hard to come by. Even now, the mosquitoes dominate her memory of the last days on the river. She remembers them being so bad that she wouldn’t get out of the tent for dinner. Always one to look on the bright side, she enjoyed working together to break camp as quickly as possible, racing the mosquitoes to the canoes. Where the current is quick but not turbulent, the river provides a rare opportunity: floating breakfasts. Drifting gently on a magic carpet moving downstream, the canoes were a harder target for the insects to find.
Towards the end of the trip, the river began to widen, and the current slowed. The quiet waters provide infinite time for the mind to wander, and a sense of finality overcame Joyce. As Nah?ą Dehé shrank into the background, thoughts of Bill’s cancer moved back towards the foreground. To the river, a hospital bracelet means nothing. The river doesn’t care if you are grieving, celebrating, full of ego, or lacking confidence. The river pushes and pulls, challenges overconfidence, reveals one’s true grit, shifts the focus away from our problems, and builds camaraderie. The river unearths a playful spirit within the ever-serious, forces new perspectives, and gives us solitude.
Now a canoe instructor and river guide myself, it is my greatest joy to help others fall in love with the river experience. For me that has been an experience of community, challenge, humility, and empowerment. Through Joyce’s stories, I understand the common thread between her Nah?ą Dehé trip in 1988 and my own in recent years. When I visit that river in particular, I often pause at the top of a hike or near a swimming hole, and I feel connected to my family who have stood in that same place before me.
Though we are striving to be as accurate and respectful as possible in our use of Traditional names of places and Peoples, we recognize that we are bound to make mistakes. Please reach out to us anytime – we welcome the opportunity to listen, to learn, and to connect with you. email@example.com
Flowing west to east through the Territories of the Sahtu Dene, Métis, and Dehcho Dene, the Nahʔą Dehé (South Nahanni River), is one of the most sought-after river trips in the world.
The river stems from three main tributaries and is more than 540 km long. The entire system runs through two different National Park Reserves, the term used for a nationally protected area in which Indigenous Peoples maintain the rights to hunt, travel, and work within the Reserve boundaries.
There are many options for running this river that offer flexibility in trip duration, whitewater difficulty, and scenery. Below, we’ve broken down the options based on these factors, in the order that they join Nahʔą Dehé (South Nahanni River) from west to east.
If a paddler were to begin at Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose ponds) and paddle downstream, they would see where Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni River) joins the main river, then Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéhłéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River), before reaching Gahnîhthah Mįe (Rabbitkettle Lake), and continuing downstream towards Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls), and finally the rest of Nahʔą Dehé (South Nahanni River). We’ve included the Indigenous place names alongside the English ones, when possible.
Flowing through three Traditional Territories, we have used the corresponding Indigenous names in the Shúhtaot’ine and Dene Zhatıé languages. Some of the places have been renamed by Elders in recent years, where names have been lost or forgotten. We’ve used English only where we were unable to find the Indigenous name. You can visit the Place Name Pronunciation Guide for more information. The River of Forgiveness film project is a great watch to understand the history of Nahɂa Dehé, as well as the relationship between Sahtu Dene and Dehcho Dene
Language: Shúhtaot’ine dialect Territory: Sahtu Dene and Métis Difficulty: Advanced canoe trippers or packrafters Whitewater: Class II-III (technical and remote) Length: 90 km to Gahnįhthah (Rabbitkettle) Typical duration: 5 to 9 days (most groups continue on to the lower sections for a total of 18 to 24 days) Starting point: Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose ponds) Access from: Tlegohli (Norman Wells) Recommended season: Late June to Late July Typical watercraft: Canoe, packraft
Considered to be the true headwaters of Nahʔą Dehé (South Nahanni River), this river starts out as a tiny creek, before gaining volume as more tributaries join the river and it becomes Nahʔą Dehé. It flows through Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve and then into Nahanni National Park Reserve.
Shúhta (Central Mackenzie Mountains) is the northeastern branch of the Rocky Mountains. Fish specimens have been dated to 400 million years ago, and many fossils of aquatic species indicate that parts of this area were once submerged. The first campsite of the trip has the park’s namesake towering over it: Nááts’įhch’oh (Mt. Wilson). Its presence is humbling, and it’s known as the mountain with díígóɂo (prehistoric power).
Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose ponds) is home to tight, technical, challenging whitewater. Here, river runners have the experience of starting from the very headwaters of a creek, and travelling downstream as the channel grows beneath them. Over time, the creek turns into a river, and paddlers navigate between tightly placed boulders for five days. The river then begins to flatten out, and rocky sections give way to bigger waves and deeper water. A skill testing playground, this section is sure to satisfy the adventure cravings of the most seasoned whitewater canoeists, a fantastic prequel to the scenic grandeur (and slightly more relaxing whitewater) of the Nahʔą Dehé.
“Moose ponds is challenging whitewater, super fun for the accomplished whitewater canoe tripper. If your whitewater appetite is big enough, it is an awesome trip!”
Rob Norton, Blackfeather guide, Boreal River guide and instructor
2. Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni River)
Language: Shuhtaot’ine dialect Territory: Sahtu Dene Difficulty: Advanced canoe trippers or packrafters Whitewater: Class II-III+ (technical and remote) Length: 85km Typical duration: 3 to 6 days (most groups continue on to the lower sections for a total of 12 to 17 days) Starting point: Flat Lake Access point: Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ (Fort Simpson) Recommended season: July Typicalwatercraft: Canoe, packraft
After being submerged, Shúhta (Central Mackenzie Mountains) were formed by sedimentary rock layers pushing upwards, an uncommon phenomenon for mountain formation so far away from the nearest boundary between tectonic plates.
Known for being home to the most challenging whitewater of all the Nahʔą Dehé (South Nahanni River) tributaries, the Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni River) is less frequently explored by paddlers. This river is accessible by road, a five hour drive from Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ (Fort Simpson). If you have lots of experience under your belt and you’re looking for the ultimate challenge, this is the one for you! After landing at Flat Lake, there is one day of tight, technical whitewater paddling, before entering the canyon section of the river. The first of three is home to a steep rapid. Most people opt to lift over or portage around this one. The two remaining canyons are friendlier than the first, but thrilling technical whitewater is sure to keep you on your toes, and a smile on your face.
“The adventure starts on the drive in. Foreshadowing for the rest of the trip, the switchbacks down to the river are sure to get your palms sweating. In my opinion the hardest and prettiest river in the area, the Little Nahanni is sure to be epic…at least a bit.”
Language: Shúhtaot’ine dialect Territory: Sahtu Dene and Métis Difficulty: Intermediate canoe trippers or packrafters Whitewater: Class I-II+ Length: 150 km Starting point: Ǫtaa Tu Fehto (Divide Lake) Typical duration: 8 to 12 days—some groups continue on to run the whole NahʔąDehé (South Nahanni), which would add an additional 9 to 16 days Access from: Tlegohli (Norman Wells) Typicalwatercraft: Canoe, packraft Recommended Season: Late June to mid-August
Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River) flows south into NahʔąDehé (South Nahanni River). The confluence is located downstream of Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose ponds) and Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni River), upstream of Gahnįhthah Mie (Rabbitkettle Lake). It begins in Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve, and enters Nahanni National Park Reserve just before joining NahʔąDehé. The nearby Sahtu communities of Tulita and Normal Wells are home to many Sahtu Dene and Métis Peoples, and the Shúhtaot’in dialect is used for names within Nááts’įhch’oh National Park Reserve.
The headwaters of Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River) are in the Selwyn mountains, then the river flows through Shúhta (Mackenzie Mountains). Being a smaller river, paddlers are never more than a few metres away from colourful, swirling peaks. Sometimes it may feel as though they stem right out of the very water you’re floating on. Downstream, paddlers get their first taste of braided gravel channels. On your final days before paddling into Gahnįhthah Mie (Rabbitkettle Lake), you will see the spectacular spires of the Ragged Range. The highest peaks in the Northwest Territories, they were formed 110 million years ago. The skyrocketing towers of hard granite are a stark juxtaposition from the wide alpine meadows of Ǫtaa Tué Fehto (Divide Lake).
Starting at Ǫtaa Tué Fehto (Divide Lake), this river trip lets canoeists experience the growth cycle of a waterway. From the lake, a tiny trickle floats paddlers towards the Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River), where you will be treated to ever-changing scenery, technical rapids, and diverse campsites. The whitewater requires fun, technical maneuvering to avoid rocks. It’s easier with higher water, as lower water levels expose more rocks to avoid! When it has been raining, the river feels tropical, filled with bright blue water. Watch the effect of silt on a waterway firsthand, as a quick rain shower will turn the water milky.
Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River) then joins NahʔąDehé, as you feel the volume of the river multiply beneath you and sense the valley widen around you. Most outfitters also offer the option to continue downstream for an additional two weeks all the way to Nahanni Butte. For paddlers with many canoe trips under their belt, consult the Parks Canada trip planner. Imagine yourself on this northern river by exploring more details here.
“The rapids are less technical than other rivers, but the continuous whitewater makes it just as fun. It feels like the mountains soar straight out of the river beside you as you’re paddling. Add in the unrivaled hiking, and paddling the Brokenskull down to Nahanni Butte is the trip I’d choose if I could only paddle one northern river with my family”
Caleb Roberts, wilderness guide with Blackfeather and Boreal River Adventures
Guide Caleb Roberts compares the Broken Skull and Moose Ponds
4. Gahnįhthah Mie to Náįlįcho (Rabbitkettle Lake to Virginia Falls)
Language: Dene Zhatıé Territory: Dehcho Dene Difficulty: Beginner Whitewater: None Length: 117 km Duration: 2-4 days Starting point: Gahnįhthah Mie (Rabbit Kettle) End point: Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) Access from: Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ (Fort Simpson) Recommended season: June to September Typical watercraft: Canoe
A popular starting point, this section is nestled just beyond the Ragged Range. After admiring the granite peaks, the Sunblood Range will come into view after a day or two of paddling.
The geological highlight in this section is Gahnhthah (Rabbitkettle) tufa mounds. The water here, heated by volcanic energy 2,000 metres below the surface, is highly saturated with calcium carbonate. The temperature cools as the water approaches the surface, lowering its saturation point, and causing the minerals to be deposited in a solid form. Forming small terraces and pools, called rimstone dams and gours, the tufa has gradually grown into an impressive tower over which the spring water flows. Thirty meters high and 60 meters wide, the largest mound is thought to be 10, 000 years old.
While not completed as a standalone river trip, this is an optional section amongst river trip variations. An egress point for concluding river trips down Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River), Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose ponds), or a climbing trip in the Cirque of the Unclimbables, Gahnįhthah Mie (Rabbitkettle Lake) is also a special stopping point in the midst of a longer trip, or a starting point for trips down NahʔąDehé (South Nahanni River). An awe-inspiring emerald blue lake is refreshing enough to strip away all the river trip grime, and a spectacular view of the Vampire Peak will fill your sights.
The lake is one of the few spots along the river where Parks Canada maintains a cabin for park wardens. Happy to answer questions while escorting visitors to the tufa mounds, staff help ensure the visit is done in a respectful way that minimizes visitor impact on the space. Walking barefoot and stepping in specific places, visitors may feel the sharp tufa beneath their feet.
Afterwards, a short portage leads paddlers from the lake to NahʔąDehé. The next couple of days feature swirling currents and fast-moving water, but no notable rapids. Winding its way through a large, post glacial valley, the valley feels similar to what you might find on the prairies—its an impressive juxtaposition to the canyons that await you in only a few days. If the wind is blowing in the right direction, it won’t be long before the sound of Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) fills your ears.
Framed by the Sunblood Range, Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) marks the end of the calm section, located just upstream of Fourth Canyon and Tu Naka Dé (Flat River).
Dropping 92 metres in total, Náįlįcho is an impressive sight. As erosion slowly caused the waterfall to migrate upstream, one soaring rock tower has resisted erosion and foreshadows the towering rock walls that await below. Fourth Canyon, the first of the four canyons downstream from the falls, is a result of the gradual erosion caused by the waterfall.
Featuring outhouses and a boardwalk (a luxury in the park reserve!) Náįlįcho is one of the few places where the impacts from tourists and paddlers is noticeable. A jarring juxtaposition from the landscape upstream, it’s a valuable cause for reflection and helps us consider the impact of our travel on the environment. In this instance, the extensive boardwalk protects delicate vegetation and permafrost, helping to break the correlation between increased visitors and increased damage. We’re still able to observe the intricate ecosystem because the boardwalk protects it from our feet. I guarantee you’ll be singing the praises of the boardwalk on your third trip over it with a gear pack!
Travellers must reserve the dates of their maximum two-night stay here, so that all visitors passing through can enjoy the must-stop campsite and information sessions from the Parks Canada staff.
6. NahʔąDehé (South Nahanni River)
Language: Dene Zhatıé Territory: Dehcho Dene Difficulty: Beginner-friendly for rafters in guided rafts, intermediate for canoe trippers or packrafters Whitewater: Class I-II (high volume = big waves) Length: 240 km Starting point: Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) End point: Ttenáágó (Nahanni Butte) Typicalduration: 7-14 days Access from: Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ (Fort Simpson) Typical watercraft: Raft, canoe, packraft, paddleboard (SUP) Recommended Season: June to September
NahʔąDehé (South Nahanni River) flows southeast through Nahanni National Park Reserve. The park boundary is just upstream of its confluence with the Liard River.
The NahʔąDehe Consensus Team was formed to help manage Nahanni National Park Reserve jointly by Parks Canada and the Dehcho First Nations. Comprised of three Parks Canada appointees and four Dehcho appointees, the team is responsible for addressing matters such the management of sites with spiritual and/or cultural significance, including historical habitations and burial sites within the park boundaries. Guidelines and applications for research permits, commercial licences or other activities are also assessed and addressed by the team.
Dehcho First Nations may use motorized vehicles to travel through Nahanni National Park Reserve to facilitate their hunting, fishing, trapping, and harvesting activities. The endpoint is Ttenáágó (Nahanni Butte), home to the Nahɂa Dehé Dene Band.
NahʔąDehé has followed nearly the exact same path for over 200 million years. As the rocks around it began to lift up, the river eroded its path. An antecedent river, it has been flowing since before the mountains were formed.
As the powerful falling water of Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) eroded the rock beneath it, sheer cliffs were left on either side. This is how the seemingly painted walls of Fourth Canyon were formed, whereas Third Canyon has wider slopes made of sandstone and shale. As it twists its way through the mountains of the Funeral Range, most of Third Canyon’s limestone surrounds a feature that paddlers call “The Gate,” where the river slips through a narrow gap bordered by 460 meter high limestone walls. Second Canyon slices through the Headless Range, and prefaces some of the largest alluvial fans in Canada. The best is truly saved for last, as the resistant limestone and dolomite of First Canyon rise to a height of 1000 meters. In this area, rainfall has dissolved the limestone to create karst formations, which include the caves and tunnels you will see along the way. Travellers are not permitted to enter the caves, but the entrances themselves are impressive.
For a paddler travelling downstream, it may seem as though the canyons are named in reverse order. For prospectors travelling upstream against the current however, it would have seemed completely logical!
Whether paddlers begin at Gahnįhthah Mie (Rabbitkettle Lake), Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls), or farther upstream on one of the tributaries, this section contains many of the landmarks this river system is known for. Infinite hiking opportunities serve as motivation to extend the trip as long as personal time restrictions permit. Featuring much friendlier whitewater than its upstream tributaries, NahʔąDehé will still get every paddler’s hands sweating, face grinning, and heart pumping. With everything from small swifts to long, challenging rapids, this section of river features big waves with minimal rocks, making it friendly for both large rafts and tandem canoes.
“Everyday there’s something completely new and spectacular to look forward to. Whether it’s the tufa mounds, the falls, the canyons, the hikes, or the hot springs, there’s always something unbelievably remarkable around the corner.”
Hannah Pham, Blackfeather guide and ten-time Nahanni river tripper
After navigating any of the three tributaries, paddlers can continue down the Nahʔą Dehé for 14 more days, adding a visit to Náįlįcho and 4 spectacular canyons to the trip. Most outfitters offer these options. Another popular variation, for paddlers looking to make the trip a full-body workout, is the option to take a break from the canoes and spend five days hiking into the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
From the challenging waters of Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose ponds), Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni River), and Pı̨́ı̨́p’enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull), to the timeless whitewater and skyscraping canyons of Nahʔą Dehé, this watershed is truly home to a river trip for everyone.
For paddlers seeking a guided trip, there are multiple outfitters to choose from, including us at Boreal River Adventures. While each company offers highly qualified professional river guides and delicious camp food, each has its own unique flair, so it’s worth reading up on each one to see which experience best suits what you’re looking for.
We are striving to be accurate and respectful in our use of Traditional names of places and Peoples, yet we are bound to make mistakes. Please reach out to us anytime if you seen an error or something that can be improved. We welcome your feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking to plan an epic adventure? Here is a list of the best multi-day white water rafting trips in Canada. Trips for all skill levels.
Roundup of the best white water rafting adventures
By Alex Traynor, Boreal River
So you have some time off and you are looking for a way to get the most out of it. Multi-day rafting trips are a great way for people of all experience levels to get out on remote rivers and experience special places that so few get to see.
Canada is known to have some of the best multi-day rafting expeditions in the world. Rafting rivers span from coast-to-coast offering a wide variety of different adventures. Some of these rivers cut through dramatic and towering landscapes, some are known for wildlife, and others offer some of the best side hikes you could imagine. With so many different options available, how does one choose the best places to go?
We wanted to do a round-up to take a look at what we believe to be the 6 best multi-day white water rafting trips in Canada. We happen to think that we run two of them! So we’ve put those first, but we also spoke to some of the other top raft guides across the country and hope that list will help you narrow down the best adventure for you.
We have also included the Indigenous names and territories in these descriptions. If we have made a mistake, or you see something that could be improved, please let us know at email@example.com
6 Best Multi-Day White Water Rafting Trips In Canada
1. Muteshekau Shipu (Magpie River, Quebec)
The Muteshekau Shipu, meaning “river where the water passes between the square rocky cliffs, (also known as the Magpie River), flows through the territory of the Innu people of Ekuanitshit.
Region: Côte-Nord region of Quebec, Canada Trip Duration: 7-9 days White water: Class III – IV Meeting Location: Sept-Îles Highlights: Pristine wilderness, rarely travelled, fun continuous white water that is relatively warm Outfitter: Boreal River Adventures
Located in the Côte-Nord region of Quebec, the Magpie River stretches over 200 kilometers as it drops off the Labrador Plateau and into the Ocean.
There’s a reason we started running the Magpie as Boreal River’s original trip in 2008 – and why it continues to be our premiere trip today.
The fun begins before you even arrive at the put-in, with a float plane or helicopter flight from the coast to Lake Magpie. While the river is known for its white water, the scenery, world-class campsites and wildlife offer experiences leaving you with vivid and unforgettable memories.
There are a number of magnificent waterfalls along this river including the 100ft Magpie Falls for which their grandeur will stop you in awe. Each of the campsites has its own unique character and offers varying vantage points of the river. Paddling this river, you will watch the boreal forest slowly change as you scan the shorelines for signs of moose, bear, lynx, wolves and osprey.
This is a paradise for adventure seekers of all kinds and it is no wonder National Geographic considers the Magpie one of the top 5 rivers in the world for white water rafting trips. The trip ends with a campsite overlooking the Magpie Gorge, and you will also pass by French and Innu fishing villages on your way off the river.
2. Nah?ą Dehé (Nahanni River, Northwest Territories)
The Nah?ą Dehé (Nahanni River) flows through the territory of the Dehcho Dene.
Region: Northwest Territories, Canada Trip Duration: 8-12 Days White water: Class I – II Meeting Location: Fort Simpson Highlights: Easy Rafting Trip, World Heritage Site, Waterfall twice the size of Niagara Falls Outfitter: Boreal River Adventures
Located in the Northwest Territories, the Nahanni River is filled with a rich history, having flowed through this area since before the mountains surrounding it rose to form a landscape of rugged peaks, imposing canyons, and breathtaking beauty. The entire system runs through two different National Park Reserves, the term used for a nationally protected area in which Indigenous Peoples maintain the rights to hunt, travel, and work within the Reserve boundaries. It’s no surprise this is also one of the most well-known rivers in Canada.
The waterfalls and canyons of the Nahanni are some of the most breathtaking places you can paddle. Náįlįcho (also known as Virginia Falls), a powerful waterfall twice the height of Niagara Falls offers visitors with endless trails allowing you to fully explore this special place. Below the falls you enter 140 kilometers of spectacular canyons that make the Nahanni a World Heritage Site.
This trip offers some easier white water so Boreal River will usually bring inflatable kayaks and SUPs allowing you to up the challenge with some solo paddling. While most people fall in love with paddling this river, there are also a number of hikes that bring you to vantage points that no words will ever do justice to. As experienced river guide, Willa Mason said in her reflection of the Nahanni, “the diverse wilderness, timeless adventure, and unique history make it an unparalleled river trip.”
If you do this trip in late August, you may need to add a few layers to stay warm, but there is also a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.
3. Tŝilhqóx – Lhta Koh (Chilko-Chilcotin-Fraser Rivers, British Columbia)
The Tŝilhqóx (also known as the Chilko River) meaning “ochre river” and the Lhta Koh (also known as the Fraser River) meaning “confluence of many rivers” flow through territory the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
Region: British Columbia, Canada Trip Duration: 6-9 days White water: Class III – IV Meeting Location: Vancouver Airport Highlights: Lava Canyon (longest continuous rapid), Turquoise water, Beautiful mountains Outfitter: ROAM
Located in Southwest British Columbia, this world-class river starts at the north end of Chilko Lake, along the Chilko River and flows for almost 200 kilometers as it connects to the Chilcotin and then Fraser Rivers.
The trip begins with a scenic flight over the BC mountains and into Chilko Lake, the headwaters of the Chilko River. These three rivers are filled with trout but if fishing isn’t for you, keeping your eyes peeled for the occasional bear and bald eagle is always exciting.
Descending through Lava Canyon is an experience you won’t forget. It is one of the longest and most challenging rapids on the trip and is why it has become a destination for white water enthusiasts.
One of the most unique features on this trip outside of the canyons and mountains is the turquoise water you will paddle along the way. The trip ends at the Gang Ranch which is one of the most spectacular working ranches operating in North America today.
4. Àłsêxh – Shäwshe Chù (Tatshenshini River), British Columbia
The Àłsêxh in the Tlingit language, or Shäwshe Chù in the Dän K’e language (also known as the Tatshenshini River) flow through the territory of the Champagne and Aishihik people.
Region: Northwestern British Columbia, Canada Trip Length: 11 Days White water: Class III Meeting point: Whitehorse, Yukon Highlights: Glaciers, Iceberg filled lakes, 5 different species of Pacific salmon Outfitter: Canadian River Expeditions/Nahanni River Adventures
The Tatshenshini River is located in Northwestern British Columbia and became well-known from a controversial proposed copper mine that sparked international concern in the 1980s. This trip starts at Dalton Post and travels for 255 kilometers to Dry Bay, at the Gulf of Alaska.
This river is part of the world’s largest bio-preserve and is home to 5 different species of Pacific salmon. As the salmon return back upriver each year, the grizzly bears and bald eagles are patiently waiting their arrival.
A unique opportunity on this river offers rafters a chance to float in a stunning iceberg-filled lake. There are many opportunities to hike and explore the wildlife and wildflowers of the region. In 2004, the Tatshenshini River was designated a Canadian Heritage River.
5. Babine River, British Columbia
The Babine River flows through the territory of the Ned’u’ten and Gitxsan people.
Region: Central British Columbia, Canada Trip Duration: 6 Days River Rating: Class III-IV Meeting Point: Smithers, BC Highlights: Mountains, Grizzlies, Largest rainbow trout in the world Outfitter: Canadian Outback Rafting
Located in central British Columbia, the Babine River is considered one of the last unspoiled and pristine rivers in BC, and the majority of the river travels through the Babine River Corridor Provincial Park.
Wildlife in this region consists of black bears, grizzly bears and both bald eagles and golden eagles.
The Babine is a river well-known to anglers for holding some of the largest rainbow trout and steelhead in the world.
Rafting this river offers a mix of deep canyons, exciting rapids, thick forest, and the mountains and glaciers of the Sicintine Range.
6. Firth River, British Columbia
The Firth River flows through the territory of the Inuvialuit and Inupiat people.
Located in Canada’s far north, the Firth River is located in the Yukon and flows into the Arctic Ocean. This trip begins with an hour-long flight over the Mackenzie River Delta. One of the great things about rafting in the arctic watershed is the unique wildlife you will come across. This includes caribou, muskox, dall sheep, moose, bears, and many migrating birds like sandpipers, jaegers, and longspurs.
As you continue along this river the landscape will evolve as the British Mountains and Buckland Hills rise. You will paddle through the Firth Canyon, a beautiful stretch of river winding through canyon walls before the Firth surfaces onto the coastal plain. The plains are where you will most commonly find Muskox and will provide a great opportunity to spot these magnificent mammals.
Hiking at Engigstiack, one of the most important archaeological sites in the Yukon Territory, will bring you to a place that hunters have stood for thousands of years, offering an unobstructed view of the plains.
Once you arrive at the coast, you will have an opportunity to enjoy your first campfire of the trip, and you might even have a chance to spot a whale.
* While we have done our research to acknowledge the First Nation’s names and territories, we understand that there are different interpretations and sometimes multiple names. If you feel we have incorrectly addressed something, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Trip leader Ty Smith explains what’s on his mind when river guiding
By Willa Mason, Guide and Instructor
For those considering a rafting adventure, whitewater may seem chaotic and unpredictable.
Though it’s normal to be nervous, professional guides are trained to analyze the situation and to make good decisions based on the safety and the goals of your group. There’s a lot to think about on a rafting trip, but your guide will take care of most of it, so you don’t have to.
On a typical multi-day rafting trip, 2-3 experienced guides facilitate an overnight trip for 6-10 participants. Trips range from 2-14 days. The group begins each morning (after coffee, of course!) by packing up their campsite, loading the gear into three rafts, and then travelling downstream to reach another campsite by day’s end. Guides provide technical expertise, historical, geological and cultural tidbits, delicious camp meals, and notoriously bad jokes. The duration of the trip, difficulty of whitewater, and stunning scenery differ from river to river.
Each guide is different, but there are some key factors that occupy your guide’s brain throughout the trip. This is how Ty thinks about it: the environment, route, and safety will dictate whether his rafting crew can run a rapid, and the skill level, health, and participant preference influence whether Ty chooses to run the rapid.
Factors Outside the Raft
Know the environment
Guides are constantly evaluating the weather, wind direction, and water temperature. Their eyes are trained to notice clouds gathering overhead, and their ears are trained to hear whitewater around the bend. They’re experts at adapting. The chosen route down a rapid is called a “line”. A warm, sunny day is great for playing in rapids and taking splashy lines, whereas a windy, chilly day may call for more conservative lines.
Pick the route
Once the environmental conditions have been assessed, it’s time to think about what’s on the whitewater menu for the day. If a rapid is shorter and easier, the guide can spot the line from their seat in the raft. Longer rapids may require the guide to walk along shore to get a better view of the rapid. It’s the guide’s responsibility to select a route down the rapid that avoids obstacles such as rocks or big waves.
To help keep things simple, Ty likes to break the rapid into chunks, identifying and assessing each maneuver as an individual component. He picks out a landmark in each section to identify where the raft needs to be. Then, he assesses whether each landmark can be connected to the next, creating a sequential route that will safely get the raft from top to bottom of the rapid. He wants to set the raft up for success. If one landmark can’t be smoothly connected to the next, this interrupts the sequence and means it’s time to start looking for alternate options.
Many rapids have more that one possible line. There might be a big wavy route that doesn’t require much maneuvering, as well as a calmer line that may require technical navigation between tightly placed rocks. Most rapids also provide the option for rafters to skip the rapid by walking around it. Even if Ty used a specific route down a particular rapid on his last trip, he still considers all the options, and picks the one most suitable for that day and that crew.
How can it be safer?
Once Ty’s picked his preferred line down the rapid, he takes a moment to consider how he can make the rapid safer for all involved.
In most scenarios, a guide who’s familiar with the rapid will go first, to be a helpful landmark for the next rafts to follow. Some trips will have a kayaker to accompany the raft down the rapid for extra back up. He also notes that it’s very important to tell paddlers what will happen if the line doesn’t go as planned. While it doesn’t happen often, falling out of the raft could mean a fun splashy float in some rapids, or it could be hazardous in others. Ty adjusts his route and safety plan based on these potential consequences.
While there are normally four to six paddlers in a raft, each rafter plays an important part in the success of the descent. Experienced rafters understand how the raft moves through current, proactively paddling to properly position the raft. Less experienced paddlers may need more guidance and a longer reaction time.
Ty also finds it very important to decipher what each individual paddler feels keen for. Some might love the idea of being ejected from the raft, hooting and hollering as they swim through the remaining waves, while others may seek a near-guarantee of dry hair. Ty tries to ensure that each paddler is comfortable with every possible outcome. He also assigns seats in the raft based on individual comfort levels. In guiding, no action is haphazard or coincidence, and Ty’s intentional rearranging of the raft is a true testament of such!
Your river guide is also thinking about each person’s health. It’s important to adjust their decisions based on fitness levels, physical limitations, or other chronic conditions that could impact a rafting trip. While rafting can be for everyone, it’s a guide’s role to make it as doable as possible. It’s their job to realize when someone needs a break or a helping hand to hoist up a backpack.
Ty talks to each participant about their goals, so that he can try to meet them. This way, he can help the whole group to succeed, based on their definition of success. His baseline for decision making in guiding is this: achieving success based on what that means for each person.
To illustrate the essence of being an adventure tourism professional, Ty uses the example of a mountain guide. They are there to help participants accomplish their summit goal, but may need to turn the group around mere metres from the top if necessary.
Similarly, river guides are there to help you accomplish as many of your goals as possible, while their ultimate priority is to keep the team safe.
While your guide considers the environmental factors, as well as individual skill levels, health, and preferences, you’re free to think about the scenery, the whitewater, the wilderness, the food, the waves, the history, the geography…
Expert river guide, Ty Smith, aims “to run challenging rapids to gain competency, and through competency, gain confidence.” This mentality has allowed him to log hundreds of hours running rapids recreationally, as well as practice making tough decisions in dynamic outdoor environments. Translating this experience into professional work on the river was a natural progression; Ty has guided overnight raft trips on the Magpie River, and day trips in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia, Costa Rica, and Chile. He’s paddled every style of river in nearly every type of watercraft. With an extensive education background in environmental science, focused on examining contaminants in waterways, Ty’s almost always out on the river. If not, he’s definitely thinking about it.
I hear the rustle of an early-rising camper. I open my eyes, take a second to orient myself. It’s a familiar sight inside my little tent – my sleeping bag feels like a comforting home now. I glance at my watch, then say goodbye to my comfy, quiet haven with the distinctive zippppp of a tent door.
I’m struck by the unfamiliar sight waiting just outside my door. Slowly, I remember. I remember last night: staring at the mountains, entranced by the midnight sun dancing across the pristine alpine water, skipping from mountain to mountain. Now, the sun is already high in the northern sky, creeping down into the valley and winding its way around the river bends.
Located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Nahanni River, or Nah?ą Dehé is many people’s bucket list trip, and for good reason. The diverse wilderness, timeless adventure, and unique history make it an unparalleled river trip.
As I squint into the early morning sun, which has already been up for hours, I see sparkling mist floating ominously over flat, slow-moving water. As my mind gradually wakes up, I begin to register a thundering roar, the second clue that the river does not, indeed, remain flat. Just downstream, the river funnels through Sluice Box rapids, dropping 96m over Nái̧li̧cho (Virginia Falls). If I stand perfectly still, I can feel the vibration of the chundering water underneath my feet. 500 metres away from the horizon line, and the river already overwhelms my senses.
It’s hard to comprehend the grandeur of this space. It’s day four of our river trip, and the crick in my neck attests to the impressive mountain ranges that have framed our entire trip so far. Every single riverbend greets us with a scene that belongs on a postcard. Every bend immerses us in a scene that fuels artists across Canada.
In 2009, Nahanni National Park Reserve expanded from 4,766km2 to include 30, 000km2, now covering the South Nahanni River, the granite spires of the Cirque of the Unclimbables, the smelly waters of natural hot springs, impressive skyscrapers of Karst formations, and an extensive limestone cave network. A tropical ocean between 550 and 200 million years ago provided the habitat for sandstone, and later, limestone to form. Over the past two to eight million years, continental erosion shaped Nahanni National Park Reserve into the swath of wilderness that it is today.
Looking upstream, the river flows from around a bend. Its winding path is faintly highlighted by the dip of the trees at the bottom of the river valley, and I find my eyes tracing the river bed as it zigs and zags for miles. An antecedent river, Nah?ą Dehé was born as a prairie river, slow and meandering. At a rate of 0.5 mm per 1,000 years, the mountains slowly rose around the river. This happened so gradually that the river maintained its course, while picking up gradient. As a result, we get to coast down a fast-flowing but winding river.
As river travellers moving with the current, we get to become a small part of a system so timeless that it has been flowing through this wilderness since before the mountains existed. Caribou, mountain goats, dall sheep, deer, and bears give us the sense that this vast wilderness is not solely ours to enjoy. While small fractions of Nahanni National Park Reserve have been adapted for river travel, and a portion of land is exempt from the park for mining purposes, the vast majority of it remains untouched. Surely, it’s the immensity of this wilderness that makes the Nahanni my favourite river.
The River That Never Fails
Time to move. Tent down, fire started. Hot water on. Breakfast on the way. Wake-up call: coffee, tea, hot chocolate for all, to soften the chill in the air. Full bellies and smiles all-around, it’s time to pack up. Boats are loaded, we push off, and once again we instantly become a tiny component of the powerful Nah?ą Dehé system. We round the first riverbend, and blinding sun bounces off the most famous whitewater of the South Nahanni. The renowned fourth canyon awaits us. “Left! Right! Hold on!”, we weave our way between towering waves and intimidating whirlpools. I quickly glimpse over my shoulder and see the paddlers pulling hard, faces contorted in grimaces that come from working hard through 4km of continuous whitewater. I feel the current start to slow beneath me, and I spot our target landing zone coming up at the bottom of the rapid. The hardest part is now under our belts. “Look up!” I call. The grimaces disappear, quickly replaced with awestruck gaping mouths. Just like that, this group has experienced the quintessential Nahanni experience: whitewater so fun you need a reminder to look at the famous landmarks towering overhead. From mountains to whitewater, snow to sunburns, rapids to flatwater, the Nahanni never fails to deliver an unforgettable experience.
This one is my sixth trip down the Nahanni. Every single time down, even for a raft guide on trip #50, has something to teach everyone. Each trip never fails to be different. Yet it consistently delivers the fantastic weather, scenery, whitewater, and memorable moments that make it so many people’s dream river trip. Nah?ą Dehé brings first-time river travellers and seasoned guides alike to tears. As I ponder my aching muscles, I think to myself that Nah?ą Dehé’s unwavering ability to provide a moving experience must be what makes it my favourite river. It never fails to fully immerse paddlers in a timeless wilderness experience.
Story of Many Chapters
The jubilant hoots and hollers that are characteristic of a successful descent of a famous rapid, Lafferty’s Riffle, have hardly subsided when the faint smell of Sulfur reaches my nose. Our boisterous group slowly quiets, recognizing that their whitewater milestone is about to be followed by an equally memorable experience. Gradually, I usher the group towards the right hand side of the river, landing at Tułetsȩȩ. Commonly named Kraus Hotsprings, we push aside the surface layer of algae and immerse ourselves in a heavenly shallow pool of warmth. Any cold toes, muddy feet, or stinky paddling gear is quickly forgotten.
I notice a cool wind blowing the hair out of my face, and acknowledge that a head wind is picking up, just in time for the final push of our river trip. My mind drifts to all the people before me who would have had the same thought. River trippers, including Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, outdoor ed students, adrenaline junkies, rock climbers, environmentalists, my own grandparents, photographers, and sight-seekers. The Kraus family, who built a small homestead at this very location. Prospectors, who travelled up and down (yes – upriver!) in search of the infamous Mackenzie Mountain gold. Names like Deadmen Valley and Headless Creek never let me forget the unfortunate fate faced by many of them. The Dené Peoples lived on this land long before any of those famous characters. Their stories are just beginning to be heard, and I feel minute amongst the history contained in this very spot. Every time I travel down this river, I read a new book. And I’ve hardly made a dent. I’m grateful for those who take the time to speak or to write their stories. I have so much to learn.
The wilderness, history, and the way in which the river impacts every single individual, makes the Nahanni my absolute favourite river. It’s earned its place on bucket lists across the world.
Downstream, we make our home for the night, and dinner is done. Tomorrow, we will make our way to Tthenáágó, known as the village of Nahanni Butte. For now, tales of the day and campfire smoke drift into the sky, as chatter and laughter waft out of our blue-barrel-and-log dining room. Dishes and kitchen cleanup are done, then goodnights are said. I crawl into my little haven of a tent, into the familiar feeling of the sleeping bag that kept me warm last night, the night before that and the one before that. I feel tired, sore, satisfied and grateful. I feel like I could sleep forever, but the anticipation of tomorrow sends me into dreamland with a smile.