Canoeing down the Mackenzie River

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Week of March 13-19, 1997
Backpacking the Absaroka-Beartooth
Canoeing down the Mackenzie River
Rock-climbing options in New Mexico
Boundary Waters canoeing for city slickers
Taking it not-so-easy in Jamaica

Canoeing down the Mackenzie River
Question: Looking for info on paddling in the Northwest Territories--probably the Mackenzie River.

Andrea Shaw
Calgary, AB
[email protected]

Adventure Adviser: Little-known fact: The Mackenzie is the second-longest river in North America--and most of its 1,860-plus miles is navigable by canoe. With all that water, you need to decide on which stretch you want to paddle and how much time you want to spend on the river.

Starting at Hay River, on the shore of Great Slave Lake, you can battle open-water high winds to the mouth of the Mackenzie, where 12-knot currents take over, making your trip faster and easier. From there, the next big re-supply point is Fort Providence--also a good put-in, if you want to avoid the high waves and tough crossing on the lake. Aurora Sport Fishing Company sells canoes (about $1,200; call 403-699-4321) and gear, and if you decide to buy a boat there, you can opt to ship the canoe back at the end of your trip and they'll buy it off you.

The paddling is especially scenic off Fort Providence, with plenty of islands for camping. Heading farther west, the next major town (loose interpretation: It's a village of several hundred) is Fort Simpson. Like Hay River, there's a tiny airport here, which makes it a convenient starting point if you have a limited amount of time. From here on out, the terrain gets more rugged and mountainous as you paddle downstream, although there are still scores of tent-sites along the banks (no camping permits required). Unless you've got a month or two to spare, you probably won't make it all the way to the mouth of the Mackenzie at Inuvik, on Mackenzie Bay. Plan on taking out, then, at either Wrigley or Norman Well, the latter of which is graced with a tiny airstrip for a quick (relatively speaking) getaway.

In summer, expect 60-degree days and not-quite-freezing nights--and lots of black flies and mosquitos, all season long. The river is a few miles wide in places, but there are no rough rapids. Air Canada has frequent daily flights from Edmonton to Yellowknife, and from there you can hop a puddle-jumper to Fort Simpson or beyond. For more info, call the Western Northwest Territories Trip Planning office at 403-695-2955 or the tourism office in Yellowknife (800-661-0788).

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