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The North’s Top 15 Waterways

The North’s Top 15 Waterways

How to dive into an iceberg, swim with canaries of the sea, avoid seamonsters in the Arctic—and much more. Take a plunge into our 15 top watery Northern getaways.
By Up Here
Jul 27
From the July/August 2014 Issue

Best scuba diving: Icebergs, Baffin Island

Let’s be clear: you’re not diving off of icebergs; you’re diving into them. On Baffin Island, when a berg—most likely from Sirmilik National Park, or all the way from Greenland—has grounded itself in up to 500 feet of water, it can stick around long enough to accumulate meltwater pools or cracks. That means you can dive hundreds of feet down into the iceberg’s inner caverns; you may feel like the only living organism on Earth floating on the inside of what looks like a giant golf ball. Some say it’s a spiritual experience when you touch the ice, look down into hundreds of feet of blackness and realize you’re suspended in something as large as a 15-storey building. 

You’re not alone: Arctic Kingdom, the only operator that offers iceberg scuba diving, takes you there. Fly to Pond Inlet, and from there, it’s a 90-kilometre snowmobile ride to your base camp. Your après-dive is on sea ice far from the floe edge, complete with a dining tent and gourmet chef, individual sleeping tents with raised cots and even bathroom tents with flushing toilets. 

Another cool thing: With much smaller icebergs, more like a one-storey house, you can kayak up to one metre away, close enough to hear them crackling and popping—and, just maybe, watch a seal stick its head out of the ice. Check out Quark Expeditions (quarkexpeditions.com/en), select a trip (try Arctic Quest) and add on the Arctic Kayaking package. 


Best place to get a tan: Bennett Beach, Yukon

Palm trees and coconuts are too cliché for Bennett Beach, where your view is the rugged Bennett Lake Volcanic Complex (don’t worry—nothing’s erupted here in the past 50 million years) and snow-capped mountains. Even better, you’re likely to have the two-kilometre strip to yourself. There’s plenty of accommodation in the town of Carcross, only 15 minutes away, but if you’re looking to round out the beach vacation package, the Spirit Lake Wilderness Resort (spiritlakeyukon.com) is a solid choice.

Runner up: Whitebeach Point on Great Slave Lake’s North Arm, a 44-kilometre boat ride from Yellowknife, looks like it’s been transplanted from the Caribbean. It’s not easy to find, so you’ll have to book a trip with Great Slave Lake Tours (867-875-8077) in Hay River to take you there by boat. 


The Liard River Hotsprings were once known as Tropical Valley. Photo by Ottilie Short

Photo by Ottilie Short

Best place to be spiritual: Lutsel K’e, NWT

Thaidene Nene (“land of our ancestors”), the traditional homeland and sacred place of the Lustel K’e Dene First Nation, covers 33,000 square kilometres in and around the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, and it’s on its way to becoming a new national park. Guides known as the Ni Hat’Ni Dene spend their summers in the village of Kache at the mouth of the Lockhart River, where Dene gather every August for a ritual celebration. Just show up, knock on the guides’ cabin doors and ask for a tour. And if you visit Parry Falls on the Lockhart, you’ll learn the legend of the Old Lady of the Falls—it is said she will provide help to those in need, but only if they believe in her.

A good catch: Take it all in at Frontier Fishing Lodge, just three kilometres northeast of Lutsel K’e (frontierfishinglodge.com).

Bigger fish: Great Bear Lake’s Sahoyúé-ehdacho, two peninsulas in the west arm, are vitally important to the Sahtu Dene—particularly the stories that come out of them and shape the identity and culture of the people. 


Best place to float: Cameron River, NWT

You’ll need an inner tube, some buddies, maybe a case of beer, and not much else. Hop on to Cameron River, where the current’s just right—not too strong and not too lazy—for you to float downriver for hours. Here, even the rapids are gentle (the sun, however, is not, so make sure to stay cool and hydrated.) Look around often; there are beaver lodges all along your route.

Dive in: start around kilometre 65 of the Ingraham Trail, 45 minutes north of Yellowknife, and leave your car parked at the Cameron Falls Territorial Park Day Use Area. Camping is available at nearby Reid and Prelude lakes, and also along the Ingraham Trail (nwtparks.ca/campgrounds).

Worst floating—but best challenge: The Yukon’s Alsek River is a large, raging, glacial meltwater monster: it’s freezing, the rapids average around Class III-IV—not for fair-weather canoeists—and it runs through prime grizzly territory. One stretch, with the welcoming name of “Turnback Canyon,” is seven kilometres of continuous Class V-VI whitewater. It’s, uh, highly recommended that you helicopter portage that part. A four-wheel drive down the Alsek Trail in Kluane National Park will take you there. For camping and logistics, call Kluane National Park and Reserve (867-634-7207). 


The brilliant blues of Kluane Lake.

Most likely to become the setting of a new Lord of the Rings Installment: Katannilik Territorial Park, Nunavut

Baffin Island’s Katannilik (meaning “place of waterfalls” in Inuktitut) Territorial Park holds one of Earth’s only sources of Lapis Lazuli, a bright blue gem and one of the most ancient stones to be worn as jewelry—think ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Caribou, wolves and polar bears roam the park; overhead, you’ll spot falcons. And in case that’s not grand enough, waterfalls line the Soper River, the park’s main vein, one after another. If you’re there at high tide on the Soper’s seaward end, Pleasant Inlet’s 10.6-metre tides cause the river to reverse, creating a swirling, whirlpool phenomenon known as “reversing falls.”

Pretend you live here: Check out the Kimik Hotel in nearby Kimmirut at 867-939-2093.

Just as epic: Clyde River, also on Baffin Island, is surrounded by 10 fjords, with some of the planet’s biggest rock walls surrounding the community. And for all you adrenaline-seekers, Sam Ford Fjord is a base-jumping hotspot. 


Best Whitewater: Slave River, NWT 

The Slave River rapids aren’t just the North’s best whitewater; they’re among the top in the world. Four sets of rapids churn a 25-kilometre-long, two-kilometre-wide section of the river near Fort Smith, easily accessible from the town. In that huge swath of water there are hundreds of routes, enough to meet any paddler’s meddle—from the well-known beginner spots a first-time whitewater-rider can play in, to seemingly impassable Class VI routes that have yet to be charted.

Here’s looking at you:If you’re new to the river, get in touch with the Fort Smith Paddling Club at 867-872-3593 for an introduction. Stay in town or camp at nearby Wood Buffalo National Park(867-872-7900), and keep your eyes peeled for bison, wood buffalo, pelicans, cranes and black bears (like, really keep an eye out).

Make it a party: The water’s warm all through July, but the beginning of August is host to the North’s paddling event of the year: The Slave River Paddlefest, held this year from August 1 to 4.


Articulated necks and an inquisitive sociability make belugas charming swimming companions. Photo by Michael Nolan

Best mammals to swim with: Belugas, Seal River, Manitoba

With their love of song and perma-grins, these “Canaries of the Sea” are social, inquisitive, and gracefully chubby companions. And they are, by all reports, inherently friendly (the worst you might get is a gently mocking spout of water—or a playful string of bubbles—in your face).

Make friends with song: Every July and August on the Seal River—just north of Churchill, Manitoba—Belugas arrive in their thousands to breed, and stuff themselves full of capelin. The folks at Seal River Heritage Lodge will gladly tie a rope around your ankles and trail you behind a Zodiac, so you can meet whales on their terms (they will, of course, provide you with a dry suit and all necessary safety equipment). The best way to attract a cetacean crowd? Sing—or hum—as loudly as you can. That’s when it gets magical. Says Ian Belcher, writing in the Financial Times: “As the only whales with seven unfused neck vertebrae, belugas can twist their heads to stare as they swim past. It’s this curiosity, along with the extraordinary numbers, that sets the experience apart from other whale watching.” Info@churchillwild.com; 1-866-846-9453.

Not so close, chum: Not interested in quite such an immersive experience? Visit Cunningham Inlet up on Nunavut’s Somerset Island: Arctic Watch Wilderness Lodge is a 15-minute walk away from waters where some 2,000 beluga visit every year to raise their offspring in midsummer (1-844-264-5801). 


Keep your boots dry on a two week expedition through some of the Yukon's most stunning landscapes. Photo by Grant Harder

Best place to be a cowboy: Whitehorse, Yukon

You’ll have campfire pancakes for breakfast and European companions with U.K.-basedUnicorn Trails, which offers a two-week Yukon tour on horseback. Starting and ending in guide Pierre Fournier’s log cabin six miles outside of Whitehorse, you’ll visit, among other places: Mud Lake, filled with glacier water; Alligator Lake, shaped like the animal; Coal Lake, a prize fishing spot; Rose Lake, where a floatplane delivers food and supplies mid-trip; and Watson River, where you’ll get a taste of hunting and trapping.

For a homespun experience: Yukon Horsepacking Adventures, run by Mandy and Armin Johnson, offers eight-day expeditions along Stewart River to Armin’s gold mine, where the remains of century-old cabins still stand. Here, you’ll take day trips in the area, pan for gold in the river, and, if you’re lucky, catch Arctic grayling for dinner (867-633-3659). 


Most treasured island: Marble Island, Nunavut

According to a Rankin Inlet legend, Marble Island formed within human memory: when a starving Inuit elder abandoned herself on a mound of ice outside a Hudson Bay hunting camp, she wished it would turn to stone and form an island. Geologically, Marble Island gets its ice-white façade from quartzite veins running through the rock. For centuries, it’s served as an unmistakable muster station for hunters, explorers and whalers harvesting the thousands of belugas that travel up the western shores of Hudson Bay. Historical trails, gravesites, shipwrecks and artifacts are all intact and clearly marked.

Hark! Who goes there? Marble Island is the only Inuit-owned land that Inuit have “exclusive possession” to under the Land Claim. This means not following “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” could be punishable by law. Rankin Inlet conservation officer Daniel Kaludjak suggests you book well in advance with one of the guides, Harry Ittinuar (867-645-2916) or Simon Kowmuk (867-645-3034).

If you want something a little more deserted:The tip of Ellesmere Island is only 720 km from the North Pole and hosts Quttinirpaaq National Park, home of world-famous glaciers, ice caps and valleys. Check out Quttinirpaaq National Park online or call 867-975-4673


Devon Island kayaking. Photo by Ed Darock/Corbis

Best place to watch glaciers go “BOOM”: Devon Island, Nunavut

Witnessing an iceberg calving is like watching a volcano erupt or a tornado touch down: it’s thrilling, it’s primal, but in the case of icebergs, it’s not a natural disaster—it’s just natural. And one of the front-est of front-row seats is Croker Bay off the south shore of Devon Island, where icebergs break off from the Devon Ice Cap and crash into the Arctic Ocean. Since the ice cap itself gets up to 1,700 metres thick—that’s twice as high as the world’s tallest building—you’ll know its bergs won’t disappoint.

Swing by: Adventure Canada’s two-week Arctic Explorer cruise, offered in the summer of 2015, includes a tour around Croker Bay’s icebergs by Zodiac.

Getting warmer: Below the treeline, the Yukon’s Kaskawulsh glacier in Kluane National Park is the biggest non-Arctic glacier around. You can hike along Slim’s River to get close to the ice—but not close enough for the moving ice to dump sediment into your tent. Book a hike with Nature Tours of Yukon (naturetoursofyukon.com). 



Best sea monster: Qalupalik, Nunavut

Be careful not to venture too far out on the ice floes if you visit a Nunavut community in early summer, or the Qalupalik might kidnap you. Legend has it, the Qalupalik has green skin, long fingernails and an amauti made of eider duck skins. It hides in the cracks between ice floes, and when unsuspecting children hop over, it snatches them down and squeezes them into its amauti. No one can escape the oily duck feathers of the Qalupalik’s amauti.

Not to worry: Carry a harpoon with you on the ice and you should be okay. Apparently, if you strike a Qalupalik with the harpoon and say an animal’s name, the monster will turn into that animal. Just be sure you say “puppy” as you strike, and not “polar bear.”

A real beast: In 2004, Yellowknifer columnist Chris Woodall wrote about a local priest’s encounter with a creature whose neck reached six or eight feet above the water, and had a dragon head. Woodall facetiously made up the moniker “Ol’ Slavey” for the monster and ran the story. And then his phone started ringing. There are many who swear “Ol’ Slavey” exists. 


Best bubbles: Liard River Hot Springs, B.C.

Northern B.C.’s Liard River Hot Springs were originally called Tropical Valley because the warm water—two pools ranging from 42 to 52 degrees Celsius—supports species that couldn’t survive anywhere else in the north. So join the throngs of roadtrippers heading up the Alaska Highway: stop and smell the orchids (14 species to be exact) before plowing through to the Yukon.

Kick off your flip-flops and stay awhile: The Liard Hotsprings Lodge is just a 10-minute stroll from the main pools, along a wooden boardwalk that winds through a warm water swamp and boreal forest. The gift shop is seasonal, but the lodge and hot springs are open year-round (866-939-2522). 

For something a little more intimate: Charter into Nahanni National Park on either Air Tindi,Summit AirSimpson Air or South Nahanni Air and soak in the hot and warm springs along the Nahanni River. Nahanni runs along a continental divide, and only continental divides emit the necessary gases to form hot springs. Notable Nahanni soakers include the Kraus and Rabbitkettle springs. 


Best downpour: Nailicho, NWT

Nailicho (“big river falling” in South Slavey), also known as Virginia Falls, is the reigning monarch of rapidly descending waters: at 90 metres, it’s twice the height of Niagara Falls. You can paddle down the Nahanni River—it’ll take you 10 to 14 days if you start at Rabbitkettle Lake (you have to flyin to this roadless national park)—and catch sight of black bears or grizzlies along the way.

Catch a ride: Simpson Air (1-866-995-2505) can fly you in, and several local outfitters can show you around. Camp at Fort Simpson (867-695-7232), stay in one of Fort Simpson’s hotels (likeNahanni Inn at 867-695-2201) or—go big or go home, right?—book a stay at the fly-in Nahanni Mountain fishing lodge. If you do paddle, remember to make reservations—the Nahanni flows through a national park.

For a waterfall-themed road trip: Starting in Hay River, NWT, head north along the Mackenzie Highway for Alexandra Falls, a 32-metre drop over smooth limestone. Nearby, Louise Falls looks like a three-tiered water-cake. A short detour 30 kilometres north of Enterprise gets you to McNallie Creek; nestled into the cliffs, it’s like your personal swimming pool. Lady Evelyn Falls, a short drive away, is a giant water wall, and the water’s warm enough for a dip. Need a break? No problem: there are 23 campsites in the area. Sambaa Deh Falls (and campground) and Coral Falls, just two and a half hours from the last site, are packed with coral fossils—and, if you’re hungry, pickerel and walleye. All campsites can be booked at nwtparks.ca/campgrounds

Nahanni's reigning, monarch Nailicho, also known as Virginia Falls. Photo by Adam Hill


Best long distance: Mackenzie River, NWT 

If you balk at a two- to three-day trip and would rather something more in the range of, say, two to three months, the NWT’s Mackenzie River has you covered. Ranging 1,800 kilometres from the Hay River end of Great Slave Lake (which flows into the river) to the brackish mouth of the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk, the Mackenzie offers the best opportunity to see a cross-section of the North. Starting in the thick forests of the South Slave, you’ll pass by the Mackenzie Mountains, overcome the tree line and float among tundra before ending up at the pingo-dotted Tuktoyaktuk peninsula at the Arctic Ocean. You can ship your car up to Inuvik from Hay River via the Northern Transporation Company Ltd. (867-874-5100) and drive back south along the Yukon’s Dempster Highway. If you go all the way to Tuk, you can fly back on Aklak Air (867-777-3555) or arrange for a speedboat ride back to Inuvik with Up North Tours (867-678-0510) before driving home.

Crucial travel companion: Written by lifelong Northerner Michelle Swallow, the Mackenzie River Guide outlines the entire length of the great river with more than 60 maps. In addition to commentary on the route, there are illustrations identifying plantlife, Dene legends that correspond with certain sites, and rich information about the 12 communities along the way.  


Most lives claimed: White Horse Rapids, Yukon

During the Klondike gold rush, the most dangerous stretch of the Chilkoot Trail was widely known to be the White Horse Rapids, just upstream of present-day Whitehorse. Named for their charge of frothy whitewater, the rapids destroyed more than 100 boats in the first days of the 1898 prospecting season. After that, no boat was allowed to pass through them without an experienced pilot aboard. Today, the rapids still run, but you can’t see them. They’ve been dammed and buried under the deceptively calm surface of Schwatka Lake.

Farther on down: Visit Dawson City’s Jack London Museum, and learn about how London made his living in the Yukon working as one of those White Horse Rapids pilots. Contact the Jack London Museum between May and September at 867-993-5575.

Runner-up: Alaska’s Teklanika River, just outside of Fairbanks, stranded or injured 12 hikers alone in 2013, and killed a woman in 2010. Adventurers retracing the route of Chris McCandless, a hiker whose death was recounted in the bestselling book, Into the Wild, often make the same mistake McCandless made: underestimating the river.