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There’s more to Fort Smith than the rapids, but there’s a reason those raging waters are what everyone talks about. Fort Smith is essentially the NWT’s welcoming committee, perched at the gateway of Alberta. The community’s name in Chipewyan, ‘Thebacha,’ means “beside the rapids” and they’re hard to miss. The Slave River draws hundreds every year for the annual Paddlefest. “The rapids that we have here are so beautiful. I think everyone that comes here gets really transfixed by the beauty,” says Robyn Brown, vice- president of Fort Smith’s paddling club, and the new project manager for Paddlefest. “It’s just transfixing, and draws you back.”

But there’s so much to Fort Smith on dry land, too. Home to towering trees (unlike most of the rest of the territory), the sweeping vistas give way to Canada’s big- gest national park, Wood Buffalo. Chances are high you'll spot some of those majestic beasts when driving in and out of town.

Multiple Indigenous groups have called the region home for centuries and have left their marks in a rich, vibrant culture. The community has served as an important link between the Arctic and the rest of Canada, with the Slave River being the original route north. Fur traders, missionaries and the Hudson’s Bay Company were all present in the area. And from 1911, when Ottawa dispatched an Indian agent and a doctor to join the RCMP detachment, Fort Smith was the administrative centre for the western Arctic as well. Even after Yellowknife was anointed capital of the NWT in 1967, Fort Smith still held the civil service cards for many years, until the infrastructure in Yellowknife caught up.

 

A young drummer in Thebacha. PETER EMMANUEL CHAILLON

Today, this place has friendly small-town vibes on lock; from the farmers’ market and its storied cinnamon buns to community and cultural events galore.

Even when the sun goes down, there’s plenty to see in Fort Smith. Wood Buffalo National Park is home to the largest dark-sky preserve in the world, a whopping 44,807 square kilometres of relief from glaring city light pollution. Marvel at the Milky Way anytime darkness falls, or make a point of hitting the Dark Sky Festival in August, when the Salt River First Nation celebrates the night with drumming, hand games and stories. And if you’re not quite in awe of the natural beauty just yet, the aurora may even pop in for a visit.

But we all know why most people go to Fort Smith: the paddling. There are four main rapids that pull in paddlers: Cassette Rapids, Pelican Rapids, Mountain Rapids and the Rapids of the Drowned. “We actually call the Mountain portage rapids the playground because it’s the perfect beginner area where we learn white water,” says Brown. One thing that keeps drawing people back is that the rapids are suitable for just about every experience level, from beginner to expert. The river stretches two kilometres wide at some points, and the challenge of picking the right route is a temptation for many and a cautionary tale for others, all under the watchful eye of local pelicans.

 

One of Fort Smith's famous pelicans. COURTESY NWT TOURISM/TERRY PARKER

DAY 1
Get a coffee at the Rusty Raven Gallery and Gift. Part coffee shop, part gallery, this is the stop for caffeine, a souvenir and baked goods. Explore the Grey Nun’s grotto. The Fort Smith Mission Historic Park was built in the early 1900s and sits on a portion of what once was a Roman Catholic mission. From 1926 until 1985, Fort Smith was home to the Bishop’s seat and was the administrative centre for the Roman Catholic church in the NWT. Former residences and buildings are still on the site, as is the grotto and a local community garden. Go say hello to the Radium King. Built in 1937 to haul ore up the Mackenzie River, including uranium from Great Bear Lake used in World War II, the boat has been landlocked for decades. Originally a part of the Northern Life Museum, now it lies shuttered outside. End your first day with a drink at The Bar. It has a name (Dirty O’Fergies Bar & Grill) but most locals just call it The Bar because it’s the only one in town. They serve popcorn. There’s often live music. That’s really all you need to know.

DAY 2
Check out the pelicans at the Rapids of the Drowned. A quick hike straight down from the Fort Smith Scenic Route will bring you to the rapids (there are also two old portage trails). Walk along the rocks soaking up the sun, and look across the river to spot some seabirds. Since you’re already at the shore, it wouldn’t be a trip to Fort Smith without getting in the water. Bring your own boat for the Slave River Paddlefest (late July). The local paddlers club offers classes and can rent equipment. Not a paddler? There are several big eddies for swimming, and there’s always the pool toy float race. End your second day with a picnic at Riverside Park. In 1968, a huge landslide broke away from the riverbank, sweeping homes and trees with it. You can still see the curved slope biting into the riverside. Today, you can wander the groomed trails cutting through the park.