Tackle raging rapids, spy caribou frolicking on a lush tundra expanse, or set tracks on an historic river, frozen many feet thick, and gaze out at the mountains surrounding you—it’s hard to believe you can do all of this on one trail.
The Trans Canada Trail extends through parks, over rivers, and spans mountain ranges, connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic Ocean. In the territories, each stretch of the trail is special, taking you into the domain of the bison, of moose, and bears of all kinds. Go deep into the wilderness and visit rarely seen landmarks—like Kuujjuaq Falls, a week’s hike south of Iqaluit.
Here’s just some of what awaits you on a few select Northern stretches of the Trans Canada Trail.
Yukon: Travel through the territory’s history on the Dawson Overland Trail
The Whitehorse to Dawson section of the Trans Canada Trail runs alongside the Yukon River and it has been in continuous use for thousands of years. First established by communities such as the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation, it was reinforced for use as a road for horse-drawn carriages and sleighs by Canadian and American settlers during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Today, the 385-kilometre stretch is still a valued thoroughfare by First Nations hunters and trappers. It’s also popular with tourists and locals looking to experience views of the river and surrounding hills and to remember the pathway’s iconic history. The 112-kilometre Dawson Overland section of trail, which runs from Whitehorse to the Braeburn Lodge, was a crucial winter road connecting people, and mail and freight deliveries, until the Alaska and Klondike highways were built in the 1940s and 50s. Today, the trail crosses the territories of the Kwanlin Dün, Selkirk, and Tagé Cho Hudän First Nations.
While many now enjoy the trail year-round, it’s not fully possible to cross the whole thing without a canoe or kayak in summer, as it’s intersected by several waterways.
Whitehorse-based Anthony DeLorenzo frequently traverses the Dawson Overland section by bicycle—often in the depths of winter. “To me, in the winter, biking [the trail] is just the most logical way to do it,” he says. “It’s the most efficient and, for me, the most enjoyable.”
The history along the trail has maintained a hold on DeLorenzo for more than a decade. “Most of the Trans Canada Trail in the North is on the highway, which isn’t really all that exciting,” he says. Not this section, though. “It was like a staging route to get to Dawson City during the gold rush and now it’s this multi-use trail where you see snowmobilers, winter bikers, dog mushers, trappers monitoring their traplines. There’s a cabin [that was] owned by Elijah Smith along the route—a really well-known [and] respected First Nations Elder who was instrumental in land claims up here.”
At one time, there were six Mountie outposts along the Dawson Overland Trail; the Braeburn Lodge is the last one standing. It’s now become a popular restaurant and bakery, famous for its plate-sized cinnamon buns and locally sourced butter, meat, and produce.
It has also been a checkpoint for several famous races, including the Yukon Quest dog sled race and the Yukon Arctic Ultra running, cross-country skiing, and mountain biking competition. That means the surrounding trails get groomed and professionally maintained several times a year.
“We’re always kind of at the mercy of trail conditions and people’s schedules,” DeLorenzo says. Even so, he tries to time his trail trips just after these events.
For those hoping to do the trail in the winter, DeLorenzo says it’s important to have the right gear. He gets around on a fat bike, equipped with oversized tires that can handle off-road conditions. “There’s no way you could make it in the winter without a fat bike. And it’s fairly remote, so it’s important to plan ahead, especially if you’re unfamiliar with this kind of climate,” he says. “Carry proper safety gear, and be prepared for the worst.”
Don’t neglect backcountry basics like a first aid kit, a satelitte phone, an analog map and compass, and a bike repair kit. Fire starter cubes, pastes, and packets—or even cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly—can help coax fires to life in cold weather.
DeLorenzo also recommends investing in items like pogies, which attach to handlebars and protect the hands during cold rides (and offer a place to store snacks), along with hand-warmers and battery-powered socks.
It’s important to wear lots of layers too. Although your extremities will feel the chill, he says, your core will overheat with the exercise and you will want to avoid sweating and potentially compromising your insulation.
But DeLorenzo doesn’t shy away from the cold. “There’s a lot of nice big spruce trees along the route, and underneath them there’s rarely any snow,” he says. “We have -40C sleeping bags and we just sleep outside underneath a tree, and if it does snow, you’ve got shelter. Having a big fire is also key.”
For those unwilling to end up like Sam McGee (who, according to the Robert W. Service poem, famously froze along this same section of trail) there is a warm-up cabin open to the public roughly 60 kilometres into the trail with a woodstove, bunk bed, and fire pit.
Despite the cold and the other challenges that come with winter on the trail, for DeLorenzo, travelling directly on the frozen Yukon River and catching glimpses of the area’s reclusive fauna makes it all worthwhile. The valley is home to winter wildlife such as ravens, eagles, caribou, wolves, lynxes and thinhorn sheep.
“I don’t get tired of it. Developing that relationship with one trail where you see it in all seasons, you see it change with time,” he says. “I just really enjoy every moment out there.”
By Caitrin Pilkington
NWT: Ride some Trans Canada Trail rapids on the Slave River
For Fort Smith, NWT paddler and whitewater enthusiast John Blyth, there are few places in the world like the Slave River. Particularly the 26-kilometre stretch just south of his hometown, where the rapids are so diverse and challenging that he rarely feels the itch to tackle whitewater elsewhere.
Squiggling its way north from Fort Chipewyan on Alberta’s Lake Athabasca, the Slave River continues along Wood Buffalo National Park’s eastern boundary for a spell before emptying into Great Slave Lake, north of Fort Resolution, NWT.
The Dene followed this route in harmony with the seasons before fur traders and explorers began using it as a route to the Mackenzie River and the Arctic Ocean.
Today, the Slave River makes up part of the Trans Canada Trail, flowing calmly until it reaches Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta—a tiny Smith’s Landing First Nation settlement of a dozen or so residents, south of the Alberta-NWT border.
Here, the Slave River is ready to rumble and roar, with four sets of Class I to Class VI rapids, historically the main obstacle for water travel from northern Alberta to the Arctic Ocean. Sidestepping the whitewater, the Trans Canada Trail hops onto land to follow the old portage route parallel to the river and the highway. The trail dives back into the Slave River at Bell Rock, 13 kilometres downstream from Fort Smith, and carries on its meandering ways.
These adrenaline-inducing waters are where Blyth comes to play every summer. “There are not very many rivers this size with this many rapids,” he says.
Aside from the quantity of surf waves created by the water that flows over solid granite, this stretch of river also features sand beaches and a sanctuary for the most northerly colony of nesting white pelicans. Yet paddlers travelling the waterways—and the Trans Canada Trail—from northern Alberta to the Arctic Ocean often portage around the rapids without stopping to appreciate the whitewater. “Fitz to Smith is the best part,” Blyth says. “It makes me sad to no end that people skip it because they’re trying to get to Inuvik”
As a child living near Nahanni Butte, Blyth became interested in paddling as he watched canoeists coming off the Nahanni River (Nahʔa Dehé in the Dene language). “I always wanted to go do rapids,” he says. When he was 17 and living in Fort Smith, he went to a practice session at the pool. The following summer, some friends took him to Playground—at the Mountain Portage Rapids on the Slave River—and showed him how to roll his kayak. “I tried six or seven times in a row, and then I was ready.”
Now, he’s the one who brings paddlers out to the rapids to show them the ropes. When asked about the best places to go, Blyth rattles off spots on the Slave River like a guy giving detailed directions to get to his house. The variety and sheer number of rapids on this portion of the Slave River mean that Blyth doesn’t need to travel far to scratch his whitewater itch. “The joke is that I only really paddle one place because I didn’t need to go anywhere else,” he laughs.
Although people have been travelling the river for centuries, Blyth says there has been an erosion of knowledge about the historic routes for traversing the rapids over the last 70 years. This has created the perception the rapids are “super dangerous.”
Blyth learned to read and travel the river from commercial rafters, slalom paddlers, and professional whitewater kayakers who came to Fort Smith each summer. “We have learned a lot about the rapids in the past 20 years—which ones are dangerous and which aren’t.”
Blyth encourages anyone who wishes to paddle the Slave River to connect with the area’s paddlers to gather local knowledge about how to get through them safely. “If you’re totally out to lunch you’re going to end up in some pretty bad situations,” he cautions. “Geography makes these big waves and, for the most part, the waves are relatively friendly. It sounds crazy but, for the most part, if you end up swimming, you’ll be OK as long as you’re with a competent crew and not by yourself.”
The Slave River Rapids offer opportunities for paddlers of different levels. “It’s like a ski hill, it depends what you want: double black diamond or a green circle,” Blyth says. “There are so many islands and channels that you can customize your experience.”
Nunavut: Hiking the territory’s lone stretch of Trans Canada Trail
The Itijjagiaq Trail (Inuktitut for “over the land”) stretches roughly 125 kilometres from the south shore of Frobisher Bay outside Iqaluit, through Katannilik Territorial Park ("the place of waterfalls") and across the Meta Incognita Peninsula to the community of Kimmirut.
The only portion of the Trans Canada Trail in Nunavut, the guide describes it as “an unmarked landscape that could be more accurately classified as a route than an actual trail.” Indeed, there are no signs, few trail markers, and plenty of wayfinding between the nine emergency shelters built along the route when the park was created
As the boat that ferried the six of us across Frobisher Bay from Iqaluit disappeared into a thick, low-hanging grey fog, I repeatedly asked myself whether I was ready for the eight-day journey that lay ahead.
I had been on the Itijjagiaq Trail several times before, albeit in winter. The last time I had made it roughly 25 kilometres out from Iqaluit to the trailhead, where I crawled over large pieces of fast ice that looked like giant slabs of broken concrete—a wintertime byproduct of the bay’s massively high tides. But with the sun setting, our group of relatively novice snowmobile riders knew it was time to turn back for home.
Now, standing at the start of the trail six months later, without snow or ice, the area was almost unrecognizable—a thought that would circulate through my mind several times during the hike. I strapped up my 23-kilogram pac and camera bag, and slung my 12-gauge shotgun across my chest—in the event we encountered a polar bear—and we set off.
When we began planning for the trip, the summer weather was outstanding—lots of sun and very dry. There was so little rain that, by mid-August, just a few weeks before the hike, the City of Iqaluit declared a state of emergency due to a water shortage. The nearby Apex River, Iqaluit's secondary water source, was running at a 40-year low. Surely, we reasoned, this would be the same for the waterways along the trail. Fortunately for the city (but not us), the rains came and carried on well through September. The creeks on the Itijjagiaq Trail ran high and grassier lowlands became bogs.
Still, we kept our feet dry for most of the first day. That is, until we had to cross the Rumbling River. “There is no 'best place' to cross here that is readily identifiable,” warns the trail guide. Those words were true, and for the last kilometre and a half of the day, I'd have wet feet—a condition I’d tolerate for the remainder of the hike.
The following day proved painful, mainly because I remembered flying through the valleys and hills of this section of trail on a snowmobile, covering a day’s worth of hiking in 30 minutes. By the time we reached Tasialu Lake and set up camp, I was mentally beat.
In the distance, we could see the outline of Cabin 3, which was as far as I had travelled by snowmobile. Sanguqiak igluralak (or "the little house where the trail turns”), Cabin 3's position is best suited for winter travel. That’s because, until the 1990s, hiking the Itijjagiaq Trail was nearly unheard of. Even today, the number of groups walking the route pales in comparison to the number of winter travellers.
Moosa Akavak was born in 1949 in what was then called Lake Harbour (now Kimmirut), and he estimates he has
But as he knew it growing up, the trail took a different path that went further up the Kuujjuaq (Soper River) Valley. "The older trail which my father took [had] a waterfall," says Akavak. "If there was a lot of snow, it would be okay, but otherwise, they wouldn't make it." If that was the case, Akavak says trail users would have to use a rope to hoist a load up over the ledge before transitioning into a smaller tributary valley that would lead back out to Frobisher Bay.
Back then, travel was by dog team. Akavak's father, James, was a special constable with the RCMP and he would travel to and from Iqaluit two or three times a year carrying supplies, mail, and stories. He also made similar trips to Kinngait (Cape Dorset) and once, before Akavak was born, he travelled as far north as Pangnirtung, to bring someone to the hospital there.
That trail’s routing changed with the introduction of snowmobiles in the late 1960s. Around this time, Akavak recalls his first trip, being pulled on a qamutiik behind a bright yellow 1968 Ski-Doo Olympique his dad was driving. It took three days.
As the years—and snowmobile technology—progressed, travel times whittled away from days to hours. Akavak fondly remembers one ride on the back of his trusted Yamaha Bravo, as the fastest he has done the trail. "Full-throttle almost all the way," he says with a smile. "Stopped for five or ten minutes for fuel and drove here, three-and-a-half hours one way."
That may have been fast when the Bravo was king, but today competitors in the annual Iqaluit-to-Kimmirut snowmobile race, held during the Nunavut capital’s annual Toonik Tyme spring festival, can make the 240-kilometre round-trip in under three hours, at speeds that turn the trail into nothing but a blur.
Akavak could probably drive the trail with his eyes closed, but he enjoys the surprises he notices along the trail. "Every time I go [through] there, I see different things."
During the summer, the Itijjagiaq Trail can be broken up into three unmistakable sections. The first is Frobisher Bay to Cabin 3, primarily defined by narrow valleys and a significant increase in elevation. The second is from Cabin 3 to Round Lake, just north of Mount Joy. This plateau section, with the highest elevation of the trail, has been abraded by repeated glaciations, resulting in a landscape where glacial scars and large boulders litter the exposed rock. Here, creeks and basins feed into the Kuujjuaq Valley. The third landscape is arguably the most impressive because it is like stepping into a lost world. The Kuujuuaq Valley’s unique microclimate nurtures lush vegetation, including willow "trees" that can grow to a height of 12 feet--virtually unheard of on Baffin Island.
The transition from the plateau to the valley is one of the most awe-inspiring vistas of the trip
When we made it to Cabin 5, it felt strange to end the hiking day early, but it gave us some time to relax, chat, and play a few games
Now, it was hard not to stop for photos and I fell behind the group. I didn’t expect to see any wildlife with the group making noise ahead of me, but I was pleasantly shocked to catch some movement out of the corner of my eye—three tuktu (caribou) prancing through patches of tall grass and across exposed rock, no more than a couple of hundred feet from me.
Just seeing caribou on this trip felt special. The Kuujjuaq Valley has long been a vital inland hunting area for Inuit, rich with ptarmigan, geese, and, most importantly, caribou. Akavak says there were plenty of caribou prior to 1990, but by the early 2000s that would change. Groups of ten or so caribou had now dwindled to groups of just two or three. A 2018 report by the Nunavut government estimates the caribou population on Baffin Island has declined by 95 percent from its 1991 high.
While the novelty of waist-high plants in Nunavut never wore off, hiking through them quickly became a burden, particularly when they masked a hole or depression someone would unwittingly fall face-first into. I started to envy some friends who, years before, chose to fly into the airstrip at Mount Joy and raft their way down the Kuujjuaq. They didn’t have to ever hike into low-hanging clouds or precariously slide down slick vegetation—particularly at a portion of the trail called sujuqiituq (appropriately “where you can’t walk” in Inuktitut).
An ATV trail eventually appeared not far from Cabin 8 and it was a welcome sight, giving our soaked, blistered, and aching group a much-needed mental pick-me-up.
Still, the following day, we encountered a swollen creek too deep to cross given the recent rains. While the detour around a nearby lake only added a kilometre or so, the cumulative effect of water-related course changes over the trip had taken its toll. We reached Cabin 9, the final shelter on the trail, in a frustrated state—silent or snappy with each other.
But when we awoke the next morning, whatever angst we had the day before was gone. This was the last day of our hike, and the sun appeared for the first time in days. Everything seemed to be oversaturated with colour. Kuujjuaq Falls, just downstream of Cabin 9, was a stunning azure.
Nearing Kimmirut, the landscape changes to rolling, mostly vegetation-free grey rock. The trail is a rollercoaster of ups and downs. Looking at my InReach device and realizing how close we were to the community, I wondered why we couldn't see it.
First revealing itself from a peak across Glasgow Bay, Kimmirut (or “heel” in Inuktitut, after a large rock formation opposite the town) is built into the side of a slope. Buildings begin near the waterline and wind their way up to the top of the hill, where Twin Otters land at the airport’s short, angled runway that sits directly above the hamlet.
Situated on Hudson Strait, the Kimmirut area was inhabited by the Dorset, the Thule, and then the Inuit. Catering to the area's hunters, trappers, and whalers, the Hudson’s Bay Company opened its first trading post on Baffin Island there in 1911. By 1927, the RCMP had established a permanent presence.
Although painted white rocks still read ‘HBC Lake Harbour’ on a hill overlooking the hamlet of 425 residents,
Thus, in 1993, Katannilik Territorial Park was born, and 23 years later, the Itijjagiaq Trail became a part of the Trans Canada Trail. "Our park helped put Kimmirut on the map," says Tommy.
The trail is deeply meaningful for both Tommy and Moosa, and it's an experience they hope others will also enjoy. "The trail is for anybody," says Moosa. His only request? "Keep it clean and use it properly."
Our stay in lovely Kimmirut was short but sweet. We spent our 20 or so hours walking in and around town, and my companions threw a surprise birthday celebration for me, which included an instant-dessert cake they had carried with them the last eight days.
On the 25-minute Twin Otter flight back to Iqaluit, I gazed out at the trail below and couldn’t help but feel grateful for the experience, for seeing a land that only reveals itself for a few short months every year, for gaining a more profound understanding of what exists beyond the mountains I see every day from my living room window in Iqaluit.
But more than that, I couldn't wait to experience the entire trail again—from the back of a snowmobile
By Dustin Patar