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Beginner's Guide To Paddling

Beginner's Guide To Paddling

It's not all raging rapids and remote rivers up here
By Up Here
Apr 12
From the April 2016 Issue

The Flat-Water Cruise: Snafu and Tarfu Lakes

There’s a conundrum for flat-water paddlers in the Yukon: Whitewater and moving water can be intimidating, but many of our lakes—Laberge, Dezadeash, Bennett, Tutshi and others—are big and windy, with swells the height of a grown man on a bad day. The friendly, truly flat lake can be a rarity. Head to Snafu and Tarfu, on the road to Atlin, for a safe, comfortable option. Both lakes feature government campsites right on the water, and plenty of shoreline and islands to explore. Snafu is one in the beginning of a chain, separated by short portages, and there are possibilities for backcountry camping within that series. Snafu and Tarfu are both extremely popular with locals: Arrive early or plan ahead if you want to camp at either on a summer weekend, be respectful of a heavily used area, and if you plan to fish, check up on the latest regulations and intel, since there are some concerns about the fish stocks here. Time: Half a day to several days. – EH

Hidden Lake

You can drive about 45 minutes from Yellowknife, then paddle and portage for another hour, and find yourself right smack in the wilderness. Hidden Lake is a territorial park with plenty of natural campsites (and already-built firepits).

The lake itself opens up and there are wind channels to contend with, but the way there is easy and there are plenty of spots to stop and camp without going too far. Time: One to three days. – TE 

The Learner’s Whitewater River: The Takhini

“In a lot of ways the Takhini is the ultimate teaching river,” says Kalin Pallett, a veteran paddler and the general manager of Whitehorse-based outfitter Up North Adventures. Just north of Whitehorse, reachable via a side road off the Alaska Highway, the Takhini runs clear and cold to its eventual meeting with the Yukon River. The usual put-in is at a Yukon government campground where the water is flat and easygoing; from there, it builds to riffles and a few standing waves in the Rock Garden before culminating in the so-called Jaws of Death, a short Class II rapid with an accompanying scouting and portage trail. Learners can use the trail to carry their boats back around and brave the Jaws as many times as they’d like before paddling the final, placid stretch of river to the take-out. Various outfitters offer paddling courses on the Takhini. Time: Half a day to a full day. – EH

Cameron River

This river, just off the Ingraham Trail outside Yellowknife, has a decent mix of novice whitewater that you can paddle over and over again and waterfalls/ramparts that must be avoided at all costs. Make sure to get a map (available online at nwtparks.ca) and ask locals so you know which are runnable. (Cameron Falls is not.) Get dropped off with your canoe or kayak at Reid Lake and paddle all the way back to Yellowknife by taking the river to Prelude Lake, travelling to River Lake then Prosperous Lake, then past the Tartan Rapids to Yellowknife River, to Great Slave Lake’s Back Bay. (This will take a few days at an easy pace.) If you just want to do the Cameron River, you can have fun on it all day and get picked up at the Powder Point boat launch on Prelude Lake. Time: One to five days. – TE 

The First-Timer’s Expedition: The Yukon River

The Yukon River. Photo by Peter Mather

The Yukon River isn’t just iconic: It also makes an excellent introduction to multi-day canoe-tripping in the North. The classic stretch is from Whitehorse to Dawson City, which can take recreational paddlers anywhere from one to two weeks, depending on the pace they want to set. (Racers in the annual Yukon River Quest complete this section of river in an around-the-clock rush of roughly 40 to 70 hours.) Put in at downtown Whitehorse, and emerge in the heart of Dawson City—or, if you’re shorter on time, you can start or end your trip in Carmacks, the approximate halfway point, instead.

Navigational and technical challenges include the vast and unpredictable Lake Laberge, which can see big swells on windy days; Five Finger Rapids, just north of Carmacks—a brief stretch of choppy whitewater through a rocky bottleneck; and a braided, confusing section of water where the White River pours into the Yukon, not too far from Dawson. Unlike most northern rivers, several sections of the Yukon are accessible by road—it’s much less isolated, although paddlers should still be prepared to be alone in the backcountry. Several outfitters offer guided trips down the Yukon. Time: One to two weeks. – EH

The Mackenzie River

North America’s second-longest river doesn’t have much going for it that would appeal to your average paddling pro: there’s no dramatic whitewater, the scenery can be monotonous, and the camping’s not always ideal. But if you’re willing to put in the time, the Deh Cho’s 1,700 kilometres offers adventure at an easy pace. Communities dot the river along the way, so it’s unlikely you’ll go a day without seeing other boaters or cabins, and popping into towns to meet people and learn about the Dene cultures along the way is well worth the time.

There’s multiple start-off points, but most begin in Hay River on the south shore of Great Slave Lake. There are only two sets of “rapids”: the Sans Sault and The Ramparts, but they can be mostly avoided and require no whitewater skills to surpass. Many people choose to end at Inuvik, or you can paddle through the maze of slow-moving delta and along the ocean shore to Tuktoyaktuk if reaching the Arctic Ocean is a goal. Time: At least five weeks. – DC

The Mackenzie River Delta. Photo by Fritz Mueller

Soper River

This is a real Arctic trip. Situated on southern Baffin Island, the Soper River takes you through a valley in the rolling tundra where warmer weather is causing shrubbery to grow conspicuously into its own kind of forest. You can fish for Arctic char and the only whitewater you’ll encounter are Class I rapids, with the occasional Class II. Given the bears and logistical challenges of flying to the river and then getting a ride from the river to Kimmirut—as well as the chance of encountering polar bears—you might want to look for guiding services. Time: Six days. – TE