Arctic Red River

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesMackenzie
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Garry Davies
Trip Date : 
Fri, Jul 15, 2011
Additional Route Information
341 km
19 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
0 m
Longest Portage: 
1200 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Not applicable
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

-Flight Mayo, YT to "Otter Lakes"
-Portage "Otter Lakes' to Arctic Red River
-Paddle down Arctic Red River to Tsiigehtchic
-Either have a car at Tsiighychic, or paddle to Inuvik by the East Channel of the Mackenzie River to a stored car, or try to hitchhike back south to Mayo to car

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Arctic Red River Trip Report (15 July until 2 August 2011)

Total Distanced Traveled- 341 km/212 miles
Prior to our 15 July flight into the Arctic Red River, we drove a car to Inuvik and left it at the Inuvik Airport. Then we flew back to Dawson, picked up our second car and drove it to Mayo.
15 July 2011- Black Sheep Aviation flew us from Mayo, Yukon Territory into ‘Otter Lakes’ (local name for lakes located at 65 03’N / 131 20’W) on the east side of the Arctic Red River. We chose ‘Otter Lakes’ because it would give us easy access to the river without a long series of portages and small shallow headwater streams. This reduced the distance of walking and sliding the canoe over shallow water. But by doing so we also missed some of the spectacular mountain scenery in the Misfortune Lake region. Our flight in was compromised by low clouds and scattered rain, so that we did not get to see Misfortune Lake, but did see the beginning of the Arctic Red River. It was a very small stream for a great distance, then as side streams added their runoff it widened into a substantial stream carrying a load of silt and became braided but shallow for much of its upper length.
Figure 1. Arctic Red River below Misfortune Lake

The volume of water upstream of “Otter Lakes” was probably greater than average due to two weeks of rain feeding the tributaries. The Cessna 185 with floats landed on the lake easily and dropped us off on the south side of the largest of the ‘Otter Lakes’.

Figure 2. “Otter Lakes”

It began to mist so we set up our camp just a short distance from the lake and settled in for the night. We were welcomed by grasshoppers and delicious blueberries.
16 July- Morning, we scouted the route from the lake to the river. The river bank was about 1 km in distance, SW from our camp. To reduce the chance of wandering all over the swampy region between the two points we flagged our route with pink tagging. Then between frequent rain squalls we started to move our gear to a halfway point. Late evening we finally moved our tent.
17 July –Rained all day, so we did not move any gear. As our tent was pitched on a small island of lichens we evaded the saturated surrounded swamp and the tent floor was not flooded. In the evening the sun came out (29°C/84°F).
18 July –We moved part of the gear to the river in the rare intervals between rain showers. The humidity was so great we sweated with streams of salty water running down our faces. We left the rest of the move until the next day.
19 July –Awoke at 7:30 am, hoping to miss the threatening rain, and moved all of the gear to the riverside and loaded the canoe. First Becky and then I slipped down the mud slickened bank and into the water, not planned, but it broke the pent-up tension of canoeing a river we had very little information on. We both ended up laughing. Finally we were floating the river, which was flooded and carrying so much mud it looked as if you could walk across it. We pulled in at a clear water tributary river on river right to dry out clothing and a wet tent, fix breakfast and collect water on a beautiful sun drenched rock beach. Blue butterflies congregated on our wet clothing and added to the color of the day. After a couple of hours we set off again to paddle down to Orthogonal Creek where we wanted to camp and hike for a few days. High fast water and more high water pouring in from the creeks on both sides of the river made that impossible. No eddies to pull into. Fast water, long wave trains, high waves flooded out the eddies and we had to put every ounce of energy into keeping the boat straight with the current. In addition a stiff wind tried to blow us sideways and turn us around. Many times Becky in the bow of the canoe was up in the air on the waves and water poured over the canoe cover making the canoe look like a torpedo. We used a lot of back paddling to reduce our speed and maintain control. We were sluiced down several miles until we found an eddy to stop at and evaluate our situation. The water had jumped the banks along this part of the river and was pouring through the trees on the west bank. Very fast. Using binoculars we were able to put together a course though tree stumps hung-up on gravel bars that appeared to be the safest way to get out of the predicament of water pouring into the trees and possibly pulling us with it. We lined the canoe back up stream in order to enter a channel that would enable us to follow our planned route. We made it around the tree stumps and down to a very small island where, because it was late and we had not eaten since noon, we stopped for the night. The island had recently been overrun by water. Put the tent up on a small dry sandy area, cooked and turned in for the night hoping that the water did not rise to cover the island again(65°11’N/131°12’W).
20 July –Woke up to a nice surprise, the river had gone down about 8 vertical inches, reducing the volume of water. Because of the braiding of the river we had to make numerous turns to keep with the highest water level. Sometimes we hit bottom and had to jump out of the canoe to stop it and reduce damage as we were pulled across the rocks. Several high wave trains contained enough energy in the waves to force water under our tight spray cover. This happened many times as we headed down river towards the meeting with the Cranswick River. To do this consistently we changed into our NSR work boots, because the water was moving so fast that it would wash into our Muck boots if we had to rapidly get out of the canoe. That night we ended up in a nice level campsite, under blue skies, about 3 miles south (upstream) of Sven Lake. Helicopters and fixed wind aircraft moved in and out of the Sven Lake outfitters camp numerous times as we established our night camp and cooked our meal. It was a beautiful evening (65°22’N/131°11’W).
21 July –Over night the water level again dropped exposing more shallow rock reefs. The next day under blue skies we passed the Sven Lake landing strip unable to stop because of the fast water and lack of eddies. We passed under cliffs and through miniature canyons and numerous rapids with wave trains, mostly class 1 and 2. Each time we stopped we searched for clean water for drinking. We found it in pools left behind by the high water where the silt had settled out or on the downstream sides of gravel banks where water percolated through the gravel removed the silt like a sieve. We maneuvered at the river bends, cutting through the high wave trains to the inside eddies of the bends to miss being pushed into the canyon walls. We knew we were approaching the series of ledges marked on the map, but we were still were caught by surprise on the first of the ledges and almost got caught in the fast water and pulled into the ledge rapids.
Figure 3. First ledge rapids below Sven Lake

Fortunately we able to turn and complete a front ferry to river right behind a series of gravel bars which reduced the river current. On river left all of the eddies were washed out with heavy, fast water. We were lucky to land on a small bit of land at a small creek mouth under a 30 foot cliff. Now we had to move the canoe back up stream against the current and in water up to our waists, we pulled and shoved for a couple of hours until we reached shallow water and then found a campsite for the night. We were scratched and bruised from the logs caught by the overhanging tree roots and limbs along our route. But we were happy to not have been pulled into the maelstrom that was our first real ledge rapid that made so much noise you could hear nothing else around you. That night after chow I was looking for a route across to river left and saw movement in the cottonwoods, by size it looked like caribou moving slowly through the trees. With binoculars, we saw that it was a wolf pack of between 5 and 7 animals, three which jumped into the river and began swimming towards us. Once they saw us they turned around and swam back to the other bank and disappeared in the trees. They were beautiful animals with grey coats and full healthy bodies. It was a treat to end an eventful day with such a sight (65°37’N/131°02’W).
22 July –Beautiful day and again the river level had dropped about 5 vertical inches. On river left a large eddy had opened up on an indentation of the 10 foot high bank. After breakfast and packing up our camp we lined our canoe up stream as far as possible and commenced a front ferry across the river aiming for the left bank indentation. Luckily we ended up at the beginning of the eddy formed by the indentation and allowed our canoe to float downstream to an adequate spot to safely disembark. We scouted the bank down to the ledge rapid to find another eddy to canoe down to and land our canoe. We found a small eddy and marked it with a rock cairn and went back and paddled the canoe down to the eddy and unloaded it for a portage, about 1.5 km around the rapids. Nice flat walk to our chosen campsite at the end of the wave train. Very few or no bugs and that night we took bucket shower on the large flat rocks beside the river. Warm, no bugs and relatively clean water, beautiful scenery and not in a hurry, what a luxury in the north (65°37’N/131°03’W).
23 July – Beautiful day and warm and the river level dropped again. We lined the second rapids on river right which came at the end of the wave train from the first ledge. Really was no need to do so, because of a perfectly good sneak route on river right, but we wanted to look at the rocks and search for drinking water. We found it on the other side of the right bank, again from seepage through the gravel peninsular. Ahead we recognized a clear cliff on river right (65°39’N/131°08’W) that might be the second set of rapids we were told about by Allan Derbyshire. So we approached the corner slowly. No need to, because you could hear the water. We lined the first ledge forming the second set of rapids on river right under the close watch of a red tailed hawk.

Figure 4. First ledge of second set of rapids.

Figure 5. Bivalve fossil

As we surveyed the ledge we came upon fossils of bivalves in the rocks that made up the ledge. The fossils were huge; they were at least 18-24 inches in length. We started to paddle again and heard heavy water right around the next corner, but not knowing which would be the better side to dock at the approaching ledge we stayed on river right. It was a good choice since there was an easy eddy landing in a small sandy alcove and the ability to line the boat several yards closer to the rapids. River left was uneven terrain with brush.

Figure 6. Last major ledge of the second set of rapids.

We unloaded and portage across the flat rocks of the ledge on river right beyond the ledge and set up camp for the night. Nicely there were little or no bugs and a beautiful evening to sit on the rocks and drink our coffee and take in the scenery. All portages should be short like this and all evenings as pleasant (65°39’N/131°07’W).
24 July –Beautiful day and warm and the water level dropped again. Set off just below the last ledge rapids and immediately into fast water around a bend. The river bends provided some guessing of where the majority of the water was going and thus left us open to shallow water and blunt force trauma on the canoe bottom from the rocks in the shallows. We traveled through deep verdant canyons as we approached the area of the river where it sweeps west from its generally northerly direction.

Figure 7. Canyons approaching the ‘big bend”

Campsites were hard to find, and never good ones when you desire to stop, so we spent time making something out of the mud. We did find an upland site on dried mud, besides a cliff. Nice warm evening with little or no bugs. We have only set up our bug tent twice on this trip (65°52’N/131°13’W).
25 July –Rest day, overcast and threatening rain. In our wanderings along the right shore we did find a good source of water flowing through a gravel bar (65°52’N/131°13’W)
26 July - Overcast day, a little cold. Then at the point where the river dips into a small south trending u-bend the river became a braided river with many uprooted large cottonwood and spruce trees on rock reefs effectively blocking the river channels. It took a few scary minutes to navigate through the trees without getting caught and overturned. Slower than water skills (back paddling) came in handy. The river corners still had shallow water and thus more wear and tear on the canoe bottom. We saw our first black bear of the trip foraging amongst the Alaska rhubarb on steep banks. In this section of the river the cliffs are some 300 feet above the river. Started to see Canadian geese on the gravel islands and more falcons on the rock outcroppings and hearing sandhill cranes in the background. Campsites still hard to locate so again pulled over to an upland dry mud site across the river from a cliff (65°58’N/131°45’W).

Figure 8. “Smoking Hills”

27 July –Beautiful day with warm weather. Came upon our first “smoking hills” similar to those found at the end of the Horton River. The cliffs slough off exposing underlying minerals to oxygen allowing for spontaneous combustion until the minerals are converted.
One could not get too close since the ground began to give way as we walked across it. The reds, yellows and oranges were stark against the deep blue sky. Several areas were active with plumes of smoke erupting from the ground. Saw a toad and Canada geese young and adults along the river bank, in all cases they were walking and swimming north in large numbers. Muddy banks made campsites scarce. Passed the mouth of the Cranswick River, which was as silty as the Arctic Red River and found a campsite about 3 miles north (downstream) of the confluence on a dry mud bank set back from the river. We had to cut tree limbs to make it useable (66°07’N/132°14’W).
28 July –Low clouds in the morning but cleared by noon, then hot by 6:00 pm. More areas on river right of altered rocks. There were many areas of “flying saucer” concretions in cliff layers. No clean water in side streams and campsites were hard to find. Geese tracks and droppings became common along the shore. Found a high dry bank on a muddy river bank at a wide corner with confusion of braided channels (66°17’N/132°42’W).
29 July –Beautiful sunny day with warm weather. No more colored hills and the canyon sides were lower than past days. We canoed into the mouth of the Sainville River (Bernard Creek) looking for possible drinking water, but the water was bright red tea color. We were also looking for a camp area, but none to be found. North of Sainville River the banks were too steep and scarified by river ice, and many other possible sites were mud flats. But we saw a large raft of Scoters beyond Sainville and each time we stopped looking for a place to set a tent, we observed the tracks of bear, and wolverine and more beaver activity along the banks. We paddled another 10 miles before finding an adequate site to put up a tent; the bank was a little slanted and trees hung precariously over the beach. But we were tuckered out after 30 miles on the water (66°37’N/133°07’W).
30 July- Rained and thundered during the night. Slept in, we were tired from yesterday’s long paddle. On the river by noon, with large storm cells visible but none came close to us. At Martin House site (66°47’N/133°06W) we came upon the first real signs of human habitation since leaving Sven Lake, a winter use cabin on river right. Campsite few so established night camp at 6:00pm about two miles below Martin House site on a very muddy island. It was hot in the evening in the tent with sweat just dripping off us. Garry slept until 7:30 pm and we got up and cooked the evening meal in the mud next to the canoe (66°49’N/133°03’W).
31 July- On the water by 8:30 am. Saw a black bear about one mile down the river and on the same side of the river as our morning camp. He ran up the cliff side huffing and looking over his shoulder at us. Saw another black bear at lunch. He was across the river and swam to our side just downstream of where we were sitting. Then he moved up the cliff and into the trees. Our lunch site was on a shore comprised of grey-white very gooey clay that stuck to boots and paddles. We were getting dirtier as the days passed by, but have only dirty water to wash with. We were rationing our clear water for consumption only. In the afternoon we watched many young geese walking on the shoreline in groups down river. Similar to what we had seen on our Back River trip in 2007. Also saw our first bald eagle. Stopped at 5:00pm because of threatening storm cells. Camping sites were non-existent, so we somewhat leveled an incline and set up the tent and pulled the canoe out of the water and secured the canoe to trees. Thunder and rain started as we dived into the tent for the night. Heard sandhill cranes nearby. Rained on and off the entire night (67°05’N/134°25’W).
1 August- Rest day. We awoke to rain and mud being splattered upon the sides of the tent so decided to take a rest and read. On the other side of the river in hidden lakes, loons, sandhill cranes and seagulls serenaded us through the rain and beaver splashed their tails as they came close to our camp (67°05’N/134°25’W).
2 August- On the water by 6:35 with fog so thick that sometimes you could see only a few feet of water in front of you. Later in the morning the sun burnt the fog off and we stopped for breakfast on a rock strewn beach. The rocks were of a variety of shapes composed of high amounts of iron, thus were all brown in color. Broken rocks exposed crystalline interiors. The day turned into a beautiful, blue, warm day. Islands abound as we weaved our way downstream. We made our second 30 mile day of the trip. Arrived at Tsiigehtchic at about 4 pm and immediately went up to have coffee at the café that we had stopped at in 1995 while kayaking the Mackenzie River, but alas the cafe had been closed for several years so we settled for fudge bars and cold drinks from the store. Thus ended an exciting trip down the Arctic Red River (67°26’N/134°45’W). We had intended to canoe into Inuvik by way of the East Channel, but since we had traveled this route in 1995 we decided to camp overnight at Tsiigehtchic and hitchhike into Inuvik to pick up our car so we could drive back to Mayo to retrieve our second car.

Summary Points:
1. Due to heavy rains the previous two weeks the Arctic Red River was swollen, very silty and flowing very fast with limited eddies and muddy banks.
2. The river above Cranswick River required maneuvering through wave trains, braided channels with shallow rock reefs and numerous down trees and log jams.
3. Four or five major rock ledges between Sven Lake and Cranswick River producing falls or rapids (only two are marked on topo map).
4. Gather drinking water and store as none is readily available after the big bend in the river where it turns to the west. We asked Elders at Tsiigehtchic whether the Arctic Red River clears up towards fall and they said yes, but noted that the river was very high this year.
5. We met no one else on the river and were most likely the first ones on the river this year (2011). The Elders at Tsiigehtchic said that few canoeists come down the river.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
\&quot;Otter Lakes\&quot; to Tsiigehtchic 106G 106J 106K 106N<br />