Coppermine River - Lac de Gras to Kugluktuk

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675 km
25 days
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0 m
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Strenuous portages, difficult lining, and long stretches of technical rapids.

Technical Guide: 

Start at Lac de Gras
West through Lac de Gras
Northwest on Coppermine River
The 100 km section between Lac de Gras has approximately 10 rapids that drop in total about 140 ft. (43 m). The topography is generally flat lake travel with dramatic drops between the lake sections. Most of these drops cannot be run or lined – they must be portaged.
Northwest through Providence Lake
Obstruction Rapids
Northwest through Point Lake
North on Coppermine River
Many sections of whitewater
North through Rocknest Lake
North on Coppermine River
Many sections of whitewater.
Rocky Defile (portage on right)
Large number of runnable rapids
Muskox Rapids
Sandstone Rapids
Section of continuous whitewater in a steep-walled canyon
Escape Rapids (in canyon – very difficult)
Bloody Falls (must be portaged on left)
Finish at Kugluktuk, on Coronation Gulf

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Coppermine River 1993
By: Peter Verbeek

This article originally appeared in Vol. 21 No. 1 (Spring 1994) of "Nastawgan - Quarterly Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association"

Reprinted with the kind permission of the Board of Directors of the Wilderness Canoe Association

In the summer of 1993, I and three companions canoed the Coppermine River in the Northwest Territories and I want to pass on the information I have gained to other people who want to organize their own self-guided trip. I will be using the military grid reference system to indicate locations, eg: Obstruction Rapids is located at VH375025.

The water level in the Coppermine system was very high last year. Max Ward (of Wardair fame), when we met him, said he had never seen the water as high. The last of the ice had gone from Point Lake only a few days before we started. Water temperature on Lake Providence and Point Lake was 6 degrees C. ON the river it was about 10 degrees C.

Until the last two days, there was always enough wood to cook on a wood fire. One of our group brought along a bug tent, which was also water resistant to a large extent. We used that to cook when it was raining, to eat our meals away from the bugs, and for our daily conferences during which we told stories of previous trips, discussed what happened that day, and what might be in store for us the next couple of days.

I drove from Yellowknife carrying “SP,” my solo canoe. The 4900 km from Toronto took me five days, the last one in the rain over a mud road. It was awful!

At the 60th parallel, the Welcoming Centre staff were very pleasant and shoed various videos on request. Their small campground is very close to the Hay River and was thick with mosquitoes. However, when dusk finally came there were some bats trying to reduce the number of flying pests. It was fascinating to see them swooping through the air. Another interesting sight was the ferry that carried me across the Mackenzie River. Several swallows had made their nests on the ferry and were going back and forth with it. I wondered how they would recognize their own next.

Ralph Zaffran arrived after a couple of days with his Mad River Courier solo canoe. We met at the Fred Henne campground opposite the airport in Yellowknife. This place is quite nice. It has 90 sites, two enclosed kitchen shelters, a shower building with hot showers and flush toilets, a swimming beach, and a four km hiking trail that shows many of the geological features of the area.

For Doug Niles and Joop Steinfort we had rented a 17 ft. Old Town Tripper from Bathurst Arctic Services in Yellowknife, who also arranged our flight via Air Tindi to Providence Lake. Ralph`s Courier fit perfectly inside the Old Town Tripper.

When Doug and Joop arrived by plane, one of Doug`s packs was missing. After some frantic phoning, it was located in Edmonton. The airline brought it on the next plane, later in the evening. We could not have started without it.

On July 17 we flew in to Providence Lake. As the plane descended, we had an excellent view of the last rapid of the river before the lake (VG549680). It was a mass of white and would certainly required a portage. On providence Lake we saw two camps of the Geological Survey, which is quite active in the area, apparently in connection with the prospecting for diamonds that is going on there. Several times we saw helicopters flying back and forth. One camp was at VG490845, the other at VO390960, both locations prime camping spots.

There is a rapid before Obstruction Rapid (VG355987) which is hard to scout because of all the willows along the shore. It is possible to run this rapid if you don`t mind hitting some of the many rocks in it. The alternative is a portage of about 500 m on the right along Caribou trails. I ran most of Obstruction Rapid partially loaded but took in a lot of water while doing so. The waves were huge.

Ralph lined his canoe most of the way but at the end, where the biggest waves were, the canoe got away. Fortunately, Doug and Joop were able to retrieve it without any loss of gear. The portage around this rapid is 1.5 km long on caribou trails and polished rocks which are extremely slippery when wet. If you want to see this rapid because John Franklin had some of his problems there, it is a lot easier to fly in to the bay below it and take a walk upstream.

The previous winter, I had written to Jim Peterson who has a fishing camp on Point Lake and asked him to indicate on an enclosed map where his camp was. In due course he sent the marked map back. When we were near the spot we looked for the camp but there was no sign of it. It was in a different location (UH630495), about 10 km away, high up on an esker. Why he indicated it wrong on the maps I don`t know. Due to wind speed and direction, we were unable to go to it.

The water levels in Point Lake and Redrock Lake are essentially the same, so the short stretch between the two lakes is nothing by fast, deep water. The same goes for the river between Redrock Lake and Rocknest Lake, except the water is a bit more turbulent. It was on Redrock Lake that we saw the beautiful place that Max Ward has built on a point (PC260660). It is past Rocknest Lake that the river really starts. At this point the river has a current which varies from 2 km/hr to 4 km/hr, depending on the width and depth of the river.

The first rapid (PC320880) was difficult to scout due to the high water levels that had flooded the shores. You sneak to the left of the rock bar on the right, keeping out of the large standing waves on the left and move into the eddy behind the rock bar. Then further down, you ferry over to the left to avoid a large souse hole on the right. There is a portage trail on the right of about 500 m.

The next rapid (PC277895) could be run on the right almost to the end where there was a short (100 m) carry over a rock ledge on the right. About 2.5 km further on, a long rapid starts which can be run with care. Just beyond it an esker with good campsites comes from the right.

There is fast water after this for some distance. At PD190140 another rapid starts with shallows on the left. The best channel is along the right shore.

At PD180260 a very long and wide rapid starts which seems endless. The left is shallower than the right but there are rocks everywhere. It is best to stay in the middle. Near the end at PD 195280 there is a large boulder bar coming out from the right shore. There is a good chute to the left of the boulder bar, but it is hard to see from upstream.

The next rapid (PD220327) has a boulder bar on the right at the bottom. We kept to the middle and had no problems. The next rapid starts at PD 240370 and continues for several kilometres until past the point where the Fairy Lake River joins. There are rocks everywhere and we kept mostly to the left. However, at lower water levels the right side of the river may be better.

there are a couple of dilapidated cabins at ND812987. People use the walls of one of the cabins to leave their mark. You can see if the HACC group really came that way in 1992 (they did). If you look closely, you`ll see our names too.

Past the Big Bend, the river current is rarely less than 4 km/hr. Before you know it, you reach Rocky Defile (NE345530). Just prior to Rocky Defile, we met a group from White Wolf, who were rafting down. The guests were all senior citizens, but you should have seen them clamber up and down the hills. They were camped on the fan of a tributary that entered the river at that point, and had seen a herd of muskox that day, not far away.

We portaged some packs and scouted the river on the way back, observing the cairn in memory of two canoeists who died in these waters. Just below the cairn there was a nest with hawks and their young who showed little fear. The upper part of the rapid had big waves, 1.2 to 1.5 m high, and due to the high water levels, the last part had enormous boils on the right which tended to drive you into the huge waves on the left. Ralph and I decided to run the upper part, but to portage over a good 50 m trail along an old river channel for the last part. It was a wild ride! The main portage is on the right and is supposed to be 600 m long, but it sure seemed more than that. It was not bad and except for the steep hill at the start, had good footing.

Before Rocky Defile and also at the end of the portage there are good places to pitch a tent, and the surrounding area is great for hiking.

From this point we started seeing caribou that had begun their southward migration. We camped at the mouth of the Copper Creek (NE510570) high up on the bank where we found a very nice and flat place amongst the trees. From that hidden vantage point, we saw several groups of caribou crossing the river. That night, the temperature went down to 0 degrees C, the lowest of the trip.

From this point, there were numerous rapids which could be run, usually on th inside of the curve. This required frequent ferrying from one side to another. The next rapid was Muskox Rapid (NE550742), consisting of two narrowings. At the first one, you should land on the left side and scout on the other side of the point. You may find that you can pass the first constriction to an eddy on the left, just before the second narrowing with big waves. There you can do a short 100 m portage. Past Muskox Rapid, keep to the left of the big island.

A little further, you can see the layers of red sandstone appearing in the cliffs on both sides, announcing the approach of Sandstone Rapids. The gate to Sandstone Rapids (NE570810) is sometimes called Gibraltar Rapids because of a rock in the river that looks a lot like the rock of Gibraltar. Just before the narrows, there is an island. If the water levels are high, go to the left of the island. Otherwise, keep to the right. You have to watch the currents here. We kept Gibraltar Rock to our right.

Just past Gibraltar Rock, the map shows an island, but that island is now firmly connected to the left shore. Keep to the left shore here and just before Sandstone Canyon go into a big eddy on the left (NE580825). There is a portage on the left of about 800 m and a portage on the right of about 2.5 km. After portaging a few packs, we scouted and then ran, starting in the middle and moving quickly to the right, before ferrying over to the left. From here to Escape Rapids there are numerous rapids that can be run with some scouting, generally keeping to the inside of a river bend. The river here has a fast current.

Escape Rapids (NF645007) must be scouted. There are big waves on the left, which run into big curlers and souse holes on the right. We identified two possible routes through the rapids. If you can get to the left shore, there is a narrow, clear channel next to the left cliff which leads to a V with four or five very large waves. Past those waves on the left, the water is comparatively calm right to the end. In the second route you keep the big waves at the start on your left and go to an eddy on the right. Then you have to do a powerful ferry in a short distance to get to the left side in order to avoid all the messy stuff on the right. If you don`t like the odds, the portage is on the right and is about 2.5 km long.

The map shows the portage at Bloody Falls (NF687142) on the right. Don`t believe it. It`s on the left and about 1.2 km long. There are several places here where you can pitch your tent.

Below Bloody Falls, the current various depending on the tides. At low tide, there is some current. At high tide there is little, if any. There are many sandbanks in this part. You begin seeing cottages along the shore. Then in the distance you can see oil storage tanks and the intake of the water supply. When you paddle around the headland, you see numerous motor boats pulled up on shore.

Carry on until you see a swimming beach. No kidding, a swimming beach! If you land there, you are within 100 m of the RCMP office and the First Air cargo office. There is a lodge there too, but usually it is fully booked up. The lodge does have a pay phone, in case you want to let someone know that you have arrived. If you ask about a campground, some people will refer you to a spot some distance out of “town.” It has the brackish water of the bay at the front and a stagnant pond behind. I put up my tent at the swimming beach and nobody objected, although around midnight a bunch of teenagers came to swim, among other things.

There are two stores, the Northland which opened at 1:00 pm, and the COOP which opened earlier. Of the snack bar that has been reported in a 1986 Nastawgan article, there was no sign. Return of canoes always depends on whether the airline has space available. I had received information that on Thursdays an extra plane arrives that is mostly reserved for cargo. And indeed, so it happened. On Thursday 5 August we were able to get all three canoes nested together and on the plane. In the whole plane there were only 10 seats available, the rest was cargo space. Ralph and I were the only passengers and our equipment, plus two other canoes was the only cargo. Doug and Joop stayed in Coppermine until the next day. That day, a group from Wanapitei had to leave their canoes behind and fly out without them.

Except for the two rainy days at the start, we had only some light rain showers once in a while.
Paddling Nunavut`s Coppermine Riverby Bill LaymanCopyright © 2001, Bill Layman. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Often as Lynda Holland and I are paddling our canoe on one of the many rivers in Nunavut or the Northwest Territories, I wonder what the adage "home is where the heart is" would mean to a true nomad.
To the Copper Inuit, as well as the Athapaskan Slavey, Chipewyan, and Dogrib Indians, whose homes moved with the seasons in their pursuit of the animals they subsisted on, and who still range far and wide throughout the area of the Coppermine River, surely it would have been a meaningless phrase. These people lived as true nomads until only a few decades ago when they were moved into villages with names like Kugluktuk, Wha Ti, Deline and Lutselk`e. Although these people now live in villages, it is clear that their hearts are still on the land. Ask a Dogrib, or a Chipewyan, or a Slavey where the idthen (caribou) are, and an animated conversation is sure to result. The Inuit are no less tied to the land and its resources. When we paddled into Kugluktuk this summer, a young Inuit boy, within mere minutes of meeting Lynda, said to her, "Lynda I wish you could come here in the winter to see the icebergs and the bearded seals and the caribou!" Perhaps the adage these people listen to is "the land is where the heart is."
Lynda and I were drawn to the Coppermine River by the written accounts of early explorers like Samuel Hearne of the Hudson`s Bay Company and Sir John Franklin of the British Navy. Hearne`s famous overland 1771 journey to Bloody Falls with the Chipewyan leader Matonabbee, and Franklin`s somewhat naive and ill-fated 1821 journey down the Coppermine`s length with Hood, Back, Richardson, and Hepburn, guided by the Yellowknife chief Akaitcho, fascinated us, and each story we read lead to another.
Following Franklin`s journey, the preferred route to, and from, Coronation Gulf to the arctic coast became through Dease Arm on Great Bear Lake and then down the Dease River to the lower reaches of the Coppermine; in fact this is the route that Franklin initially had planned to follow. Fort Franklin, or Bear Lake Post as it was known in the early 1800s, located at the extreme western end of Great Bear Lake, and then later Fort Confidence established in 1837 at the head of the Dease River on the extreme eastern end of the lake, became logical way-points for northern travelers.
The area around Great Bear Lake saw an active fur trade and continued exploration by men like Sir John Franklin, Dr. John Richardson, Thomas Simpson, Peter Dease, and John Rae until about the mid 1800s. Not until about 1890 did many more Europeans venture into this area of the north when a new breed of gentlemen adventurers suddenly appeared. With no clear goal in mind, other than to explore this remote area and to meet the indigenous residents, these adventurers left some fascinating accounts of their travels and meetings with the Inuit and the Athapaskan Dogrib, Slavey, Yellowknife, and Chipewyan Indians.
Men like the British big game hunter Cosmo Melville, David Hanbury who wandered the Barrens for two years and then disappeared as suddenly as he arrived, the Canadian Douglas brothers who traveled widely through the area, the Belgian Oblate Fathers Rouviére and Leroux who were murdered by the Copper Inuit, all drifted through the stories Lynda and I read. From Frank Russell`s account of his journey in 1894 with the Dogribs to hunt for muskoxen, to John Hornby`s visit among the nomadic Copper Inuit when he met them in 1912 on Coronation Gulf, to the accounts of Vilhjalmur Stefansson who wintered near the area of the Dease River during the winter of 1910, the thread that seemed to hold it all together was a thin blue line of ink on our map – the Coppermine River.
Although the written history of this river is largely about white explorers and adventurers, one thing is certain, none of these Europeans would have completed their trips without the help of the Athapaskan Indians and Inuit whose knowledge of the Barrens was unparalleled. Franklin`s chance meeting with a North West Company Metis interpreter while he was over-wintering in Fort Chipewyan shows the dependence these Europeans had on the knowledge of the indigenous residents. This interpreter, Beaulieu, advised Franklin to speak to the Yellowknife Indians about the Coppermine River as they sometimes traveled its length to the sea. As he sketched a rough map of the river on the floor, an old Chipewyan named Black Meat walked in and recognized the map. He quickly took a piece of charcoal and drew in a route he had used to return from a war excursion his tribe had made against the Inuit. Black Meat then accurately described two other rivers to Franklin – the Back and the Burnside.
No sooner had he finished his story than another old man walked in and commented on the map indicating that he, as well, had traveled widely through the Barrens with his people. This Chipewyan, named The Rabbit`s Head, was none other than Matonabbee`s step-son and had traveled with him when he had guided Hearne`s journey. Although the Yellowknife Indians, or Copper Indians as many Europeans knew them, were defeated by the Dogribs, their vast knowledge of the Barrens is still incorporated in the oral history of the Chipewyans who eventually absorbed them.
And as we watched Tundra Tom`s bright red De Havilland Beaver aircraft fly away from Lac de Gras, my mind was filled with all of these stories, and I wondered what adventures awaited Lynda and I along the 425 mile length of our trip to the arctic coast.
From our research, we had learned that the Coppermine River starts in the barrens at Lac de Gras, then winds its way back into the treeline near Redrock Lake, finally leaving the trees again near Big Bend on its final plunge to the ocean. Our maps showed a river characterized by a steep gradient from Lac De Gras to Point Lake followed by about 100 miles of flat water ending at Rocknest Lake. From here would follow a few days of solid rapids to Fairy Lake River where the river suddenly spills out into a wide flat sandy flood plain. The last stretch from Big Bend to the ocean would be many days of solid rapids through steep walled canyons. With rapids bearing names like Rocky Defile, Escape and Bloody Falls we knew we were in for some serious paddling.
Within half an hour of Tom`s final low farewell pass over us, Lynda and I were out of the canoe scouting the first rapid flowing out of Lac de Gras; a short steep narrow slot about thirty yards wide draining the full force of the ice covered lake we had just left. Lining was impossible since both shores were still covered with winter ice undercut by the raging current. The three and four foot waves and mid-stream rocks convinced us that a 175 yard portage along the right shore was the only choice.
A short 300 yard paddle across a calm bay and we were out of the canoe again scouting from the right shore of the river. Although long, fast and technical, at least this rapid ended in a calm widening of the river; slight consolation if we had to swim with water temperatures hovering just above freezing. We lined past two ledges along river right at the top of this rapid and then carefully back-ferried into the main current where we could get a good entry into the main channel. From here I could see that from mid-stream to the left shore the current was piling up into three foot and bigger waves. The only safe line for our canoe was tight along the inside of the turn that the rapid took to the right. Under normal water levels the right shore would have been a dry boulder field which would have allowed for easy lining as you walked from rock to rock, but now it was flooded and was a treacherous rock strewn rapid. The only line to paddle was the narrow river right channel with the stern of the canoe tight to the edge of the rocks and the bow just cutting through the lip of the large mid-stream waves. We lined up our canoe and then with a few quick strokes we were committed to the rapid. In mere seconds we were sitting in the calm water at the bottom almost unaware of how we had arrived. As we looked back at the rapid we had to crane our necks up wards to see our entry point and we both suddenly realised how much of a drop we had just paddled. By day`s end we had paddled three more mid-big, but easy to run, rapids and lined river left past a long rock strewn ledge filled drop; all this on our first day in a heavily loaded canoe and in less than 5 hours and 12 miles! Our only comfort as we ate a freshly caught lake trout for supper was that at least much of tomorrow would see us on the flat waters of Desteffany Lake and Lake Providence.
The trip report for the Coppermine River in Canoeing Canada`s Northwest Territories: A Paddlers Guide, edited by Mary McCreadie, doesn`t describe this section of the river but rather begins from Point Lake. Suffice it to say that the section of the river from Lac De Gras to Point Lake is all much as described above; long sections of flat lake with narrow violent drops between them. The drop from Lac de Gras to Point Lake is about 140 vertical feet over about 60 miles, but this 140 feet is all through about 10 rapids, many of which are impossible to run. The banks of many of these rapids are often steeply undercut and covered in thick alders so lining is difficult if not impossible.
One unnamed rapid prior to Desteffany Lake (UTM 12-4745E / 7160N) is typical of what you will find. A mid-stream island bisects the top and forms two narrow slots, one on each side. The main channel is on the left but it is a violent steep course filled with holes and rocks and is probably impossible to paddle at any water level. The right channel, which we chose, is thickly lined with willows and alders and the water is waist deep and fast right to the shore. If you find a way to line, curse and fight your way past the willows you are then presented with a series of deep pools separated by boulders strategically placed such that they form slots always two inches narrower than any canoe you own. The main river all the while is about two canoe lengths away to your left, but how to get there? Count on at least an hour or better for this spot and be ready for short tempers and lots of paint left on rocks you know your canoe should never be dragged over. Oh yes, as well, when you attempt this rapid, it will either be pouring rain or if sunny, the black flies that will best be measured in pounds rather than counted! As a consolation for your efforts, gorgeous red fleshed trout are found at the bottom of this and nearly every rapid along the river.
The first rapid from Desteffany Lake to Lake Providence is easy to read from the canoe and we ran it left of center. The next rapid is long and impossible to scout from the top. It appears that the 25 feet of vertical drop shown on the map all occurs through this half mile long rapid and it is a very serious section of whitewater. From the top it would be easy to convince yourself that this rapid could be run down the center as many ledges and holes are hidden from view by the steep gradient. We dropped down along the river right shore and worked our way from eddy to eddy until things just got "too crazy." The next safe spot I could see would best be described as a "micro eddy" that I wasn`t really eager to try to slip a loaded canoe into. From here I lined tight to the shore for about 150 yards and then we easily paddled the last 500 yards river right.
There are two rapids joining Lake Providence and Point Lake and these drop a total of over 35 vertical feet. The first is a violent short rapid which can be run tight to the left shore but the entry to it is critical as the right side is all well over five foot waves that the current really wants to force you into. We were a little off line on our entry and I quickly realised a back ferry to river left was all but useless against the power of the river. I turned the canoe and did an aggressive full front ferry to the river left shore narrowly missing getting sucked into the main river right current. At the bottom, several hundred yards past the end of the rapid, there were still mid-river whirlpools being created by the differential speed between the still water and the main current!
The next rapid is Franklin`s now famous Obstruction Rapids. These are the rapids that he and his men encountered on their overland walk from Bathurst Inlet back to Fort Enterprise during the fall and early winter of 1821. During this ill-fated journey eight of Franklin`s seventeen hired Canadian voyageurs died, largely from overwork and starvation. Due to the almost superhuman efforts of these hired Canadians all of Franklin`s naval men, with the exception of Hood who was murdered by one of the voyageurs survived. How these exhausted and starving men got across the river just up-stream of this rapid is hard to comprehend. With freezing cold temperatures and snow on the ground they somehow fashioned a canoe out of scraps of canvas and willows and made their way across the river; this after trying for several days to make a raft out of bundles of willows and nearly drowning Richardson who tried to swim across with a rope tied to his waist.
While we were flying to Lac de Gras from Yellowknife, Tundra Tom told us that he had heard that the water levels were high this year. We found out later that the river was running about five feet above normal and was in fact at its second highest level in the roughly 35 years that records had been kept! Looking at Obstruction rapids we were absolutely in awe; a drop of probably 30 feet in about two thirds of a mile through a series of wild S-turns. With the river running up so high there were places where I could see three foot high willow bushes with their tops a good foot under the water. As is typical of S–turns, the river was easily paddled on the inside of the turns, but as soon as you got to the next corner you found yourself forced to the big water piled up on the outside of the curve. Since the river was so high and the main-stream current was filled with four and five foot waves and holes, there was no safe way to ferry over to the inside of the next turn so we were forced to line. This was the trickiest lining I have ever done as I crawled from huge boulder to huge boulder or worked my way through fast waist deep water; all the while with the canoe immediately beside huge four-foot waves threatening to pull it away from me. Often as I tracked the canoe past one of the huge boulders I would have to let the nose of the canoe follow the current out dangerously close to the very edge of these holes before I could reel it back in after it cleared the boulder. I was so concerned that I took the Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) off of my lifejacket and gave it to Lynda telling her that if I lost the boat to the current I was going to swim with it and hope to get out at the bottom of the river. My thinking was that with a single canoe, at least if it all went for not Lynda would have the PLB and could get help. In any case we made it just fine but it was a very tense two hours before we saw the calm water of Point Lake. As I fell asleep that night I was comforted by the knowledge that for the next several days we would be on a lake.
The Coppermine is a river whose difficulty is very dependent on water levels and many of the trip-notes from other paddlers we had with us were of little use as the river was so much higher than normal. Shorelines where you might comfortably line your canoe in lower water were now far up into the willows, and often we had no choice but to run the chaotic whitewater. In fact, at Rocknest Lake, where Franklin speaks of, "descending a succession of strong rapids for three miles", we met a group of eight seasoned paddlers camped beside the first rapid. They had clawed their way back upstream from the second rapid and told us that it was "way out of control and running into the trees", and that they had radioed for a Twin Otter aircraft to take them back to Yellowknife.
Knowing what we had just paddled through and wondering what was still to come, I was really tempted to turn around and head home with these people. Even though paddling a nearly indestructible Western Canoeing 17 foot covered prospector canoe, and with the added benefit of ten years of whitewater kayak experience under my belt, I was real nervous as Lynda and I set off in a single boat into the unknown.
We ran the first rapid river left and scouted a blind left hand corner that we ran easily by back ferrying around it. The next rapid was – well – it was freaking huge. A wild narrow half mile with the current running into the willows and turning around a blind corner to the right with no easy cheat line down either shore. We carried past it on river right although we later met a group of six paddlers who had run it by front ferrying from river right across to the far left where they found a line down the center. The next rapid is a huge smooth wave feeding out from a rock shelf on river right. There is a narrow slot between the rock shelf and the big wave followed by three-foot smooth well-spaced waves that we ran. Alternatively it would be an easy pull over the smooth rock shelf. The last rapid is wide, shallow, rock studded maze through a mile or more of gentle S-turns. The current is much slower due to the river`s width and in the high water levels we encountered it was a fun run as we back-ferried from side to side and found the channels between the boulder mazes; in low water levels it could be a grind over the rocks. As a bonus after a great day of running white water, we camped at the bottom of the last rapid and I caught a 20 pound lake trout that we feasted on for the next several meals.
The next 20 miles is slow and sluggish and then suddenly the river starts to narrow and pick up speed. From here the next 25 miles is a blur of fun whitewater. We ran it all and the only section we scouted from shore was at a rapid at UTM 11-6202E / 7328 N. We ran this rapid starting river right and following the main current as we backferried to river left. In low water these rapids apparently end in boulder fields but we never scraped a single rock. This section of rapids ends where Fairy Lake River joins the Coppermine and from here the river widens until Big Bend nearly 80 miles away. From Big Bend the river again narrows and there are a number of easily run rapids before you arrive at Rocky Defile. We scouted Rocky Defile on river left and then ferried across to the portage trail on river right. We portaged here with a group of six other paddlers whom we met and who had decided to carry although later talking to several of them it was obvious that the jury was out on whether to carry or run this rapid. I think it was runable along the river right shore, as did several of them, but the group dynamic dictated carrying – so carry we all did. I am sure if we had run into this rapid three days later after we had run Sandstone and Escape Rapids we would have run it. However I should note that after our trip we corresponded with and met several other paddlers and with the exception of a couple paddling solo kayaks all of them as well carried past Rocky Defile.
From Rocky Defile to Muskox Rapids the river is fast with lots of easy to read fun rapids. The first section of Muskox Rapids is easily run down the center and then to river left where you carve into a huge left bank eddy where you can scout the second more serious part of Muskox. Notes from other paddlers suggest that the second section is normally an easy run on river left with one section that you might decide to line past. In the high water levels we found it was just too big to safely run with any confidence and lining was out of the question with the river running so high against the shore. We ran the top quarter, carried the next quarter, then ran the bottom half; all river left. The couple in the solo kayaks ran it all river left tight to the outside edge of a four foot hole.
Sandstone Rapids is normally described as an easy rapid but what we found was far from easy. We scouted it from river right and it was obvious that a run down the river right side followed by a ferry across through the main current to the inside of the left turn was the route to take. Since the river piles up very badly into a series of holes along the cliff face on the right shore this ferry is critical. I have seen pictures of open canoes ferrying through this section and have read reports where this is described as a "piece of cake." We had no trouble but it should be noted that we were ferrying through three and four foot waves that were breaking from multiple directions. The trick here is to get out from the right shore far enough so that you are immediately beside the large main stream waves. Then let your canoe turn into a full front ferry and slide slowly down the river until you find your desired entry point. Once you commit to your ferry through the main current, keep one eye on the boat and one on the point you are ferrying to and make sure you aren`t sliding downstream too quickly. As well, get a good high start on your ferry as the Coppermine`s current is ferocious and very deceptive. One of the other canoes we were with here started their ferry too low and got swept down stream into the main part of the river where they got blown into one of the big surf waves on the right margin past the corner. Luckily the wave spun them into a full front ferry and aimed them toward the left shore where they got back to a safe line. If the wave had spit them out the other way they would have been jet ferried right into the huge waves piling up along the cliff face on the right shore, and a swim would have been a certainty.
From here to Escape Rapids the river is continuous whitewater through a series of S-turns in a steep-walled canyon. Typically the safe line is always on the inside of the corner as big waves and holes pile up along the outside of the turns. Get ready for countless full front ferries through two and three foot waves from side to side as you work your way from inside corner to inside corner. No doubt in lower water levels this is an easy day of whitewater but even in the levels we found it was a great day of thrilling paddling and we scouted it all from the boat and ran everything.
Escape Rapids is the last major runable rapid on the Coppermine. This rapid is through a steep-walled canyon and turns to the left. Escape breaks the general rule and the left limit that is the inside of the corner is a jumble of huge five-foot waves forcing you to enter along the right margin. Just as the river turns to the left you are presented with a series of holes and huge waves along the right side of the steep walled canyon forcing you to ferry across to river left. McReadie rates this rapid as a solid 3 or 4 dependent on water level and calls it the most difficult rapid of the river. I felt it was no harder than Sandstone but another paddler we paddled through with called it a solid class 4. In any case the important thing to remember is that water levels make all the difference on this river so don`t rely on past river notes as much as on your own gut instincts. The technique to use for Escape is exactly as I described for Sandstone Rapids; paddle slowly along the right margin and turn your canoe into a full front ferry well above your planned ferry line. Let the canoe slide backwards with the bow aimed into the current and start your ferry as high as you think possible keeping one eye on the eddy you are aiming for. If you are sliding downstream too quickly lessen your ferry angle and put some muscle into the paddle – and don`t worry about looking downstream – worry about where you are trying to get to. Also remember that you are scouting many of these rapids from high up on the edge of the canyons they run through; the waves are MUCH bigger than you think.
The last major obstacle on the Coppermine is Hearne`s famous Bloody Falls where Matonabbee and his Dene massacred a group of Copper Inuit. This is a mandatory portage on the river left shore. This portage is not easily seen so be prepared to look for it for a few minutes. If you nose your canoe into the sand beach the portage is directly to your right and switch-backs its way up a steep cliff. It is a very well used and good trail once you claw your way to the top.
And as we finished the portage and I thought of our adventures on the Coppermine for the last thirty days, I held Lynda close in my arms on the top of a cliff overlooking Bloody Falls and reflected on how we had paddled all but this stretch, Rocky Defile and two other short sections of the river. My feeling of success at having paddled through miles of huge technical rapids, often with my heart in my throats, was tempered by the knowledge that the Yellowknife Indians had somehow done all we had in frail uncovered birch bark canoes.
There is a good article about the Coppermine River in Canoeing Canada`s Northwest Territories: A Paddler`s Guide, edited by Mary McCreadie. This article provides an excellent overview of the Coppermine, but my personal feeling is that it understates the skill required to paddle the river. As noted on previous pages, this river`s difficulty is very dependent on water levels. At the high levels we encountered there were many rapids I would rate as a solid class 3, and many of them were in steep-walled canyons with no easy portage. As well, in contrast to McCreadie`s suggestion, I would say that a canoe with a spray cover is mandatory for this river. My general advice is to not underestimate this river; it is a fast, freezing cold, remote river with some very serious rapids and the weather can change in a second.
One night we set up camp after a day of scorching hot sun and dead calm having paddled close to 40 miles. After supper a slight breeze started and by two a.m. the wind was gusting at gale force, the sky was leaden gray, and the temperature had dropped to just above freezing. Suddenly a particularly strong series of gusts hit us and flattened our four-season tent, snapping one of the aluminum tent poles. Standing naked on the tundra in the pouring rain trying to repair the tent and figure out just how to shelter it from gale force winds if I ever got it fixed was not one of the best nights of my life.
When we arrived in Kugluktuk, the RCMP told us of a group of six paddlers who had arrived in town in a most dispirited fashion a few days earlier. They had lost one canoe in a bad capsize and seriously damaged another. This group had to leave much of their gear and food behind and limped into Kugluktuk cold, wet, tired and hungry. The officer we spoke to told us that with the increased interest in paddling remote northern rivers more and more ill-equipped canoeists are arriving in Kugluktuk each year. He told us of a group who had arrived last year quite upset that their brand new digital cellular phone didn`t work – they hadn`t bothered to check if there was any coverage along the Coppermine!
The Barrens, although beautiful beyond words, is a landscape that does not suffer fools gladly. A capsize in the ice cold waters of the Coppermine could easily be fatal, and in the fast current there is a good chance that you will lose your canoe and gear. This river has a lot of solid class 2 plus rapids, and several technical class 3 rapids (McCreadie rates Escape as a 4 at certain water levels) that require excellent ferry skills. As well, you should have strong "slower-than-current" paddling skills and be able to confidently read rapids from your boat as it is impossible to scout the miles of continuous whitewater from Rocknest Lake to Fairy Lake River and from Muskox Rapids to Bloody Falls.
In addition to the regular first aid and survival gear necessary for any canoe trip, Lynda and I carry a VHF radio that we can use to talk to aircraft. This radio is about twice the size of a cellular phone and with the number of scheduled aircraft between Kugluktuk and Yellowknife you can communicate any emergency situation on a nearly daily basis. If you buy or rent one of these units for your northern trips, familiarize yourself with the local air schedules, the frequencies that the planes use, and general radio protocol. I also carry a Personal Locator Beacon that is strapped to the back of my life jacket in case we capsize and lose our gear. This unit, when activated, sends a signal by satellite to the Mission Control Centre at Canadian Forces Base, Trenton. Upon receiving a signal, the most appropriate rescue plan is initiated based on your location. As well, ensure you register and de-register your trip with the RCMP in Yellowknife and Kugluktuk.
And on the topic of gear, if you are looking for a GREAT camera take a look at the Pentax point and shoot EWSPIO 105WR. Pentax recommends cleaning it under the kitchen tap; what a bonus on a canoe trip! The 38-105 lens lets you get some real nice pictures if you are lucky enough to get close to any wildlife.
One other company that is well worth checking out is Northwest River Supplies in Moscow Idaho – see their contact information at the end of the story. Although they are primarily a rafting company they have a ton of stuff from paddles to dry bags that are equally at home on a canoe trip. Take a look at their NRS workboots – these are the best all around boots I have found for hiking, wading, lining, and paddling.
One final barren land hint. When you camp at night store your canoe right side up and put a half dozen rocks into it so it won`t blow away if a sudden arctic storm hits. For those who think this is a waste of time ask a friend of mine who just came back from this fall from the Kazan River. He got caught in a violent storm near the Three Cascades and before he woke up and got down to the river his canoe, that he had put to bed upside down, had turned into a 17 foot 80 pound kite and was gone down the river. He had only been on the river for four days and had to set off my PLB that he had borrowed and get rescued by a helicopter from Rankin Inlet. Still think i`ts stupid to put rocks in your canoe?
All the information you need to start and end your trip on the Coppermine is included in McCreadie`s book or can be obtained by phoning the Northwest Territories Arctic Tourism Office. Air Thelon, owned and operated by one "Tundra" Tom Faess is a great one-stop shopping centre to get you out onto the Coppermine River. From canoes to radios, to GPSs, to PLBs, the "Big Guy" can get you set up. He and Diana bent over backward for us last year, and all we wanted was a plane charter. In my experience this kind of courtesy isn`t usually forthcoming from a regular air-charter company any more than it would be from say a trucking company. Look at Air Thelon`s web site for a wealth of information. Bathurst Arctic Services in Yellowknife also offer canoe rentals and full trip logistic planning. Yellowknife is the capital of the Northwest Territories and is a full service town of 17,000. A complete range of services is available including several excellent hotels, restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and campgrounds are available. There is daily jet air service or you can drive 2 days north from Edmonton, Alberta.
Kugluktuk has two hotels and a campground. In every northern village, there is always someone who knows how to get everything done and in Kugluktuk it is Al Harvey at Triple "A" Taxi. He was of great help to us when we arrived in Kugluktuk and can assist with all logistic organization at trip`s end. If you choose to use your own canoe it can be flown to Yellowknife on a space available basis, or it can be barged back to Hay River by Northern Transportation Company Limited. Air service from Kugluktuk to Yellowknife with First Air is daily except Sundays.
Good general information about Nunavut and the Northwest Territories can be obtained from both Above and Beyond magazine and Up Here magazine. As well, Nunavut Tourism can provide you with their Arctic Planner tourist guide that has much valuable information.
Our trip was all we expected and more. Even though the weather was cold and wet, and we were wind-bound for six days, we were more than rewarded by Nunavut`s bounty. We saw many lone male caribou awaiting the return of the herds from their calving grounds near Bathurst Inlet. A group of 12 muskoxen appeared on a far away hill near Melville Creek and we watched these shaggy creatures through our binoculars. Peregrine falcons wheeled high above us as we paddled Escape Rapids and shortly after we saw a pair of golden eagles soaring close to the river`s edge. Bald eagles seemed to be everywhere we looked the last few days. Scores of lake trout graced our kitchen, and at Melville Creek, I caught and landed a twenty-pound arctic char whose red flesh could have easily graced the dining room table of Martha Stewart . Hearne`s "grizzled bear" tracks seemed to be everywhere we camped, but much to my disappointment, and Lynda`s pleasure, we didn`t see one.
And as always, there were days on the river that I swore I would never return to the mean-spirited wind-swept mosquito and black fly infested landscape that is the Barrens. And yet, as I now sit in my home in La Ronge in northern Saskatchewan, I know that next summer will find me back on another river. After all, there is still the Thelon and the Back and the Dubawnt and many other of Nunavut`s daughters to see. RIVER IN A MINUTE
Possibility of extreme arctic wind and cold weather, class 2 to class 3 rapids which fluctuate in severity with water levels (some class 4 rapids possible), possibility of ice on large lakes even in mid-July, freezing cold water makes any capsize VERY serious.
Length of Trip
Variable due to multiple possible starting points. For example: 420 miles from Lac de Gras, 350 miles from Point Lake, 240 miles from Rocknest Lake. Count on an easy 20 miles per day BUT add a few days for weather. Add more days for weather if you plan any large lake crossings and be ready to paddle at night as the wind often goes down.
General Cautions
As is true of any arctic river, you will be alone for the entire trip. Don`t count on any help and plan in what I call a "double-redundant" fashion. In other words, have backup plans for the eventuality that your backup plan doesn`t work. As an example, I carry a VHF radio to talk to airplanes, I have an extra battery for it, and if it fails I have a Personal Locator Beacon.
Time to Travel
As soon after breakup as possible (about the first week of July) BUT phone to ensure that you aren`t going to find solid ice. Try to be off the river by mid-August as this is the beginning of fall and the weather can become a problem.
Getting There
You can drive to Yellowknife from Edmonton on a paved highway (all but the last 50 miles which is gravel) with a series of great campgrounds along the route. Scheduled jet air service daily arrives in Yellowknife and any travel agent can sort out the details for you. Get the free travel guide from the NWT Arctic Tourism Office for complete information
Permits and Regulations
No river permits are needed. You will need a fishing licence for the NWT and for Nunavut. Be sure to register and DEREGISTER your trip with the local RCMPPoint Lake to Kugluktuk in Low Water ConditionsThere were two of us. We were both paddling solo canoes, 14 foot Clipper Prospectors with North Water spray covers. We were pleased with the way these boats performed, even when heavily loaded. They tracked well enough on the flat water and were responsive and dry in the rapids. We found we could cruise at 3 mph on the lakes at a pace we could maintain all day. In the white stuff these boats would turn when we wanted them to and would rock over sizeable waves without taking on water. I would recommend this boat to anyone looking for a solo touring canoe.

We started out at the southeast end of Point Lake, not far from Obstruction Rapid. From there we paddled down Point Lake, Red Rock Lake and Rocknest Lake to get to the river. The wind came up every afternoon, but we were always able to get our miles in. We were never wind bound. There was some ice on Point Lake, and at one point it looked like it spanned the lake. We were able to get past it right next to shore without much trouble, just a little dragging and some Earnest Shackelton ice breaking was all it took. This was on July 6th or 7th. There is a series of rapids below Rocknest Lake starting where the Napaktolik River enters on river right. The map indicates 4 rapids in this section of the river. The first rapid marked on the map is a S-curve rapid, which we scouted and then ran easily. The second is a heavily obstructed drop that is a couple of hundred meters long. We portaged on the right. (It turns out that the only rapids that we portaged were this rapid and Bloody Falls.) The third rapid is short and we ran it easily just right of the wave train in the center and left of the turbulence caused by a rock shelf that juts out on river right. The fourth rapid in this section that is on the map is a long, shallow, braided rapid that we ran far right, looking for the deepest water and occasionally scratching over rocks where it was shallow. Other than the rapid that we walked, none of these were difficult at low water. There is plenty of current and mostly easy rapids from this point until Fairy Lake River. It was pleasant, fun paddling through this part of the river.

At Fairy Lake River the rapids end and the flat water begins and continues for the next 70 or 80 miles. In general, the current was running about 1 mph according to our gps. The river flows through a lovely landscape and is very scenic, but when there was a crosswind it was a slog. The fun meter was reading pretty low at times during this part of the trip.

At Big Bend the river enters a canyon and the current picks up, though there are widenings of the river in this stretch and the current slows down quite a lot. We got to one of these widenings when the wind was blowing pretty hard so we sat it out for a few hours. Other than that though, it was very enjoyable paddling and we made the miles to Rocky Defile without much effort. As for Rocky Defile, we scouted it from the portage trail high above the river on the right and then ran it right of center without any problems. There were some pretty big waves and a few nasty holes, but they could be easily avoided. I could see how this rapid could be reacherous at big flows, but at low flows it wasn't that bad.
Below Rocky Defile the landscape opens up and the river spreads out and flows past a big group of islands. The Kendall River comes in from the left and there is an abandoned fishing camp on river left just above the mouth of the Kendal River. We choose not to camp there though because it is trashed and because we saw grizzly tracks in the mud by the river. The fishing in the Kendall River looked like it would be good, though.

The next thing of interest is Muskox Rapid. It consists of two drops and we ran the first without scouting. The line was pretty obvious. We pulled over and looked at the second drop and then ran it without any problems. The waves were big and the current is fast, but it is all quite manageable.

The next rapid of note is the place where the river flows past a large rock in the middle of the river that resembles the Rock of Gibraltar. There is an island above this drop and the standard run at high water is to the left of this island and then left of the Rock of Gibraltar. At low water we ran it right of the island and far, far right. There was a green tongue that ended in some runable haystacks and that was the line we took since it was the most straightforward.

Not far below this is Sandstone Rapid. We only scouted the top of it from the large cove that is on river left just before the rapid. We ferried from there over to river right and then it was read and run down the right side for the rest of the rapid. This is a long rapid and there was some manuevering between rocks and holes, but it was reasonable at low water. I would call it class III. Other than these rapids, there are lots of class II+/III- rapids from Muskox Rapid to Escape Rapid that we ran without scouting. They were fun and not that difficult. The river flows through a very beautiful gorge in this stretch, with tall, maroon walls and a couple of waterfalls. It was fantastic boating. Escape Rapid is supposed to be the most difficult of the runnable rapids on the Coppermine, so we approached it with caution on far river right. We eddied out where the river enters a narrow gorge and took a look at it. There was hardly anything to it. We only had to make an easy ferry from river right to river left and go down a wide easy chute. It was actually one of the easier things we ran, though there were places in it where you definitely would not want to be. There is a nice campsite just below the rapid on river right.

Below Escape Rapid there are a few easy rapids and then the river enters a lake above Bloody Falls, which is a mandatory portage for open canoes even at low flows. The portage is a long kilometer up and over a hill on river left. There was a cairn that marks the start of the trail. Once you find it, the trail is easy to follow to a beach below the rapid. There are some campsites with tables and an outhouse on top of the hill, but we choose to camp down by the river at the beach. From Bloody Falls to Kugluktuk it is about 3 or 4 hours of paddling. There is current for a while, but then the river gets deep and the current dies. As you approach the mouth of the river there is a very large sandbar on river left. This part of the river is somewhat exposed to the ocean and if the wind is kicking up waves things could get nasty. Because of the sandbar it would be possible to get trapped. The town of Kugluktuk is not visible until you round a point at the mouth of the river. It is a small town and they don't get many tourists there. If you're tired of your own cooking, the only place to get something to eat is at the Coop where you can buy french fries (the small serving was huge), chicken wings and that kind of thing. There is a hotel, the Coppermine Inn, but we stayed at the "campground" at the edge of town. It is a short ways past the swimming beach and is marked by an outhouse (disgusting!) and several platforms where you pitch your tents. We were visited by quite a few curious people from the town. Everyone we met was very friendly.

The things we read about this river said the wildlife is abundant. We didn't see much and neither did the others that we met on the river. We saw 4 moose, 10 to 15 caribou and a fox. Others saw a couple of wolves and 2 muskoxen. We were a bit disappointed. We had done the Horton River 3 years ago and the wildlife on that river is truly abundant; caribou became something akin to vermin, we saw so many. I wouldn't call the wildlife on the Coppermine abundant.

Speaking of vermin, the bugs this year were not bad at all. We took a bug shelter, but only put it up a few times. In fact, it never came out of the bag for the last 10 days of the trip. We found out that this is unusual and that it was the result of the dry winter they had up there. We were very pleased, as you might imagine.

We started the trip on July 3 and spent 23 days on the river. We could have done it easily in a couple of days less, but we started doing things toward the end of the trip to make it last longer. We had a layover day and did a couple of hikes that took half a day each. In general, we were averaging 15 miles per day while were were on the lakes and more than 20 miles per day when we hit the current.

We used Boyd Warner and his crew at Bathurst Arctic Services in Yellowknife to get to the river. I would use them again and would recommend them to anyone. It turns out we were able to fit a 14 foot canoe on the inside of a Cessna Caravan and strap the other to the outside. Our boats don't nest and this is usually a problem. But since we were able to get one of the canoes on the inside we could get to the river in one plane.

At the end of the trip we flew from Kugluktuk back to Yellowknife on First Air. The standard charge for shipping a canoe on that flight is outrageous. It is about $710 Canadian for a 14 foot solo canoe and much more for a 17 foot tandem canoe. The First Air manager of charter and cargo sales for the western region is a man named Matt Mossman. He understands the problem and will reduce the fare. He knows that these planes flying from Kugluktuk to Yellowknife are usually flying empty. He also knows that the high rate they charge to ship a canoe is hurting tourism in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. And so he is willing to help. Instead of $710, we paid $220 Canadian to ship our 14 foot canoes thanks to him. It is a good idea to get ahold of him before you start the trip, though. Once you get to Kugluktuk, they will charge you the standard rate because they don't have the authority to reduce the fee. However, Matt will authorize the lower rate in writing beforehand and the folks in Kugluktuk won't charge you the standard fee. They were able to load our 2 14 foot canoes plus a 17 foot tandem canoe into the cargo section of the plane and we were able to fly back to Yellowknife on the same flight as our canoes. There was some concern that this would not be the case.

Mike Dorey

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
76 D Lac de Gras 76 A Winter Lake 86 H Point Lake 86 G Redrock Lake 86 J Hepburn Lake 86 K Sloan River 86 N Dismal Lake 86 O Coppermine
Special Comments: 

Not for the faint-hearted. A difficult river, even in moderate water levels. Increases in difficulty as water levels rise.

Cannot be paddled before the beginning of July, when ice-out is occurring on the larger lakes. Trip should be complete by mid-August


Post date: Wed, 11/01/2017 - 16:31



My friend and I decided to travel Coppermine River in July August, 2018. We are in search of information on the necessary equipment for this trip.
Could inquire us please, thank you for your help

Best regards