Horton River - Horton Lake to Arctic Ocean

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesArctic
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Allan Jacobs
Trip Date : 
Additional Route Information
600 km
24 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
0 m
Longest Portage: 
0 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

There are numerous points to enter and exit the river. Access is available by either float or tundra-tire equipped planes.

Access via fly-in from Inuvik, NWT or Norman Wells, NWT to Horton Lake. Starting at the Whalemen River confluence is about half-way down the river, just before the canyons.

Exit Horton Lake via small creek to the north and join the Horton River in about 10 km.
The vast majority of the river is Class I. There are no sizable rapids until approximately the 280 km mark, where the "canyon" section begins.
There is an approximately 50 km long section of the river that has rapids. In this section there are three canyons. The first canyon has approximately three drops, the second canyon has about 10-12 drops, the third canyon may have one drop. All drops can be lined or portaged, if necessary. The number and difficulty of the drops varies with water levels. After this point, there are no significant navigation issues unless you enter the Arctic Ocean.
Fly out at the river mouth and return to Inuvik or Norman Wells.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Horton River: Horton Lake to the Arctic Ocean

Copyright (c) 2002 Allan E Jacobs. All Rights Reserved

The Horton is the most scenic of the barrenlands rivers we have paddled. The main attractions are the canyons (with beautifully coloured rocks, tall narrow columns and many raptors and their nests), the Smoking Hills, nice wooded valleys
much of the way with tundra never far away, the badlands near the coast, and the ocean itself (OK, Franklin Bay of Amundsen Gulf).

As well as scenery, you get isolation (we found it less travelled than the Thelon, Coppermine and Mara/Burnside), good hiking
(including a spectacular view over the ocean and the ice), the satisfaction of a trip entirely above the Arctic Circle, and
relatively easy (though not cheap) logistics. The wildlife viewing is reported to be excellent; we saw many birds and two wolves (rare for us) but few caribou and muskoxen. The fishing is also reported to be excellent, but we did little.

We found the white water mild; we had one portage, of 4 km. Minuses: the Horton is of relatively little historical interest and it has few eskers (though it passes between fragments of one on the upper 2/3 or so). Overall, the Horton is an excellent river for experienced, well prepared paddlers; it is ideal for a first barrenlands trip.

Our float plane from Norman Wells landed at the north end of Horton Lake late on 1 July 2000. We camped just east of the outlet and started downstream the next day. The south end of the lake had a lot of ice, so likely we got an early start.
We were picked up by float plane on 26 July and flown to Inuvik.

Water level
Comments in other reports suggest that the water was high for our trip; Herwig said that it was 1 meter above normal.

Mary and Jan Edick (New Hampshire), Bob Bignell (Flamborough), Bill Hosford (Ann Arbor), Enid Weiner (Toronto) and Allan Jacobs (Toronto), a Wilderness Canoe Association group.

"Canoeing Canada's Northwest Territories, A Paddler's Guide", published by the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association, edited by Mary McCreadie, 1995. No home should be without this one.

"The Horton River", from "Explorers' Guide" published by the NWT government. Available at http://www.nwttravel.nt.ca; click on "Features & Interest" and then on "River Reports".

Articles from "Up Here": "Where There's Smoke" by Glenn Taylor and "Nothing's permanent" by Leslie Leong, about the Smoking Hills and permafrost.

A scientific article about the Horton River breakthrough: J. Ross MacKay and Olav Slaymaker. Geografiska Annaler vol 71A,
page 171, 1989. The breakthrough occurred around 1750, contrary to what you read elsewhere.

Trip information from Bev & Joel Hollis and from Rolf & Deb Kraiker; thanks!

Travel up
It's not possible to get from YYZ to Norman Wells in one day. Two of us overnighted in Yellowknife, two at the Edmonton airport, and two at the Leduc Inn (800 661 6467, free shuttle to and from Edmonton airport); the Leduc group had a good chat with the Mars people, also staying there, on their way to Devon Island.

Four of us arrived in N Wells on 30 June, a day early (maybe a good idea since neither of Bob's packs arrived until the next day). We were very happy with North-Wright Air (north-wright@nt.sympatico.ca) on our Mountain River trip in 1997 and we used them again. Carolyn picked us up at the N Wells airport, drove us to town for shopping, put the early 4 up at the chalet at
the N-W Air float-plane base, ... . Two other groups were at the chalet and flying in the same day, one also to the Horton (starting though well below Horton Lake), and the other to the Brock for the 2nd descent (taking maybe 12 big bags of

N-W Air took the Brock group out but had to drop them off at Horton Lake due to bad weather near the coast; their Twin Otter returned to N Wells and flew us in; the pilots overnighted on the lake (literally on) and picked up the Brockers the next morning (that was the plan anyway).

Carolyn also arranged the rental of 2 canoes from Peter Clarkson (Western Arctic Adventures and Equipment, Inuvik,
canoenwt@permafrost.com). We left the boats at Arctic Wings in Inuvik for WAAE and later return to Norman Wells for another Horton trip.

Jan and Mary brought their Pak-Boat; I was impressed; it worked well on the river, made the portage easier and saved us much money on the flight from the mouth to Inuvik. All 3 boats had spray covers (which we didn't use much).

Travel back
Arctic Wings (arcticwings@iname.com) picked us up by float plane near the mouth and flew us to Inuvik (2 flights in a Cessna 206, 2nd was interesting). The pilot commented that the Anderson (we passed it on the way) is muddy, not nearly as nice as the Horton.

In Inuvik we stayed several nights at the Arctic Chalet B & B, run by Judy and Olav (co-owners of Arctic Wings); thanks for the great hospitality. We scheduled the trip to arrive in Inuvik for the Great Northern Arts Festival, well worth seeing. Enid went on later to Tuktoyaktuk.

Summary of northern logistics
We were pleased with the Leduc Inn, North-Wright Air, Arctic Wings, Arctic Chalet, the WAAE boats and the Pak-Boat, and recommend them all. Thanks to Bob for handling things.

Gear, cooking, wate:
We carried pepper spray and bangers for the bears, and a Class B EPIRB. Bill Layman's Kanawa article (fall 2002) re beacons, and also comments in the next issue, might be of interest. Neither spray skirts nor wet/dry suits are necessary (though we had some and used them); helmets are not needed.

My tarp & pole set-up gave welcome shelter from the wind and rain but needs improvement (both understatements says Jan - see below).

Maps: We used copies of 50k:1 topos (numbers given below); many people get by with 250k:1 topos, somehow.

Firewood is plentiful; there are no trees near the end but we found driftwood high on the banks. We took naphtha stoves and were glad we had them.

Water was clear until near the West River (about 150 km from the coast) but then it got ever siltier; we paddled close to shore to spot up water exiting from ponds, storing it in expandable plastic jugs and now-empty olive barrels. Some of us filtered drinking water. The Kraiker party found the water more silty and sulphury than we did.

This was the 6th north-of-60 trip for my Moss Starlet tent. It has served me well under tough conditions except in one respect: in a stiff wind, its design allows sand and water to rise between the tent and the fly and then fall on the contents; to stop this, I had to pile sand on the fly and put garbage bags on top of the tent, under the fly.

Jan's comments on shelters:
Polytarps have the virtue of cheapness and are relatively lightweight, and they are good for covering hay, RVs or lawnmowers, but are too bulky and weak to stand up to an arctic wind. Various Nylon tarps (MEC guide, Moss/MSC parafoils, "lean-to" designs for home construction, etc.) are well-suited. Use of paddles instead of poles saves weight and bulk. On another trip with an outfitter, the wind destroyed a lightweight aluminum tarp pole within an hour of setup. Heavier sectional tent poles are a pain in the butt to manage on a trip.

This is a sensitive area. We covered poo, burned tp, used only biodegradable soap and then sparingly, and used gravel and sand (no detergent) to clean pots; when we had to use soap we dumped it well away from the river,

Conditions ranged from hot early in the trip (we dunked hats in the river every half-hour or so) to cold near the coast (we got rather chilled at one point). It rained two days. Wind forced two layovers, for a total of 2+1/2 days, and we had to pull in early several times.

Culture check
We saw one tent early in the trip (no boat or people), a collapsed trapper's cabin on the L just upstream from the West River, some canoes stored on shore near the mouth, and only one person (Herwig Schubert, Professor of Fine Arts at the University of Salzburg, who has paddled the Horton several times); I remember a cabin in good shape on the R near the end but others don't.

2 wolves (not dingy white, but many shades from pitch black to pure white), 1 arctic fox, a few isolated caribou, muskoxen only in one herd about 1 km away, likely a young bear dashing into cover, many bald eagles, a few golden eagles, many peregrines, many Arctic ground squirrels, half a dozen tundra (aka whistling) swans, and not a few bugs (not as many as on the Thelon); apart from the wolves, the eagle and peregrine nests and occupants left the most abiding memories.

Bob caught an 8 lb char on his 1st cast at one creek mouth, and assorted grayling and pike at another.

Bill did lots of watercolours, about 1 per day.

The Horton is isolated and the weather can be fierce. It is important to have high-quality clothing, sleeping bags, rain gear and tents; there are enough ways to mess up without having tents rip, poles break, pack straps break, etc. Be prepared for everything from sweltering in the blazing sun to shivering in a cold driving rain and worse, with rapid changes from one

extreme to the other.

Naphtha stoves come in very useful in bad conditions. You'll be sorry if you don't take a bug shirt or head net.

An internal as well as an external ground sheet may save pain in the rain. The river is remote. Intermediate ww skills are

desirable; caution is vital. Your conditions may differ widely from ours; rapids easy or difficult for us may be the opposite for you. Scout and enjoy the scenery.

The river is braided and the best channel is often not obvious. Expect to drag; long painters for tracking will likely be

useful. Except in rapids, go early to the outside of the curve; watch for side channels carrying lots of water. Some sand cliffs near the coast are undercut, exposing the permafrost to the air (drip, drip, drip); best keep clear.

The wind can come up fast and hard. Boats should be secured by tying them to trees or putting rocks in them; unsecured tents have been known to blow away. Expect to be windbound several days; schedule a few more for hiking. We had an easy trip, but comments in other reports suggest that we had higher water and a stronger current than usual; 25 days on the river seems reasonable.

Leave a day or so at the beginning and the same at the end in case your packs don't arrive with you, the weather is too rotten for flying, ...

Take an old toothbrush and clean tent zippers every time you camp on sand. You should find active smoking spots close to the water, so there's no need to go for a hike to inspect them; some of the dead spots are also attractive, a gorgeous red.

Plan to have some means (empty barrels, plastic jugs, etc) for storing water below the West River. Take fungicide (for feet), paddling gloves and hand cream, waterproof camera or case, some kind of shelter, a bug tent, and gloves for around camp (hands can swell badly from bites and sun).

Packing: We thought that there would be no portages, at worst a few short ones, so some of us went a bit heavy. There was only 1, but it was 4 km long. If it is possible to hire an aircraft equipped with tundra tires, pickup at the gravel bar near 97C14 795 583 merits consideration.

Campsites, etc (N means night):

N1 96O9 315 916 On Horton Lake, just east of outflow point.

N2 96O10 170 093

N3 96O15 009 214

There's a nice hike to a gorge on the R, starting from 993 312 on map 96O14.

N4 96O14 949 409

N5 97A4 797 594

N6 97A5 799 709

N7 97A5 747 847

N8 97A12 693 014 On top, near bluff, shelter from blazing sun under trees.

N9 97B9 536 159 Necessity site but OK. We were windbound for 1 day and camped there also on night 10; we found big bear prints made overnight near the campsite. Hiking was OK downstream, better upstream (nice view from hill between present and former channels).

N11 97B16 396 276 Nice hike down shore, up to and along bluffs, back on tundra. Saw our only muskoxen on the other side of the river.

N12 97B9 309 186

We stopped on the L shore just below the creek at 137 270 on map 97B10, climbed to the top and walked along the cliff to scout rapids downstream; they looked a bit rough, and we a saw nice campsite on the R, so we went to it.

N13 97B10 135 273 Great site. We found an old rusty stove (glad I didn't have to get it there). We scouted downstream and saw that we could sneak R around the next 2 rapids (which were ledges).

N14 97B15 133 295 Necessity site at start of portage; good, 2 levels.

N15 97B15 111 311 Necessity site but OK; sandy spot on the L, across from the end of the portage and just above the creek.

N16 97B15 009 458 Theatre Island. Great site, close to everyone's PB.

N17 97C2 869 655

We stopped above the mouth of the West River (muddy) to explore the esker on the L. Enid, Jan and I went out along the river (bad idea - banks muddy) and returned through the cotton grass (getting only a little wet).

N18 97C3 059 696 Mouth of Coal Creek; water OK (though a bit sulphury).

N19 97C6 856 953

N20 97C6 820 031 Camp Misery. Desperation site, strong candidate for our lifetime worst. The day started OK; after a few km we spotted Herwig at his camp and went over to chat before setting out again. Then came the rain and a cold, strong head wind, bad enough in itself, that generated splashy waves on hitting the current; half the group was soon verging on hypothermia. After several fruitless stops, we found a cramped, muddy spot, got the tents up and crawled into the bags where we stayed for most of the next day and a half; Jan and Mary were so cold and wet that, to my memory, they didn't leave their tent for 24 hours or so. The wind stayed cold and stiff but the rain changed to light and intermittent. Herwig came by the next day; he was making almost no headway (the bow of his rubber kayak was lifting) and took little convincing to join us.

During a rain pause, Enid, Bob and I walked several km downstream, inspecting old smoke spots and admiring the armoured mud balls (topic of a BSc thesis "Armoured Mud Balls and Their Geomorphic Environment, Ram River, Northwest Territories" (area north of the S Nahanni) by Allan Arsenault, McMaster University, 1977). We didn't see a better site, so were glad we parked when we did. Of course the native people handle far worse conditions without our fancy gear, as had Hearne, Franklin and the rest.

N22 97C11 788 332 Good site on top of gravel; good hike upstream; much smoke in hills on all sides.

N23 97C14 807 487 Necessity site; bad (blowing sand), but we had to camp before reaching the start point for the hike.

Here and at other blowy sites my Moss Starlet tent didn't perform well.

We started the hike at 835 474 on map 97C14; we followed gullies, going left to reach the hills above the coast. The effort was rewarded (people shouting in excitement, scarcely "silent upon a peak") by a beautiful view over Franklin Bay (ice chunks, pack ice in the distance and the Horton delta). The area is marked as part of the Smoking Hills, but the smoke sites are all upstream (so you'll have to look earlier if you want to see and smell 'em close up).

N24 97C14 827 510 Bad site due to blowing sand; woke to heavy sulphur stink.

N25 97C14 795 583 We camped on sand beside a gravel bar used recently as a runway and scouted pickup points for the next day (not easy because the water is so silty). Jan saw the arctic fox here and got close-ups; a caribou wandered through. In the morning, we hiked down almost to the old channel. The pack ice had drifted in close to the delta, so I hoped the polar bears were well to the north. The first flight got out OK but the second (with Jan and Bob) was delayed to the next day; after a comfy night in the plane, they had to make a running start with Bob on the pontoon cutting a line to a pile of rocks, getting nigh blown away by prop wash.

Distances and elevations at map junctions:
Distances were wheeled out on copies of 50k:1 maps; they are likely too small by a few percent. Elevations are to within 5 m or so (25 ft lower down).
Start at Horton Lake on map 96O9, 588 km from the ocean, at elevation 346 m;
start 96O10 at 567 km, 328 m;
start 96O15 at 539 km, 318 m;
start 96O14 at 513 km, 295 m;
start 97A4 at 489 km, 275 m;
start 97A5 at 436 km, 255 m;
start 97A12 at 388 km, 228 m;
start 97B9 at 360 km, 205 m;
do 8 km on 96B16 (past Whalemen River) and return to 96B9;
start 97B10 at 287 km, 145 m;
start 97B15 at 280 km, 135 m;
start 97C2 at 240 km, 95 m;
start 97C3 at 200 km, 85 m (275 ft);
start 97C6 at 150 km, 70 m (225 ft);
start 97C11 at 112 km, 40 m (125 ft);
do 8 km (2 pieces) on 97C12 and return to 97C11;
start 97C14 at 63 km, 25 m ( 80 ft);
do 8 km on 97C13 and return to 97C14;
Pickup was near 805 795 on 97C14, about 7 km short of the mouth.

Again, this is a remote river; it demands respect. For us, in what seems to have been high water, the rapids were either ledges or fair-sized standing waves; we found no rock gardens or boulder fields. Your conditions may differ enough from ours to make the following worse than useless.

Canyon starting near 367 196 on map 97B9: there are 3 rapids close together. The 1st was a ledge; we sneaked L.
The 2nd was just waves; we sneaked L and then dragged, tracked and/or bashed through gravel.
The 3rd was just waves; we tracked R.

Canyon starting near 160 273 on map 97B10: the first rapids are below the creek on L at 137 270 on map 97B10. We stopped on the L there to scout, but could have gone on to near the campsite at 97B10 135 273. We sneaked R on two ledges, then Ped R as follows.

Portage starting near 97B15 133 295:
We Ped R about 4 km around the several rapids; we learned later that Herwig had Ped L (about 2 km?) and we sure wish we had done the same.

Some groups, perhaps more able, run these rapids, likely in lower water. We suggest landing on the L shore as soon as possible and scouting from there; portaging R should be a conscious decision. In detail: The river splits around some rocks, with the main current going L over a good-sized ledge; the R channel can be tracked. Below the rocks, the canyon wall closes in on the R; just below is a ledge running from the R wall to maybe a small gap at the extreme L. We pulled over on the R side, above the rocks. Bob and Jan scouted several km along the top of the cliff but found no break in the canyon wall. On their return we discussed ferrying over below the rocks, to the L side above the ledge; we weren't sure though that we could make the ferry because of the fair-sized standing waves below the rocks.

We discussed also going back upstream and ferrying over above the rocks, but there were more rapids below the ledge and we weren't sure that we get around them easily.This took a long time; Bill got impatient and took off; the rest followed. After a steep carry to the top, we bushwhacked out to an open rocky area and a big brown rock; this part of the portage is marked with cairns but it is easy to lose one's way (and packs). Once in the open, we headed toward the bluffs on the L side, entered a wooded area and found a way down, just above a creek on the other side. Got only 1 carry in that day. Camped at the start of the portage and did 2 carries the 2nd day. Ferried over to the L side and camped.

There were several more rapids, none anything special; sneaks and tracks handled them all. In no particular order: We sneaked L, grounding and dragging through on a L turn. We ferried, scouting from R shore then from L shore and eddying out on L. We ran a gap through moderate waves.

Have a good trip and keep it clean!
Allan Jacobs (jacobs@physics.utoronto.ca).

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
Horton Lake, 97 O Erly Lake, 97A Simpson Lake, 97B Franklin Bay, 97C
Special Comments: 

Lots of excellent gravel bar camping.
There is a minimal amount of rain, as this river goes through two semi-arid zones.
Good fishing, even I caught some.
Extremely clear water for the first 450 km.


Post date: Tue, 08/16/2016 - 22:15


We paddled from Horton Lake to Franklin Bay between June 30-July 25, 2016. The first two weeks were very hot (24-28C), and sunny except for short, spectacular thunderstorms in the late afternoon (which cleared up by evening). North of the canyons, the weather cooled to 8-10 C daily, and we had two or three days of wet snow (a 5cm accumulation overnight once, and some flurries that made it hard to see across the river).  We were never windbound, but some days had strong headwinds that made for slow going.

Allan Jacobs' report was immensely helpful in our planning and we agreed with his assessment of "Theatre Island". Fishing was spectacular for the first two weeks, with some riverside pools featuring more than a hundred fish clearly visible in the water. The water remained crystal clear until about 30km north of the West River, then became murky. Even then we found if we let it settle a few minutes it was perfectly drinkable and found no need to filter it. Rapids-wise, our experience was similar to Rob Gerety's party. Re: wildlife we saw muskox, caribou, arctic fox, grizzlies, seals on the ice at Franklin Bay, and many raptors.

We hiked to the DEW line site and estimate it was 18-20km return - from the takeout spot on the river, we walked the shoreline towards the coast, crossing a tributary of the "old Horton" that was a couple of metres wide and about half a metre deep. We hiked the ridges on the way there, then descended to the coast for the walk back, passing the old airport buildings. There was lots of pack ice and many pods of jellyfish along the shore. The Dew site has transitioned to an unmanned weather station (generators and all) and was quite clean, except for the area where the staff quarters remain - these are in very rough shape.



Post date: Wed, 01/23/2008 - 08:31


Just a note - one of the maps listed at the top of this wonderful trip report is mis-identified. The map listed as "Horton Lake 97O" is actually "Horton Lake 96O, not 97O.

Post date: Mon, 07/28/2008 - 16:42


Just off the Horton. The first canyon had 4 drops by my count. The 4th being quite a way down river from the first three. The 4th was a significant drop. The 2nd canyon rapids are significant. We scouted the entire canyon on the left up on top of the canyon walls which provided a good view but took a long time. We were able to avoid a long portage by a combination of paddling a difficult ferry here and there, some hard lining and two short portages - total about 100 yard combined - completed down in the canyon. It was a long hard day for our over 50 group. Alan's description was a great help to us but you do need to proceed through the canyon area with great caution avoiding the temptation to scout from the boat.

Post date: Sat, 01/01/2000 - 07:00


Addenda to my trip report:
1. The UTMs are all NAD27.
2. We ran into Hans Schneller on the Back this year. He and Tony Prijon are the two German kayakers (mentioned in Hodgins-Hoyle) who made the first known recreational descent of the Horton, in 1976.
Yours in paddling, Allan

Post date: Sat, 01/01/2000 - 07:00


We, 12 man crew, did the Horton in '91 I believe. Easiest trip of 7 I have been on in NWT. Fishing excellent. We did the trip from Horton Lake to the Arctic Ocean in 17 days from fly in to fly out. Arrived at ocean 2 days early. Many days covering 25 miles by lunch. Most of the trip was hot weather. Many nights sitting in the river just to cool off. Nice blend of tundra and tiaga. Plenty of wood the whole trip for cooking. Great trip. definately the most senic trip I have been on in NWT. Any questions
John Kelly