Mountain River from Willowdale Lake

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesMackenzie
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Additional Route Information
359 km
19 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
0 m
Longest Portage: 
1000 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

Access by float plane from Norman Wells
Start at Willowdale Lake
20 km of travel on small creeks - can be difficult
(shallow water, ice fields, sweepers, rapids)
Section 3 km of fast water
Second Canyon 1,000 m long
19 km stretch on River
Third Canyon
Confluence with Stonehouse River
Confluence with Brunson Creek
6.5 km on river
Fourth Canyon - huge waves - nearly always portaged
Fifth Canyon - CBR
Sixth Canyon
54 km of braided channels
Confluence with MacKenzie River
Sans Sault Rapids
Downstream 80 km on MacKenzie
Finish at Fort Good Hope

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

The Bocce Boys do the Mountain River
By: Earl Silver

This article originally appeared in Vol. 28 No. 2 (Summer 2001) of “Nastawgan – The Quarterly Journal of the Wilderness Canoe Association.”

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

Bocce is the Italian form of lawn bowling that we discovered can be played anywhere. Since there were no manicured lawns along the Mountain River, Al, our leader, improvised using gravel bars along the shore. River stones turned into bocce balls and we had a scoring system reminiscent of school days. As you may suspect from the opening, this article will focus on our experiences with the Mountain rather than the technical details associated with the whitewater.

The members of the July 2000 bocce team were Al Pace, co-owner of Canoe North Adventures, Gord Burke, Don Cooper, Jeff Osborne, Rob Stimpson, professional naturalist/photographer and supplier of pictures for this article, and myself. The setting was the Mountain River that flows off the Mackenzie Mountains from the Yukon / NWT border into the Mackenzie River, about 90 minutes via float plane north-northwest of Norman Wells.

When one travels down a river with a group of strangers led by an outfitter who has never done the waterway before, there is a certain level of apprehension on how it`s all going to work out. I confess that the amount of research I did on the Mountain River was minimal at best, so I was unprepared from this standpoint as well. This potential catastrophe-in-the-making did not happen. The Mountain was a joy to travel. There were many spots to stop and explore, and we landed the canoes often to take pictures and enjoy the scenery along the way.

A hint of what the focus of attention would be on the trip came when we loaded the Twin Otter. Eyeing the amount of food we took, one would have thought that we were going to be out a lot longer than 14 days. This was again evident when everything was unloaded at our first campsite at Willow Handle Lake. I asked myself, “How are we ever going to fit all this stuff in three canoes and still have enough freeboard to run the rapids?” Fortunately, we started slowly and spent a few days consuming food at this first spot. As Rob noted, it takes a while for one`s digestive system to get acclimatized to camp cooking. Al raised the bar with his Coleman oven that magically made bread, lasagna, cinnamon rolls and muffins, to mention only a few goodies. To add to the variety of cuisine, each of us was assigned to bring an appetizer and a dessert prior to the trip. On his day, Gord prepared a delicate entrée of smoked salmon, cream cheese, capers and crackers. Some days I felt that we were canoeing between meals, or just canoe-hopping from one campsite to another to eat.

From our initial drop-off point we started our voyage with a paddle across a small lake and a portage of about one mile to a stream no wider than the canoe. (This was the only portage on the whole trip of some 190 miles).

The tiny stream turned into Black Feather Creek that twisted and turned with a few technical bits of whitewater through a couple of canyons before emptying out into the Mountain River. There is nothing like learning about your bow paddler in a fully laden canoe to find out his approach. Jeff, my cohort, turned out to be a very cool-headed person who has good judgement on the water. Our styles melded together quite nicely as we sought to be one with the river.

Paddling on the Mountain River felt like canoeing in soup. It was very pushy and dropped some 20 to 25 ft. per mile in its upper and middle sections. Except for the last few kilometres, the canoe was going downhill throughout the entire trip. Typical of most of our sites, we camped on a gravel bar even though it can be dicey on mountain rivers that gather volume very quickly when it is raining. Our staking of the water level indicated the river was actually dropping. We estimated it came down almost two feet during the time we canoed down the river. (Note: in August a private trip on the Mountain had to ve evacuated by helicopter. They had a major dump in the 4th canyon where the river level rose 12 ft. as a result of heavy rains over a period of less than a week. This river is no Mickey Mouse tributary).

The huge advantage of the Mountain are the many spots where one can take day/evening hikes up creek or river valleys. These sojourns up the mountains can be relatively non-technical or a real challenge, but they provide wonderful vista views. Gord climbed to the top of a few “hills” and discovered sea fossils from eons ago.

What I found exceptional about the Mountain were the colors and shapes of the river stones strewn across the gravel bars. One could spend hours admiring the diversity of this geological paradise; the colors included blue, gray, purple and browns in pastel hues. One stone had a pictorial display of a couple of canoeists paddling along beside a mountain (as seen on petroglyphs). Others we found made excellent bocce balls or became resource material for inukshuks.

In the middle of the trip, Jeff celebrated his 50th birthday. Al generously gift-wrapped a bottle of rather old scotch and a few golf balls for the occasion. The festivities didn`t stop there. Al and his sidekick Gord, took advantage of the very large gravel bar campsite and went on their merry way to construct a four-hole golf course. The `Canyons` layout contained yardage, flags and sand greens. Each hole received a name that could only originate from a bunch of guys predisposed to discussion stamens and pistils. Upon announcing T-off time, the rest of us busily started making clubs out of surrounding driftwood. We had a blast.

Golf is not my game, but, when played in a mountain canyon that could rival any course scenery in the world and strictly for the fun of celebrating a colleague`s birthday, I loved it. Once can almost hear the echo of the canyon walls from the club hitting the ball, not to mention the cheers from the gallery as the ball headed directly for the hole. The announcer who provided the color commentary whispered “It is a hot summer day at the canyons, the temperature hovering around 30 degrees C as Don Cooper addresses the ball with his inimitable hockey style grip on his three driftwood …”

Part of the adventure in travelling these isolated wilderness rivers is that you and your group are alone with nature. In fact, some of us canoe these waters because there are very few homo sapiens visible to the naked eye. yet when one does meet fellow travellers, the introduction and subsequent get-together is special. We connected with a couple who had flown over from Germany along with their rubberized two-person raft. For the first part of the Mountain we saw them over a few days as we leapfrogged each other while travelling downriver. On one occasion they arrived at our appetizer time and we invited them over for a wee drop of Yukon Jack along with the snack of the day, shrimp crackers. Compared to us, they had to travel very light given their limited storage space. Wolf and Renata enjoyed our abundant fare and wee, their company and stories.

The landscape supplied small surprises everywhere in the form of unique ecosystems, like jewels in a crown of mountains. At one campsite just before the entry into the first Canyon, there were two streams that had a unique configuration. One flowed on top of the ground and the other from an underground cavern. They joined to create a pool that cascaded as a waterfall over the hillside. The area surrounding these brooks was lush green with semi tropical like vegetation that appeared nowhere else in the vicinity. Besides the water gurgling over the rocks, the only other sound was the clicking of cameras.

At the last canyon was a sulfur spring that was warm to the touch and had a distinctive aroma. There was a pool just large enough to bathe in. Around the pool were unusual plants that seemingly loved the waters temperature and all the minerals leaching out from the source. In the South, we would likely shy away from the slime and ooze. However, when you have not had a warm bath for about 10 days, your perspective changes. We all took our turns refreshing our bodies and souls. By this time, the group had established a certain rhythm and we took our private soaking without the need to communicate a schedule. A Zen-like individual and collective experience unfolded quite naturally.

The name of the river is quite mundane; the offering is a treat to enjoy. The speed of the current will take you down in no time. I was glad that we stopped and let our senses absorb what mother nature offered. At our journey`s end, the mighty Mackenzie River appeared underneath our canoes all too soon.

On the flight back to Toronto, Don, our Edmonton representative, invited us to his home for supper during the five hour layover between flights. Since we could not fit all of us and our few bags into one cab, we opted for a stretch limo (with an interior size of a Twin Otter). This long gleaming white limousine swallowed us with ease and provided the most dramatic contrast that any wilderness paddler may ever experience. The Bocce Boys ate it up.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
Mount Eduni 106 A Sans Sault Rapids 106 H Fort Good Hope 106 I


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


check out abandoned airfield (cleared and leveled by hand?) at Willow Handle Lake.

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


Correct the title ...
You have Willowdale Lake

It is Willow Handle Lake

small,but impt. adjustment

I have a much more detailed report if you are interested.