Canoeing the Hood River
Nunavut’s Hood River is probably the best-kept canoeing secret of the north. The 300-kilometre paddle beats the much-better-known South Nahanni both for whitewater action and wildlife viewing, and its Wilberforce Falls—a double-tiered beauty—even rivals the Nahanni’s Virginia Falls in overall impact. Plus, total solitude is almost guaranteed as you’re paddling through the stunning Barren Lands scenery. No wonder it was one of Bill Mason’s favourite rivers.
The lowdown: The Hood is seriously remote—a two-hour floatplane flight north of Yellowknife. Most parties fly into Lake Tahikafaaluk, as long as it’s free of ice (ice can linger on the upper river into July). For the first 100 kilometres, the river runs through a series of small lakes in a Canadian-Shield-like topography. There are a few minor waterfalls and unrunnable sections to portage, but most rapids are Class III or less and fairly easily navigated. Slowly the river digs into the Barren Lands and drops into a valley between rising hills on both sides. Keep an eye out for the abundant wildlife—muskoxen, grizzly bears, wolves, arctic foxes, golden eagles and the huge Bathurst caribou herd, which migrates along the river in early summer and is easily spotted in the treeless expanse. About two days before you reach the Arctic Ocean, the Hood tumbles 160 feet over Wilberforce Falls, into a 250-foot deep canyon of sheer reddish walls that stretches for three kilometres. The drop—about the height of Niagara—is the highest waterfall north of the Arctic Circle. Some canoeists choose to end their trip at the falls, but most continue by portaging five kilometres around the canyon. Afterwards, the hills drop away into a flat plain giving the river a prairie feel before it joins the ocean at Arctic Sound near Bathurst Inlet.
When to go: Early July to mid-August. Your best chance of seeing the Bathurst caribou herd is in early July, but the lakes in the upper river are more likely to be frozen. Later in the summer, lower water levels make the rapids more technical.
Time needed: Two weeks is enough time to paddle the full distance (from Lake Tahikafaaluk to the ocean) with a few rest or hiking days along the way.
Experience required: If you don’t want to be portaging all the time, you must be comfortable running technical Class II to III rapids. It’s essential to be able to front and back ferry and make eddy turns in a fully loaded tandem canoe. This is a very remote river with all the hazards that go with any wilderness trip. You should have done at least one other multi-week whitewater trip prior to the Hood.
What to take: This is the Arctic tundra—be prepared for all four seasons and take lots of bug juice, a bug hat and full-coverage clothing. You’ll want a hardy three-season or four-season tent to stand up to the Barren Land winds. A cook tent is also a good idea for getting away from the insects and wind. And a satellite phone is a must. You’ll need tripping-sized, whitewater canoes. Bathurst Arctic Services (bathurstarctic.com) in Yellowknife can help with canoe rentals and overall trip logistics.
Resource: As the title suggests, it may not be new, but Canoeing Canada’s Northwest Territories: A Paddler’s Guide, edited by Mary McCreadie, is still a good source of info.
Guides: Blackfeather is guiding a 14-day trip in 2010, July 3 to 16. ($6,595; blackfeather.com)
Getting there: As is the case with most northern rivers, travelling to and from the Hood involves some complicated logistics. First you have to get to Yellowknife. (The good news is that increased airline competition means it’s never been cheaper to fly there.) From Yellowknife, charter a floatplane for the two-hour-plus flight into Tahikafaaluk or one of the other lakes on the upper river. Fly back from the river just upstream from Arctic Sound. Air Tindi in Yellowknife is your best bet (from $3,700 per person round trip; airtindi.com).
Additional reading: The Hood hasn’t changed much since Sir John Franklin visited on his ill-fated expedition in 1821. Read about what he saw and experienced in his journal Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea. For another perspective, try Deadly Winter: The life of Sir John Franklin, by Martyn Beardsley.
Best campsite: At Wilberforce Falls, where you can hike along the top of the canyon and fall asleep to the rumble of the cascade.
Best fishing spot: Any sandbar at the mouth of the river, where arctic char are hungrily waiting for your lure.
Best rapid to portage: The class V Skull Rapid is an aptly named boulder garden that would shred an open canoe in seconds.
Best hiking: Just about anywhere. Follow sand eskers and rounded ridges to the top of the many riverside hills for panoramic views across the Barren Lands.