Exploring Canada’s Northwest Territories

By Justin Walker 23 July 2014
Reading Time: 10 Minutes Print this page
Everything about Canada’s Northwest Territories is huge: imposing wildlife, massive lakes, enormous rivers, epic mountain ranges, and yes, ample opportunity for that Big Adventure.

We – pilot Dave and myself – are moving through the air relatively quickly, yet our pace seems slow. We track our progress by following our plane’s shadow as it dances over the sharp-edged mountain tops on the ominously named Cirque of the Unclimbables.

Incredibly, the surrounding mountain range dwarfs even the Unclimbables.
The size of this place boggles my mind. Put simply, Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) is bloody big – and relatively empty.

So empty, in fact, that those encroaching thoughts – okay, dreams – of walking away from the modern world would be easy to achieve…

At the edge of the Northwest Territories

Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT) covers 1,183,085 km2  and is sandwiched between the Yukon to the west, and Nunavut to the east. Its current borders are relatively new – they were readjusted in 1999 when Nunavut was created.

The most amazing thing is the sparse population – a little more than 41,000 people inhabit this enormous space, lending credence to my “get lost” dream. About 51 per cent are aboriginal, or First Nations, people.

Frontier towns have a unique sense about them. It may be a feeling of total remoteness, a real closeness of community or that sense of the impossible being possible. But what towns in or near true wilderness have in common is that feeling of promises waiting to be fulfilled. Fort Simpson, at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie rivers, is no exception.

Arriving at Fort Simpson

My arrival in Fort Simpson is actually day two of my NWT experience – I had arrived just after midnight the night before in Yellowknife, the NWT capital. The flight to Yellowknife had been brilliant. This far north, there is no darkness during the summer, just a dull twilight that lights up the capital’s myriad of surrounding lakes and waterways.

Yellowknife is on the banks of Great Slave Lake, a huge body of water that – to this resident of the world’s driest populated country – looks more like an inland sea.

The lake is also the first indication of how big everything is in the NWT – it is the territories’ second-largest lake, measuring 480km long and 19 to 108km wide, and, at 615m, it is North America’s deepest. I learned all this during a whirlwind boat-tour, guided by Daniel Gillis, who, with his wife Monique, hosted me overnight at their awesome floating bed and breakfast.

The flight from Yellowknife to Fort Simpson confirmed my belief that nature rules in the NWT. Seen from the air, the township of Fort Simpson looks like a peppering of dots on an island in between the narrow Liard River and the wide brown/green flowing ribbon of the Mackenzie.

The Mackenzie is Canada’s longest and largest river, draining Great Slave Lake (yes, all the way back at Yellowknife) before flowing 1738km north, past Fort Simpson, to empty into the Arctic Ocean.

The path through history of the Canadian wilderness

Stephen Rowan is an Englishman, but has lived in Fort Simpson for years and is a walking encyclopaedia on the town’s past. Stephen runs historical tours of the town, so I join him and Jennifer Thistle, of NWT Tourism, for a couple of hours to visit local sites.

The town’s origins are tied up with the massive fur trade; the original community began in 1803 as the Fort of the Forks. The village of Fort Simpson became a permanent settlement in July 1822, when the Hudson’s Bay Company began construction of a trading post and named it after the governor of the time: George Simpson.

Competition was fierce between the North West Company (based in Montreal) and the older, London-based, Hudson’s Bay Company. Fur trading and exploration of new areas led to plenty of trading posts being established, and settlements such as Fort Simpson thrived, with many arriving in search of their fortunes.

These pioneers included Albert Faille, a trapper and prospector who arrived at Fort Simpson in 1927. Faille’s adventurous life eventually became the focus of three documentaries. He was best known for his gold prospecting, but also spent considerable time guiding adventurers in the South Nahanni region.

Two Frenchmen also join us; they are canoeing the length of the Mackenzie, a journey they expect to take 42 days. I am amazed and envious. Stephen takes the opportunity to explain how the fur traders’ canoes were constructed in the 1800s.

These canoes were built to last; their only purpose was to ensure the valuable furs and gold made it to the trading posts. They measured up to 20m long and were made from five to 10 untanned moose hides, sewn together over a frame of spruce poles. To paddle one of these, down a huge, wild river, would be absolutely brilliant. All I need is a bunch of fellow believers…

Getting about in the Northwest Territories

I finish the historical tour and wander over to the offices of Simpson Air. Here, I am supposed to meet Ted Simpson, the proprietor, and another larger-than-life NWT character.

When I lob, Ted is out on a flight-seeing job, but I get chatting to Dean, one of the pilots, and within the hour we’re off on what he calls a “quick job” – a flight out to Trout Lake community to pick up some contract workers and drop off some health supplies.

I soon learn that “quick” and “short” are relative terms among the local inhabitants – and especially these young pilots – as it takes us close to an hour to get out to the community.

The Dene are the aboriginal people of the NWT; they are scattered among the territory’s 32 “official” communities or townships. As we fly to Trout Lake, the similarities with Australia’s own Northern Territory are striking: the indigenous population resides in similar remote communities; the NT is huge; and the best way to get to these communities is via bush plane.

The landscape, however, could not be more different. This close to the Arctic, the ground is damp and swampy, with myriad lakes dotted across it, along with swathes of grasslands that are hidden underneath metres of ice and snow during the long, dark winters.

The trip is brilliant – the community is very welcoming and the contract workers we bring back are bloody funny. In a place as remote as this, you need to possess good humour to survive.

Canoeing the Nahanni River

When you take a mad-keen paddler to the location of one of the world’s most highly rated multi-day canoe trips, then whisk him away an hour or so later, you’d understand him being a tad stroppy.

However, Dave, my Simpson Air pilot for today, is probably used to seeing pained expressions on clients’ faces when he tells them it’s time to jump back in the floatplane. I pretend I cannot hear him the first time and I have the perfect excuse for my sudden deafness: the South Nahanni River’s Virginia Falls.

The South Nahanni River is the centrepiece of the immense Nahanni Nature Park Reserve. It’s not only a brilliant canoe trip (you can opt for a 21-day epic, a 14-day adventure, or a shorter eight-day paddle), but is relatively unique in that it still follows its original course. While the landscape changed around it from plains to mountains, the river’s flow was strong enough to continue on its way.

During this aeons-long process, the river carved four deep canyons along its length, reaching up to 1000m in depth.

The river’s power is most evident from where I stand above Virginia Falls. This waterfall drops about 90m to the river below. Amusingly – or is that ominously – Dave points out a spot on the river’s far bank, a couple of hundred metres before the falls, dubbed “Last Chance Eddy”.

And it really would be; if you missed that eddy I reckon you’d have about five seconds before plummeting off the falls. The river flows incredibly fast.

The river was not “conquered” until 1964, when a group of Frenchmen paddled (I think “were carried” is more appropriate) from its source to its end, where the South Nahanni meets the Liard. After hearing that story, I believe I have figured out where the term “crazy Frenchmen” originated. But what an adventure!

The region is a wilderness adventurer’s dream. The park contains vast plateaux, massive mountain ranges, such as the Cirque of the Unclimbables – which you can actually climb, it’s just a bloody long way from nowhere to get to – and sulphur-filled hot springs and “Tufa Mounds”, karst formations formed when acidic water covers soluble rock, dissolves the rock and forms a hole, with a visible calcite rim around the water pool.The park’s largest mounds – the Rabbitkettle Tufa Mounds – are also Canada’s largest.

Of course, there are also numerous grizzly bears, wolves, Dall sheep and other wildlife in this remote landscape. The park only has about 900 visitors annually and, with its remoteness, you can certainly see why.

Lodging at Little Doctor Lake

Dave and I eventually turn around, putting the floatplane’s tail to the peaks of the Cirque of the Unclimbables, and make our way to one of the coolest-named bodies of water I have seen: Little Doctor Lake.

Ted Grant owns the Nahanni Mountain Lodge (originally the home of pioneers Gus and Mary Kraus), right on the edge of the lake, which would have to be the ultimate lost soul’s home.

Dave and I arrive at the lodge to be welcomed by Al, Lee and Ed. The trio of friends (Al and Lee are siblings) has been making an annual pilgrimage to this northern paradise for the past 15 years. Looking around at the lake itself, the nearby forest and the wide open space around us, I have little trouble figuring out why.

I am only here for this evening and night, so the three semi-permanent residents ensure I am not idle. We head out past the lake’s far border in a small tinny, then float into a side stream, dropping a line for dinner – either trout or pickerel.

I get lucky and nab four, and the rest of the crew do similarly well. It is only when I glance at my watch and see it is past midnight – and still light – that I remember I should get some sleep.

But later, sitting at the edge of the lake, around a small fire, listening to the lads’ tall tales, tiredness is kept well at bay until the wee hours. About 3am, as I write in my notebook, ticking off the sights I have seen over the past three days – and underlining five times “I must paddle the South Nahanni”– I add another small question: “How much time would you need?” A question I am beginning to realise has no simple answer – and I only have two more days.

Flying to North Nahanni Naturalist Lodge

The next morning brings more memorable moments, not least flying in Ted’s 50-year-old De Havilland Beaver floatplane.

I have been a plane-nut since I was a kid, and the chance to ride in one of these “workhorses of the North” is awesome. I also mentally note that Ted reckons it is ideal for transporting canoes to remote rivers…

And Ted should know. He was originally a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer (a Mountie) and has spent a lifetime in the far north, starting with a posting to Fort Simpson in 1976. He left the Mounties to pursue a flying career – and business, with Simpson Air – and has been at the forefront of the expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve, as well as promoting the NWT as a tourist destination.

The morning he picks me up from Little Doctor Lake, he also drops off some flight-seers at the lodge. I see the looks of amazement on their faces and wonder if Al, Lee and Ed saw the same look on mine last night. I am guessing so.

The flight in the Beaver is way too short. I am just, literally, jumping across the lake to neighbouring Cli Lake and yet another spectacularly located residence: the North Nahanni Naturalist Lodge.

My host is Ria Letcher. Her husband, Loyal, is away, and I have arrived before the lodge’s official opening. Everyone here – Ria, Neil the manager and Ricky the First Nations guide, Ria’s sisters and children – is running around getting ready for the season. The lodge is brilliant; a sprawling affair on the lake edge, with huge mountains behind and in front of it.

Touring Cli Lake

I am soon busy too, accompanying Ricky out onto the lake to check the fish nets. And we’re in luck: there are 10 fish, so it is fish patties tonight! While we are boat-bound, Ricky takes me over to check out the remnants of a landslide from five years ago.

It looks like half the mountain collapsed into the lake and, as Ricky points out, it nearly took a lakeside cabin with it.

The cabin-owner’s wife, who was inside at the time, has refused to set foot in the cabin ever again. There is one positive: the landslide created a beautiful, small lake, filled with freezing-cold, glacial-blue water.

We gawk at this for a while, then Ricky mentions he spotted a grizzly on the opposite side of the lake yesterday, so we motor over for a look, although it is to no avail. From here, we move back up the lake to a side stream where we erect a sign on a footbridge, stating “Beaver, next 3km”. This footbridge is part of a short day walk near the lake (the lodge also supports multi-day hikes in the area).

We pass the lodge’s outdoor education centre, where First Nations kids learn about their heritage. That afternoon, I get to indulge in plenty of Ria’s awesome cooking, including moose soup, pickerel and moose steak.

Eating is interspersed with some time in the lodge’s hot tub, followed by a dip in the freezing lake (no, I promise I didn’t squeal – at least not audibly). Really, who said adventuring was tough?

A regretful goodbye to Canada’s Northwest Territories

I wake up the next morning a tad morose as it is my last day in the wilds of the Nahanni. Ria senses my slight disgruntlement and recommends a few of the NWT books in the lodge’s bookcase. Unfortunately, all these words and images do is confirm my thoughts that this trip has been one almighty tease. There is so much more to do.

I try and forget by going for another walk, once again accompanied by Mishka, Ria’s dog, in case of bears.

This is when it hits home. Whistling up Mishka, without even thinking, makes me realise that maybe, in just six days, I have taken in more of the NWT than I thought. After all, it’s not every day you’d be sure to take your dog on a walk because of bears.

The NWT’s untamed spirit – and its welcoming people – may have seeped under my skin enough to sustain me until the next time, and that’s when I start thinking…

On the plane back to Yellowknife, I think some more: it wouldn’t be too hard to emulate the trio at Little Doctor Lake and their 15-year record of annual NWT adventures – there are so many on offer. All I would really need is a cabin by a river (or lake), a canoe, a hotline to Ted and his Beaver floatplane and, of course, a dog.

The essentials

Getting there:
Air Canada flies direct from Sydney to Vancouver. From Vancouver, you can fly to Yellowknife with Air Canada. From Yellowknife to Fort Simpson, First Air will get you there, as will Air Tindi.
Check out:

Light plane is the best option when it comes to accessing Nahanni National Park Reserve or any of the NWT’s rivers. Simpson Air has the provision to fly you pretty much wherever you want, and can transport canoes, rafts or any and all trekking equipment. See www.simpsonair.ca.

Summer is the best time to travel, due to the lengthy daylight hours. Pack repellent for the (large) “bugs”.  

More info:
For all Canada travel info, see www.canada.travel
The Nahanni region was the focus of this story but the NWT contains seven other regions – the Western Arctic, Sahtu-Mackenzie Heartland, Dehcho, Northern Frontier, Yellowknife, Great Slave Gateway and Wood Buffalo. For, info: www.spectacularnwt.com

Further reading:

  • Yellowstone to Yukon, Douglas H. Chadwick.
  • Dangerous River, R. M. Patterson.
  • The Nahanni Portfolio, Pat and Rosemarie Keough
  • Trans Canada Trail Official Guide: Northwest Territories, Jamie Bastedo