One of Canada's most spectacular wilderness rivers, the Mountain River is traveled by just a handful of groups each season. Wild and remote, the majestic Mackenzie Mountain scenery is breathtaking. It offers sightings of caribou, Dall's sheep, wolf and moose, against a stunning backdrop of colour. From high in the alpine taiga the river provides thrilling whitewater with mile after mile of fun roller coaster like waves. From the first paddle stroke to the finale at the confluence with the Mackenzie River, the current never stops, weaving its way through seven dramatic canyons making the Mountain River the best river for whitewater canoeing in the North!
The adventures starts with your flight to Norman Wells a remote oil town established by Imperial Oil in 1919 on the banks of the mighty Mackenzie River. Participants need to arrive in Norman Wells on day one of the Mountain River itinerary. A second option is to arrive the day before the trip starts if you wish to check out the town, its unique visitor's center or rest off some jet lag. Let us know when you are arriving and we can meet you at the airport. We can offer suggestions for accommodation in Norman Wells.
Following our pre-trip orientation and the repacking of personal bags we will depart Norman Wells for a one hour charter with North Wright Air to Dusty Lake. The upriver flight over the mountain and river is almost as exciting as the down river trip so you will want to keep your camera handy. Dusty Lake is set above treeline in a broad amphitheater of high peaks. It offers the closest access to the heads of the Mountain River, just 20 kilometers from the Yukon Boundary. Your guides will have flown in ahead of time to portage the rafts and trip gear to the river. They will meet you upon arrival at Dusty Lake and escort you along the half mile long portage that brings you to a camp site on the Mountain River.
With rafts inflated and packed we will shove off after a hearty breakfast and feel the surge of the river beneath our rafts. With the use of oars the guides will keep the rafts floating in the deeper water while everyone keeps their eyes peeled for wildlife on the slopes above the river's willow covered banks. This is moose country. In 2003, rounding a bend we surprised a cow and calf on a small island. Our group was in awe with this close encounter. The cow, bristling, stood as tall as a thoroughbred, her young calf darting back and forth between her legs. Further on we move through the transition zone of willow into a mature conifer forest than boarders the river and spreads out over lower elevations. As the peaks around us close in upon the valley a canyons are formed at river level. In the afternoon we will float the first two of the Mountain River's 7 canyons. The rocky walls offer good nesting for raptors. Further excitement was created in 2003 with eerie calls of a gyrfalcon in second canyon. Camp this night will be at the confluence with Black Feather Creek from the Willow Handle Lake access from the south.
The Mountain River has now doubled its flow and races through the Sayunei Range. Large alluvial fans open up the country and provide vegetation and berries that are popular with bears. Today we will make good time as the river races toward the colourful Ten Stone Range. We will stop for lunch at Shale Creek flowing in from a lake of the same name from the north. Over the years Shale Creek has been one of the better fishing tributaries. Fishermen in the group will have the opportunity to add some grayling and Dolly Varden trout to our dinner. Pushing on through the afternoon the Ten Stone Range looms high above the river. Ridges dipping into the valley display uncommon rock sections of faded purple and gold. In the evening we will camp at what has become known as the Moonscapes. In the evening we will have the option of exploring them on foot. The Moonscapes are an unusual plot of pot marked land that borders the west side of the river and reaches back with a circumference of more than a mile. Up on the Moonscapes one finds an unusual grey and weather worn soil, almost devoid of vegetation. So foreign is this land that many a group has spent hours trying to unravel the puzzle it presents. A landslide is what most groups consider most plausible. However the source cannot be found. The most likely theory, which came from an associate guide, is that the Moonscape is actually a collapsed tufa mound. The soil closely resembles calcium carbonate. The lack of nitrogen in these elements explains the near absents of vegetation. There are other active warm springs with subsequent tufa mounds just a few kilometers down stream. Anyone visiting the Moonscape will find the area similarly puzzling. Unusual wildlife encounters have been had at the Moonscape. Once a red fox inquisitively walked right up to us. Another time we shared the open land with a wandering bull caribou that showed little concern over our presence. We will take a layover day here to enjoy exploring the area.
Drifting through the gap in the Ten Stone Range and on towards the Shattered Range the alpine vistas are simply stunning. At the junction with Cache Creek the river has cut its way through the base of the Shattered Range to form the significant Third Canyon. Gliding past the sheer and imposing walls of this canyon is climax of our day. At the exit to the canyon the valley opens up again. We will camp on an open beach alive with pink flowers from broad leaf fireweed.
For the next few days we will follow the Mountain River northeast as it cuts deep ranges and plateaus. At river level the gaps in these ranges have cut short canyons each different from the next with its own special features. The steep descent creates long reaches of fun waves that will add to the excitement. The break between the Shattered and Canyon Range brings the Etagochile Creek in from the southeast. At the entrance to Fourth Canyon ? we will pass below the towering sentinel known as Battleship Rock. Further on the Stone Knife River flows in from the northwest. We will camp this night upriver from Sheep Lick Creek. After a much deserved supper one of the guides will lead an optional hike to a high point for a chance to look out over the vast land and river valley.
Today offers another exciting ride as the river rolls on with a steep descent. Following a break for lunch we'll make our way through technical meanders of Fifth Canyon, the largest yet. Stopping in eddies to scout as we go we will find our camp on a sandy beach at the exit of the canyon. We'll enjoy another layover day from this campsite.
Today's run takes us through Sixth Canyon, which is known for its steep walls that divide the flow into big eddies at each turn. At the far end the land drops away from the Carcajou Range and spreads out into the densely forested lowlands of the Mackenzie River valley. Following the braided riverbed in the late afternoon we will drift into Hot Springs Canyon, our seventh and the last of the trip. Here, everyone will be intrigued with the design of contrasting sedimentary lines that dip and rise on different angles reaching out of the water and into the sky. At the far end of the canyon the beach offers good camping. From the canyon wall trickles a warm flow of thermally heated water. A number of shallow pools provide us with the opportunity to soak and relax.
With 50 kilometers left until we reach the confluence with the Mackenzie River we plan on an early start. The braided river remains swift. The Franklin Mountains rise on the horizon. Next we'll hear the distant roar of the San Sault Rapids on the Mackenzie and then the brown waters of the two-mile wide Mackenzie come into view. With dinner we will celebrate our adventure and retell the stories of the trip.
Following breakfast a water taxi from Mountain River Outfitters will arrive and shuttle us up the Mackenzie River to Norman Wells. We'll have dinner at the Mackenzie Hotel and sleep for the night at North Wright Air's float base. The base could be considered more like a museum with the number of relicts from the CANOL trail all strewn about.
The flight south does not arrive until later in the afternoon. We will have time for brunch at a local restaurant and study the historic films and artifacts at the visitor's center where we too will find our place in the celebration of northern rivers.