With endless wilderness, incredible wildlife like wolves, caribou and muskoxen, jaw-dropping canyons and the mythic allure of the midnight sun, it’s no surprise northern river trips in destinations like the Canadian Arctic and Alaska top the bucket lists of most paddlers. Expeditions on rivers like the Nahanni, the Tatshenshini and the Coppermine are truly trips of a lifetime.
But northern adventures don’t come easy. First, there’s the challenge of choosing a river and route that matches your skill level, experience and expectations. Then, planning and coordinating an epic adventure is almost as difficult as navigating a powerful and wild river safely.
Thankfully, there’s an easier, safer way to explore the planet’s last frontiers by canoe, kayak or raft. There are plenty of professional outfitters offering expertly guided northern river trips for beginners to experts and all paddlers in between. They handle the tricky logistics, supply top-notch equipment, provide training on the river, keep you safe and point out all the neat features along the way, as well as serve guests gourmet meals and often act as great entertainers.
Of course, the options are far vaster than those listed here, but we’ve focused on covering all corners of the North and choosing options for all types of adventurers. Read on to find our picks of the top northern river adventures.
The Yukon still lives up to the legends of Robert Service and Jack London for its incredible wilderness and wildlife. This northern Canadian territory is bisected by soaring barren mountains and carved by free-flowing waterways, making it an amazing destination for adventurous paddlers.
1 Big Salmon River
Join the experts at Up North Adventures for a 15-day canoe expedition on the Big Salmon River, a lesser-known Yukon river that’s surrounded by spectacular mountain scenery. The trip starts in Whitehorse, a vibrant northern community that will give you a sense of life in the Yukon. From there, the outfitter will transfer you and a group of like-minded paddlers to Quiet Lake, in the territory’s South Canol region, where you’ll access the pristine Big Salmon.
This 355-kilometer trip is perfect for intermediate canoeists, with class II rapids and standing waves. Up North Adventures supplies premium equipment and gourmet meals, and will keep you safe on the water and offer interpretation to enhance your experience.
2 Upper Pelly River
Wanapitei Canoe Expeditions’ Upper Pelly River canoe expedition ventures into the little-known headwaters of a spectacular Yukon river. Expect deep wilderness on this two-week trip, as the river flows through boreal forest amidst serrated peaks. The 280-kilometer route includes mostly class I and II whitewater, as well as a few portages around gorges and waterfalls. The outfitter handles all the logistics, equipment and meals—just bring your sense of adventure.
3 Snake River
The Snake River is a classic Yukon wilderness adventure offered by the experienced guides at MHO Adventures. You’ll join a group of like-minded intermediate paddlers and expert guides on one of the most scenic rivers in the Peel Watershed, featuring amazing gravel bar campsites, excellent hiking and views of lofty peaks including 9,060-foot Mount MacDonald.
This 15-day, all-inclusive adventure starts in Whitehorse and includes a floatplane flight to the headwaters of the Snake at Duo Lakes, as well as a floatplane pickup near the river’s confluence with the Peel River.
From towering mountains to big-sky Barrens, sprawling lakes and cascading rivers, there’s a huge range of adventures available in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The area is home to some of the most legendary canoe trips on the planet, with enough options to fill a paddler’s bucket list to the brim.
4 South Nahanni River
The South Nahanni River is perhaps Canada’s most famous northern river trip, and for good reason: it features deep canyons, exciting whitewater, awe-inspiring Virginia Falls, and so much more. Canoe North Adventures enhances the typical Nahanni experience with an 11-day trip combining easy river canoeing with great hiking, giving your group intimate encounters with the Ragged Range, the tallest mountains in the Northwest Territories.
The all-inclusive trip includes a floatplane flight to Honeymoon Lake and floatplane pickup at Virginia Falls. Gourmet meals and expert guidance complete this trip-of-a-lifetime experience.
5 Thomsen River
Black Feather Wilderness Adventures takes you on a unique 12-day expedition on the Thomsen River, the most northerly canoeable waterway in Nunavut’s Arctic archipelago. Bisecting Aulavik National Park on Banks Island, the smooth-flowing Thomsen transports you through an oasis for northern wildlife, including muskoxen and Peary caribou. All equipment, air transfers and gourmet meals are provided.
6 Thelon River
Jackpine Paddle’s signature wilderness canoe trips on the Thelon River provide perspective on the sheer vastness of the Northwest Territories. The largest river in Canada’s iconic Barrenlands, the Thelon is noted for its amazing wildlife, including grizzly bears, wolves, caribou and muskoxen. The 193-kilometer Upper Thelon River expedition is a 12-day trip with no portages and easy whitewater, making it suitable for novices and intermediate paddlers.
You’ll encounter deep wilderness and enjoy gourmet meals and professional-grade equipment on this fly-in, fly-out bucket-list trip, with all the logistics handled by one of the most experienced outfitters in the North.
7 Broken Skull River
Don’t let the name of this river scare you away. With the expert guides at Black Feather Wilderness Adventures, intermediate canoe trippers can experience the Broken Skull River, a less-traveled tributary of the iconic Nahanni River, in the heart of the Mackenzie Mountains. This 11-day trip features class I and II whitewater, secluded hot springs and amazing hiking into alpine areas from campsites along the way.
This immense territory in the central Canadian Arctic is home to some of the longest—and wildest—rivers on the continent. From historic routes across the Barrens to rarely paddled rivers on the treeless islands of Canada’s Arctic Ocean, there’s something for every paddler to discover in Nunavut.
8 Coppermine River
The majestic Coppermine River was a critical thoroughfare for local Indigenous and Inuit people long before it transported European explorers like Samuel Hearne and John Franklin to the Arctic Ocean. Jackpine Paddle’s two-week canoe expedition on the Coppermine River allows intermediate and advanced paddlers to journey safely on a Canadian Heritage waterway in the rocky, big-sky Barrenlands north of the Arctic Circle.
This is an all-inclusive adventure, including floatplane transfers to and from the river. Jackpine Paddle’s expert guides offer canoe instruction, prepare gourmet meals, give guests a better chance at seeing caribou, grizzly bears and gyrfalcons, and interpret numerous archeological sites along the river.
9 Hood River
If you’re an advanced whitewater canoe tripper looking to challenge your skills in deep wilderness, you won’t find a better trip than Black Feather Wilderness Adventures’ two-week expedition on the Hood River. This wild river cuts across Nunavut’s Barrenlands and across the Arctic Circle, before dumping into the Arctic Ocean at Bathurst Inlet. Besides plenty of exciting whitewater, you’ll enjoy great hiking in rugged, treeless terrain under the midnight sun and have the chance to see iconic northern wildlife like grizzly bears, caribou and muskoxen.
Black Feather is one of the most experienced outfitters in Canada’s North and handles all logistics, as well as supplies spraydeck-equipped canoes and camping gear. Black Feather guides not only keep you safe and offer coaching on the river, they also create gourmet riverside meals.
With a remarkable blend of skyscraping peaks, coastal fjords and countless wild rivers, Alaska easily earns its distinction as the wildest state in the Union. Such rugged, extreme conditions make Alaska a destination for the most hardened adventurers. However, a few options exist for mere mortals to get a taste of this legendary place.
10 Birch Creek
Alaska Dream Adventures offers a guided five-day canoe or kayak expedition on Birch Creek, a National Wild and Scenic River nestled in the state’s remote interior. The all-inclusive trip includes gear and meals, as well as expert guides to help you navigate the river’s class I to III rapids. This adventure provides a glimpse of wild Alaska, with exceptional opportunities for photography and a chance to experience deep wilderness in the safety of a group while you paddle 100 miles of free-flowing river.
11 Gulkana River
Paddle with Alaska Dream Adventures and experience a classic Alaskan salmon river on the Gulkana, a class I to III waterway surrounded by stunning wilderness. This trip is best for intermediate whitewater kayakers with some experience. All gear and meals are provided, as well as expert guides to keep you safe. The four-day trip includes a half-mile portage around a gorge and waterfalls. It’s no surprise the fishing is world-class.
Northwestern British Columbia shares much of the same spectacular sea-to-sky scenery as Alaska. This is a mountainous landscape of grizzly bears, coastal peaks and expert-only whitewater rivers, including the notorious Stikine River. Still, less-experienced paddlers can also get a taste of this iconic landscape on guided trips.
12 Turnagain River
Elements Adventure Company’s two-week canoe expedition on the historic Turnagain River includes 300 kilometers of paddling in the traditional territories of the Kaska Dena and Tahltan people. The adventure begins with a floatplane flight to the river’s headwaters at Dease Lake in Northwestern British Columbia. The Turnagain is best for intermediate to advanced canoe trippers, with class II to III whitewater and a challenging portage around Turnagain Falls. You’ll feel tiny amidst the rugged Cassiar Mountains and have plenty of options for hiking to scenic vistas from campsites along the way.
If you don’t associate Canada’s most populous province with northern rivers, you’re missing out on the massive expanse of northern Ontario. Surrounded by boreal forest, wild rivers traverse some of the last-remaining mid-latitude wilderness on the planet, spilling off the Canadian Shield and destined for the Arctic waters of James Bay.
13 Missinaibi River
Canoe nine days with MHO Adventures on the historic Missinaibi River, descending class I to III rapids to incredible Thunder House Falls. This fully guided expedition includes all gear, gourmet meals and expert guides to keep you safe on the river, ending with a scenic floatplane flight back to civilization. Many canoe trippers consider the Missinaibi to be the perfect gateway to longer, more remote expeditions elsewhere in Canada’s North, so get ready to whet your appetite for more.
Feature photo: Karen Emsley/Unsplash