The Coppermine River was nominated as a Canadian Heritage River in 2002 for its outstanding heritage and recreational values. It is currently awaiting official designation by the Canadian Heritage Rivers System Board.
In the western part of Nunavut there is a great river that flows north from the ‘land of little sticks’ where stunted spruce trees cling to life through rolling tundra hills, rocky outcrops and escarpments to the Coronation Gulf. This is the mighty Coppermine River, long a travel corridor for indigenous peoples of the Arctic. It runs through lands that are rich in wildlife, where muskoxen and caribou graze on the vegetation of the uplands and where wolves and grizzlies patrol the river banks, ever alert for a stranded fish or drowned caribou.
For thousands of years the Coppermine River has been a well-used travel route, providing rich hunting grounds for several indigenous peoples. The Pre-Dorset (also called the Arctic Small Tool Tradition) people hunted along its banks using tiny tools chipped out of flint or chert, including small knife blades, arrowheads and scrapers.
Pre-Dorset Culture ('Saqqaq'): 2500 BC to 500 BC
Dorset Culture ('Tuniit' or 'Sivullirmiut'): 500 BC to 1500 AD
Thule Culture (Proto-Inuit): 1000 AD to 1600 AD
Inuit Culture (Eskimo): 1600 AD to present-day
Ancient archaeological campsites are found along the entire waterway. On hikes along the river banks, paddlers find many stone tent rings, food storage cache sites, fox traps, kayak racks, hunting blinds (‘taluit’) as well as game funnelling systems of stone cairns (‘inuksuit’) arranged to frighten caribou into an area where they could be killed with bows and arrows, lances and spears.
Today’s river paddlers experience the land much as the Inuit and Dene did centuries ago. A canoeing trip headed downstream flows through gorgeous wilderness and crosses the Arctic Circle on its way to the Arctic Ocean. At the upper reaches of the Coppermine, many small rivers and streams flow into the main river from hills dotted with stunted spruce and dwarf birch trees. Downstream the hills become covered with tundra, while the boreal forest is limited to the lush river valley. Still farther downstream, the river flows through arctic tundra wetlands. Red sandstone cliffs upriver change to white sandstone then into rolling white marine sediments as the river approaches the coast.
The landscape changes drastically as paddlers travel through several sets of rapids along the river. Intense whitewater swirls around Rocky Defile. Beyond the rapids, boreal forest gives way to scrubby dwarf spruce as paddlers enter the arctic landscape at Kendall River. Red sandstone cliffs form a canyon, providing an excellent location for hiking or sport fishing. Paddlers pass the flat-topped September and Coppermine Mountains, which dominate the landscape for many kilometres. Spectacular views are seen in all directions over the seemingly endless rolling tundra plateaus.
In the distance, the red cliffs of Sandstone Rapids come into view, but to reach them you must first negotiate Muskox Rapids, a series of large standing waves. From Sandstone Rapids you will emerge into smaller sets of rapids and pass islands on route to Escape Rapids. For 40 kilometres (25 miles) of this waterway there are numerous sets of rapids to negotiate. At one point you are faced with at least five kilometres (three miles) of relentless whitewater.
Just before Escape Rapids, the wild river opens into a calm, wide channel before turning sharply to the left and crashing between canyon walls. A long, narrow waterfall drops 100 metres (328 feet) into the gorge near its entrance. Sheer cliffs rise straight up from the river, marked by patches of wildflowers tenaciously clinging to cracks in the rocks.
Below Kugluk (Bloody Falls) Territorial Park, the river flows through geological sedimentary layers of an ancient delta until it passes the rocky outcropping just south of the community of Kugluktuk then past sandy beaches into Coronation Gulf.
Wildlife viewing along the river is excellent. Caribou are frequently seen, sometimes crossing the river in long lines. Sightings of moose are not unusual, as the river valley extends a narrow swath of boreal forest habitat northwards toward the Arctic Ocean. Red foxes and arctic foxes, tundra wolves and wolverines make dens along the riverbanks, in eskers and sandy hills, hunting along the floodplain. Tundra swans, white-fronted geese and Canada geese nest in the wetlands, while raptors such as peregrine falcons, gyrfalcons, rough-legged hawks, golden eagles and bald eagles nest on narrow ledges in the tall cliffs along the river.
The Coppermine River is one of the premiere arctic rivers for both advanced and novice paddlers, for adventure seekers who prefer a guided trip with good scenery, wildlife, sites of ancient culture and for anybody who wants to learn more about this river’s important place in Canadian history. River excursions usually start with a chartered floatplane out of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. There are several good starting points for river trips of different durations, from one to three weeks. The length of your trip will determine how much flat water, smooth steady flows and challenging whitewater you will experience. Although very beautiful and picturesque, it is an arctic river with cold water and numerous rapid sections, hazards that need to be taken seriously due to the remoteness of most of its length.
A number of commercial operators offer canoe, river raft and kayak trips on the Coppermine River. It is a convenient river to travel down due to the fact that it ends at Kugluktuk, where boats and paddlers can be flown out on commercial flights rather than requiring chartered aircraft.
How to get to Kugluktuk:
First Air and Canadian North operate flights to Kugluktuk from Yellowknife.
How to get to the Coppermine River:
Access to the Coppermine River is usually by air charter from Yellowknife or a nearby community. It is possible to portage up the river system from the Snare and Yellowknife Rivers, but this is a long expedition with many portages, recommended only for the hardy adventurer with plenty of experience and time.
For more information, check the Nunavut Parks website.