Mackenzie River – Hay River to Tuktoyaktuk – Part 1

On April 7, 2011, in Trips & Adventures, by David Andrew Magarey


The Stats

  • Distance covered: 1500+ km
  • Change in elevation: 175m
  • Lacation: Northwest Territories, Canada
  • Route: north from Great Slave Lake (the town of Hay River) through Fort Providence, Jean Marie, Fort Simpson, Wrigley, Tulita, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope, Tsigachic, Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Coast. This included a side trip to Delane on the Great Bear Lake, via the Great Bear River.
  • Cultural regions passed through: Dehcho (in the south), Slavey, Sahtu, Gwitchen and Inuvialuit (in the north).
  • Geographic areas passed through: flat Canadian Shield, the Northern Rocky Mountains and Arctic Tundra. The Boreal and Taiga forests of the south gradually turned into the barren lands of the Arctic Tundra.
  • Number of close bear encounters: 3
  • Number of soap related encounters: 4
  • Longest gap between towns: 6 days.

Starting Out

Its difficult to convert 49 days of paddling experiences in to words, so much is lost in the translation and there were a lot of “you had to be there” moments but here goes…

What started off as “Yeah! I’m here to paddle the Mackenzie River!” suddenly turned into “G, I’ve got a long way to go…”

I faced many challenges along the way, some of them physical, but most of them mental. Now I’m no stranger to expedition kayaking, but being totally self reliant, isolated and alone was definitely a unique experience. The biggest challenge was answering the many doubting questions burning in my head. “What if this happens?” “Am I capable of doing that?” Well I dealt with it and yes I am.pic2

For the most part the flow of the river was good and it was easy to cover a lot of distance each day. What made this difficult however was the fact that I couldn’t seem to motivate myself to get out of my tent before 10am as it was light till about 11:30pm. I was generally on the water by about 12pm and paddled till around 9-10pm each night.

The biggest days I did were about 80km while on others I only covered about 40km. either way this equaled around 6-8hrs of paddling each day. That’s a lot of sitting down and I took every chance I got to stand up and walk around. It was interesting to see that with the lack of movement my legs became visibly smaller (which meant that my calves almost became proportional to the rest of my body…almost).

Food became increasingly important and I started to eat more and more, but never seemed to be totally full. Meals typically consisted of rice/pasta, veggies and either sauces or spices to keep it interesting. It got to the stage that a 900g bag of rice or pasta would only last 3 meals. A five meal rotation seemed to be enough variety as I got to a town about every 3-4 days and in most cases was able to get some much needed meat and junk food (chips and Dr pepper became the snack of choice). However at times it looked like I might get into town a day or so late, so I tried to ration my food accordingly. At these times ANYTHING that got dropped was eaten and every crumb was important.

One day I came across a flock of Ptarmigan (a quail type bird the size of a small chicken) which are known to be a bit dumb. At first I was intrigued by their social framework, feeding habits and apparent lack of fear. I could get to within 3-4m of them before they felt “threatened” and casually walked to another bush to continue feeding. I knew they were edible, so it didn’t take long for one thing to lead to another and soon I was trying to catch some dinner. The plan was to hit one with a rock – I’m a cricketer, this should be easy, right? capture

As my throws missed and the sand exploded around the birds, they would casually look in every direction but mine and continue their scratching as though nothing had happened. At first this was amusing but it soon became serious when it appeared I was unable to hit a stationary object from 5m away – what would the cricket boys say if they saw this effort…all I finished the day with was a sore arm…

Meat was the big one I missed the most, more from a nutritional point of view than anything. I practically became a vegetarian for about 2 ½ months. “But didn’t you get lots of fish to eat on the river?” I’m often asked. The single biggest factor preventing me from eating fish was bears. To eat fish I had to handle, clean and store them (unless I caught them right before dinner) and out there smelling like fish – or food of any kind – was to advertise the fact that I was edible. It really gave a new meaning to the saying “don’t feed the bears!”

The food I carried with me was a) sealed in snap-lock bags, b) put in an airtight bag, then c) sealed in the hatch of my kayak at all times. When I cooked I took what I needed then quickly sealed it all up again and I would never sleep at the same place I cooked dinner.

I would be constantly making noise – talking, singing, blowing my whistle, whatever, just to let any bears in the area know that I was there. This helped to avoid the situation of a bear coming around a bush and being caught by surprise. The last thing I wanted was to suddenly find myself within the comfort zone of a frightened bear. Fear is a 2-way street. In towns I was given the impression that bears were vicious creatures that hunted at will and would inflict mortal injury at every chance. pic8

I had one experiences while cooking, when the bear came to with in 10m of me before it realized I was human and quickly disappeared in the other direction. My two other encounters (from about 50m) were a result of me being in the path of travel the bear was taking. In both instances I saw the creatures before they saw me and when they did smell/see me they casually moved off and continued on their way. How many bears knew of my presence without me even knowing? Id imagine quite a few. Now I’m no expert and I understand everyones experiences are different, but looking back on these encounters I never felf threatened by bears.

That said, should I have carried a gun? Maybe. Did I need it this time? No.

I turned bear awareness into a game by pretending I was in a war behind enemy lines. They were everywhere, trying to ambush me at every opportunity. This meant I had to be aware of my surroundings at all times – ALL TIMES. Fresh tracks on the bank, high dense bush close to the water and old camp sites were indications that I shouldn’t hang around. I occasionally got a bad “vibe” from a place which was good enough reason to move on and find another spot to rest.

Anyway, enough about bears…I was talking about fish…

The fishing was awesome but a bit hit and miss at times. I would either catch a lot of fish or none at all which was frustrating at times but when it was on, IT WAS ON! I was lucky to tick all my boxes and catch Grayling (arctic equivalent of trout), Lake Trout (average 5-10kg with 15-20kg fish being regularly caught), Northern Pike (one Jenn hooked pulled our double kayak along) and Cony (a large sea-run river fish). pic9

Catching these fish was as much about the places they were caught as the fish themselves. Trout were found in the deep cold waters of the Bear Lake, Greyling represented the fast flowing clear water of the Bear River, Cony loved the dirty Mackenzie eddies caused by the river bank and Pike patrolled the clear side streams eating anything that moved.

Fly-fishing was a new exciting activity for me. Only one thing compares to the experience of watching a large fish break away from the cover of a submerged log to attack a feathered hook cast next to its home – that’s watching the same fish jump out of the water as it tries to spit the hook its just bitten, as line screams off the spool with each beat of the fish’s tail.

The bird life along the way was spectacular too. To start with I passed through swamp and marsh that was filled with water birds such as ducks, loons, terns and gulls. However as the marsh became forest, blackbirds, crows and eagles were more common. It was as though the eagles were watching over me, guiding me even. They would sit in the tree tops until I was within photograph range; they fly off and wait for me to catch up again. This game seemingly happened all day at times. In a few instances both Bald and Golden Eagles flew over me so that if I wanted to I could have reached up and touched them. This wasn’t a threatening gesture, but meant that I had become part of the scenery and was beginning to fit in to the surroundings. You know your really part of the river ecosystem when insects hatch on your kayak and tent, leaving their fragile shell as a perfect representation of their former life. These were very powerful moments. pic11

Ravens too seemed to play a role in my adventures although I’m not entirely sure how or why. Among certain First Nation groups, the raven is considered a joker and shape shifter with powerful influence. At first I didn’t think much about it, but as time went by they seemed to grow on me. I miss their calls and cheeky looks as they fly overhead.

By far the most memorable bird experiences would be the ghostly sound of Loons calling at sunset and the Sandhill Cranes, which are the Canadian equivalent to the Australian Brolga. I had the privilege of witnessing a pair of cranes performing a courtship dance on the open sand banks. How many hundreds of generations had done the same dance in years gone by and how much longer will this ageless ritual be remembered? Words can not describe these great birds in flight or the magical sound of their call in the twilight. Other cool bird experiences were being swooped by Pacific Gulls and Peregrine Falcons and watching an Osprey have an aerial battle with a Golden Eagle.

Birds aside I didn’t see as much wildlife as expected, but what I did see was still pretty impressive. All in all I saw a bison, around 5 moose (including a mother and calf up close as I paddled past), 2 wolf (crossing the river), 20 bears (including 3 mothers with 3 cubs each), a river otter which was as curious about me as I was about it, and a beaver in the arctic ocean – go figure. No woodlands caribou though, but I saw countless caribou tracks and even fresh droppings. I woke one morning to see my tent surrounded by fresh tracks where the night before there had been none. I had a porcupine crawl into the vestibule of my tent one night and countless fox visits.pic10

My claim to fame for the trip is to have the northernmost “recorded” sighting of the boreal chorus frog – 60km south of Wrigley. According to some biologists I met in Norman Wells the whole area has countless species that are yet to be “officially” documented. I have a suspicion that most species have been known to the First Nations People for many years though.

Follow along on PART TWO of my trip down the Mighty Mac…

For more photos of paddling the Mackenzie River CLICK HERE

7 Responses to Mackenzie River – Hay River to Tuktoyaktuk – Part 1

  1. August says:

    Great information! I have been hunting for something similar to this for some time finally. Regards!

  2. Jo says:

    I would really like to thank you for all of the work you have made in writing this article. It was very helpful!

  3. mikerosss says:

    Useful blog website, kept me personally interested… great article!

  4. Shazza says:

    I loved reading this, and especially when you mentioned names like Rex Hunt etc… I thought, wait, this blokes from here!. As I’m so used to seeing and reading the “american” wide web it was a nice surprise. And your calf muscles looked in pretty good shape to me, can’t imagine what they looked like “before” they were so called wasted from too much sitting in the kayak. 🙂
    I loved your tent, no sags, good foot room, what make is it?

  5. Mike Jensen says:


    Glad you wrote about wildlife and about the birds you saw too. I remember ptarmigan when back packing in Newfoundland too! Was there a lot of spectacular scenery too? Any mountains too? Are there grizzly bears, and polar bears? At the end of the article it notes to click to see my pics of the Mackenzie and it goes to gallaries of many amazing trips you took but none of the MacKenzie. You just haven’t uploaded those pics yet? Amazing too how you went alone. That is the way I’ve gone, only more with back packing as I can’t portage with a bad back. How many portages in 1,000 miles of river? There must have been many!


  6. Bill says:

    Great article. I’m planning a Mackenzie River expedition myself–one that pretty much mirrors yours–so I am interested in logistical and equipment details. Things like, what model was your kayak? what weather should I expect (assuming I leave as soon as possible after ice break-up)? are there rapids exceeding class 1? how’d you get your kayak home?

    I would greatly appreciate any information you can provide regarding what to expect, whom to contact, how to outfit…anything you learned by doing that one might not consider. I am an experienced long distance boater (kayak and canoe) and am quite familiar with the Arctic (mostly Alaska), but this would be my most ambitious trip. Thanks for whatever you can offer.

    …Bill Harris, Missouri, USA

  7. We paddled the river in 2011 as a family of four after I’d paddled the NW Passage from Inuvik to Cambridge Bay in 2007/8. I have some thoughts on bears. Having had several all too interesting encounters with Barren Ground Grizzlies on the NW Passage Trip we did take two guns on the Mackenzie Trip just in case we; a. had difficult bear encounters, which in the event we did not, and b., we had to split the party. (A Dutch party I met while leading a group in Svalbard some years ago split thier party and the half without the gun lost two people to polar bears). Coming from a country (Scotland) where guns are quite unusual other than as an agricultural too for clearing vermin, I asked lots of folk on my various trips to The North, would you travel without a gun? With two exceptions everyone I’ve ever asked who actually lived and worked in The North said that you’d be daft to travel without one and that’s how they saw (predominantly summer) travellers from The South who went unarmed. What about bear spray I asked? They just laughed! Think of the wind direction and how animals approach you they said, and then think again. Do many people get hurt by bears? No, absolutely not, and most who do have done something stupid to precipitate the situation, like the Italian lad we met on the Mackenzie who cooked in his tent. Apparently, and perhaps in my experience, not surprisingly, the bear bangers only seemed to make things worse and he chased the offending bear off by throwing Tuppa Wear boxes at it! We used moth balls to great effect and never had any trouble with bears rummaging around in our food containers when they were deployed. Two boxes last for a trip of up to three months duration; just set them out each evening and collect them up again in the morning. I also took a flare gun or Vary Pistol which very oddly requires a full fire arms certificate in the UK but can be bought over the counter at any marine Chandlers in Canada. However, getting any kind of pyrotechnics North can be problematic especially by air, but most bears are put off by the bright light of a ‘flare’ and the bang helps to dissuade them too, but in my experience, by no means always. So, as an absolute fall back, I would always always take a gun, a simple over and under shot gun is best with a combination of solid slug and bird scaring ‘maroons’. If you do take one, find out how to use it properly AND care for it in the field. Be prepared for a huge amount of paperwork and some very serious questioning if you do, very unfortunately, have to use one to kill a bear. So far, I’ve never had to and with good camp and travel craft would never expect to do so. However ….. just in case …. a bit like wearing a PFD ….. (And, if you think the Canadians are draconian; try shooting a bear on Svalbard without due cause! Not fun!

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