BLOG 78. NINE ADVENTUROUS BUT NOT DEATH-DEFYING CANOE TRIPS
When someone asks me to share my favorite places to canoe, I usually hesitate. After all, one person’s treasure is another’s trash. I like my rivers brimming with wildlife and rapids. And the more remote, the better. But not every paddler shares my love of adventure. Most prefer quiet, easy routes without death-defying rapids and grizzly bears. So, as a nod to them, I offer these beginner/intermediate level routes which are remote and adventurous but seldom death-defying. Naturally, high water, low water or no water can change the difficulty. The routes are arranged in order and rated (my rating) on a scale of 1 to 10 for difficulty. By comparison, Arctic rivers like the Hood, Burnside and Coppermine would all rate 10.
1. Buffalo River, Arkansas: Picture the river in the film “Deliverance” and eliminate all rapids that rate above low Class II (advanced beginner). Add beautiful sandy beaches,spectacular vistas and free-roaming elk. The Buffalo is a federally protected river and one of the few U.S. rivers that allow you to camp and build fires (no fire-pan required) anywhere. There is no development along the route, which will be enjoyed by all skill levels. Canoe rentals are available. You must do this river in early spring if you plan to canoe the upper part near Ponca—which is the most interesting part and the only section that has rapids. Cliff’s rating: 1
|Buffalo River, Arkansas. Typical small rapids|
2. The Frost River, Boundary Waters Canoe Area . The Frost River flows out of Frost Lake, which is accessed off the Gunflint Trail. If you follow the main river (my book, “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping” details the route), and take only essential portages, you’ll enjoy a very remote and satisfying experience. The river flows into Little Saganaga Lake. From there, you can circle east and south back to Round Lake and your awaiting car. The river is narrow and shrouded by bluffs—well protected from wind and ideal for solo canoes. There are some small rapids that may be canoeable. Portages are rigorous but short. Of all the trips I’ve done in the BWCA, the Frost is by far, my favorite. Important! You must do the Frost early in the season when the water is high. Go in low water only if you like to walk. And bring a lightweight canoe! Cliff’s rating: 1
3. The Steel River is located in northern Ontario, about 15 miles from Terrace Bay. It empties into the north Shore of Lake Superior. I first paddled the river in 1974, with three friends. We had home-built wood-strip solo canoes with two-piece spray covers. The trip is described in my book, “Expedition Canoeing”. There’s a perfect mix of large and small lakes and meandering streams and rapids—and they can all be safely paddled in small solo cruising canoes. Most Canadian rivers are too big and powerful for the little canoes I love to paddle. The Steel is “just right”. You can do the river as a circle route (Santoy Lake to Santoy Lake) or end at the bridge that spans the Deadhorse road—about 30 miles above the Santoy take-out (recommended). A car shuttle can be arranged in Terrace Bay. Be aware that some of the portages are killers—notably the first one from Santoy to Diablo Lake. A lightweight canoe that is capable in rapids is a MUST! None of the rapids rate over Class II, though some are very long. If you love solo canoeing, the Steel will challenge but not overwhelm. A “Steel River Circle Route” trip guide is available from the Ministry of Natural Resources in Terrace Bay. Cliff’s rating: 3
|Steel River. Jim Mandle, left; Cliff, right. Cr. Gary McGuffin|
4. The Fond du Lac River is located in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan, just below the Northwest Territories. The draw is trophy fishing, spectacular campsites—many of which are on sandy eskers that run for miles—easy to moderate rapids and few portages, and no other canoeists. The country is fairly open so you can hike for miles without getting stopped by thick forest. Charter float plane in and out. Northern Saskatchewan rivers are noted for their generally light rainfall and minimal bugs. And the water is warm enough for swimming—or for safety if you capsize. Paddlers should be competent in (long stretches) of class II rapids. As northern Canadian rivers go, the Fond du Lac would be ranked as “easy”. The Fond du Lac is a great “starter route” for those who want to experience the flavor of the far north. Cliff’s rating: 5
|Manitou Falls, Fond du Lac River|
6. The Rio Grande River, Texas is not at all like the pictures of it you’ve seen in western movies. The river flows through the Chisos mountains in Big Bend National Park. Huge hills and deep canyons abound. Camping and open fires (a fire-pan is required) are permitted anywhere. There are a lot of rapids on the Rio Grande, some are huge! Go in February when the water is low and the whitewater is manageable in well-paddled open canoes. You can drive to the put-in and the take-out. Nix worries about Mexican bandits; electronic American eyes are on patrol! Note: Rob Kesselring and I will be guiding a trip on the Rio Grande, Feb. 4-11, 2015. Rob has done the river ten times! Contact Rob (firstname.lastname@example.org) for details. Cliff’s rating: 5
|Mariscal Canyon, Rio Grande River/Rob Kesselring paddling|
|Rio Grande River|
7. Noatak River, Alaska. Here’s a remote river for those with limited whitewater skills. Expect spectacular scenery, easily canoeable rapids and no portages. The river flows through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) so expect to see caribou, muskox, grizzlies, wolves and more. Access and egress is by charter airplane from Beetles or Cold Foot Alaska. Pilots won’t carry hard-shelled canoes on the pontoons of their airplanes so you’ll need a folding canoe or raft. The Noatak is well above the Arctic Circle so the weather can be dicey. High water changes this ordinarily easy river into one that will earn your respect. Plan accordingly! If you paddle the lower river to Noatak Village when the salmon are running, encounters with grizzlies are common. You would be wise to bring a gun. Note: Rob Kesselring and I will be guiding a trip on the Noatak River, July 18-26, 2015. Contact Rob (email@example.com) for details. Cliff’s rating: 6
The Kopka River is located about 100 miles north
of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Access by
float plane (15 minute flight); egress by car. The draw is the spectacular
scenery and magnificant waterfalls (11 of them!) which are more characteristic
of Alberta than Ontario. The Kopka
is small and narrow, with excellent campsites and fishing. Rapids usually rate Class II or less. Portages are infrequent and not
too difficult, but they are very interesting. For example, one requires you to drop your canoe 75 feet
down a broken cliff face on a mountaineering rope. A new rope was recently
(2013) installed. Bring lines for each end of the canoe and a few carabiners.
The lower Kopka terminates in what my wife Susie calls “The Land of the Lost”.
It is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring places on the planet.
I’ve canoed the Kopka eight times—it is one of my favorite rivers. Paddlers
should have a practiced back-ferry and be capable in technical Class II rapids. Portages aren’t marked or
maintained. You must know how to read the river! Cliff’s rating: 7
|Noatak River, Alaska|
|Kopka River. Looking upstream at the Falls that flows into the "Land of the Lost"|
9. If you’ve ever wanted to canoe to Hudson Bay (what paddler hasn’t?) the North Knife River (Manitoba) is the one to do. Begin your trip on North Knife Lake 160 miles from the Bay. From the river’s mouth, arrange boat or air transportation to Churchill, 35 miles away. Warning: Canoeing Hudson Bay is very dangerous! Expect trophy fishing and polar bears (!). Bring a satellite phone and a gun! Highly experienced paddlers only. Access is by float plane from Thompson, Manitoba; egress by train from Churchill. The North Knife is the toughest of the rivers on this list. I've canoed it three times and it is one of my all time favorites.
Cliff’s rating: 8