Whether you’re canoeing, kayaking, or whitewater rafting, Canada’s mighty rivers are sources of thrilling adventure, glorious scenery–and maybe even a relaxing tube ride. Here’s our list of the 10 rivers you really should visit.
Thelon River, Northwest Territories and Nunavut
Connecting the Northwest Territories with Nunavut, the Thelon River offers you the chance to canoe through northern Canada, including the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary–the largest wildlife refuge in North America. Of course, if you want to check it out, you’ll have to fly in–the Thelon’s remoteness is part of its charm. Just don’t go at the height of the summer, the tundra’s infamous for bitey, swarmy bugs.
Nahanni River, Northwest Territories
The Nahanni River was declared the first UNESCO World Heritage Site for a good reason: the deepest canyons in Canada, a waterfall twice the height of Niagara Falls, hot springs, and thousands of years of human history make it a key part of Canada’s identity–solidified with Pierre Trudeau’s championing the creation of Nahanni National Park after a canoeing expedition in 1970. Gruesome-but-interesting place names like Headless Creek, Deadmen Valley, Funeral Range, Thundercloud Range, and Somber Range commemorate two prospecting brothers whose headless bodies were found in 1908.
Yukon River, Yukon
The Yukon is the fifth-longest river in North America, with 1,149 km of its 3,185 km running through Canada. The Yukon plays a starring role in the stories of the Athapaskan peoples: story cycles tell of the creation of both time and the river, as well as the birchbark canoe. The river flows through the territories of Tr’ondëk Hwëchin, Tutchone, Tagish, and Tlingit First Nations, who depended on the river for travel, trade, and salmon fishing. Later, the Yukon gold rush significantly increased traffic on the river, which is still a popular destination for wilderness kayakers and canoeists today.
West Road River, British Columbia
Fishing is the name of the game on the West Road River, also known as the Blackwater River, which carries both the name given to it by explorer Alexander Mackenzie in the late eighteenth century, as well as a name that’s a little more descriptive of its dark, tea-coloured water. With much of it navigable by canoe or kayak (it’s not exactly easily accessible by road), the West Road is a perfect way to combine a day of paddling with a delicious trout dinner.
Churchill River, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba
Known as Missinipi (big waters) in Cree, the 1,609-km Churchill River was one of the key voyageur routes from the 18th to 20th centuries. Largely a series of lakes joined by rapids and waterfalls, the Churchill’s main source is Churchill Lake in northern Saskatchewan, where it flows through Saskatchewan and northern Manitoba to reach Hudson’s Bay at Churchill, Manitoba.
Milk River, Alberta
The Milk River–so named by explorers Lewis and Clark because the river’s colour looks like tea mixed with milk–is the only river in Canada that flows into the Gulf of Mexico basin. Although only 170 km of its 1,173-km length is actually in Canada, the part that is there flows through dramatic landscapes characterized by hoodoos, sinkholes, natural bridges, and caves. As well, in Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park, the Shoshoni, Gros Ventre, and Blood indigenous peoples left carvings and paintings on the sandstone cliffs overlooking the river. Ceremonies are still performed at the base of the cliffs today.
Ottawa River, Ontario, Quebec
The Ottawa River forms the border between Ontario and Quebec, flowing from Lake Capimitchigama west to Lake Temiskaming, then southeast to the Rideau and Gatineau rivers. Known today for whitewater rafting excursions, it was a key way to travel westward for several centuries, and was of primary importance to the Algonquin peoples of the area. For fur traders, the river was an essential but rough route, requiring 18 portages.
Grand River, Ontario
Southern Ontario’s largest watershed, the Grand River flows 290 km from just south of Georgian Bay to Lake Erie. Although much of its waterfront is dotted with signs of human settlement–including 800 Indigenous archaeological sites and nineteenth century mills, foundries, and factories–one fifth still cuts through rare Carolinian forest. The Grand can be explored by boat, along a waterfront trail by bicycle, or simply by wandering through any number of southern Ontario towns, including Elora, Fergus, Paris, and Brantford.
Kipawa River, Quebec
Because it drops 90 metres over its last 16 km, the Kipawa River is a popular place for whitewater rafting, canoeing, and kayaking, with Class III-IV rapids. Roughly coinciding with the June 24 St. Jean-Baptiste holiday, the Kipawa River Rally is the second longest-running recreational paddling festival in northeastern North America, although the official event has had to be cancelled in the past due to low water levels. Recently, proposed hydroelectric dams have raised concerns about the preservation of the river.
Shubenacadie River, Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia’s largest river gets its thrills from the Bay of Fundy’s tidal bore, which can create four-metre waves as it flows almost 50 kilometres inland, reversing the flow of the river. And if you don’t feel like being in a boat? At low to mid-high tide, you can always go mud sliding down the Shubenacadie’s banks, which is exactly as messy as it sounds. Fun fact: the Nova Scotia countryside literally bends under the weight of 14 billion tonnes of seawater as the tide flows into Minas Basin.
Hillsborough River, Prince Edward Island
The 45-km long Hillsborough River is the largest in PEI, almost splitting the island in two. Human settlement on the river has ranged from the Mi’Kmaq to the French–who were expelled from PEI in 1758–to the British, who began to settle the area around 1772. Along with its long human history, the Hillsborough River has significant natural heritage, running through salt, brine, and freshwater marshes, and is home to several diverse ecosystems.