A trip down the Firth River, with its headwaters in Alaska and most of the river located in Canada, is a river trip with no parallel. It is said to be Canada's oldest river having been a refugium where the ice of the last ice age never existed. As a result, its landscape is rugged and craggy and its riverbed without glacial outwash gravels. Located within Ivvavik National Park in Canada's northern Yukon, the river lies across the migratory path of the Porcupine Caribou Herd and flows north to the Beaufort Sea. A permit is required and twenty days each year are set-aside for private parties to do the trip. The name Ivvavik is an Inuvialuit word meaning "a place for giving birth, or nursery", in reference to the caribous' annual calving grounds that are here.
The river is a true classic of wilderness, archeology and whitewater as it flows through a pristine wilderness and through a canyon filled with Class III and IV whitewater in an area that hasn’t seen human occupation for at least 12,000 years. The stretch of river that is popular with rafters is over 150 miles and flows through 4 distinct regions known as the Aufeis Reach, the Mountain Reach, the Canyon Reach and the Delta Reach. Fishing for Arctic Char is excellent and requires a Parks Canada fishing permit. Allow 6 to 10 days for this trip.
The fact that the river is located in such an extreme location, with no easy access, means there are several pieces of logistics to work out before attempting this trip. All trips begin and end in the town of Inuvik, Northwest Territories. Inuvik has regular commercial flights to and from Whitehorse and Dawson, and is accessed by the Dempster Highway. It is a 15-hour drive from Dawson to Inuvik. Once in Inuvik, registration of your river trip is required and then a chartered flight is needed to get to the river start near Margaret Lake. Floatplanes can land on the lake and wheelplanes can land on a strip across the river from the lake. Usually a Twin Otter on wheels is used and puts you at the river's edge in the Aufeis Reach. It is rare for anyone to attempt the river by starting on the Alaskan side of the border, where the river is small, cloaked in aufeis till August.
Take out involves floating all the way to the Beaufort Sea where the Twin Otter can pick you up on Nunalak Spit just offshore. Some groups have been known to paddle all the way to Herschel Island to await pickup from the strip there. Pack ice can make this impossible, however and it is well advised to take out at the spit. You might find it worthwhile to have your plane land at Herschel and give you 30 minutes to visit the small museum at Pauline Cove, as this place is full of history from the early Inuit days to the whaling days of more recent time.
Margaret Lake to Joe Creek: 40 miles
From Inuvik most groups will charter a DeHavilland Twin Otter for the 285-mile flight. If you use a floatplane, there is a 400-meter carry of gear to the river. If you use a wheeled plane you will land on the west shore of the river with a campsite at the river's edge. This is the area known as the Aufeis Reach. Aufeis is the term for the permanent ice fields that form during winter and last most of the summer. They can block river channels and will cause daily water level to rise. From Margaret Lake the river heads northeast past nesting banks and cliff swallows. The hills are made up of eroded limestone and the river rock is sharp limestone as well. The river flows at a leisurely pace and as Joe Creek is approached the valley becomes increasingly narrower. There are a few small volume rapids. Muskeg Creek is a main tributary entering from the right with a campsite at its mouth. A bit further is an area full of nesting raptors and there is a nice hike on the river’s left along the cliffs there. At Crooked Creek, there is another fine camp with good hikes nearby. Here the river turns north and a little northwest and runs past Diagonal Creek and soon the river turns west and you will cross the 69th degree of latitude. At the Caribou Stick campground is a great walk across thousands of years old tundra where evidence of Inuit hunting traps can be seen. At Joe Creek, the Aufeis Reach ends and the rapids will begin.
Joe Creek to the Sheep Slot Campsite: 30 miles
This reach is characterized by steep mountain sides coming down to the river's edge forming a narrow winding valley. The river gradient increases, forming numerous rapids. Campsites in this section are limited to creek mouths and occasional gravel benches. During high water there may be no useable campsites. Joe Creek is sometimes closed to hiking as there is active wolf denning that happens here each year. Check with Park officials. There are some amazing and large eagle nests along the canyon walls here as well as rough legged hawk nests. Rock Garden Rapid is just below Mountain Creek. Before reaching Wolf Creek is Sluice Box Rapid and its campsite. Then, just below the Wolf Creek mouth is Wrap Rock Rapid. Scouting is recommended. A few miles and several rapids further you will exit the Mountain Reach and will enter the Canyon Reach. Just after Lamb Rapid is the Sheep Slot campsite on river left. It is reached from the scouting eddy used to stop for scouting Sheep Slot and Ram rapids. You should plan to camp here as it is dramatic and allows you to scout downstream from camp a ways before committing to the swift and continuous section that follows.
Sheep Slot Campsite to Engigstciak: 50 miles
There is Sheep Slot Rapid followed quickly by Ram Rapid—both Class IV drops. Past Sheep Creek, which enters on the left side of the river, is a due north stretch filled with fun rapids leading to Trappers Treat. Beyond here are more cliff nests of Ravens and Eagles and then there is the Syncline Campsite on river right followed by Red Hills Campsite on river left. From here, the river turns due east and runs through up to 15 Class III rapids to where Glacier Creek enters from river right. A mile below Glacier Creek comes Surprise Rapid, another Class III. Stay left! This is the beginning of one of the more continuous sections with lots of rapids and one long tricky Class IV known as Big Bend Roller Coaster. Just after Surprise Rapid, a creek enters from the right and there is a scouting pullout just after the mouth on river right. Big Bend Roller Coaster is complex with big waves, a ledge drop, and a wall to avoid. The river begins to flow north again and after the rapid there is Canyon Creek entering from river right. There is camping and hiking here. Next comes a section that has another Class IV rapid called Caribou Fence Rapid. Three miles below Canyon Creek where the river makes a left hand bend after a rock pillar known as Trudeau's Finger. There is a pull in/scout just below on the right. A long scout will show you the way through all the standing waves and midstream boulders for 150 meters with a short calm stretch after. Then another long section of waves and boulders takes you past the right side ledge that marks the end of the rapid. Stay Left! After the rapid comes Camping Creek. Below this are more Class III rapids and then Hardrock Cafe Camp and a bit further than what is known as Layover Campsite. From here the river flows east a bit then more north as it flows below the canyon rim to where the Water Survey Campsites are located. From here it is only a few miles to where the river exits the canyon with Engigstciak campsite on the right, just before the rocky cliff that forms the end of the right side canyon rim.
Engigstciak to Nunalak Spit: 30 miles
This is the Delta Reach where the river enters the coastal plain. It becomes braided and interspersed with gravel and sand bars. You might see Musk Ox here if they are about. The channels become shallow and some dragging may be required as you approach the Nunalak Lagoon. Cut bank Creek is the last marked campsite before entering the flat maze of channels leading to the sea. At Nunalak Spit is the only place that campfires are allowed and the many logs of the Mackenzie River valley that are washed up here make quite a bonfire. Park Service requires a fire pan of some sort and this is a good place to burn the huge bag of used toilet paper that you have carried after two weeks camping. Keep your burnable trash separate from organic trash so you can burn it while here. The strip is long and eerily found on the east end of the spit. There is an old cabin a mile west and was built by direct descendants of Vihjalm Stefanson, the famous arctic explorer. To paddle in a raft to Hershel Island would be easy if there was no wind or ice, which there usually is plenty of.
- River fluctuations are a daily occurrence as the daytime melting of aufeis is not seen on the river until after evening. So the river will rise each night and you will need to be careful for what is left along shore. Also, due to the extensive permafrost under the surface, even a light rain can bring rapid water level rises and floods have been noted from very light rainfall. Strong winds blow upriver once near the coast.
- Information and permit applications can be obtained from the Ivvavik National Park, PO Box 1840, Inuvik, Northwest Territories, XOE OTO. Phone 867 777 8800, or fax 867 777 8820 or from Inuvikinfo@pc.gc.ca. The packet of info Parks Canada will send you upon request is very detailed with maps and river features and names.
- Registering and deregistering your trip before and after is required. This is done by obtaining a Park Use Permit before the trip and returning it after the trip. Make sure the Park office is open to do this.
- It is the strictest Leave No Trace policy of any river I know and no fires are allowed and all garbage is to be carried out.
- No firearms are allowed and a fishing license is required for angling purposes.