This story featured in the May 2012 issue of the magazine.
By Conor Mihell
The far north holds a special power over us paddlers. It’s the source of our origin myth, a vast landscape of sweeping glaciers, soaring alpine peaks, abundant Pleistocene-like wildlife, and the ancient encampments of the original kayakers and canoeists. When we venture north of the 60th parallel, we experience the simple yet bizarre joy of 24 hours of daylight, exquisite beauty, and ever-present reality of the North’s short, tempestuous paddling season. We’ve assembled a cross-section of our favorite north-of-60 canoe, sea kayak and whitewater adventures. In doing so, it’s humbling and thrilling to realize that we’ve only scratched the surface.
Snake River, Yukon
The Snake River begins in the Wernicke Mountains of the Yukon, a territory that’s ironically devoid of reptiles. Instead, the river’s serpentine valley abounds with caribou, Dall’s sheep and grizzlies. From the Duo Lakes, alpine jewels set amidst 8,900-foot peaks, the Snake gathers steam with near-continuous, runnable whitewater. It’s a 185-mile run to the junction of the Peel River. Bonus: There are only two portages on the entire 10-day trip. Make it two weeks by continuing downstream to Fort MacPherson on the smoother waters of the Peel.
Gear up: A spray deck like North Water’s (starting at $579.95, northwater.com) is essential for the Snake’s boisterous whitewater.
Icy Bay, Alaska
Wrangell-St. Elias National Park’s Icy Bay is scarcely 100 years in the making. It formed as four large glaciers retreated from the coast of the Gulf of Alaska, exposing a sheltered nook of impossibly blue water. Bring folding sea kayaks and access Icy Bay by seaplane. Base camp on a sandy beach and plan a week of day trips, paddling amidst icebergs to the edge of calving glaciers, and staging alpine hikes in the shadow of 11,945-foot Haydon Peak and towering 18,000-foot Mount St. Elias. Plan for 18-foot tides and use canisters to protect your food from grizzlies.
Go guided: Leave the logistics to Equinox Expeditions (equinoxexpeditions.com) and sign up for their eight-day.
Thelon River, Nunavut
Veteran canoe guide Alex Hall calls Northern Canada’s classic tundra river an arctic Eden. The banks of the 560-mile-long Thelon River are anything but barren: The treeless landscape is alive with megafauna like muskoxen and the 300,000-head Beverly caribou herd. While its headwaters are more tumultuous and whitewater pulses through rocky canyons as it nears Hudson Bay, the portage-free central portion of the Thelon is suitable for intermediate paddlers prepared for sprawling lakes, intense bugs and remote wilderness. It’s possible to access the Thelon via the Hanbury or Dubawnt rivers for monthlong trips.
Gear up: A folding canoe like the 16.5-foot Ally 811 ($2,050) makes air charters more reasonable.
Noatak River, Alaska
Located in Gates of the Arctic National Park, the Wild and Scenic Noatak has been called the most ecologically intact river valley in the world, with wildlife ranging from golden eagles to grizzles, Dall’s sheep and caribou. Travel consists of moderate whitewater in the headwaters, gentle current in the middle reaches and braided channels as the river approaches tidewater. Fly in via Fairbanks and the outpost of Bettles to start on Pingo Lake, in the heart of the Brooks Range, and take three weeks to canoe nearly 400 miles to the native hamlet of Noatak at Kotzebue Sound.
Nature note: The dynamic, volcano-shaped mounds known as pingos that pimple the Noatak’s headwaters are caused when permafrost heaves the earth’s surface.
There’s no better place to experience the birthplace of sea kayaking than to paddle amidst the glaciers and icebergs of the Ammassalik and Sermiliq fjords of east Greenland. It’s impossible not to feel humbled by this immense, roadless landscape of jagged peaks, ice, lush valleys, and ancient Thule and Dorset camps. Fly in via Iceland and Kulusut Island, Greenland, where it’s possible to secure a boat shuttle to the village of Tassilaq. Plan extra time for waiting out powerful winds flowing off the Knud Rasmussen Glacier.
Go guided: Black Feather Wilderness Adventures offers two guided trips to Greenland.
Susna River, Norway
If you like steep, crystalline whitewater rivers, northern Norway is paradise. Located in the remote Hattfjelldal region, a five-hour drive from the nearest airport at Trondheim, the Susna has quickly become a favorite of skilled Class IV and V boaters. Each daylong run sports distinctive characteristics: The upper Susna follows a pool and drop course with big slides and several waterfalls. The more committing gorge section of the lower Susna is best at moderate water levels. Expect even higher volume drops further downstream, where the Susna becomes the Vefsna River.
Go guided: Join local Mariann Saether on an eight-day northern Norway roadtrip.