Rich in culture and wildlife, the Coppermine River is one of the most scenic rivers in Canada. Copper deposits found along the river were important to the first peoples who lived along the Coppermine River’s shores. Many important archaeological sites, distinguished by copper artifacts, are found along the Coppermine. It was stories of these deposits that brought Samuel Hearne to the area in 1771 and it was his documented journey to the river and the massacre he witnessed at what is now Bloody Falls (and Kugluk (Bloody Falls) Territorial Park) that brought the Coppermine into the history books. Other explorers, such as Sir John Franklin, soon followed and the Coppermine became an important exploration and fur trade route.
The river brings a tongue of the stunted spruce and birch cover of the boreal forest deep into the tundra, only 40 km from the Arctic Ocean. It is home to moose, caribou and muskox, as well as fox and wolverine. Raptors are found in the river canyon, while peregrine falcon, bald eagle, and rough legged hawk are also common. Today, the river’s landscape and riverscape has been modified only by the forces of wind, water and ice. The community of Kugluktuk at the mouth of the river is the only development and the river still supports the community’s subsistence lifestyle.
Geography of the Coppermine
Bounded by Great Bear Lake on the west, Great Slave Lake to the south and the Coronation Gulf on the north, the Coppermine River winds its way through the wilds of the arctic north; solitary, remote and powerful. Flowing through a wide sweeping valley, there are an infinite number of smaller rivers, lakes and streams feeding into the Coppermine, causing it to surge into a wild torrent through canyons and rapids with ice and snow melt from early spring run-off.
The river begins in the boreal forest 850 kilometres from Coronation Gulf and the Arctic Ocean, its eventual destination. A variety of lakes, whitewater and rapids and a transition from boreal forest to tundra means a varied and interesting river experience for the river traveler.
The Headwaters of the Coppermine
Beginning at Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories, the river flows through a series of long, interconnected lakes, such as Point Lake which is 120 kilometres long. High round hills surround the lakes and the lowland. The headwaters are a source of endless water, draining from the multitude of lakes surrounding the river. This reservoir provides the Coppermine with continual flow summer and winter.
In the headwaters, the Coppermine flows along the Canadian Shield, over the granite and gneiss of the Slave Geological Province. The water is clear, cold and intense. Spruce and birch, which are stunted, strong and enduring, dominate the landscape.
The hilly landscape continues as you cross Point Lake, Rocknest Lake, and Fairy Lake. Rocknest is described by Franklin as “a remarkable rock”, but he does not provide an explanation for the name. Fairy Lake, according to Franklin refers to the little people, who are “six inches high and live a life similar to Indians and are excellent hunters”. The river traveler is now passing through the enchanted landscape of the Coppermine, and alone, faced with the remote expanse of wilderness and wildlife, it seems to have taken on a life of its own, separate from the world of man.
The Nunavut/Northwest Territories Border
Beyond Rocknest, the current speeds up and the rapids become more challenging as you cross the Nunavut border. The current continues as far as Fairy Lake, where the river slows again as it enters a low, broad marshy flood plain. This riverscape extends for the next 130 kilometres to Big Bend. Impressive hills surround the river, rising up in terraces, covered with spruce and low shrubs in the higher elevations.
Just before Big Bend, the river swirls around a corner and the current turns you toward a small sandy beach at the base of a low hill. The river narrows as it approaches Big Bend, rapids and standing waves are encountered more frequently, and in some places the valley seems to close in on the river, shutting out any distant views, before opening up again into a broad expanse where the gradient is apparent as the water rushes down the shallows slope. You are now entering the last and most dramatic stretch of the river where five major white water river canyons await you.
Without warning the current can sweep the unwary into the whirlpools, standing water and ledges of Rocky Defile, the first of the canyons. People have lost their lives here and a memorial at the top of the canyon is a grim reminder that a mistake can be fatal. Five hundred metres of intense white water twist around the curves, and you are dwarfed by cliffs towering 50 to 60 metres overhead.
Beyond the rapids there is a dramatic change in landscape. The boreal forest gives way to infrequent stands of scrubby dwarf spruce. On the left bank are stunted trees; on the right low tundra vegetation, grasses, heather and arctic willows cover the low rolling banks. For the first time, it feels like you are entering the Arctic landscape.
Kendall Creek quietly enters the Coppermine at a short distance below Rocky Defile. Red sandstone cliffs form a canyon near the mouth of the river, which appears to run shallow late in the season. The Kendall River valley is on the caribou migration corridor and was the route many explorers took to Great Bear Lake. The junction of the two rivers is a common camping area and an excellent place for fishing or short hikes up the Kendall River valley. Downstream, the September Mountains rise up dominating the landscape, while upstream the green tundra landscape spreads out for miles in all directions.
The September and Coppermine Mountains
The river widens as it approaches the mountains, and occasionally the banks are low enough to see across the tundra, dotted with stunted spruce trees and dwarf willows. Limestone cliffs appear along the shore for a short distance. The river sweeps in a long curve into the mountain, which rise up and step back from the river, leaving the river valley open. The distinctive terraces stepping up the mountains are evidence of glaciation. Five hundred years ago, glacial Lake Coppermine covered this area.
The river flows between the September and the Coppermine Mountains, in a broad sweeping mass of flat water, however the strong, relentless current is revealed by the swirls on the surface. More limestone cliffs line the shore, and the occasional large masses of branches and white streaks on the rocks indicate more raptor nests.
Again the river sweeps in a wide arc westward around the end of the Coppermine Mountains, and another small river, Melville Creek, enters the Coppermine River right on this long curve. The riverbank rises into a flat terrace overlooking the junction of the two rivers and a hill appears in the distance on the opposite shore, an extension of the Coppermine Mountains. There are still enough scraggily spruce trees to provide wood for campfires.
Rapids of the Coppermine
In the distance, the red cliffs of Sandstone Rapids rise up along the shore of the river, but before reaching them, the Muskox Rapids must be negotiated. These rapids are not enclosed in a canyon, so you may find yourself in a series of large standing waves.
At Sandstone Rapids, the river again is pinched into a narrow channel of standing waves, rapids and back eddies. The cliffs of red sandstone dominate both banks, but are higher on the right. In the distance, where the channel opens again, there are more sandstone and clay banks. Emerging from Sandstone Rapids, there are smaller sets of rapids and islands to dodge. From this point to Escape Rapids, for over forty kilometres, there is a great deal of white water, more cliffs, and bends in the river. At one point, you are faced with at least five kilometres of relentless white water.
Just before reaching Escape Rapids, the river is wild with whitewater, then it opens into a calm and wide channel surrounded by high cliffs. This is the calm before the storm. At Escape Rapids, the river is pinched again, and turns sharply to the left as it crashes between the sheer canyon walls. Viewed from the top of the broad tundra plateau, the canyon forms a long ‘S’ curve. A long, thin waterfall drops 80 to 100 metres into the gorge near the entrance. The sheer cliffs rise straight up from the river, occasionally marked by a raptors’ nest or a patch of flowers crowing out of the cracks in the rock. The scrubby spruce have disappeared completely from the tundra landscape.
After a few miles, the green rolling hills above Bloody Falls can be seen far off in the distance. White clay cliffs and hills, sediments deposited by glaciation appear at a few locations above Bloody Falls, where the river widens into an enormous lake with braided streams. The current pushes the gravel and boulders into mounds along the channels.
Approaching Bloody Falls, the river is squeezed again into a narrow channel by the rock cliffs. On the left, the orange lichen covered cliffs rise into a plateau; on the right, a round hill rises 300 metres over the river. A golden eagle’s nest hangs off the top of the steep cliff. In the middle of the rapids, the cliffs open up to a sand beach on the right, an excellent place for camping. From here, there is easy access to the river as it rushes down the steep gradient before emerging in the enormous rooster tail standing wave. The river widens again, a few small rapids are encountered for a short distance, then the river slows for the last ten kilometres to the mouth. It flows between clay cliffs that do not allow much viewing of the surroundings except for high plateaus just below the falls.
Kugluktuk and the Mouth of the River
The approach of civilization is marked by a number of cabins found in this last section of the river, just before it expands to a mile wide delta where Kugluktuk comes into view. The cemetery is on an island, channel right; the community appears on the left, and numerous houses are visible around the rock outcrops high on the shore. The Coronation Gulf spreads before you and your journey is at an end.
Unpredictable and variable, depending on the summer season, you can face a much different river than described by those who have gone before. In a dry year, there will be places where it is necessary to haul canoes over rocks before entering deep water beyond the islands and shallows. Boulders, rapids and islands will pop out of the river, especially where it widens into a broad valley below the rapids. In a wet year, the river will continue to flood the low marshes, sweeping around the short willow bushes and soft clay shoreline. Rocks and rapids may disappear, riffles and standing waves will change locations. Extra caution is required as canoeists sweep around the inside curve of the river to avoid the strong currents and back eddies along the outside shore.
But no matter what the season, even into the winter, when thick ice has stilled the river and smothered the white water at places such as Bloody Falls, the river continues to pound and push through the arctic landscape. River ice can be dangerous, and the people of Kugluktuk are careful in picking their places to cross. During break-up, ice will plough into the soft clay banks at tight spots along the shore, and will jam up in the rock rapids, often pushing throughout temporary spring run off channels.
No roads lead to Nunavut; our Territory is accessible only by air and sea.
First Air and Canadian North both fly regular daily schedules to Iqaluit from four main southern airline ‘hubs’: Ottawa, Montreal, and Edmonton (via Yellowknife and Rankin Inlet). Flights from Winnipeg (via Churchill and Rankin Inlet) are also available.
First Air operates daily flights to Kugluktuk from Yellowknife. Kenn Borek flies from Cambridge Bay to Kugluktuk regularly. Please check with the airlines for schedule changes.
Access to the Coppermine River is generally by air charter from Yellowknife or a nearby community. It is possible to portage up the river systems from the Snare or Yellowknife Rivers, but this is a long trip with many portages and is recommended only for the hardy adventurer with lots of time.
Where To Stay
There are two hotels in Kugluktuk in addition to a community campground.
Aime’s Arctic Tours
Email Coppermine Tours
Tel: 867-982-3232 (Chamber of Commerce)
Visit the Kugluktuk Heritage and Visitors’ Centre (open year-round) for a fascinating introduction to the area’s culture. Here you will find exhibits featuring everything from traditional tools and hunting methods to displays of caribou and sealskin clothing. You may also arrange for a guided interpretive walking tour of the community, or a cultural demonstration featuring traditional skills/pastimes of the Copper Inuit.
The Centre’s gift shop offers an opportunity to view or purchase a variety of locally-crafted items such as stone carvings, jewellery, paintings, wall hangings, traditional clothing, and dolls complete with traditional caribou skin attire.
Kugluktuk Heritage and Visitors’ Centre
Email Kugluktuk Heritage and Visitors’ Centre
Tel: (867) 982-3570
Fax: (867) 982-3573
Nunavut Parks publishes a wide range of documents and reports on the work it does for each park – ranging from master plans, management plans, maps, brochures and other reports and publications. Many of these resources are available here.
Coppermine River Nomination Document – [PDF – 1.6 MB)
Draft Coppermine River Management Plan – [PDF – 2 MB) The Coppermine River Management Plan was presented to the Canadian Heritage Rivers Board in June 2008. The Plan has not been formally approved by the CHRS Board.
Coppermine River Editorial – [PDF – 874 KB) This short, four page document is informative and offers information about the Coppermine River.
Visitor information is available from the Visitor Information section of this website, and at relevant visitor and information centers throughout Nunavut. Contact Nunavut Parks for any additional information you may be looking for.