The Slave River

We love to talk about the Slave River. If you haven’t heard us extol its virtues you just haven’t spent enough time with us. In fact, we talk about it so often that I am sure everyone now thinks, “oh boy here come Leif and Natalie, they are probably going to try and convince me to come to the Slave River... again”. I’m not sure why the Slave River hasn’t become a staple adventure vacation spot like the White Nile, Zambezi, or Ottawa. I’ve been to the White Nile and to the Ottawa and I think that the Slave is better than both. In this article I’d like to spend some time time dispelling the top three myths/reservations that I hear people say during my conversations about the Slave.

1. It looks too big and scary and I am not good enough yet.

This is perhaps my least favorite myth because it keeps a lot of boaters away from the Slave River who could really benefit from paddling it. Yes it is big (in places it can be a mile across). Yes it can be scary. But, what you may not realize is that it can be totally mellow and chill at the same time. The Slave really does have something for everyone. To understand how this can be, I’ll make an analogy. The Slave River is more like a ski mountain than a river. That’s right, there are bunny slopes and double blacks. We compiled a map of the Slave River rapids in Google Earth and labelled most of the play features and runs by difficulty. If you look at the map you will notice that the Slave River rapids are more like four separate ski slopes. Besides the awesome playboating, I know a couple of canoeists who come up regularly. Also, if the SUP community ever makes their way up, I anticipate that we may have a SUP invasion every summer because this river is perfect for it. No rocks, warm water, nice broad surf waves, long stretches of moving flatwater. Hey, but maybe we should keep this little secret quiet. Of course you can also scare yourself and get your pants ripped off of you if you are into that sort of thing. Basically I can assure you that you can have an incredible time whether you are a new boater with a shaky roll or a badass playboater or creeker.

Here is a guide to the playspots:

We also offer mentorships so if you want to come up and paddle with us and get feedback on your paddling, especially freestyle. Hit us up.

2. The bugs are too bad.

Waaa Waaa Waaa. Quit your whining. Yes there are bugs, but you can prepare for them and while you are on the water they really aren’t that big of a deal. At least the mosquitoes in Canada don’t carry malicious diseases like South American or African destinations. Also, the bugs probably aren’t really any worse than Northern Quebec. The mosquitoes are the worst towards the beginning of the season in June/July. The black flies are in full force in July and then by August the little sand flies come out. There are no bugs in September but it is colder and the days are shorter. My friend Maria from Germany came to visit and she is allergic to black fly bites. She had a great time and stayed for two months. So here is how we prepare for the bugs so that they don’t bother you. Wear long pants and long sleeves on the river. I like track pants with mesh lining because they are loose. Go buy a $2 head net (without wire) from Walmart. Stick it in your life jacket pocket and wear it while you are getting in and getting out of the water. When you are out on the river stick it back in your pocket.

3. It is too far away and too hard to get to.

Given that people fly to Ecuador, Quebec, Africa, etc I have a hard time really understanding the “too far away” excuse. I think that this myth really comes down to “The logistics are unknown to me”. So, I’ll lay it out for you. From Colorado it takes the same distance to drive to the Ottawa as the Slave. Leif once did it solo and survived. This means that for anyone west of Colorado, the Slave River is actually closer to you than the Ottawa! The Slave River rapids are located in the town of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. Google it. The Slave River is not out in the boondocks. Fort Smith is a town of about 3,000 people. It has a nice grocery store, a less nice grocery store that’s cheaper, a recreation center, community college and lots of hiking and wildlife viewing if you are into that sort of thing. Depending on which set of rapids you go to for the day the most you will be driving is only 20km. There is fast internet in town if you need to do work from afar while you are there. Leif and I recently bought a house in town that we are turning into an informal summer kayak hostel. For very reasonable rates you can camp in our large yard and use the house to hang out and cook. There is also a local campground with RV hook-ups (I think it is $30 a night or something like that). There are also a number of places you can park your RV or camper for free right next to the river. If you want to go posh there are a number of bed and breakfast type of houses in town or you can try your luck at getting to know the locals to work the house sitting angle. If you are unable to drive there you can always fly. The best prices on flights will be booking round trip tickets to Yellowknife. From there you can fly a local jet on standby to Fort Smith. (If you try to search for roundtrip tickets straight to Fort Smith you will be aghast at the price.) You can also rent a car from Yellowknife and drive 8hrs around the Great Slave Lake to Fort Smith. Once you are in Fort Smith we will be happy to pick you up from the airport and get you situated. You should be able to fly with a playboat no problem. However, you may be able to rent a playboat from the Fort Smith paddling club. No guarantees though.

If you are thinking of coming to the Slave River please go to Leif and Natalie on facebook, like us, and message us your questions. We will be happy to help you get your trip all figured out! We have a house in town where kayakers often stay. The season is anytime you can make it up there between June and October. I highly recommend budgeting two to six weeks. Most people who come for two weeks feel that it is too short of a time to really explore everything that they wanted to and they end up coming again for a longer amount of time. I also recommend that you consider overlapping your visit with the Slave River Paddlefest the first weekend in August. This is a really really really fun festival for everyone, boaters and non-boaters alike.

I’m already daydreaming about going back. Hopefully I’ll see you up there!

Some Slave-related links:

Here are blog articles from our blog tagged with "Slave River". (Prepare for a lot of scrolling)

As mentioned earlier, we compiled a google map of the rapids, which is a ton of fun to browse through.

Hey lazy folks, here is a link to directions to drive there.

Fort Smith Paddle Club website

Paddlefest Facebook page


Rockem Sockem Spotlight from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
Arguably on of the best waves on the river.  This is a low water feature that usually comes in mid to late August on a normal year.

5 Minutes in the Penalty Box from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
What can I say, to surf rockem sockem you have to pay your dues.

The lighter side of Paddlefest from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
This video show that the Slave isn't just for hardcore playboaters, but that it can be a fun river for anyone, whether you are a badass, a 5 year old kid in a canoe, or an absolute beginner to whitewater.  The Slave River paddlefest is a perfect time to come to get your first taste of this amazing river.

NWT Waterfall Tour from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
In addition to the incredible playboating that the Slave has, there are plenty of opportunities to huck yourself off some tall waterfalls within a days drive of the Slave.  This spoof video highlights a Fall (September) trip to explore many of these drops.  Although many of the smaller waterfalls were dry when we took this tour, they'd probably be running earlier in the summer in June-July.

Slave River 2009 from Jacqui Whitehead on Vimeo.
Really great overview of the Slave by Jacqui Whitehead, featuring some interviews from Leif, John, and more. Also with a partial strip show!  This video has a lot of "intermediate" level play spots in it.

Slave River Day 1 Edit 2014 from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
Here's a more or less typical day on the Slave. This was a day on Cassette rapids. There are three other rapid sections to run.

Slave River Paddlefest Promo from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
2013 Paddlefest Promo by Leif. Some emphasis on the festival, but plenty of footage of other waves and rapids from all over the river.

Molly's Nipple: First Known Canoe Descent from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
So, we said that there was plenty of canoeing and flatwater type stuff that was nice and mellow. Pete Starr here definitely didn't spend his whole trip running rapids like this one. Most of the trip was normal canoe-trip sort of stuff.

Slave Paddlefest Giant Slalom 2014 from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
And also check out the inaguaral 2013 Giant Slalom video. This race is a relatively recent addition to the paddlefest lineup, but it's already one of our favorites.

Pelican Rapid, 200,000 cfs from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
GoPros always make everything look smaller, but honest, this is a big rapid. This might be the highest flow it's ever been run at. Hard to know with any certainty.

Dave and Ruth duo run on Pelican from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
Here's a super low water descent of Pelican, with Dave Schmitt and Ruth Bournes.

Slave River Flood 2011 - Knock on Wood from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.

Subartic Wilderness and Wildlife Adventures 1980-2000 (Slave River and WBNP) from Leif Anderson on Vimeo.
Back in the day, there were commercial raft adventures on the Slave.


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