Elk River

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesHudson
Submitter & Author Information
Route submitted by: 
Barry Cull
Trip Date : 
Route Author: 
Barry Cull
Additional Route Information
190 km
7 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
0 m
Longest Portage: 
1750 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Not applicable
Background Trip Info
Water Levels: 
Route Description
Technical Guide: 

The Elk River has its source within the upper limits of the tree-line and is accessed via three large lakes, Vermette, Rennie and Damant. Our trip began at the narrows at the northeastern end of Vermette Lake as it flows into Rennie Lake.

The Elk River is a river that cuts through the Precambrian Shield in a series of cataracts. As it coalesces beyond the large lakes it becomes a classic pool and drop river with numerous swifts, class I, II, and III rapids, and chutes and falls. It empties into the Thelon River in a spectacular set of falls containing eight or more major steps and stretching more than a kilometer in length. The cataract is appropriately named Granite Falls.

The Elk River has a lot to offer the experienced canoeist. There is the obvious benefit of challenging rapids, some of which are quite technical. In addition, by not being easily accessible, it offers remoteness; the side benefits which are great fishing and ample opportunities for wildlife viewing. On our trip there were signs of caribou, wolf and moose presence. In fact there was more evidence of caribou life on the Elk River than on our subsequent paddle down the Thelon River to Warden’s Grove.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Day One (Km 0-18):

Travelled north through Rennie Lake, a large lake with vast sections of open water. Wind can be difficult on this section. Lots of evidence of caribou life, antlers, bones etc.

Day Two (Km 19-49):

Outlet from Rennie is at the northeastern end of the lake. The river emerges at the narrows between Rennie and Damant Lakes. The swift and rapids (class I) at the narrows are non-technical and easily run.

Day Three (Km 50-78):

Long paddle north through Damant Lake. Care must be taken to stay on route due to confusing bays and inlets. A nice campsite can be found on the south shore opposite the narrows where the Elk River exits the lake. The campsite was occupied by a pair of nesting Whimbrels (curlew family).

Day Four (Km 79-87):

Where the Elk River exits Damant Lake there are a set of rapids and a set of swifts. The first set of rapids is class I or II and can be run easily, right over to centre with the exit through a rock garden. The ledge on river left is to be avoided. The set of swifts comes up a short distance later and is run through the centre with a heavy rock garden at the bottom. (We failed to find an ideal route through the rocks and did the bump and grind.) The river widens into a lake expansion after the swifts. Wind and rain on the lake shortened our day and we set camp.

Day Five (Km 88-101):

After the lake expansion the river narrows. Here there are a series of technical, but runnable, class II rapids. My canoe partner and I dumped in the first set which required fast maneuvering between submerged boulders to the right and left of the main tongue. We had a 600 meter swim and managed to recover our gear in the eddy on river left where the current dragged it.

The next set of rapids was runnable, but we chose instead to track. The next set of rapids cannot be run due to the fact that it is a chute with a meter or more drop. The last set of rapids for the day was somewhere between a swift and class I and easily run. We camped at the point where the river opens into a small lake about 300 meters around a right bend in the river following the rapids.

Day Six (Km 102-109):

Beyond the small lake there are a series of rapids and a chute where the Elk begins a northwesterly direction opening up into a lake expansion to the west. The first set of rapids was an easy run. The second set of rapids we also ran after scouting; it required some vigilance to avoid submerged boulders. The third set of rapids was a chute, which required a portage, and the final set of rapids we deemed unrunnable and instead tracked.

After the rapids there was a sand esker on river right which we spent time exploring. The esker was replete with longspurs and bald eagles.

Day Seven (Km 110-131):

We paddled across the largish lake in a westerly direction until the river narrows and swings to the north east. There is a set of class II rapids here that is runnable, but which we chose to track instead. From here the river opens into a set of lake expansions. At the end of these expansions the river narrows into another set of rapids. There is an excellent campsite here on river right where we chose to spend the night.

As with most of the Elk River the fishing is excellent. In the rapids below the campsite we managed to catch a couple of 2 lb. Grayling for supper.

Day Eight (Km 132-161):

The rapids near the campsite are class II and can be run. We chose however, to track them and run the next set of swifts. The next set of rapids sees the river complete an “S” bend in what amounts to a class I to II series. It is recommended that these be scouted due to the need to have a clear idea where the obstructions are. Most of the run can be completed by following the tongue down the centre to centre-left.

The next section of the river is above the tree line and the tundra is more exposed. The river has a current, so paddling becomes a lot easier than that on the large lakes. We camped before a set of swifts just as the river turns south, 25 km. from Granite Falls.

Day Nine (Km 162-188):

The river in this section begins with swifts and straight forward class I rapids through canyons. We did not scout any of the rapids which were easily visible and non-technical. This was a “royal ride”. The topography in this section was characterized by canyons and white sand eskers.

This topography changed dramatically as we approached the narrowing of the river following the lake that runs in an east-west direction. Granite cliffs are visible here and where the river takes an easterly swing there begins a set of rapids that is about 2 km. in length in a series of bends. The rapids are class III+ and cannot be run in an open canoe as far as I can tell. Surprisingly, these rapids are not marked on the 1:50,000 topo map. Needless to say we portaged these rapids to the place where the river settled down again. It is here where we camped.

Day Ten (Km 189-191):

Today we left the Elk River behind as we entered the Thelon River for the remainder of our trip. The last piece of the Elk that needed to be negotiated was the portage around Granite Falls. This is an impressive 7 or 8 step cataract through which the water roars over the earth’s granite bones. From my GPS, I estimated this drop to be about 20 meters. We portaged the falls on the right shore, a distance of about 1.5 km., over rocky terrain.

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
75H 75I<br />
Special Comments: 

The route can be combined with the Thelon River route from Granite Falls to Warden's Grove or beyond.