A guide to paddling the Broken Skull River

Everything you need to know about paddling the Broken Skull River in Canada's Northwest Territories.

The Broken Skull is a unique and remote tributary of the renowned South Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Starting high in the alpine the Broken Skull features clear water, incredible alpine vistas and an intimate wilderness feel, not to mention corner after corner of fun, friendly whitewater.  Only within the last decade has the Broken Skull become well known in paddling circles and it is quickly becoming the darling of those looking for a wilderness canoeing experience! 

For Nahanni first timers and Nahanni alumni alike, the Broken Skull is a ‘must do’ for anyone wanting to explore a beautiful corner of the world-class Nahanni watershed. Paddled by only a handful of groups each year the Broken Skull is quickly increasing in popularity as canoeists discover its friendly whitewater, clear currents, steaming hot springs and high alpine ridges beckoning you to explore beyond the river banks.  Featuring class 2-3 whitewater, the Broken Skull is perfect for intermediate canoeists wanting a wilderness paddling experience.  Our 12 day Broken Skull trip is a world-class trip in itself! For those with more time, continue on the 23 day option to experience the Nahanni’s most famous landscapes including Canada’s Virginia Falls and Canada’s deepest canyons

canoeing the Broken Skull River
The clear water and playful rapids are a recipe for ear to ear grins!

Highlights of the Broken skull river include:

Hiking.  The alpine beckons and with easy access from the river valley few can resist donning their hiking shoes and exploring what lies beyond the river.

Wildlife.  The Broken Skull river valley is an active wildlife corridor.  You may get a chance to see moose, caribou, porcupine, wolf, grizzly and black bears as well as a myriad of birds. In recent years the numbers of hawks, falcons and eagles in the area has been increasing. 

Cultural significance.  The Broken Skull river lies in the Sahtu land settlement area and has been and remains a bountiful place of harvest for generations of Dene and Metis people. 

Where is the Broken Skull river?

The Broken Skull (Pıı̨́ṕ̨ ‘enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé – pronounced “peep-en-eh-cleh- tone day”) is a tributary of the South Nahanni River which lies within Natsih’cho’h and Nahanni National Park Reserves. The Broken Skull is a small, alpine river that starts in the Mackenzie mountains near the border of the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Flowing south west it joins the South Nahanni river just above Rabbitkettle Lake.

Accessing the Broken Skull river

We begin many of our Broken Skull expeditions in the small town of Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. You can get to Fort Simpson by flying from Yellowknife or you can make the 18-hour, 913-mile drive from Edmonton to Fort Simpson in two days along the Mackenzie Highway. Your journey north will be a refreshing departure from everyday life. You’ll fly over the largest expanse of wilderness in the world, pass through quieter airports, meet friendlier service personnel, and generally begin to immerse yourself in the wilderness experience that is about to unfold. After loading our gear into the aircraft we begin one of the major highlights of the adventure – the upriver flight. Flying deep into the Nahanni watershed a visually stunning panorama unfolds in front of our eyes. You want to be sure to have your camera on your lap. Past participants have stepped off the plane declaring that “if the trip finished now, I would have my money’s worth!”  We will land on Divide Lake and once the float plane takes off you will be left surrounded by a vast wilderness where the breeze ruffles the willow branches and a white crowned sparrow sings a song of welcome.

The river can also be accessed with flights from Norman Wells. NWT with North-Wright Air and from Mayo, Yukon with Alkan Air.

Flying into the Broken Skull River
The flight into the Broken Skull River crosses an immense roadless wilderness.

What is the Whitewater Like?

The whitewater on the Broken Skull is often described as friendly but it does require an intermediate level of skill. Canoeists should be comfortable with paddling class II/III whitewater in loaded canoes. Private groups should be proficient in whitewater rescues and we always recommend people wear helmets, wetsuits or drysuits and have multiple satellite communication devices with them in case of emergency? 

Wondering if you are ready? Contact our office today! 

Each corner holds another gem, whether a new horizon or an exciting wave train!

Paddling the Broken skull river

The Broken Skull river is accessed from Divide Lake. From the mouth of the lake paddlers can paddle and line their boats to the confluence with the creek. A short portage must be made around Swallow falls, named for the cliff swallows nesting along the falls. Below the falls a small canyon can be paddled in certain water levels by skilled paddlers or lined in low water. From where this creek joins the Broken Skull river approximately 125 kilometers of beautiful, clear water and incredible alpine views lie ahead. Many side creeks and tributaries increase the size of the Broken Skull river but it maintains its intimate feel until joining the much larger South Nahanni river.

Canoeing the Broken Skull River
Gin clear water make the riverbed as alluring as the alpine skyline!

Like the Nahanni, the Broken Skull offers much to explore beyond the river. Alpine peaks gleam in the sunshine encouraging hikers to wander in their valleys and on their talus slopes. At Broken Skull hot springs, a short hike away from the river, two distinct pools tempt paddlers and wildlife alike to bask in its healing waters. Our 12 day Broken Skull trip and our 23 day Broken Skull/Nahanni expedition both allow time for hiking and to immerse yourself in a landscape full of romance and magic.

Guests enjoying the Broken Skull Hotsprings, Broken Skull River Nahanni National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Guests enjoying the Broken Skull Hotsprings, Broken Skull River, Natsih’cho’h National Park Reserve.

In recent years packrafters have been accessing the Broken Skull River starting at the end of the Yukon’s North Canol Road or descending the more challenging Little Nahanni River before hiking overland through the Vampire Spires. 

Geographic Highlights of the Broken Skull River

The Broken Skull River’s headwaters lie in the Selwyn Range. The river flows through the mountains and gorges of the Mackenzie Mountains. The valley widens near the mouth and the river becomes braided before joining the South Nahanni river. Your first day on the Broken Skull leads you deep into the mountains with numerous options for hiking and easy access to the alpine that continues for most of the trip.

Canoeing the Broken Skull River
Bedrock features juxtapose the water with the land

Weather on the Broken Skull River

The Broken Skull River is located in a semi arid region. Be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions. Weather can change quickly in mountainous areas like the Broken Skull. It is not unusual to have hot sunshine and rainfall in the same day. Weather typically improves as groups descend from the mountains into the wider South Nahanni river valley. Summer weather can be hot and dry although (on the rare occasion) it could snow, especially near the end of August. While inclement weather is a possibility at anytime, the weather is usually moderate. The average July temperature is 16°C and during August is 14°C, although temperatures of 30 degrees are not uncommon. Summer precipitation is mainly convective in nature, occurring mainly in the afternoons or evenings in the form of showers or thunderstorms. We provide you with appropriate recommendations for what to pack and wear in our Nahanni trip information.

Canoeing the Broken Skull River
Nearing the confluence with the South Nahanni River and edge of the Ragged Range

Flora and Fauna

The flora of the Broken Skull river and the Nahanni River watershed may be more diverse than that of any other region of comparable size in the NWT. Although white and black spruce predominate, there is a fascinating variety of other vegetation in the region, including on the Broken Skull River. The diverse and abundant plant life on the Broken Skull will be of interest to wild flower enthusiasts and anyone wishing to learn more about the rich natural world they are travelling through. This is primarily due to the existence of highly specialized habitats like hot springs, mist zones near waterfalls, unglaciated terrain and areas of discontinuous permafrost. Wildlife in the region are diverse and abundant. Moose, woodland caribou, grizzly and black bears frequent the Broken Skull River Valley, as do porcupine, beaver and a number of smaller rodents. The clear waters at Divide Lake and along the Broken Skull and its tributaries offer the opportunity to catch Dolly Varden, lake trout and grayling. One hundred and seventy species of birds have been recorded in Nahanni National Park including trumpeter swans, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine and gyrfalcons.

A cow moose looks at a canoe group with concern for her young calf

Fishing on the Broken Skull

Though Divide Lake and the Broken Skull River are known for their incredible fishing at this time paddlers are asked to not fish within the recently formed Natsih’cho’h National Park Reserve. We will update this post when more information is available. 

Do I need to pay Park fees? 

Yes, Natsih’cho’h National Park Reserve as of 2021 is now charging back country park fees like any other national park within Canada. 

Surely a good sign for the day ahead on the Broken Skull River!

Want to learn more?

View our canoe trips on the Broken Skull River.

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