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  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Updated: Aug 9, 2021

Cliff Jacobson

Rio Grande River, Texas/Mexico border. Scenes like this are commonplace along the RioG.

That's my canoe in the foreground.

When someone asks me to share my favorite places to canoe, I usually hesitate. After all, one person’s treasure is another’s trash. I like my rivers brimming with wildlife and rapids. And the more remote, the better. But not every paddler shares my love of adventure. Most prefer quiet, easy routes without death-defying rapids and curious bears. So, as a nod to them, I offer these beginner/intermediate level routes which are adventurous but seldom death-defying. Naturally, high water, low water or no water can change the difficulty. The routes are arranged in order and rated from the easiest (1) to the hardest (in this case, 8). For comparison, these rivers would rate a 10: Hood, Burnside, Coppermine and Mountain (Nunavut, Canada).

Buffalo River, Arkansas. There are many caves like this along Ozark rivers.

1. Buffalo River, Arkansas: Picture the river in the film “Deliverance” and eliminate all rapids that rate above low Class II (advanced beginner). Add beautiful sandy beaches, spectacular vistas and free-roaming elk. The Buffalo is a federally protected river and one of the few U.S. rivers that allow you to camp and build fires (no fire-pan required) anywhere. There is no development along the route, which will be enjoyed by all skill levels. Canoe rentals are available. You must do this river in early spring if you want enough water to canoe the upper part near Ponca—which is the most adventurous section. Cliff’s rating: 1

Upper Frost River, BWCA, Minnesota

2. The Frost River, Boundary Waters Canoe Area: The Frost River flows out of Frost Lake, which is accessed off the Gunflint Trail. If you follow the main river (my book, “Boundary Waters Canoe Camping” defines the route), and take only essential portages, you’ll enjoy a very remote and satisfying experience. The river flows into Little Saganaga Lake. From there, you can circle east and south back to Round Lake and your awaiting car. The river is narrow and shrouded by bluffs—well protected from wind and ideal for solo canoes. There are some small rapids that may be canoeable. Portages are rigorous but short. Of all the trips I’ve done in the BWCA, the Frost is by far, my favorite. Important! You must do the Frost early in the season when the water is high. Go in low water only if you like to walk. Downside: There are A LOT (around 50!) portages. Most are very short. Cliff’s rating: 2

There are dozens of beaver dams along the Frost River. Fortunately, you are going "with the flow."

Upper Steel River, Ontario

3. The Steel River is located in northern Ontario, about 15 miles from Terrace Bay. It empties into the north Shore of Lake Superior. I first paddled the river in 1974, with three friends. We had home-built wood-strip solo canoes with two-piece nylon spray covers. The trip is described in my book, “CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition.” There’s a perfect mix of large and small lakes and meandering streams and rapids—and they can all be safely paddled in small solo cruising canoes. Most Canadian rivers are too big and powerful for the little solo canoes I love to paddle. The Steel is “just right.” You can do the river as a circle route (Santoy Lake to Santoy Lake) or end at the bridge that spans the Deadhorse road—about 30 miles above the Santoy take-out (recommended). Once, I canoed it down to Lake Superior (not recommended!). A car shuttle can be arranged in Terrace Bay. Be aware that some of the portages are killers—notably the first one from Santoy to Diablo Lake. A lightweight canoe is a MUST! None of the rapids rate over Class II, though some are fairly long. If you love solo canoeing, the Steel will challenge but not overwhelm. A “Steel River Circle Route” trip guide is available from the Ministry of Natural Resources in Terrace Bay. Cliff’s rating: 3

Manitou Falls, Fond du Lac River, Saskatchewan. From above, it looks like the river disappears into a hole in the ground. It's quite spectacular!

4. The Fond du Lac River is located in the northwest corner of Saskatchewan, just below the Northwest Territories. The draw is trophy fishing, spectacular campsites—many of which are on sandy eskers that run for miles—easy to moderate rapids and few portages, and no other canoeists. The country is fairly open so you can hike for miles without getting stopped by thick forest. Charter float plane in and out. Northern Saskatchewan rivers are noted for their generally light rainfall and minimal bugs. And the water is warm enough for swimming—or for safety if you capsize. Paddlers should be competent in (long stretches) of class II rapids. As northern Canadian rivers go, the Fond du Lac would be ranked as “easy.” It is a great “starter route” for those who want to experience the flavor of the far north. Cliff’s rating: 5

5. Cree River, Saskatchewan. Located just below the Fond du Lac, the Cree offers similar scenery and phenomenal fishing. The Cree is basically “all river”—only a few scattered ponds provide a flatwater experience. The big plus is that there are no portages. Not one! Scenically though, it's a step below the Fond du Lac. Rapids rate from riffles through Class II. Some continue for more than a mile! Spraycovers aren’t needed; it’s generally easy canoeing, but you must have basic whitewater skills. Like the Fond du Lac, the Cree is easy. Begin at Cree Lake (headwaters of the Cree). End at Wapita Lake or Black Lake. Charter float plane in and out. Very few paddlers do the Cree. Cliff’s rating: 5

Bears are common along the Fond du Lac and Cree Rivers. Be prepared! A campsite along the Fond du Lac.

Upper Rio Grande River, just beyond Lajitas. Cliff paddling Bell Wildfire canoe.

6. The Rio Grande River, Texas is not at all like the pictures of it you’ve seen in western movies. The river flows through the Chisos mountains in Big Bend National Park. Huge hills and deep canyons abound. It is essentially a mountain river with a fast flow. Camping and open fires (a fire-pan is required) are permitted everywhere. There are a lot of rapids on the Rio Grande, some are huge and/or impossibly cluttered and require a portage! Best go in October - February when the water is low/medium and the whitewater is manageable in open canoes. Six hundred CFS is about ideal for a scratch-free trip. We've done it as low as 200 CFS (very scratchy) and as high as 2000 CFS (dangerous!). Gauge readings, are available on the web. Note: the river rises quickly after a rain or when there's a dam release on the Mexican side. You can drive to the put-in and take-out or use a shuttle (on the Web) from Lajitas, Texas. Nix worries about Mexican bandits; electronic American eyes are on patrol! Cliff’s rating: (upper river, Lajitas to Rio Grande Village/suitable for solo canoes--5; lower river through the canyons/high-volume canoes or inflatables best: 6.5

Mariscal Canyon, Rio Grande River.

Typical campsite on a gravel bar along the Noatak River, Alaska

7. Noatak River, Alaska. Here’s a remote river for those with limited whitewater skills. Expect spectacular scenery, easily canoeable rapids and no portages. You're likely to see caribou, muskox, grizzlies, wolves and more. Fishing is excellent. Access and egress is by charter airplane from Beetles or Cold Foot, Alaska. Pilots won’t carry hard-shelled canoes on the pontoons of their airplanes so you’ll need a folding or inflatable canoe or raft. The Noatak is well above the Arctic Circle so the weather can be dicey. High water changes this ordinarily easy river into one that will earn your respect. Plan accordingly! If you paddle the lower river to Noatak Village when the salmon are running, encounters with grizzlies are common. You would be wise to bring a gun. Cliff’s rating: 6

Kopka River, just below "The Land of the Lost."

8. The Kopka River is located about 100 miles north of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Access by float plane (15 minute flight); egress by car. The draw is the spectacular scenery and magnificent waterfalls (11 of them!) which are more characteristic of Alberta than Ontario. The Kopka is small and narrow, with excellent campsites and fishing. Beginning paddlers should be accompanied by an experienced guide. Rapids usually rate Class II or less. Portages are infrequent and not too difficult, but they are very interesting and a few are hard to find. You can't just unwittingly barrel down this river and choreograph from the top what lies ahead. There are several spots where doing so will be disastrous. One "interesting" portage requires you to drop your canoe 75 feet down a broken cliff face on a mountaineering rope. A new rope was installed in 2013. Bring lines for each end of the canoe and a few carabiners. The lower Kopka terminates in a place my wife Susie calls “The Land of the Lost” which is one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring places within the tree line. I’ve canoed the Kopka eight times—it is one of my favorite rivers. Paddlers should be capable in technical Class II rapids. Portages aren’t marked or maintained. You must know how to read the river! Cliff’s rating: 7

Interesting portage along the Kopka River. Here, you must drop your canoe about 75 feet down a cliff!

North Knife River. The fishing is spectacular!

9. If you’ve ever wanted to canoe to Hudson Bay (what paddler hasn’t?) the North Knife River (Manitoba) is the one to do. Begin your trip on North Knife Lake 160 miles from the Bay. From the river’s mouth, arrange boat or air transportation to Churchill, 35 miles away. Warning: Canoeing Hudson Bay to Churchill (about 35 miles) is very dangerous due to ice cold water, tides and wandering polar bears! Don't do it! Expect trophy fishing and polar bear sightings (!). Bring a satellite phone and a gun! Highly experienced paddlers only. Access is by float plane from Thompson, Manitoba; egress by train from Churchill. The North Knife is the toughest of the rivers on this list. Paddlers must be capable in Class II+ rapids and be undaunted by bugs and bad weather. It is one of my all time favorite canoe routes. Cliff’s rating: 8

Mouth of North Knife River on Hudson Bay. Waiting for a chartered boat pick-up. Note that the tide is out. You can arrange a boat pick up here or paddle (about 6 miles/90 minute paddle along the coast) to Dymond Lake Lodge where there is a pond that's large enough to land a float plane. You can charter a plane and fly to Churchill (10 minutes), thereby avoiding the boat ride on the Bay. Be sure you have a tide table!


*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."

*My teen book, JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!

My book, BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING, 3rd Edition, details everything you need to know to safely and enjoyably canoe the BWCA.


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