The Thomsen River on Banks Island in Canada’s Northwest Territories is the northernmost navigable river in the world. Join us for an outrageous adventure in the high arctic. You will see muskoxen and wildflowers further north than you ever imagined you would go.
For a trip of epic proportions, travel to Canada’s Banks Island and canoe the Thomsen River, where you will experience the wide open spaces and resilient wildlife that flourishes at the top of the world.
Located in Aulavik National Park, the Thomsen River Valley boasts the highest density of Muskoxen in the world and is abundant in bird life along with caribou, arctic fox, arctic hares and wolves. We will explore this high arctic river at the peak of summer. At 74° north latitude the midnight sun will burn brightly, melting the last of the snow drifts and our notions of time.
Summer is brief a thousand miles from the North Pole and the otherwise austere landscape of Banks Island erupts into a frenzy of life and activity during July with carpets of wildflowers stretching to the horizon and animals busily breeding and feeding. We have timed our trip to the Thomsen River to take advantage of the seasonal richness and to paddle the snow melt high water. With an average of less than 6 inches of annual precipitation, the paddling season in the polar desert is brief.
Solitude on northern Banks Island is legendary. Aulavik National Park receives less than 20 visitors a year. Some years Parks Canada reports that not a single outsider comes to visit the 3 million acre park, not one! A canoe trip on the Thomsen River redefines wilderness travel.
The Thomsen is a wide and gentle river which meanders between sandbars and bluffs on its way to the ice choked M’Clure Strait in the Arctic Ocean. The low wind-cropped tundra presents few barriers to our perpetual search for wildlife and the relentless summer sunlight will transform the land from brown to green to a riot of colorful flowers during our two weeks in the high arctic.
Negotiating the Thomsen’s sandy shoals and gentle curves is fairly straightforward, but we should expect periods of high winds which may slow our progress or cause us to stick to shore for a day or more. On a wilderness trip like this, our schedule is dictated by the weather, not by a rigid itinerary.
Hiking on Banks Island is excellent and we will have ample time to walk away from the river admiring flowers, birds and looking for muskoxen and other wildlife. There are also numerous archeological sites along the way, providing clues about human history and lifeways. Stone tent rings, and worked bone and stone litter the tundra in areas where hunters camped. With perhaps as much as 4,000 years of human history and a rich cultural history of Thule, Inuvialut and Inuinnait cultures Banks Island has been home to native traders, muskoxen hunters, and whalers.
This is dry cold and windy country, perfect for muskoxen, impossible for trees and large shrubs and, though cold, actually fairly comfortable for canoeists. Rain is rare and light and Aulavik National Parks gets an almost unimaginable amount of sunshine during the summer. We will be bundled up and wearing wind layers much of the time but the dry tundra is perfect for lounging, hiking, and camping.
Wildlife is of course impossible to predict but Banks Island is home to muskoxen, Peary caribou, arctic hares (so exciting!) arctic fox, arctic wolves, and no grizzly bears. The birding on this trip promises to be excellent both in numbers of individuals and in species, many unique to high latitudes. Ecologically the Thomsen is a singularity and for those interested in natural history we are confident this trip will be truly memorable.
Last updated: November 22, 2021
What follows is a general flow of events. Expect the unexpected and prepare to be flexible.
Meet with your guide this evening in Inuvik for a gear check and pre-trip meeting. Location TBD.
Head to the Inuvik airport and begin our journey north of North America. We will charter a twin otter airplane, and after flying north of the Mackenzie River Delta and beyond the Tuktoyuktuk Peninsula we cross the partially frozen Amundsen Gulf before landing on the south end of Banks Island in Sachs Harbor (Population 120) to refuel. We can take a quick walk before flying the final 150 miles to the headwaters of the Thomsen. Once we unload and the plane departs the only sound will be the wind and bird song!
We won’t have lost track of time quite yet and the midnight sun won’t have altered our rhythms too much so we will keep a relatively normal schedule and hike during the day, assemble the Ally Pack folding canoes in the evening and sleep during the sunlit “night”.
Paddle and hike in turn. The weather and wildlife will dictate our schedule. The upper section of the river is punctuated by several nice bluffs and a few shallow sandy sections where we may need to line the canoes or nudge them over the sandbars. Several tributary streams join the Thomsen and we will encounter the first cultural sites of the trip. Place names like Muskox River and Char Lake hint at some of the wildlife we may encounter.
The Head Hill cultural site is not to be missed and we will spend a full day hiking in this area, trying to count the muskox skulls and birding in the green hills. On a mild day the land can look pastoral and verdant with herds of grazers dotting the hills. Other days the land is definitely very Arctic. There are long stretches where the river forms a single channel and we can drift down river spinning on the current and scanning the sky for raptors. Other places we will again encounter shallows. The potential for headwinds is ever present. As we enter the delta where the river blends into Castle Bay we will begin to feel the coastal weather and notice the tidal influence on the river. Even near the coast the hiking is excellent and the birding gets even better!
A final day to relish the quiet of true wilderness. We may embark on an ambitious hike for a vista of Castle Bay and the icy Arctic Ocean. Or we can relax and reminisce about the wonders we have seen.
Our charter is supposed to arrive today and whisk us south back to the busy world of vehicles, internet, and trees. If the weather cooperates the plane will arrive and we will retrace our path back to Inuvik. It may be a day or more before the plane can come and get us if coastal fog obscures the landing area but eventually, like it or not, we will fly away from Aulavik National Park, no doubt changed by the experience.
Our guide was an encyclopedia on legs. His knowledge for the flora, fauna, and natural history of the tundra is astonishing. He was always willing and ready to teach, to talk, to listen, to do another hike, or to lie low in camp if we were beat. He truly gave us the trip we wanted!
Personal clothing and gear per our equipment list. Please note that space on the aircraft is extremely limited and packing light is essential.
Fishing gear, and fishing license
Gratuity for guide(s)
Cool and windy is the norm. Sunshine is nearly constant though low grey periods are possible. Expect temperatures to range from freezing to the upper 50’s. Precipitation is generally light but the wind is an ever present part of a trip in the High Arctic. Bugs could be bothersome when the wind dies. DEET and a headnet are essential. Sachs Harbor Weather is the best comparison.