The Coppermine River is 450 km long (including the Kendall River and Melville Creek tributaries), and stretches from the Nunavut border with the Northwest Territories to Kugluktuk. The river is bordered by Great Bear Lake to the west, Great Slave Lake to the south and the Coronation Gulf to the north.
The Coppermine flows energetically through the tundra, where stunted spruce trees dot its banks. Red sandstone cliffs upriver change to white sandstone then into rolling white marine sediments as the river approaches the coast. Chains of small hills dominate a landscape that is rich with wildlife as the river continues its path northward into a more wetland like environment. Muskoxen and caribou graze on the vegetation of the uplands on constant alert for wolves or grizzlies.
The Coppermine provides habitat for arctic foxes, tundra wolves and wolverines that find shelter on the river banks and hunt along the river’s floodplain. The river is also an important habitat for bird species such as tundra swan, geese, and for raptors including peregrine and gyrfalcons. Both golden and bald eagles nest on cliff ledges above the river.
The Coppermine is the ancestral home of the Inuit and the Dene, and ancient campsites can be found along the entire waterway. For thousands of years the Coppermine River has been a well-used travel route, providing rich hunting grounds for several indigenous peoples. The Pre-Dorset people hunted along its banks using tiny tools chipped out of flint or chert, including small knife blades, arrowheads and scrapers.
Today, ancient campsites are common along the river, and paddlers will find past and present food storage cache sites, fox traps, kayak racks, hunting blinds (called ‘taluit’) as well as game funneling systems of stone cairns (called ‘inuksuit’). Near the mouth of the river, Kugluk (Bloody Falls) Territorial Park features a narrow gorge, waterfall, and rushing rapids. The fascinating history of this site includes its millennia-long use as a fishing camp.
The Coppermine also figured prominently in the exploration of the arctic, and featured in the voyages of Samuel Hearne in 1771, in the first Franklin expedition, in 1820, and the second Franklin expedition, in 1825.
The Coppermine is perfect for both advanced and novice paddlers, who cross the Arctic Circle on the river’s way to the Arctic Ocean. A number of commercial operators offer canoe, raft and kayak trips on the Coppermine ranging from one to three weeks. River trips usually start with a chartered floatplane out of Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories, and end at the river’s mouth, in the community of Kugluktuk, where paddlers can fly out on commercial flights. The river has excellent fishing, for lake trout, arctic grayling and, in the lower reaches of the river, for arctic char.
Who Manages the River?
The Coppermine River has been nominated but has not yet been fully designated as a Canadian Heritage River. Once it is fully designated, it will be managed jointly through a collaboration of several community partners, which is coordinated by Nunavut Parks and Special Places, a division of the Government of Nunavut.
The Inuit of Kugluktuk speak Inuinnaqtun – a slightly different language from Inuktitut – because they are Copper Inuit people, descendants of the ancient Thule people, who have distinct cultural traditions.The Copper Inuit were so named because they made arrowheads, spearheads, ulu blades, chisels, harpoons and knives from copper that was sourced along the shores of the Coppermine River.