Slave River Paddlefest

Words By:Brandon Willms

Hey guys and gals, I recently got back from a trip up to the Slave River and just wanted to write a quick post to sing that river's praises! It is absolutely an epic if not unlikely spot tucked away in a far corner of Alberta and Northwest Territories. I was up there specifically for the annual Slave River Paddlefest that is an awesome gathering of folks from the community and paddlers from around the globe. The paddlefest was spearheaded by Kristen Bradley and  run this year by Leif and Natalie Anderson and John Blyth. I had the pleasure of hanging out with them during my time up there.

So if you haven’t heard about the mighty Slave river yet, it’s about time you do. To put it into perspective, imagine 40 kickinghorse rivers stacked side by side. I remember Eric Lund explaining it to me like this, “On the Kananaskis, eddylines are drawn on with a sharpie pen. On the Kickinghorse they are rolled on with a paint roller. On the Slave they are sprayed on with a crop sprayer!”.

The rapids are spread out over a 20 km stretch of the river flowing past the town of Fort Smith (NWT) and are broken into 4 sets of rapids. Cassette, Pelican, Mountain Portage and Rapids of the Drowned. Each set of rapids has numerous channels and possible lines and there are a multitude of world class surf waves strewn all around these rapids. Many spots require 30-45 min ferries to get to and finding the right line out in the middle of these massive channels can be a task in itself. The Slave is without a doubt the best playboating destination in western Canada and possibly North America, especially when you consider the fact you likely won’t see another soul out there.

I have been slowly improving my playboating down on the Kananaskis, but the Slave was just another world of awesome! The sheer quality and consistency of the waves made for an incredible couple of days of soul surfing and practicing blunts. When I arrived on Thursday, I joined up with Leif and Conor Flynn and tagged along on a playboating course that they were running. It was the second year this course had been run and it was a great way to get out with the locals (local knowledge is a must for any slave trip), and learn from these playboating legends. 

Once the weekend came around it was time for the festivities to begin. This festival is unlike any other I have attended and is probably the most inclusive weekend of paddling anywhere. The events range from pool toy race to advanced big wave surf comp, to canoe race, to SUP joust, to giant slalom. There is literally well put together events for any category of paddler. While I was there I helped out with beginner clinics and first timer runs down the Playground rapids as well as helped organize a beginner race. With an perfect venue out on the pink granite of the Canadian Shield over 200 people enjoyed the great weekend and got to see what paddling is all about. Good times all around!

Making the long (17 hour) drive from Calgary up to the Slave was definitely worth it. However even if the drive is too daunting, you can fly into Fort Smith arrive in less time and a lot less money then a flight to the Zambezi or Nile and comparable to the Ottawa and the river is arguably as good or better. Logistics are easy once your there if you hang out with Leif and Natalie. So make it happen, get up there!