• Mooseskin Boat Photo – Feature Image (Small)

National Paddling Week: A NWT Perspective

 June 11, 2019
Posted by NWT Recreation and Parks Association

For National Paddling Week (June 8-16), the NWTRPA is celebrating the building and use of different watercraft that use paddles in the NWT.

Mooseskin Boat

During the fur trade era, the Shúhtaot’ı̨nę (Mountain Dene) built mooseskin boats to travel from their camps in the mountains to trading posts on the Deho (Mackenzie River). The boats are an example of Dene innovation. They blend the forms of the traditional Dene birch and spruce bark canoes, and the shallow, broad, and long York boats used by fur traders. Shúhtaot’ı̨nę began by constructing large frames from spruce, which they covered with untanned hides stitched together with moose sinew. When they arrived to their destination, the boats were dismantled and the materials used for other purposes.

A traditional skin boat on the Deho near Tulı́t’a in the Sahtú, Northwest Territories, 1920s. Source: Northwest Territories Archives/Department of the Interior fonds/G-1989-006: 0022

There have been a handful of mooseskin boat building projects in recent years. In 2013, residents of Tulı́t’a built a mooseskin boat on the shores of Begádeé (Keele River) and paddled it back to the community. In 2018, Shúhtaot’ı̨nę and Dehcho Dene came together to build and paddle a mooseskin boat down the Nahanni; it was the first time in a century that a mooseskin boat had travelled down the iconic river.

Watch Raymond Yakelaya’s 1981 documentary about the making of a mooseskin boat. If you’re in Yellowknife, you can see the boat featured in the documentary at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.


The qajaq is the traditional watercraft of the Inuvialuit. A long, slender, and light boat that can transport up to five people (!), the qajaq was an important tool for travel and harvesting. Traditionally, qajait were constructed from driftwood, willow, and skins (usually seal, but occasionally caribou). The stitching together of the skins, but especially caribou skins, which are thinner and more difficult to work with, is very specialized work. To ensure the covering is watertight, the needle can only pass halfway through the skin.

Qajait, like canoes, have different designs that reflect the landscapes in which they are used. Traditional qajait from the area that is now Tuktoyaktuk were used for hunting beluga, so they needed to be sleek, lightweight, and fast.

Source: “Pulled from the Brink,” Up Here (April 2016). Illustration by John Allerston, after H. Golden.

Qajait have largely been replaced by motorboats in Inuvialuit communities, but there have been recent efforts to retain the knowledge and skills necessary to build a traditional qajaq. Learn more about the revitalization of qajaq building in Tuktoyaktuk in this article from Up Here.

Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP)

If you’ve spent any time in on or around Yellowknife’s Back Bay in the summer, you’ve probably spotted someone propelling a surf-board like thing with a long-shafted paddle. Behold the stand up paddle board, or SUP.

Caption: Stand up paddleboarding on Back Bay in Yellowknife. Source: Benji Straker.

Different versions of stand up paddleboarding have existed across time and space, though the recent craze is usually attributed to two prominent surfers—Dave Kalama and Laird Hamilton—who used paddles to propel their longboards during a photo shoot on Maui in the early 2000s.

The popularity of SUPs in Yellowknife owes something to Old Town Paddle & Co., the most northern SUP outfitter in Canada, but stand up paddleboards are becoming more common across the territory. SUP Jousting was one of a number of fun paddle-related activities on the roster of events at the 2018 Slave River Paddlefest in Fort Smith.

Though most people use their SUPs for short trips, with a few dry bags and some camping supplies, longer trips are also possible. Paddle Canada launched a stand up paddleboarding training program in 2011. Find out more on their website.

Learn the story behind Yellowknife’s Old Town Paddle & Co., the most northern SUP outfitter in Canada, in this video.