Nahanni National Park Reserve is a jewel of Canada's North. Set in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories, the park covers 4,766 km2 and is an outstanding example of northern wilderness rivers and boreal forests.
The area was designated a national park reserve in 1972. In 1978, it was honoured as the first natural World Heritage Site by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). This highlighted the international significance of the park's natural heritage and ranked it with the Galapagos Islands and the great pyramids of Egypt.
Nahanni has one of the deepest river canyon systems in the world and one of the most remarkable karst limestone landscapes found anywhere. Rabbitkettle Hotsprings has the largest known tufa mounds in Canada, and the vertical drop at Virginia Falls is twice that of Niagara Falls.
The park's valleys, mountains, meadows and forests are home to a wide variety of plants and animals, some of which are threatened with extinction elsewhere.
Nahanni is derived from the Nahaa, a nomadic tribe of fierce warriors who once lived in the mountains and raided settlements in the adjacent lowlands. They disappeared mysteriously in the late 1800s.
Legends of haunted valleys, lost gold and the headless corpses of prospectors are responsible for some of the names of park features, such as Deadmen Valley, Headless Creek, Headless Range and the Funeral Range.
We had been talking about doing the Nahanni River for a number of years, but had put it off due to financial concerns (It's not a cheap trip!). This year we decided to go for it while we could still handle the trip by canoe. Rafting the river, for us, was out of the question. We wanted to enjoy the river physically as well as mentally.
If someone were to suggest that we do the trip again, we would in a second, given that the same guides were available and we had the financial capability.
This trip was different for us for a number of reasons:
- Not being totally self sufficient in terms of
gear and food
- Having guides organize us
- Being part of a group
- Canoeing a Heritage "Holy Grail" river
We left Pearson Airport on the morning of July 23, changed planes at Calgary, and spent the night in Yellowknife. We had a look around town. It had changed substantially from when I was here in 1969!
Our next hop took us to Fort Simpson, where we met our guides from Nahanni River Adventures.
It was suggested that we shed our watches because of the almost 24 hour sun. Very quickly, we got used to "sun time".
I have used cropped versions of some of the photos, so clicking on any photo will get you a larger version.
DAY 1 July 24
DAY 2 July 25
A bit of information from the Parks Canada:
The Rabbitkettle tufa mounds are the largest in Canada — one is 27 metres high and 74 metres across.
Hot springwater that stays at 20 degrees Celsius year-round bubbles 2,000 metres to the surface and spreads thinly over the mound. As it cools, calcium is deposited in small rings at a rate of 2 millimetres per year.
The Gahnihthah, as they are called by local Aboriginals, hold great cultural importance for the Dene. Yambadeja, a giant person held to be the protector of the Dene was said to use the tufa mounds as his dinner plates.
The Dene would often leave gifts such as tobacco and matches at Gahotháh (Rabbitkettle Hotsprings) to bring good luck.
The Dene said that as long as the kettle was overflowing it was a sign of good luck, but if the kettle was empty, it was a sign of bad luck.
We packed up and paddled to the end of Rabbit Kettle Lake, where we did a drag portage for about 100m and wended our way down a shallow creek to the Nahanni River.
The river clips along at about 12 km per hour here. A short crossing brought us to our first camp on the river.
After setting up camp, the guides checked out our paddling skills and pronounced us ready for the river.
DAY 3 July 26
DAY 4 July 27
DAY 5 & 6 July 28, 29 Virginia Falls
Part of our group hiked up Sunblood Mountain (about 14 km round trip) while the rest had a look at the falls. As well, the Parks Canada wardens held interpretive sessions involving aboriginal trapping and trade methods and stories about Dene legends from the area.
While this was happening, our guides portaged the gear across the 1.5 km stretch to below the falls. It took 7 or 8 trips over the day and a bit that we were at the falls. Despite doing all that work, the guides were available to make meals for us. Incredible!
Virginia Falls is an icon of the northern Canadian wilderness. Although there are other cataracts that may be equally spectacular, Virginia stands out due to being part of the Nahanni River. It is twice the height of Niagara and to us, just as impressive. The drop here makes up a fair bit of the overall drop of the Nahanni from Rabbit Kettle to the Butte.
The presence of a Parks Canada facility here serves to strongly support the preservation of the Nahanni ecosystem, including all of the watershed.
The flow divides at 'Mason's Rock' and goes vertical.
A look at the falls from below.
DAY 7 July 30 Fourth Canyon
Just around the corner were 5 foot volume waves! One of the canoes dumped. One of the paddlers managed to get out of the strong current, but the other did not. He floated about 2 km downstream before he could be pulled ashore, where one guide stayed with him.
DAY 8 & 9 July 31, August 1 The Pulpit and Second Canyon
The Gate is a narrowing of the river, but because of the depth, there is no turbulence.
We pulled in upstream of the Gate and made camp. We were promised a climb up the cliff on the left (about 700 feet above river level) and an unforgettable vista the next day at the top of the Gate.
DAY 10 August 2 First Canyon - a "5 Star" campsite
George's Riffle is a bit of a misnomer.
High waves (a bit slashy as Liz called it) - Fun!
DAY 11 August 3 The Chasm
DAY 12 August 4 Kraus Hotsprings & the Splits
DAY 13 August 5 Nahanni Butte & Lindberg's Landing
During our morning paddle, Nahanni Butte has been the dominant structure in the landscape.
We pulled in at the town of Nahanni Butte, ate lunch there, and transferred our gear to a motor boat 'taxi' for the trip to Lindberg's Landing.
A SUMMARY: The Trip of a lifetime!
It is difficult to put into words my thoughts about the trip. The problem is that there are not enough superlatives to use in describing the experience. My focus is on the necessities: The personnel, the food, and the scenery.
Our Guides (Liz, Maya and Jamie) were amazing! They were incredibly competent on the water and onshore. There was never a moment when the group could not rely on their advice or instruction. For their age (mid to late twenties), they had a wealth of experience to offer the group. Their passion was not only for canoeing, but also for the Nahanni River itself. They were fully aware of the history and geology of the area and shared it with us. They successfully coached us past our pre trip limits for handling waves. ("a bit splashy", as Liz said several times). They were constantly energetic and enthusiastic about anything and everything.
Until this experience, we were used to a freeze/dried type of menu. The food was great. The logistics of having fresh fruit and vegetables, and keeping meat frozen over two weeks is difficult, but in addition, to be able prepare meals that would pass muster in a lot of fine restaurants is incredible. The variety and nutrition level of the meals was excellent and there were always ample quantities.
The pace of travel suited our group very well. It is one thing to work out the distance on the water and figure out the number of days needed for the trip, but it is another when side trips like the Pulpit hike, Chasm of Chills, Kraus Hotsprings, and, of course, the weather and potential canoe dumps are factored in. There was never a time when the group felt pressured to go farther and there was always time to analyze an upcoming bit of rough water so that we felt comfortable trying it.
The Nahanni is truly a "jewel among rivers"! At times, it was almost too much visual stimulation to handle. The canyons were overpowering in height and in colour. Around every corner there was something new and different to look at. The Parks Canada staff were a fountain of information about the environment and the culture of aboriginal peoples. The guides celebrated the more recent history as written by Patterson, the McLeods, and others. The river itself was a wonder with the current, the hissing of the silt on the canoe hull, and the waves.
Our group consisted of six clients and three guides, the clients loosely divided into 3 sets of partners. Prior to the trip, no partner set had met anyone else. Within a day, we all became very comfortable with each other and a high level of trust was established within the group. This resulted in a relaxed atmosphere, which is critical to a great trip.
Over the past 20 years, I have canoed in quite a number of northern environments. As well, I have 'Rockhounded' all over Ontario and in the United States. What I have seen in terms of natural resource extraction has varied with the location. This Nahanni River trip brought a lot of my impressions into focus.
The resource extraction industries may be large in terms of dollar value and employment, but tend to be short term enterprises. Most mines and logging operations have a limited local effect while they are working, and when they leave, they leave behind damaged ecosystems which take decades, if not centuries, or more to rejuvinate. In many mining situations, the tailing deposits are left on the land to leach into the watershed over a timeline which approaches forever.
The rejuvination cycle in the north for flora and fauna is much longer than it is in southern Canada due to the short growth season.
In many areas, the damage is masked by a berm or, in the case of 'forested' rivers, by a strip of trees along the waterway wide enough that a canoe tripper cannot easily see the clear cut a short distance from the water's edge.
When we don't see obvious damage to an ecosystem, we tend to assume all is well. The problem with that attitude is that we miss the hidden damage. We miss the effect of mine waste leaching into the water and of the habitat destruction of the clear cut. The damage to the food chain only becomes obvious after a number of years. The disruption of historic migration routes for birds and mammals that is caused by access modes such as pipelines and roads associated with the resource industries also becomes an issue.
A look at Google Earth with the patches of orange and light beige indicates the extent of the damage to the forests. I wish there was a way of showing the effects of mining other than that of open pit operations.
The experience of a low ecological impact canoe trip on the Nahanni underlines the importance of preserving areas such as this in as pristine a condition as possible. Hopefully, PARKS CANADA, and interest groups such as CPAWS will be successful in their influence over the development of the watershed into an area that is left 'as is', or better.
As much as we think that we might need to consume minerals and forests in order to make our short term lives better, we must recognize the need to maintain wilderness expanses for the long term.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to support the efforts of groups such as the aforementioned in order to preserve what we have now and, if possible, improve on it for others to experience.
Future generations will appreciate our efforts.