The grizzly bear is a long time coming.
First it swims across the river, shrugging off the roaring current that carries it downstream. Then it lumbers back along the shoreline for hundreds of meters, nonchalantly crashing through the brush.
At last, it reaches our campsite and stops to stare at us across the channel we were just swimming in.
“Woof,” it rumbles at us. We get a disdainful look and then it moves on into the woods, as it tracks a black bear and cub that passed by earlier.
It’s just another evening on the Nahanni.
The South Nahanni River is a Canadian icon and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A legend. Gold and grizzlies. Canyons and curses.
Today, visitors don’t come looking for gold.
The 600 to 700 people who travel down the Nahanni by raft or canoe each year are drawn to this legendary river, lured into one of Canada’s largest National Parks.
The Nahanni roars down over 550 kilometers from its source near the Yukon/Northwest Territories border till it empties into the Liard River, a tributary of the Mackenzie. It boasts mighty Virginia Falls, with a vertical drop twice the height of Niagara, and a series of river canyons up to 1200 meters deep.
If the Nahanni River wasn’t spectacular enough, it has spawned more than its share of mysteries, like the headless bodies of prospectors found in the early 1900s. Or, the Valerie Cave with the skeletons of over a hundred Dall sheep trapped after venturing hundreds of meters inside a mountain.
The legends and mysteries of the Nahanni were immortalized in R. M. Patterson’s classic memoir, Dangerous River. Patterson roamed the river in the 1920s, searching for gold but settling for furs.
We modern travelers meet at Fort Simpson at the junction of the Liard and Mackenzie. We’ve come from across Canada for a 12-day run down the Nahanni. On the flight from Yellowknife we have a birds-eye view of forest fires that are closing highways.
Nahanni Wilderness Adventures is one of three authorized outfitters for the Nahanni. Owner Dave Hibbard assures us that Byron, our lead guide, is a “renaissance man” and packs us onto a float plane for the 90 minute flight upriver over the smoke-free Nahanni Range and Ram Plateau.
Byron and two apprentice guides are waiting for us above Virginia Falls (Nailicho in Dene) with all their gear. Renaissance man Byron is an artist, teacher and a bit of a magician in an open air kitchen. The always upbeat Damien and Jake are from a First Nations community on Great Slave Lake.
A day later we are feeling every ounce of what we packed as we haul our gear on the two kilometer hike via the boardwalk around the Falls, the only portage of the trip. Below the Falls, we begin our run downriver through Painted (Fourth) Canyon with two rafts and two kayaks.
The Nahanni runs like a freight train, laden with silt. A party of canoeists pushes off ahead of us with spray skirts and crash helmets.
Between Virginia Falls and exiting the park, trippers navigate four canyons in descending order – each grander than the last.
We practice no trace camping. Most campsites are right on the shoreline or on gravel bars. We haul along a portable firebox and any leftover firewood is dispersed and artistically arranged. Trash is packed out.
The fame of the Nahanni means most of us are primed for the procession of landmarks on the river: the canyons, the rapids, the hot springs.
At “The Gates” the river makes a 90 degree turn to pass between sheer cliffs several hundred meters high. We take a heart-pounding hike to the top, where I less than heroically crawl to the crumbling cliff edge with my camera.
That night our only storm hits. Just as we sit down for supper, a gust rips our shelter tarp apart. We throw the spare overtop of the central pole and each tuck the edge of the tarp under us. A cozy dinner proceeds in comfort in something between a tipi and an igloo.
In the morning there is distant thunder as an avalanche across the river sends storm-loosened scree tumbling.
In Deadmen Valley we observe tradition, stopping at the “paddle house”. Hundreds of trippers have paused here at an abandoned cabin to leave signed homemade paddles to mark their journey. We break tradition by using a fragment of our ruined tarp. I notice Justin Trudeau’s signature.
The next day we enter First Canyon – actually the last canyon – and hit one of the big bumps on the river: George’s Riffle. First the other kayak, and then my own, go over for a swim. After getting fished out we were back in the saddle to enjoy the most beautiful day of all, drifting through the peaks.
At Lafferty Canyon we lay over for an extra day, taking a day hike in the heat up to the head of the canyon. Here some of us don our wet suits and hike upstream in the stream. The rock walls are only three or four meters apart here and we alternately wade or swim or clamber up small waterfalls. Pure fun.
The next morning we head downstream to Kraus’s Hot Springs, stopping to enjoy a welcome soak after our previous ice water baths. Gus and Mary Kraus lived here in splendid isolation from 1940 to 1971 – the only permanent residents of the Nahanni.
The sulphur springs bubble right from the river bank. The beaver pond above the river reportedly never freezes. Lucky beavers.
In our second last day on the river, it opens up and we run through the “Splits”. The Nahanni divides into multiple channels, getting wider and shallower. Snags poke out of the water and the low banks are continually eaten away. To illustrate the point, a tree obligingly crashes into the river as we float past.
The tiny First Nations community of Nahanni Butte is our final campsite on the river. We’re out of the mountains and grumpy looking bison roam the streets. The visiting phone company man tells us he’ll be retiring soon to Baffin Island – a remark worthy of filing away with the park ranger who met the Pope.
From the Butte, local residents ferry us by power boat to the end of a winter road on the Liard and we’re on our way down a long gravel road back to “civilization”. We leave behind long Northern days and a little bit of our hearts.
While the Nahanni appears timeless, Nahanni National Park was only created in 1972. In 1978, it was designated one of the first World Heritage Sites. Nahanni was dramatically enlarged in 2009 to encompass almost 40,000 square kilometers but concerns remain. A lead-zinc-silver mine long in development is now totally surrounded by the Park Reserve.
If you go:
Getting there: it’s a 20 hour drive from Edmonton to Fort Simpson. If you have a couple of people in your party you might consider it. Otherwise flights run about $1,000.
Timing: later trips might run into fewer bugs. Our late July departure had a miraculous run with some hot weather – no serious mosquitoes till Nahanni Butte.
Cost: yes it is exponentially more expensive North of 60, for many a once in a lifetime journey. You might as well go for the longer duration trip – the additional cost is relatively modest. You will be well fed and well taken care of. Wine before dinner (ok it’s from a box) and your guides can bake a cake.
All photos by Greg Petzold