If you’ve read any of my blogs you’d know the name Nahanni holds a special place in my heart and I wrote about it just a few short blogs ago-one last one for the road. The world’s first UNESCO world heritage site in 1972 is a scenic wonder of majestic grandeur. There’s no other river on the planet quite like the Nahanni and yet within our own country so few know of its existence. Nahanni is in Dene First Nations territory. Here’s a few stories from my two self guided trips on the Nahanni that I’d like to share with you of this magical place I still dream about forty years later. Long a place of fabled mystery and dread thanks to the various place names in the Nahanni landscape: Broken Skull River, the Funeral Range, Death Lake, and Vampire Peaks just to name a few. The word Nahanie means “people over there far away” and was attributed to the Slave Indians of the Lower Liard River to the Indians further up the river. At the time the natives of the nineteenth century of the South Nahanni River called themselves Esbataotinne or Goat Indians.
Story One: Liard Highway
Back in the day I owned a Toyota Landcruiser that I drove for 15 years before saying good-bye to an old friend. At the time we had only one or two routes to get to Fort Simpson and a new one under construction, the Liard Highway. We decided to gamble and drove onto Fort Nelson and stopped in at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment to inquire as to the feasibility of driving the Liard Highway. They asked me what I was driving and forthwith told me I might make it but there were no guarantees. So off we went, the four of us, with two canoes and gear tied down on the roof. Hours into our journey we came upon a construction crew with large earth movers grading the highway and building its foundation. Surprised to see these travellers they told us the highway was not completed and we’d have to turn around. Well, I guess they took pity on this motley crew because in the end they hitched ‘Ole Betsy’ up to an earth mover and pulled us 32 kilometres to where we could continue to our journey’s end. We were the first travellers over the Liard Highway although I doubt that gets us into the Guinness Book of Records. Now it’s a paved highway that sees thousands of four wheeled adventurers and commercial truckers annually.
Story Two: Deadmen’s Valley
Deadmen’s Valley is named after the McLeod brothers who were prospectors that as the story goes found gold back in “them there hills” in 1908 and met their untimely death under strange circumstances. Well, for our party of four we too met our own misfortune in Deadmen’s Valley. Fore we arrived back at camp after a very eventful day of exploring across the river from our camp up a creek valley only to discover our campsite demolished. I’ll never forget my disbelief as I spotted camp crossing the river in my canoe and noting that the tents were no longer visible from afar. Upon closer observation back on ‘terra firma’ we found our site trampled and ripped apart from an angry grizzly. He or she had decided we were intruders and this territory was not a place we should be laying claim to if only for a few days. What a mess! I gerry-rigged new tent poles out of spruce branches, duct taped the hell out of my torn tent and pack bags, and recovered whatever else we could in the quickly parting light of day. Thankfully our cache was still intact and sleeping bags were untouched by this denison of the dark forest. In hindsight I can laugh about it and at the time it just compounded a difficult day on the trail. A day I talked about in a previous blog where I was swimming for my life in full hiking gear while thinking that this can’t happen to this young, strong buck. I’m simply too young to be swept into the Nahanni with all my life yet to experience before me. Deadmen’s Valley indeed!
Story Three: Water Mark
The Splits are notorious for challenging your decision-making, avoiding obstacles, and choosing the right channel. On my first trip down the Nahanni I thought how difficult could the Splits could be, I’d learned on the Chilliwack River on the West Coast and it was a dangerous river especially during Spring run-off or freshet. Sweepers, log jams, souse holes, standing waves, rock gardens, and cold, glacial fed water were just some of the challenges one encountered when paddling the Chilliwack. It was not a river to be cavalier about as I had experienced on numerous occasions over many, many years of paddling it in all types of conditions. Not to mention the time I rescued a rafting crew for a major raft guide operation that were on a training run that had flipped over in a particularly difficult section of the river. The Splits was going to teach me yet another lesson in river travel, uplands weather changes. We set up camp well back of the river on one of the many islands; hence the name, The Splits, and settled into our camp routine for the evening. Sometime after midnight when all seemed calm outside I woke up for no apparent reason to the faint sound of gurgling. It hadn’t rained on the river in days, there were no storm clouds one could see before hitting the sack, and a gentle breeze caressed my face as I stuck my head outside my tent. Not 5 meters away where we had staked our canoes the night before was water rapidly, like a thief in the night, creeping up to our tent walls. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I called out while rousing my trip mates to wake up fast and break camp. We frantically tossed everything into our boats in a mumbo jumbo pile of confusion and jumped into canoes with minutes to spare. Headlamps on and wearing mostly nothing but whatever we could grab, we headed out on a moonless night in the swift current of the Nahanni as it tore at everything in its path. We were suddenly passengers on a slippery serpent of silt laden water squinting for hidden monsters lurking under the surface waiting to grab unsuspecting gentlemanly explorers. That was one knife edge roller coaster ride ended by the splash of sunlight on our bows at dawn. Never was I so relieved to see that morning had broken and we were all still safe and sound. Rivers are feed by many tributaries from afar and high in the mountain plateaus the weather can be very different than that which one is experiencing down below on the river valley. There had been a heavy rain in the highlands and it eventually found its way to the river basin where unknowing paddlers were resting in quiet solitude.
I have so many memories of events on the Nahanni, too numerous to mention. Let’s just say they are memories that will last a life time and fill my heart with gratitude for having visited Nahanni on more than one occasion. I am blessed to have had these adventures and lived to experience such natural beauty and wonder.
The Dangerous River by Raymond M Patterson. It was this book at university that at first fired my imagination, and that then and there I made a vow to myself that I would paddle the Nahanni. If you want to read a superbly gifted author and adventurer then do read his books. His life story is amazing and he truly lived a life well lived. My regret is that I did not visit him where he lived on Vancouver Island, British Columbia when I had the chance. Being young, something always seemed to come up and of course, my days were numbered as time went on. Patterson passed away in 1984 just 30 kilometres across Georgia Strait as the crow flies from my home in White Rock. As I write this I am rereading his book for the fourth time, lost in my dreams and once again curled up in my CPR chair with the warm glow of the fireplace in my little sanctuary or as some might say ‘Man Cave’.
Note: All items in the photo are equipment I had with me on my trips on the Nahanni. PFD (Personal Floatation Device or lifejacket), Nikon binoculars, river rescue throw bag, Canada topographic map for the Virginia Falls section of the river, spare Grey Owl paddle, and canoe spray cover (custom made for me by an old Greek upholsterer who had a shop on East Beach Marine Drive, White Rock-Ocean Promenade Hotel now occupies the site). I remember specifically asking him to sew a big red maple leaf into its deep sky blue cover. Thank you kind sir for doing this for this young lad who had dreams to catch.