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South Nahanni River, Northwest Territories

Aug 21, 2018
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Preeceville, Saskatchewan Canada
I was not going to post this TR until April; but like Mike McCrea, I am not on Facebook. The only place I get any likes is on this CT site. So I'm going to post this TR now.

This posting is based on a slide show that Kathleen and I have prepared. When we did this trip, we had only one camera, and didn't take many pictures. Also, we did not keep journals, so do not have nearly as much information as later trip reports. Our presentation begins with how Kathleen and I gave up backpacking to become canoeists.

For those of you who might not know, The South Nahanni River enjoys a worldwide reputation as the premier wilderness water adventure. Virginia Falls (twice the height of Niagra), canyon walls rising 1000 m above river level, geological formations that escaped recent glaciation, and abundant wildlife enhance the region's sinister reputation for danger, as evidenced in place names such as Deadmen's Valley, Headless Creek, Funeral Range, and Broken Skull River. As we tell our audience, come paddle with us, to share the personal experience of 3 weeks and 567 km (350 miles) on this exciting river, and discover why Nahanni National Park was the first natural area declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

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In 1986, Vancouver hosted the world's fair. Kathleen and I decided we would get out of town to avoid the crowds. We planned to go backpacking, with one other couple, in Mt. Edziza Provincial Park, in northern British Columbia. At the last minute, the other couple cancelled, and we changed our plans completely, We decided to drive up to the Yukon Territory, and visit the history in Dawson City. Here we are standing on the Midnight Dome, above Dawson City, looking down at the confluence of the Klondike River and the Yukon River. We knew immediately that we wanted to spend more time in that landscape.

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When we returned home to Vancouver, we visited the Yukon Pavilion at Expo '86, and bought the book "Along the Dempster: An Outdoor Guide to Canada's Northernmost Highway," by Walter Lanz. We decided that in 1987 we would hike to the headwaters of the North Klondike River, 60 km (35 miles) northeast of Dawson City, where we were struck, here at 1:30 am, with the tremendous freedom to move provided by the Midnight Sun. (Notice the Ensolite pad for sleeping comfort. Although we purchased Therm-a-Rest pads a long time ago, we still have the old Ensolite pads. Never throw anything away. You never know when you might need it.)

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Camped at the headwaters, at the base of Mt. Monolith, we knew that we wanted to spend all of our free time in Canada's north.

However, dense brush, without trails, made overland travel very difficult, and imposing for those of us, who in our mid- and late-thirties, already seem to be beyond our physical prime. Walter's book suggested that the one way hike of 16 km (10 miles) should allow 8 hours. Kathleen and I, with time out for dinner, took 15 hours, from 10:30 in the morning to 1:30 the next morning. When we finally got back to the campground where we had parked our vehicle, we chatted to the park attendant, and mentioned how much longer the hike took us than Walter suggested. She said, "Oh that's Walter. He wants you to know that he can do it, and you can't."

Indeed, the "fine print" in Walter's book said, "The distances in this guide are horizontal ones as measured on maps of the 1:50,000 scale. Actual distances will be considerably longer. Outdoor enthusiasts used to hiking on trails may find it odd to see time estimates which indicated progress no better than one kilometre per hour. Without trails, areas of dense vegetation and steep mountain slopes greatly hinder walking speed. Willow and alder which grow above head height are the worst vegetation to pass through, but even low brush and the open tundra take far longer than one would expect."

I didn't really read that until a long time after we had completed the hike. I never "read the full instructions first," either.

Driving home, we stopped at the look-out with a view into the Tintina Trench, southeast of Dawson City. Our eyes were drawn to the wide river valley heading off seemingly endlessly. We realized that rivers are the travel corridors of the North. We don't need to carry every thing on our backs, struggling through dense brush. We should become canoeists.

So we returned home, and went to the Western Canoeing (and Kayaking) in Abbotsford, British Columbia. Marlin Bayes, the owner of Western Canoeing, asked us what kind of canoeing we intended to do. “Are you interested in paddling whitewater?”

Nearly in unison, Kathleen and I replied, “No way. Not a chance. We don’t think we’d ever want to run rapids. Way too dangerous. We’re interested in canoeing serenely on calm lakes, or easy rivers. I heard the Yukon doesn't have many rapids. Maybe we'll paddle that some day. Mostly, though, we just want to paddle with the loons."

“OK, then, the best boat for you is my Clipper Tripper. It’s fast, stable and tracks very well. It’s ideal for what you want to do.”

For Christmas, we also bought Bill Mason's book "Path of the Paddle," which we studied almost every day.

We also joined the Beaver Canoe Club, and signed up for their Basic Paddler’s canoe course in the spring of 1988. We eventually learned how to perform a passable J-stroke, which earned us the right to join the club for a day trip on the South Nooksack River in Washington State.

In addition to the J-stroke, we also knew, and could marginally use, forward strokes, pry strokes, draw strokes and sweep strokes. All well and good. But we had no understanding of, or even exposure to, the concept of ferrying, which as you likely know, is extremely useful, even necessary, for leaving an eddy, or crossing a river.

Let me illustrate. Kathleen and I were somehow making it down the South Nooksack River without capsizing, and were even enjoying ourselves. Lots of adrenalin for us, even on this easy Class I river. At one point, though, we found ourselves in an eddy, from which we couldn’t escape. I don’t even remember how we got into that eddy in the first place. Maybe it just reached out and grabbed us. Anyway, as we had been told, we were facing upstream, but every time we nosed out into the current, our canoe spun around right back into the eddy. After three attempts we remained trapped, seemingly forever.

Les and Pauline, two founding veterans of the Beaver Canoe Club, had taken us under their wing (or should I say under their paddle?), and had been occasionally shepherding Kathleen and me down the river. I’m sure they were highly entertained by our inability to get out of that eddy. Eventually, though, perhaps becoming impatient, and tiring of the hilarity of our situation, Les said, “You need to ferry out a little bit more into the current, and then turn down.”

Oh. Real useful advice, particularly if we had any idea what a ferry was. “Well,” Les explained, “the paddler on the downstream side makes sure that they are leaning away from the current, so that it goes under the boat when you leave the eddy. If you don’t lean away, the current will grab the hull, and you will capsize to the upstream side. Then you both paddle hard enough to drive the canoe into the current, at just the right angle, and the current will sort of just carry you across to where you want to be. Just like otters do when they cross a river. Or like salmon do when they are migrating upstream. Try it.”

We tried it, and dang if it didn’t work. Now we were really becoming canoeists.

After leaving the eddy victoriously, Kathleen and I paddled down the South Nooksack River, under the watchful eyes of Les and Pauline, until we reached the North Nooksack River. Our vehicles were parked on the other side of the North Nooksack River, which thundered past us in what was the most colossally threatening rapid I had ever imagined. The North Nooksack River made a sharp bend to the right 100 or so metres (100 yards) down river, and disappeared from the face of the earth. This was why Kathleen and I told Marlin Bayes that we didn’t want to paddle rivers. No way. Not a chance.

Kathleen and I sat in the eddy at the confluence of the two rivers, with four other tandem boats, one of which contained first-time river paddlers, just like Kathleen and me. We watched the first of the more experienced paddlers ferry straight across the North Nooksack River, easy as you please. That was them, though. We were us. I sort of called out to Les and Pauline, “I don’t think we can do this.” No response.

The second experienced boat then ferried straight across the North Nooksack River. No problem at all. Again I said, a little louder this time, “I don’t think we can do this.” Why did we ever accept the club’s invitation to canoe down the South Nooksack River? They said it would be easy, but they were wrong. All Kathleen and I had wanted was to paddle serenely, with the loons, on calm lakes. And now, it seemed, we were going to die.

Les and Pauline then prepared to head across. “Yes, Kathleen and Michael, you can do this. Remember, a good ferry is all about momentum, lean and angle. Have momentum when you enter the current. Lean away from the current, and leave the eddy at the proper angle to let the current carry you across. Watch us.”

And then our mentors, Les and Pauline were gone, and soon stood on the opposite shore. That left just the other first-time river paddlers, plus Kathleen and me in the eddy, all four of us contemplating the certain abyss that waited for us around the sharp bend to the right. What were Kathleen and I going to do? As I mentioned twice already, I didn’t think we could do this. In fact, I was certain that we couldn’t ferry successfully across the North Nooksack River. Criminy, we had only heard about a ferry for the first time a scant 30 minutes ago. We didn’t really know what we were doing.

And then the other first-time river paddlers sprang into action. From what I know now, they likely didn’t lean down stream. They had barely entered the current, when it grabbed their hull, capsizing them upstream into the thunderous rapid. Doom would certainly quickly follow. But no. Before bending to the right, the North Nooksack River offered a small back eddy, into which the first-time river paddlers, their boat and all their gear were swept. Experienced canoe club members leaped into their boats, ferried back across the North Nooksack River, and quickly made all the necessary rescues.

“That wasn’t so terrible, Kathleen. Not as bad as I thought it would be. They didn’t die or anything. I think we should go.”

“Well, we really don’t have much choice, do we? Our car is on the other side.”

So, Kathleen and I pointed our boat upstream toward the current of the North Nooksack River, at the same angle as demonstrated by Les and Pauline. I leaned downstream, and we both paddled, somewhat tentatively, into the most horrendous current I had ever imagined. Almost miraculously we didn’t capsize, and we didn’t lose our angle. We paddled as hard as we could, and ferried directly across the North Nooksack River toward the welcoming arms of Pauline Mushens. We literally leaped out of our Clipper Tripper to stand on shore, feeling extraordinarily triumphant and exhilarated.

I should acknowledge that my description of that terrifying rapid on the North Nooksack River was likely much exaggerated. It was probably no more than a low Class II, but it scared the bejeebers out of Kathleen and me. It must have also scared the bejeebers out of our fellow first-time river paddlers, as I never saw them again. I never even knew their names.

Now, finally, comes the reason why I’m telling you about our first river adventure on the South Nooksack River. That one day on the South Nooksack River ended our unfounded anxiety about paddling whitewater. We now actually looked forward to developing our skills at canoeing down rapids. The next weekend, Kathleen and I bought a canoe a little more appropriate for wilderness rivers—a Royalex Mad River Explorer.

With the Beaver Canoe club, we had companions, guides, and instructors for year-round canoeing throughout southern British Columbia. The Chilliwack River is about a one-hour drive east of Vancouver.

In the summer of 1988, Kathleen received a pay cheque that included retroactive pay. I said, "It's your money. Do whatever you want with it."

She said, "I want a white water play boat, like Peter has. A Mohawk XL 13."

At the time this canoe was considered a short boat. And we still have it, although it mostly sits in the barn, as there is no white water around Preeceville. We are open to offers.

Here is Kathleen on the Seymour River, that was only about 20 minutes from our home in North Vancouver. We could do our own shuttle. Kathleen paddled her Mohawk. I soloed the Explorer.

We went out a couple of times a week to practice. Kathleen ferries back-and-forth in the "Toilet Bowl" at the top of the run.

We were always looking for new water, and new experiences. Kathleen prepares to paddle Dry Creek in the Yukon Territory.

Nice cross-bow draw, Kathleen! In those days, the ubiquitous Mohawk was our spare paddle. Not anymore, but we still have them. Never throw anything away. You never know when you might need it.

We were now skilled in many varieties of water levels and conditions: high water, low water, and no water. Finally we were ready for a wilderness canoe trip. But where to go?

In the spring of 1990, Carey and Janice invited us to join them on the South Nahanni River, in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories.


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According to a Parks Canada website (
https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/nt/nahanni), Nahanni National Park Reserve (Nah?ą Dehé) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site globally renowned for its geologic landforms. An incomparable northern wilderness, Nah?ą Dehé harbours sheer granite spires, vast alpine plateaus and, at its heart, the South Nahanni, a Canadian Heritage River. This great-spirit water thunders at Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) and has carved the deepest canyons in Canada. Natural labryinths of the North Nahanni Karst are among the most spectacular examples of this landform type and the Gahnįhthah mineral springs form Canada’s largest tufa mounds.

The tufa mounds are home to the horizon walker, Yamba Deja, who created Dene law. Visitors are welcomed to the land by the Dehcho First Nations, whose ancestors have called Nah?ą Dehé home since time before memory. Climbers, hikers, paddlers and visitors of all kinds find personal inspiration and connection to this rugged land and its people.

The park encompasses 30,000 square kilometres (11,500 square miles). We flew into the headwaters of the river, at the Moose Ponds, from the territorial campground at Blackstone Landing on the Liard River.

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Our trip was much more than a daily itinerary (21 days), distances traveled (567 km), and places stopped. Like many before us, Kathleen and I had embarked on a journey that differed from everything else we had ever done. In reality, it completely changed the direction of our lives.

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After three summers of developing canoeing skills and confidence, including 4 months of planning and organizing gear and food, we awoke on Saturday morning of August 4, watered our garden for the last time, and left for Blackstone Landing, 2.5 days driving.

We bought that van in 1990, just to support our canoeing addiction. We still have it. That Mad River Explorer, our first, is now a planter box. Never throw anything away. You can always use it for something.

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A month before leaving for Blackstone Landing, Carey called to say that John and Grace wanted to join our trip. Kathleen was opposed, as we didn't really get along with John. But Carey insisted, saying that "Three boats make a stronger, safer group."

We deferred. It was Carey's trip, and he was the best paddler in the club. He was arguably among the top five paddlers in British Columbia. We were happy that he had invited us. John was also a very good paddler - better than us. He often filled the role of sweep boat on our day trips with the club. In general, the strongest, most experienced paddler was lead boat. The second best paddler was often the sweep boat, as no one would immediately notice if the sweep boat had capsized. Our rule in the club was that if the lead boat signalled for everyone to head to shore, we all did. The rule was that we all run the rapid, or we all walk the rapid. This eliminated peer pressure. The lead boat made decisions based on the presumed skill level of the weakest paddlers. While being sweep, John often ignored this rule, and paddled on by. We didn't like that. It did not bode well for group dynamics on the Nahanni.

The flight to the Moose Ponds took two hours. Unloading at the Moose Ponds took 30 minutes, meaning the round trip required 4.5 hours. For all of us to get to the Moose Ponds on the same day, meant that the plane would be in service for 13.5 hours. Because of poor weather, however, we were 1.5 days behind schedule. Based on a coin flip, John and Grace had departed at noon.

Carey now prepares his gear at the landing dock, with the returning plane taxiing up river at 4:30 p.m.

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Carey and Janice's gear is finally loaded into the Cessna 185, and their canoe is lashed onto the pontoon of the Cessna 185. We had been told that the plane could carry a maximum 600 pound (275 kg) load for each couple, including the people. Kathleen and I were just under that limit, and we are small people. I don't see how the other couples could be under that weight. The stated limit seemed more like a guideline, as the pilot didn't actually weight our gear or us.

This late afternoon departure time for Carey and Janice would be the last flight of the day. Kathleen and I wouldn't be going to the Moose Ponds until the next day, and we were out of highway food.

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So we drove 3 hours each way to Fort Simpson, reached by ferry across the Liard, at the confluence with the MacKenzie River. The Pope (yes, that Pope) visited Fort Simpson in 1985. Many structures remain at the Papal Site.

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We purchased an $8.00 cheeseburger and returned to the now-deserted Blackstone Territorial Campground to await our morning flight. Eight dollars doesn't sound like a lot for a cheeseburger, but this was 1990, twenty-nine years ago. With inflation, today's equivalent price is probably more than $20.00. I guess I could figure out the exact equivalent price, but I don't want to.

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At 6:00 am, swatting mosquitoes, nearing the end of their summer frenzy, we looked with expectation west toward Nahanni Butte, beyond which lay the valley of the South Nahanni River.

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The last anxious moments of trepidation with a small plane, the uncertainty of leaving for 3 weeks isolation, with all of our possessions and food piled in a somewhat inconspicuous pile in a corner of the dock. But with $1,000/couple already committed, there was no turning back. That's $1,000.00 in 1990.

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West over the Great Slave Plain, heading to the Nahanni River. I had read that the Slavey Indians of the lower Liard seldom penetrated west of the Nahanni Range, fearing the mountain people who roamed therein, and naming them "Nahanni - The people over there, far away."

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After cresting Nahanni Range, the meandering lower Nahanni River came into view.

Flying up the Nahanni River, all of its landmarks that we had only visualized 2-dimensionally in books came into view, including Virginia Falls, which at twice the height of Niagra Falls, provides a major draw of the park. Hiking on Sun Blood Mountain is also a popular attraction.

1.5 hours into our flight, we fly ever north, up the Nahanni, eagerly looking for the headwaters at the Moose Ponds.

Finally, we taxi up to our destination, which is bleak and wet, with our 4 companions huddled under the tarp. They didn't even come out to help us unload. We were expecting more of a triumphant celebration!

We were undeterred, though. Kathleen and I set up our camp, launched the canoe, and paddled the Moose Ponds, drinking in the scenery. We drifted by an Arctic Tern, which stood unconcerned on a rock only three feet away.

The scenery was spectacular, with many wide game trails, and natural openings of old river beds through the willow and dwarf birch. We even saw a moose standing in the shallows of Moose Ponds!

The next day, we stopped for our first river lunch, below the Moose Ponds, with Mount Wilson in the left background, which was to dominate the northern horizon for days. We saw several moose in the first half day, while searching for the outlet of the Moose Ponds. We were now excited as the Nahanni River finally began to provide current.


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Great start and I'm really looking forward to this one.

We overnighted at Blackstone on a camping trip home from Yellowknife back in 2010. Looked like a nice campsite but pouring rain and grey. I had hoped to be able to see Nahanni but everything was just socked in and gloomy. Couldn't see much beyond the other side of the river. Nahanni remains on my bucket list.

And interesting comments about John in the sweep boat. I've been on a few trips with paddlers like that. They don't seem to understand the concept of sweep- and we don't give them a second chance.

Bruce, the last time we were at Blackstone Landing, there had been a lot of changes since 1990. Very fancy showers, where there had been none. And a nice information building.

I thought about not mentioning our reluctance about John. But I think it’s an important part of the story, and canoe tripping. It turns out that three boats don’t always make a stronger and safer trip. I hope no one on this site knows John. I ‘m already worried. I don’t like being critical. We don’t say negative things in our slide show, after all.
I don't want to be a spoiler so I'll keep my guesses to myself but I think I already know how this ends. Looking forward to watching it unfold though.

Yes there were showers and info centre at Blackstone when we visited. The showers were great find for the 3 teenagers!!! First shower in 3 days- apparently "dipping" in the Mackenzie doesn't count.
The visitor centre however was closed when we got there- and we left in the pouring rain before it opened the next day. No sign of Nahanni Butte no matter how hard I squinted through the gloom. (the one nice thing about the weather was that it kept the dust down on the highway.)

Lunch at Fort Liard set me back about $150...

BTW I'm now worried I may have paddled with John...or his brother...

Great tale. Looking forward to more chapters.

and, the easily foreseen problems...that is another reason I like to solo.
Camp that evening was much improved, with an open, windswept, gravel bar, free of mosquitoes. Indeed, I never put on repellent again after the first night at the Moose Ponds.

After dinner, the long evening left time for fishing for arctic grayling, northern pike and lake trout, which are common in the clear, gravel shallows of northern rivers.

nahanni033.jpgAlthough we didn't catch fish, we were rewarded with a caribou that wandered downwind into our camp, startled only at the last moment. During the first 3 days we saw moose or caribou almost hourly on the river.

Interestingly, this caribou crossed the river, and stopped half way across to take a pee. This unnerved John and Grace, who thereafter always collected their personal drinking water from tributaries. I didn't ask them why they apparently thought that animals didn't also pee and defecate in tributaries.

Camp the next morning, with brilliant warm sun and Mount Wilson in the right hand background. Carey pretty much insisted that we erect a tarp daily, which we used not only for the few evenings when it rained, but also for shade, and to lower on our gear for a cover at night. Although that is our tarp, Kathleen and I really don't like sitting under tarps, and have rarely used it on subsequent trips. If the weather gets bad, we normally just retire to the tent.

Water levels on large, mountain rivers can rise a metre (three feet) or more in just a few hours of intense rain. We always dragged our boats above the river, and tied them to rocks, shrubs or trees. Securing the boats also prevents them from blowing into the river and floating away from sudden gusts of winds. This happens more often than many people think.
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We have now entered the "Rock Gardens," 50 km (30 miles) of virtually continuous Class II-IV whitewater. We scouted the first rapid, but then just ran down, with Carey more or less in the lead. We tied our gear into the boat on the first day of the run, but have never done so again. Our friends Jerry and Marie had paddled the Rock Gardens the previous year, and said that they spent a lot of time lining and wading in the water, so we brought our wetsuits. We never wore them after the first day of rapids.

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The run was pretty intense for Kathleen and me, and we didn't take any pictures. Our companions took only a few, and except for that previous image, they were all badly underexposed. Although exciting, we became mentally fatigued worrying about a boat-munching mistake 3 weeks by water from help, and were glad when we successfully negotiated the last rapid, and the Rock Gardens passed from our canoeing reality to become part of our canoeing memory.

In case you're wondering, I think we were paddling at fairly high water levels. You might remember that our flights into the Moose Ponds were delayed because of heavy rain that had been falling for several days. Logs were barrelling down the Liard River past Blackstone Landing. And paddlers coming off the river reported that Kraus Hot Springs on the Nahanni was under water. You will see near the end of this TR that Kraus Hot Springs are a fair distance from the river.

You remember that I consider Carey to be among the top five paddlers in British Columbia. At one point our group was approaching a line of large boulders filled with deep holes. Carey and Janice suddenly made a 90-degree turn, and powered their boat up onto the bank. We did the same. We rested briefly, and then slipped between the bank and the boulder to continue our descent.

I think this run was a defining moment for Carey. Well, for all of us, actually. After 2.5 days, we paddled through the last of 42 marked rapids, and Carey yelled out, "We are great."

"I don't know if I'm great, Carey. I'm not an elite paddler, but it seems that Kathleen and I are at least competent."

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We are now 4 days after our arrival at Moose Ponds, and we have forgotten most of our previous existence in Vancouver. The river and its tasks become our life. Avoiding a few rocks, finding a flat space to camp, and collecting firewood our only concerns. To our pleasure and mild surprise, wonderful campsites are nearly everywhere.

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The water in the upper Nahanni is clear and potable, and the trip and its participants have settled into a satisfying and comfortable routine.

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The long, sun-filled days leave plenty of time for botanizing, bird watching, strolling, and contemplating our adopted environment after the dinner chores are complete.

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Morning of the 5th day. I usually arose first, around 6:00 am, although there was seldom time for much relaxing and enjoying the sunrise.

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I usually started the fire, put on tea water and prepared breakfast for myself and Kathleen, who then washed the dishes while I began to prepare the gear for packing and placing in the canoe. Although we shared dinners collectively among the 6 trip participants, breakfasts and lunches were handled separately by each couple.

Working leisurely, breakfast, breaking camp, and loading the canoes normally took about 3 hours, in time for a 9:00 am departure on the river, which Carey sort of expected.
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Very beautiful river! Did you see any other paddlers? I wonder how populated with canoeists the river is now?

IT is quite a popular destination now but not necessarily to canoeist, but to raft tours and float plane tours to Virginia fall.... The user section from moose pound and the rock garden are somewhat seldom paddled but still busy for a remote location!

I don't remember how I know this, but in 1989, the year before we did this trip, 17 groups of paddlers started at the Moose Ponds. So far, on our trip, we haven't seen anyone else in five days.

John and Grace, at the beginning of another day on the river. Although our itinerary was worked out before the trip began, to establish a general goal for each day, our campsite deviated from the plan 6 of 21 days, depending on water, weather, and campsite conditions.

The Nahanni River was moving approximately 5 km/hr (3 miles/hr). A leisurely input from us of approximately 2 km/hr meant that a 40-km (25-mile) day could be paddled in 6 hours. With 1 hour for lunch, we reached camp about 4:00 pm each day.

This left plenty of time to just float and enjoy the mountains, water, endless boreal forest, and occasional moose or caribou that we disturbed while rounding a bend.

Carey and Janice. Three boats with 6 people provides sufficient help with camp chores and packing communal gear, but remains a small enough group to retain a feeling of isolation.

We usually stopped for lunch at tributaries for water and for fishing opportunities.

That's me with 7 arctic grayling, enough for dinner. The world's most perfect fish: easy to catch, good to eat, just long enough to fit in the skillet, and all weighing between 0.5 and 1.0 kg (1 to 2 pounds).

nahanni049.jpgThis fishing success slowed our progress, as Carey cast into every likely-looking eddy and tributary. He said he could smell those fish just waiting to be caught.

On our 7th day, we arrived at the confluence of Bologna Creek, and the location of a Canoeist Pilgrimage.

I'm thinking that pretty much all travellers down the river stop at Moore's Cabin, where in 1978-79 Joanne Moore, on her honeymoon built a cabin with her husband (John) and over-wintered on these banks. Most canoeists I know have read her book "Nahanni Trailhead", and now stop here to contemplate her stories shared in her book, and to pay respect to those who dare to pursue their dreams. This is another fly-in spot at Island Lakes, used also by the Moores, for those wishing to put in below the rapids. I am told that the portage to the river is not overly difficult. I don't know if the cabin is still there.

Joanne was inspired to over winter here partly by having read R.M Patterson's book "Dangerous River." Patterson travelled in the Nahanni twice. In the mid 1920's he made his first trip alone in summer, apparently against the advice of the Mounties. The region had a sinister reputation for people never coming out alive. The next year he returned to Deadmen Valley with his friend Gordon Mathews, where they spent the winter trapping.

Patterson was still living in Victoria, British Columbia, and Joanne sent him a letter inviting him to visit. He declined, but didn't indicate specifically why. I speculate it had something to do with a quote of his in the book "The Nahanni Portfolio" by Pat and Rosemarie Keough:

"Those of us who had the good fortune to be on the South Nahanni in those last days of the old North, may in times of hunger or hardship, have cursed the day we ever heard the name of that fabled river. Yet a treasure was ours in the end; memories of a carefree time and an utter and absolute freedom, which the years cannot dim nor the present age provide."

He likely did not want to sully his memories by visiting new cabins and people. If you haven't already done so, you should read Patterson's book.

For camp we drifted 3 km (2 miles) downstream from the cabin to camp on a gravel bar at Moore's Hot Springs. The weather was highly variable throughout our trip, with sun, wind, rain, and the always dramatic rainbow.

Moore's Hot Springs offered a layover day, and a relaxing soak. We had 5 layover days planned for hiking, resting, and as insurance against bad weather when we might not be able to travel.

Carey and Janice spent pretty much the entire day soaking in the warm water. Carey had a bad back, which said had been bothering him quite a bit during the day. He didn't think he could have gone on without this rest day.
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One very nice feature of this trip is we never had to break camp in the rain. The highlight of each day for us was when we nosed into the current, and turned downstream, looking forward to new vistas and camps.

Because of the many tributaries, some quite large, the Nahanni now carried a heavy silt load, and we stopped at small tributaries to acquire clear water. We never boiled, filtered or purified.

Britnell Glacier and Glacier Lake, a long 1-day hike from the River. Most of the area, because of low precipitation escaped the most recent glaciation, and has developed free from ice for approximately the last 100,000 years.

About a week before left to drive north, I received a call from Andy, who asked if he could join our group. I didn't have to say no, though. Andy was a new solo paddler, and would not have wanted to paddle the Rock Gardens. He was an avid hiker, though. After flying into Island Lakes and portaging to the river, he paddled down to this spot to hike to Glacier Lake, and to wait for us. The first person we had seen, and certainly a surprise. He still wanted to join our group, primarily because he didn't want to paddle through heck's Gate (also known as Figure 8 Rapid) all on his own. Can't blame him. Our group now numbered 4 canoes and 7 people.

Nine days into the trip. The river was wide and calm, the rapids of the first 3 days were forgotten, and the sun encouraged drifting and sleeping. Depending on where you choose to start, the Nahanni provides paddling conditions for all canoeing tastes.

On the 10th day we arrived at the northern Park Boundary, Rabbitkettle Hotsprings, where all canoeists are required to register with the Park Warden. And, if they wish to visit the Tufa Mounds, they need to reserve a guided tour, where Kathleen is now headed. Rabbitkettle Lake offers another fly-in spot for those wishing a shorter trip.

On the way to the Tufa Mounds, our tour leader, a young Dene, bent over a track in the mud, nodded and said, quite knowingly, "Grizzly Bear."

"Really?" I said. "Looks pretty small for a grizzly bear."

He bent over again, and then looked up. "Maybe rabbit."

I'm not making that up.

John and Grace crossing Rabbitkettle River with a cable.

A guided tour (barefoot) is necessary to protect the fragile tufa formation.

nahanni061.jpgThere are 2 mounds, the North and South (pictured here).

These are the largest Tufa Mounds in Canada (27 m high; 90 feet and 70 m; 230 feet in diameter at the base.). Calcium and magnesium carbonate emanate from 21-degree C (70 F) springs.

These minerals precipitate, forming small dams of rim stone,

that periodically divert the flow in a generally circular rotation around the mound. One revolution takes approximately 100 years.

Back at a designated campsite on an island opposite Rabbitkettle Lake, looking back toward the Ragged Range opposite the Moore's cabin.

We had seen our first person (the warden) on the trip. We had acquired a new trip participant (Andy). We enjoyed a table and and outhouse We sensed, with mixed feelings, that the lower river would now be different in character, as we paddled a more traveled route.

From left to right: Grace, John, Janice, Carey, Me, Kathleen. Andy is taking the picture.
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Stunning scenery.


Thanks, Alan. I have read that you are only 40 years old, perhaps not old enough, depending on your preferred music genre, to know about the Canadian rock group Bachman Turner Overdrive, otherwise known as BTO. In their words, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

Just you wait. The scenery only gets more spectacular.