Northwest Territories Stories and Tips

Rafting the Nahanni River

stopping for lunch in First Canyon  Photo, Northwest Territories, Canada

The Twin Otter banked low and steeply as we made a sharp left turn around Virginia Falls and settled in for a smooth landing on the flat water above the falls. A one-hour flight west from Forth Simpson had brought us to Nahanni National Park, famed posterchild for Canadian wilderness. Located in the western part of Canada’s Northwest Territories, Nahanni is one of the most remote national parks in the country outside the extreme Arctic. Harboring Virginia Falls, four successive canyons, unique geomorphology, abundant wildlife, and stunning natural beauty, the park is held by many to be the crown jewel in Canada’s impressive roster of protected areas. And it soon may expand to several times its current size. Total annual visitors? Oh, about 1,000. Sometimes you can find that many people in the gift shop in Yosemite Village. All I can say is, get there before the word REALLY gets out.

After meeting Marissa and Ian, our hardworking guides from Nahanni River Adventures, pioneers of guided rafting and canoeing in the park, we promptly got to work….and sat down for dessert. Thusly indulged, we settled down for sleep under the dusky night sky of the northern summer. I could tell it was going to be difficult, trying trip, with conditions similar to those endured by early prospectors like the MacLeod Brothers. Or not.

The next morning we packed up camp and headed down the portage trail, ferrying our gear along the 1km trail to the base of Virginia Falls and the put-in spot for the raft. Along the way, we were treated to spectacular views of one of the river’s signature features as we detoured to an overlook just above the fuming whitewater. The closer we went, the more impressive the falls became, until we were standing just above the gaping maw, treated to a thunderous roar, sheets of spray, and a distinct feeling of being nothing more than an insignificant speck on the landscape. Such natural grandeur is perhaps most amazing when one considers that it’s there whether you ever look upon it or not--it doesn’t care about you or your petty concerns, it just goes on doing it’s thing and slowly wearing away the rocks.

Our instincts for searching out eye candy satisfied for the moment, we set off down the river and into Fourth Canyon. The canyons were named by prospectors paddling upriver looking for gold (what else?), and so are named in reverse order of what you expect heading downriver. The upside for visitors is that the canyons become progressively more spectacular, so that each one brings a new level of amazement at what this ancient river has been able to achieve. After passing through Fourth Canyon, we made camp on a wide gravel bar just before Figure Eight Rapids, the most challenging whitewater below the falls. We relaxed during the evening, enjoying good food, good conversation, and a spectacular sunset at around 10pm.

The following days brought an ever-unfolding panorama of stunning canyon walls (through Third, Second, and First Canyons), distant forested mountains, dry washes, and beachside camping spots. Nahanni River Adventures impressed us with food that was of shockingly high quality given the remoteness of our location. The weather alternated between spitting rain, warm summer days and cool mountain breezes, and it got just cold enough at night to keep the famous northern bugs out of sight. Since we were on the shortened, 8-day itinerary, we had a schedule to keep to that somewhat limited our flexibility, but we did manage to stretch our legs on several short hikes. The walk up to the viewpoint above The Gate in Third Canyon and the scramble up to the ridge above Prairie Creek Canyon were several highlights. And the rapids, while tame, provided a touch of excitement. All in all, the Nahanni provided the recipe for a perfect short wilderness getaway.

Canada’s first UNESCO World Heritage site, the Nahanni encompasses many diverse ecosystems and unique landforms, showcasing the action of glaciers, wind, and water on a land that has remained in relative isolation for millennia. The proposal to expand the park’s size significantly is moving through the Canadian government, and once approved it will protect the Cirque of the Unclimbables along with the Upper Nahanni and surrounding mountains. It’s long overdue, but hopefully within a year or so the entire Nahanni watershed will be protected.

On our last day and night in the park, Mother Nature reminded us that, after all, she was the real boss in this wild land. A day of cold, steady rain turned to sleet and then snow as we paddled to the park boundary before our scheduled departure. We huddled under the tarp while Ian and Marissa kept the fire going and our bellies satiated. The following afternoon, we were picked up by a pair of ancient Dene locals from Nahanni Butte. The Dene have been living in this region for at least 800 years, and these two guys certainly fit the cinematic role: cigarettes dangling limply from their mouths, wearing worn jean jackets and baseball caps tilted back to expose their wrinkled faces, they deftly negotiated their overloaded skiffs along the river, avoiding sunken logs and rollers, and bringing us to Blackstone Territorial Park, where we camped for the final night before driving back to Fort Simpson. As a final farewell, we were treated to a brilliant sunset along the banks of the Liard River, capping our return to civilization and calling us back for another Nahanni adventure.

Additional Notes

To get to Forth Simpson, fly through Edmonton to Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories. From there, another flight brings you to Fort Simpson at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers. Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) flies to Edmonton, and First Air (www.firstair.ca) flies to Yellowknife and Fort Simpson.

Nahanni River Adventures is the most experienced outfitter on the Nahanni and many other northern rivers. They offer oar-boat rafting trips as well as supported canoe trips on the Nahanni and other rivers, including several different itineraries on the Nahanni (options range from 8 days to 3 weeks), the Tatshenshini and Alsek Rivers, the Snake and Wind Rivers (Yukon), the Stikine (B.C.), Coppermine, Firth, Horton, Burnside, Thelon, and other great wild northern rivers. The 8-day trip costs $2,720 and includes a fantastic flight from Fort Simpson into Nahanni Park on a float plane that lands above Virginia Falls, park fees, all meals while in the park, and transportation back to Fort Simpson. The longer Nahanni trips start far above the falls and offer a glimpse into the alpine and subalpine world of the Upper Nahanni. More information is available at www.nahanni.com or by calling 867/668-3180. Owner Neil Hartling has edited the definitive book on the Nahanni as well as a new coffee table book featuring stunning photos of the great northern rivers.

Make sure to bring plenty of film and preferably several lenses for your camera, including a wide-angle one for canyon shots and a zoom for wildlife. It’s possible to see both black and grizzly bears (we saw a black one), bighorn sheep, wolverines, wood buffalo, woodland caribou and other large mammals. Fishing on the Nahanni itself is relatively poor due to its silt load, but the smaller tributaries offer the chance to catch arctic char and grayling, provided you have a permit.

It would be a shame to travel all the way to the Nahanni without sampling some of the rest of the gorgeous Northwest Territories. Yellowknife provides a good base for several great day trips, including a drive out along the Ingraham Trail, a gravel road leading to a string of pretty lakes set amidst the pre-Cambrian rocks of the Canadian Shield and the northern boreal forests. Cameron Falls and Prelude Lake are both worth a short hike from the road. An evening boat trip on the Great Slave Lake is also worthwhile, providing up close views of the picturesque houseboats dotting the harbor. The city has all the services necessary to load up for an epic wilderness adventure. The Super 8 is a convenient base (www.super8yellowknife.com), or try the Arden Avenue B&B (www.theedge.ca/arden). Yellowknife even has fine dining: caribou in a blueberry sauce is one of Chef Pierre’s specialties at L’Heritage (www.lefrolic.com).

Northwest Territories Tourism also maintains an excellent online resource for travelers at www.explorenwt.com. You can request vacation planning information and research everything from fishing to canoeing to cross-country skiing. Get going!

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