Early Days in the Nahanni Area

By Jan Bignell

Recently reading an account in the Black Feather newsletter by Wally Schaber on his first guiding job on the Nahanni River in the 1970’s just after the park had been designated, reminded me that my late husband Bob and I had been on a McMaster Research Field Camp in the area back in 1972.

Dr. Derek Ford, renowned Karst (limestone) expert, had been asked by Parks Canada to investigate the interesting geologic features that should be included in the new park boundaries which were being established.

…an adventure for a young woman recently emigrated from the UK…

Bob and I joined Dr. Ford and 12 other graduate students from various disciplines on this trip. What an adventure for a young woman recently emigrated from the UK to be flown into a remote area of NWT.

Prior to arriving in Fort Simpson I recall the long 1,000-km drive from Edmonton, in a van with a U-Haul trailer up a gravel/dirt road for hours and hours. I remember along the centre of the road were oil-fired flare pots to divide the road in two sides for nighttime driving, and the dust which covered everything!

The previous year we had been with a Field Camp in the Rocky Mountains, and as soon as the float plane from Fort Simpson dropped us off on the side of a small lake – an eighty minute flight to the west in the remote Mackenzie Mountains – we knew this was going to be a very different experience. It was swampy with very dense bush all around and we quickly named it “Mosquito Lake”! The Brits among us got deluged with bugs which we had never experienced before and I was tasked with sewing the mosquito netting to all our hats. We didn’t know about bug jackets then and I don’t believe our tents had bug screens either, since many of them had been made in the UK!

…Derek called in a search helicopter.

I don’t remember exploring the area very much. I expect the women in the group stayed behind to cook! It was surrounded by dense vegetation so much that one day three of the group who had tried to take “a shortcut” home failed to return by evening. We called and whistled, and Bob was responsible for firing gun shots every hour in the hope they could hear us and follow the sounds back to camp. After two nights out and much searching by the rest of the crew, Derek called in a search helicopter. This surprised Bob to see it overhead as he crawled out from the tent in early morning to fire another shot! Fortunately they were found fairly quickly and fairly close by, unharmed but hungry and bitten and rather embarrassed!

View from the top of Sunblood Mountain

With time to spare the helicopter pilot asked a couple of us if we would like a trip up in the beast. Of course we would, our first time! We flew over a more open area so that we could see some of the limestone karst features and actually landed in a polje (a deep, flat-bottomed depression) on the tundra. It is interesting that these fill with water every summer now, but were completely dry then. Then the pilot decided to show us some cool heli moves and dove straight down into the campsite from the skies – not quite so exciting!

…emotions in the group flared up …

I believe most of us stayed about a week in the wet and the bugs, and then we drove back down the gravel highway. One notable incident was while we were driving along we suddenly noticed a U-Haul trailer trundling along beside us on the shoulder! Whoops, we realised our trailer must have come loose! We and it stopped without any damage done fortunately!

Four unlucky participants including Bob stayed on the site doing more work for five more weeks, during which it rained and rained and became almost intolerable. As expected with the lake water rising and no way to light a fire to dry off at all, emotions in the group flared up and it took Bob the rest of the summer to recuperate from the ordeal.

“the most accentuated karst known anywhere in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of the world”

It was all for the good in the long run! The rugged limestone country around our camp, the “North Karst,” is unique in its landforms, “the most accentuated karst known anywhere in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of the world” according to Derek. It extends from the South Nahanni River at First Canyon northwards for fifty km into the Ram River basin. At that time, a small part of the South Nahanni basin, from Rabbitkettle Hot Springs downstream to Virginia Falls and through four deep canyons to The Splits (a tricky bit of canoeing through braided, ever-shifting channels), had just been proposed as a National Park Reserve by Pierre Trudeau, who had paddled the river. 

After 1972 the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), Derek and many other wildlands people campaigned for protection of the entire South Nahanni and Ram basins and in 2009, a mere 37 years later, the federal government proclaimed it!

In the late ‘90s Bob organised a river trip with five other graduate students from McMaster, and they took water and other samples for ongoing investigations taking place at the university.

In 2006 Bob persuaded me and some friends to do the trip again! I was a little apprehensive since I don’t like whitewater but we made it and had a great couple of weeks on the river.  My one and only northern river trip! Once again we had a geomorphologist who could point out relative features, and she found lots of interesting rocks, some of which made their way into our packs for future analysis!

Happy memories!

1 thought on “Early Days in the Nahanni Area”

  1. Gordon Haggert

    Another happy memory: Landing on the source lake for the South Nahanni in 1993 at a perfect camping spot with a mountain overlooking us. All in anticipation of starting our trip at the tiny lake outflow barely as wide as a canoe! I have a NWT poster in my dining room with a photo taken from the camping spot across the lake toward the mountain. I wouls loke to know the name of the mountain and the lake if available. Thanks for the memory.

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