Story and photos by Erik Thomsen
Few wilderness canoe destinations the world over have been documented and celebrated to the extent of the fabled South Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The river valley and its surrounding wildlands – the rugged Mackenzie Mountains – are famous for their immense natural beauty. This is a land of towering 3,000 foot canyons; cathedrals of limestone, castles of sandstone; of Virginia Falls – one of the largest waterfalls in the world. This is a land of spectacular karst terrain, cave systems, hot springs and gemstone lakes; northern lights, wild rapids, roaming grizzly bears and wood bison. This is a place with a river that flows through a greater diversity of landforms than virtually anywhere else on the planet.
The Nahanni Valley is a place of great human history and legends. This is the land of the Dene – comprising the Deh Cho First Nations – who have called the Nahanni and the Mackenzie River home for some 10,000 years.
The wonders of the Nahanni are so great that they earned the site the world’s first UNESCO world heritage designation in 1978. This designation reflects the fact that the Nahanni River is, to cite the selection committee, “one of the most spectacular wild rivers in North America.” left my home in southern Ontario to chase an old dream
“…I left my home in southern Ontario to chase an old dream…”
In August 2022, I left my home in southern Ontario to chase an old dream, along with five friends, to finally paddle the South Nahanni. For me, this was a dream that had been sown many years prior through an old national parks documentary that left images of the breathtaking canyons of the Nahanni seared in my memory. The dream was stoked in more recent times through the writings and stories of the old Nahanni Valley explorers, prospectors and trappers such as Dick Turner, Albert Faille and Raymond Patterson.
Our plan was to complete a self-guided voyage down the 216 kilometer stretch of the river from Virginia Falls to Nahanni Butte over 10 days. With the river generally flowing at well over 10 kilometers per hour, our itinerary would afford us ample time to take in a number of the park’s spectacular hikes and savour the landscape.
On August 6th, our group of six – Emily, Kevin, Lachlan, PJ, Zach, and myself – arrived at Yellowknife airport from Toronto via Calgary. Here we picked up our rental car and some last minute supplies and hit the road for Fort Simpson – the gateway to the Nahanni.
Day 1 – Flying to Virginia Falls
The morning of our departure from Simpson was cool and damp, with a gentle northwest breeze and scattered clouds. Our departure was delayed until early afternoon due to a low mist in the river valley that prevented float planes from landing safely at the Virginia Falls aerodrome.
Weather conditions can change quickly in the Nahanni Valley and impact air access. Peter Jowett’s book, Nahanni: the River Guide, provides a startling illustration of potential impact of weather and wind conditions on small aircraft in the Mackenzie Mountains: “I vividly recall flying over Yohin Ridge on one occasion and encountering a wind shear which pulled us into a free fall from 3,500 feet to 1,500 in a matter of seconds…have faith in your pilot!”
“…we were soaring over rolling expanses of boreal forest and muskeg…”
By 1:00 pm the first plane, carrying four members of our group, was off into the sky above the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie rivers. Within moments we were soaring over rolling expanses of boreal forest and muskeg, interspersed with multi-coloured, serpentine rivers, streams and ponds; the silhouettes of the rugged Mackenzie Mountains loomed ahead.
The mountains themselves suddenly emerge up out of the earth like enormous sand ripples on a wind-blasted beach. The mountains are rocky, dusty, tan and grey, with sparse vegetation and form every shape imaginable and are incredible in size and scale.
Late in the hour-and-a-half flight, I found myself straining to glimpse the river I knew was ahead. Suddenly, below us, in the distance, a wide chasm appeared to cut through the mountains. At its base lay a murky, sparkling river – my first sighting of the Nahanni. Moments later, the spectacular frothing pinnacle of the Virginia Falls itself came into view.
Our plane descended, minuscule against the hulking mass of Sunblood Mountain to our northeast. Our pilot banked the plane and feathered it onto the river so adeptly I had not realized we had landed. While we awaited the arrival of the second plane, we set up camp and hiked down to Virginia Falls to marvel, up close, at this miracle of nature.
Virginia Falls or Na’ili Cho (Dene for “big falling water”) is one of the world’s great waterfalls. Here three billion cubic feet of water careen over the edge of a sheer drop of 316 feet – twice the height of Niagara Falls – into the Nahanni’s Fourth Canyon. The waterfall is divided by an immense limestone spire known as Mason’s Rock, so named for Bill Mason, one of Canada’s most celebrated canoeists.
Above the falls, the relatively placid waters of the Nahanni rapidly transition into a series of Class V rapids as the river winds slightly to the east and then to the south before reaching the brink. Here, Mason’s Rock defiantly divides the river in two, deflecting turbulent spray 40 or 50 feet into the air. When standing at the brink, the raw unfettered power of Virginia Falls – of the Nahanni itself – can be felt in your bones.
Day 2 – Sunblood Mountain
After breakfast, we ferried across the river from the campsite to the Sunblood Mountain trailhead. The hike, which involves 1,000 meters of elevation gain and requires about eight hours to complete, is regarded as one of the best on the Nahanni.
From the trailhead, we hiked through a tangled web of paths, cutting through spruce trees, along the valley floor to the foot of the mountain. At this point, the trail rises precipitously toward the northeast over treacherous scree, holding a scenic view of the top of the falls, before veering north along the mountain’s prominent eastern ridge.
Spruce grouse and fluttering whiskey jacks greeted us as we pushed further through the forest, up the dramatic incline. Eventually we passed into the alpine, which exposed us fully to the blistering summer sun. We then met a final rock face and clambered up to the summit after about four hours of hiking.
The view from the top is nothing short of stirring. From the distant northwestern horizon the Nahanni River winds its way through the mountain valley, past the camps along the western shoreline, over the brink of Virginia Falls and into the massive palisades of rock that characterize Fourth Canyon. To the southwest, Marengo Creek shimmers as it lazily dances through the mountains to meet the Nahanni. To the southeast, a substantive, dominant ridgeline can be seen stretching across the landscape, some 30 kilometers away; this represents the location of the Flat River – the largest tributary to the Nahanni and a storied waterway in its own right.
The summit of Sunblood yields the South Nahanni Valley in all its otherworldly spendlor. Around us the fresh wind pulsed in chilly gusts, arctic ground squirrels frolicked about amongst wildflowers; below us emerald coloured lakes freckled the valley; oxbows, cliffs, crevasses, hoodoos, and other incredible features lay before us in the crisp summer light.
Of times like these, Henry David Thoreau wrote: “…when the wild river valley and the woods were bathed in so pure and bright a light as would have waked the dead… There needs no stronger proof of immortality…O Death, where was thy sting? O Grave, where was thy victory then?”
With reluctance we began the trip down the mountain and soon returned to camp. Here, as the sun set, parks staff treated us to bannock and Labrador tea, and told us of Dene traditions and games, showing us various artifacts made of bone, hide, and spruce root. We learned as well of the Dene’s historical methods of subsistence in this land relying heavily on large moose skin boats used to traverse the river to sustainably hunt and harvest food. We learned that the falls is sacred to the people, and that travelers have historically seen figures of powerful animals, such as eagles, dramatically emerging from its mists.
Day 3 – Virginia Falls to the Flat River
With our gear packed up in the morning, we loaded our boats at the Virginia Falls dock and made a brief paddle along the shoreline to the portage trailhead near top of falls.
Here we began the lengthy task of hauling all of our gear to the base of Virginia Falls via the 1.3 kilometer portage trail on the southwest side of the river. About seventy percent of the trail is a well maintained wooden boardwalk, with the final section of trail winding down a series of dirt switchbacks. The end of the trail gives way to a long rocky beach, which at river level, provides the iconic, rainbow-adorned vantage of Virginia Falls commonly seen in photographs.
With a cool breeze at our back and under the gentle mist of the falls, we set off into the Fourth Canyon in the early afternoon. The route around the first bend in the canyon seemed straightforward. However, as soon as we rounded the corner we were confronted by immense standing waves that launched the bows of our boats high into the air and downward, deep into each trough. Repeatedly, with each cresting wave, our boats were swallowed in a foaming maelstrom.
An incredible canyon surrounded us, though we struggled to savour it amongst the chaos of the rapids. Sheer crags of limestone glowed almost orange in the afternoon sun as we crashed through the waves.
“Fourth Canyon proved to be one of the most thrilling sections of white water I had ever paddled.”
As we passed through the canyon, we arrived at the confluence of Marengo Creek and stopped here to bail out our boats. Fourth Canyon proved to be one of the most thrilling sections of white water I had ever paddled.
Onward past the blue, gurgling waters of Clearwater Creek, we soon arrived at Figure 8 Rapid, so named for the churning whirlpools here that form something that resembles the number “8”. Historically this rapid has had the nastiest reputation of any on the South Nahanni. In Raymond Patterson’s book “The Dangerous River” he describes the rapid as follows: “It was an amazing sight, though by no means designed to make the voyageur burst into any hymn of thanksgiving: it was Figure-of-Eight Rapid, the most dangerous bit of water on the lower river – now known as Hell’s Gate”. In recent years, however, high waters have entirely altered the rapid and washed out its most challenging features. Fortunately, we were able to pass through Figure 8 with little effort.
We soon reached the Nahanni’s confluence with the Flat River and pulled our boats up onto a beach at the point where the two rivers meet. On the shore we noticed scores of black bear prints which we followed for about two hundred meters upstream along the beach of the Flat. The prints led us to a good campsite along the treeline, where we decided to stop for the night.
By now, the blue skies we had enjoyed for the better part of the day had been replaced by an ever darkening gloom. As we set up a fire, rain began to fall and we decided to turn in for the evening.
Before the day was out, however, PJ had noted that a beautiful misty sunset and full rainbow had emerged across the mountain ridge adjacent to our site. I roused from my tent to take in the view.
Day 4 – Flat River to the Gate
In the morning, we pushed off the edge of the Flat River and approached its junction with the Nahanni. It was fascinating to see the difference in the clarity between the two rivers and to watch the waters blend; the Flat appears relatively clear while the Nahanni is opaque and extremely silty – so much so that it is possible to hear the silt hissing off the hull of the canoe as the boat glides through the water.
We paddled casually past Vera Creek and into Third Canyon, which runs approximately 40 kilometers through the heart of Nahanni’s Funeral Range. Third Canyon is a sight to behold. Tall, sheer peaks tower endlessly over large sections of scree and loose sediment with the snaking river winding a course below. The canyons here have a special and unique character. Unlike the pure, sheer limestone canyons elsewhere on the river, the rock composition in Third Canyon is comprised of limestone, shale and sandstone – somewhat reminiscent of sandstone canyons of the American southwest.
The river is pushy through the canyon, and we tackled several minor sets before arriving at the Gate, where we unloaded our boats to set up camp.
The Gate is one of the many truly remarkable features of the Nahanni. It is here that the river completes an abrupt hairpin turn through a 460-meter, precipitous and narrow passageway in the river. Through the Gate lies Pulpit Rock – an iconic pillar of rock that rises vertically out of the river. The campsite at the Gate provides an excellent vantage of the area and affords access to the summit of the Gate’s eastern wall via a short, but vertical hiking trail. Given the picturesque nature of the campsite at the Gate we resolved to use one of our rest days here.
Day 5 – The Gate to Big Bend
I woke up in my tent just before 8:00 am to the hollow thud of one of our canoes striking a rock. I ignored the sound at first, believing it to be my imagination, but when I heard the sound repeat I knew something was awry.
I emerged from my tent and peered down at the shore about 50 meters away to find a juvenile black bear sitting inside one of our canoes. Concerned for our spray skirts and other latent gear I started yelling at the bear, which in turn looked up and walked five or six steps toward me before stopping and gazing in my direction. I walked closer to the bear, shouting louder – by now everyone else had awoken and joined me wide-eyed at the shore, not knowing what to expect. Lachlan discharged a bear banger which hardly phased the creature. However, with some effort, our shouting caused the bear to back off to the edge of the forest, where it continued to observe us. We approached the canoes and found that the bear had caused a seven inch tear in one of the spray skirts.
Thinking we had scared the animal away, we returned to camp, but almost instantly noticed that it had returned to the proximity of the boats – this time pulling one of our drysuits to the edge of the forest. Again, with great difficulty we managed to usher the bear back into the woods. The cycle repeated itself on five occasions before the bear left the site, seemingly for good.
“The bear, though small in stature, was clearly habituated and had no fear of humans.”
In discussing the situation, to avoid further damage/loss of gear, we collectively decided to leave the site and inform the Duty Warden via emergency communications device. The bear, though small in stature, was clearly habituated and had no fear of humans.
After returning home from the Nahanni and discussing the incident with park staff, I learned that a two-week closure at the Gate, which had occurred earlier in the summer, was the result of an incident in which a bear had torn open the side of a tent at night with campers sleeping inside.
Moving on from the incident, we paddled on through the Gate, bound for the Big Bend. Passing through the Gate is a surreal paddling experience. The immense scale of the narrow canyon walls, which absolutely dwarfs canoeists, imposed a hush over our group as each of us ceased paddling to look up and admire the towering temples of rock above us.
Emerging from Third Canyon, the country opens up again into a large valley that rounds a large corner in the river called Big Bend. Ultimately, we found a good sheltered spot for our camp at the top of a silty beach, situated along a dense patch of trees.
The spot provided a wide, mountainous panorama that yielded a beautiful orange sunset. The sunset was followed by the slow emergence of a broad carpet of stars, and incredible northern lights that stretched from horizon to horizon.
Day 6 – Big Bend to Deadmen Valley
The day began with a quick stop to hike the shallow creek at Painted Rocks Canyon. This place takes its name from the red pigments lining the walls and coating the rocks scattered on the canyon’s floor.
The next major landmark on the river is Second Canyon, where an enormous mountain towers 1,300 meters above the river past Scow Creek. Eventually, the river through Second Canyon emerges in a spectacle of magnificence into the broad expanse of Deadmen Valley. The scenery of the valley is starkly different from that of the canyons prior, with rolling flat-topped mountains – the Headless Range – looming prominently over distant horizons.
“…their bodies were discovered, headless and tied to a tree…”
Deadmen Valley, the Headless Range and the Funeral Range all derive their title from the story of the Lost McLeod Mine. It is understood that in 1906, brothers Willie and Frank McLeod departed upriver to attempt to access the Klondike via the Nahanni mountains. Two years later, their bodies were discovered, headless and tied to a tree, by a search party led by their brother. Rumors had spread in the region that, before their demise, the men had been successful in finding a bountiful gold mine in the valley. Speculation has led to dozens of expeditions to discover the mine, resulting in at least twenty deaths and disappearances.
Beyond the McLeod brothers, the early 1900s brought many intrepid travelers to this perilous region in search of fortune. Numerous, mysterious tales of death and disappearance in the mountains in the early 1900s gave the Nahanni a reputation as a “cursed” river. In 1917, for instance, the decapitated corpse of a prospector named Martin Jorgenson was found alongside his burned cabin near the Flat River. In 1945, the headless body of another prospector, Ernest Savard, was found in the valley. The causes of the innumerable fatalities and disappearances in the Nahanni during this era generally remain a mystery.
Dene oral tradition provides fascinating insight into the history of this valley pre-European contact as well. It is said that the mountain dwelling Naha tribe lived in Deadmen Valley. This hostile tribe was known to periodically invade lowland Dene settlements. In conflict with the Naha, Dene warriors had mounted an attack on their settlement near Prairie Creek only to find it completely abandoned, with the Naha never to be seen again. Some speculation persists that the Navajo people of the southwest United States are descendants of the Naha, given similarities in Navajo and Dene dialects and stories of a large tribe from the north suddenly appearing into the desert lands.
Toward the end of our paddle through Deadmen Valley we encountered the Deadmen Valley warden cabin and check-in station and decided to pitch our tents here. After dinner we rambled down a kilometer long trail at the northwest end of the site and came across an old forestry cabin best known as the Nahanni’s famous paddle cabin.
Over the decades, hundreds of canoeists have carved small wooden paddles and left them here to dangle, like little floating spirits, in commemoration of their passage through the mountains. Within the cabin, the slightest movement or gust of air causes the paddles to clatter together in a hollow, ghostly toll. Each paddle tells a unique story of the river; together they are a fascinating and humbling monument to the Nahanni.
Day 7 – Deadmen Valley to Lafferty’s Creek
From the Warden’s Cabin, it is a short paddle to the entrance to First Canyon. Here we were greeted by a lone Dall sheep scrambling effortlessly along the steep shoreline. After admiring the strange animal, we pulled our boats up onto a long cobble island to scout a notoriously tricky rapid known as George’s Riffle. The rapid is characterized by large and irregular waves at centre right and can largely be bypassed by paddling the left shore of the river. We opted to run as much of the rapid as possible through the centre and repeatedly crashed through the massive crests and into the air before smashing back down into furious flow.
First Canyon boasts the highest vertical walls of any canyon in the park and is commonly regarded as one of the most spectacular places on the river. We duly took our time slowly floating along the river and did little paddling to prolong and savour our experience here.
After some time, we arrived at Lafferty’s Creek – where we planned to take a rest day – and staked our tents on a silty beach. Here we could sporadically catch the scent of sulphur travlling up river from Kraus Hotsprings, two to three kilometers to the south.
The large cliffs that overlook the mouth of Lafferty’s Creek from the north contain “Grotte Valerie” the largest cave system in the park with over 200 caves and two kilometers of tunnels and passageways. These caves are a feature of the karst lands of the Nahanni plateau. Over eons, water pooled atop the plateau and drained through the porous limestone to carve out the cave system that exists today. These caves, restricted to visitors of the park, hold an array of natural treasures such as 350,000 year-old stalactites and stalagmites, the skeletons of sheep that died within the cave system over 2,000 years ago and a passageway called the ‘crystal passage’ for the feathery ice crystals that coat its walls.
As sundown set in that evening, a stout wind picked up from the north, thrashing our campfire violently and lifting up large clouds of silt from the dried bed of Lafferty’s Creek. We each clambered to reinforce tents with rocks and guylines before heading to bed and hoped the sandstorm would soon abate.
Day 8 – Lafferty’s Creek
To our collective dismay, the windstorm had intensified in the night, with gusts of wind likely reaching over 80 or 90 kilometers per hour – strong enough to repeatedly flatten some of our tents. The storm had particularly caused Lachlan, Zach and Kevin to have little rest. The interior of their dwellings had been blasted by large quantities of sand which entered underneath their tent flies and vestibules and through their screens.
After breakfast we decided to hike up the dry, bouldery bed of Lafferty’s Creek toward the top of the plateau. As we walked, we noted various cave openings speckling the surrounding canyon walls.
The riverbed climbed high through the valley, eventually leading to a smooth, narrow slot canyon, flooded with ice-cold meltwater. We followed the chasm and waded through the water but ultimately came to a dead end. After retreating to the front of the canyon we were able to find a way up and over the obstruction and emerged into a valley closer to the plateau. It appeared as though it would have been possible to eventually climb to the plateau, but we decided to head back to camp.
Day 9 – Lafferty’s Creek to the Splits
The first task of the following morning’s paddle was to complete Lafferty’s Riffle, the last major rapid of the trip, which each of our three boats did in thrilling fashion by hitting the main waves in the centre of the river.
A brief paddle past Lafferty’s took us to Kraus Hotsprings, where we beached our boats on a gravel bar and stepped out into warm, ankle-deep water. The submerged rocks at our feet were covered in a spectrum of whites, greens and yellows – a result of bacteria flourishing in the hospitable conditions of the hot spring where it met the river.
“The water here sits at a temperature of about 35 degrees celsius and is perfect for a relaxing soak…”
Over the bank of the river is a small rotting cabin, a remnant of the homestead of Mary and Gus Kraus who lived here intermittently for over 30 years beginning in 1940.
In the centre of a large gravel bar at the site, the hot springs trickle into a sizable crystal pool. The water here sits at a temperature of about 35 degrees celsius and is perfect for a relaxing soak, despite the persistent smell of rotting eggs.
Kraus Hotsprings marks the end of First Canyon and its transition into a region known as “The Splits”. The Splits are an immense valley that contain dozens of confusing channels, called braids, over a distance of more than 60 kilometers. Despite the navigational challenges imposed by The Splits, this place has an incredibly wild and unique feel and for most of its duration, the river maintains a healthy flow. In the distance, large mountains, such as Jackfish and Twisted Mountain, loom prominently.
After spotting a cow moose and her calf, not far from Jackfish River’s confluence with the Nahanni, we came upon a sign marking the southern edge of the park’s boundary. Now less than 40 kilometers to Nahanni Butte, we pulled over to make camp. The first location we chose was a sandy beach covered in hundreds of bison and bear tracks. Thinking it prudent to relocate, we ferried across the river and found a flat, sheltered spit of grassy land that served perfectly as a campsite (though we were periodically serenaded by buffalo calls over the course of the evening from the wooded area behind our tents).
Day 10 – Splits to Nahanni Butte
We were now entering the final phase of our journey on the South Nahanni. We paddled past the mouth of the Jackfish River and almost immediately encountered several herds of wood bison, with an occasional lone bull along the river banks. It was an amazing sight to behold these creatures – the largest land mammal in North America – in such abundance in their native setting. This privilege was compounded by the fact that these creatures, as other bison species, were on the verge of extinction little more than a hundred years ago due to over-exploitation.
Eventually the Nahanni calms to a virtual flatwater paddle and slowly meanders toward Nahanni Butte – an omnipresent landmark in the distance on this leg of the trip. Our journey toward the Butte brought us past a large group of trumpeter swans and three black bears.
Before long, we had rounded a corner in the river and spotted a long row of fishing boats tied to the muddy river bank. We had arrived at the small, 100-person Dene community of Nahanni Butte and were soon unloading our gear to camp at a small clearing in the middle of the community.
The Road Home
In the morning we deregistered at the park office in town and prepared for a boat shuttle that we had previously arranged through Nahanni River Adventures.
In summer months, the community is only accessible by boat or plane. Our shuttle, accordingly, involved a boat ride to a seasonal access road upstream on the Liard River where we would meet a vehicle shuttle to take us back to Fort Simpson. In Simpson, we would transfer our gear to our rental cars and drive back to Yellowknife.
Despite some engine trouble on the boat ride, we made it to the access road and began the drive back to Simpson as ash fell from the sky from nearby forest fires.
By nightfall, we had arrived at Sambaa Deh Falls Territorial Park, where we would spend our last night in our tents before driving off to Yellowknife.
At around 1:30 am, in an effort to catch one final viewing of the aurora, we hiked down to a place on the river bank in Sambaa Deh called Coral Falls. As if the Northwest Territories had not astonished us sufficiently, the skies were set ablaze with the most intense display of northern lights I had ever witnessed.
In the foreword to the 1966 Canadian Edition of his famous work, The Dangerous River, Raymond Patterson wrote:
“The Dangerous River tells of trips made in the North just before the aeroplane made all places accessible to any kind of man… 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… we were kings, lords of all we surveyed.”
As wilderness canoeists we endeavour to explore wild places for many reasons: physical and mental well-being, to challenge ourselves, to build relationships, to hunt and fish, to heal ourselves and find reprieve, to experience deep sensations of freedom, distance and solitude, to pursue the innate human desire for exploration and knowledge, to see and feel things for the first time, to build bonds with our planet, bridges to our past and to find meaning.
It is true that the reasons we paddle change over time, but for each of us, I would suppose, that there was something in the land or perhaps in the feel of the paddle, at the beginning of our first forays into the wild, that struck us and formed an impression to change us forever.
For those who love exploring nature and have done so for many years, to paddle the Nahanni River is to paddle a canoe in the wilderness again for the first time; with child-like wonderment, you will rediscover all the things that first kindled your love for the great out-of-doors.