Nahanni Gold: Iconic Canadian watershed preserved

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By: Conor Mihell

The silver anniversary of Nahanni River Adventures has been a golden year for owner Neil Hartling. Northern Canada’s iconic South Nahanni River, one of many wild waterways originating in the mountainous spine of the Northwest Territories, has always been the centerpiece of Hartling’s canoe and raft outfitting operations. After decades of incessant lobbying, Hartling’s cherished Nahanni National Park was expanded almost seven-fold in June. The newly created 11,500-square-mile park preserves a spectacular landscape of rocky spires, buttes, and 4,000-foot-deep canyons for grizzly bears, Dall’s sheep and mountain caribou—not to mention whitewater canoe trippers.

“Nahanni” Neil Hartling’s trademark felt Stetson has been a fixture on the river since he first paddled it in 1984. As a fresh-faced 23-year-old and upstart outfitter, Hartling was drawn north from his hometown of Edmonton, Alberta, by the South Nahanni’s mystical whitewater canyons and 295-foot Virginia Falls. After his second visit, Hartling serendipitously scored a highly coveted guide’s permit to lead commercial trips in the area based on the recommendations of a local First Nation family he rescued from certain death atop a dangerous rapid. Since then, Hartling’s Nahanni River Adventures has expanded to become a pre-eminent outfitter offering trips on rivers across the Canadian arctic.
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Amid rumors of hydroelectric development, the South Nahanni River was first protected in 1972 by a national park. In 1978, the area became the first UNESCO World Heritage Site. All the while, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), an Ottawa-based non-governmental lobby group, had called for federal protection of the entire Nahanni River watershed—a vast, undeveloped 15,400-square-mile carbon and wildlife refuge of lush boreal forest and serrated mountain peaks—from mining developments. From the outset, Hartling has rallied around the CPAWS cause wholeheartedly.

“Mining exploration is on an exponential increase in the north and it was only time before the area would be seriously threatened,” says Hartling, who has donated big-ticket guided canoe and raft trips on the river in support of CPAWS’ Nahanni Forever campaign. “For future generations [the new park] means they will enjoy the same wilderness experience that we have now.”

The expanded Nahanni National Park—Canada’s third-largest protected area—was created in partnership with local Dehcho and Sahtu Dene first nations. It was awarded Parks Canada’s highest level of protection, which according to legislation prohibits any activities “that would impair in any way [its] distinct wilderness character.” For CPAWS National Executive Director Eric Hébert-Daly, “Canada has shown true global leadership [in] protecting one of the world’s greatest wilderness treasures.”

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