We join a group of river-runners around their fire, chatting and munching bannock. The distant drumroll of Virginia Falls sends pulses of anticipation through the group, who will start down the South Nahanni River in the morning. One couple tells us they've waited more than 20 years to paddle the river, making clear just how iconic this trip is to Canadian paddlers. Or perhaps I should say, older Canadian paddlers. Every person facing us around the fire is at least 40 years old. My girlfriend and I, both in our early 20s, are as eager as the rest to experience the magic of the Nahanni. But the faces around the fire beg the question: Does this experience matter to anyone else our age?
"Participation in a sport or activity is not a prerequisite to owning outdoor products," the study says. In other words, we're a generation of posers.
While staging the trip in Fort Simpson, I'd asked Chuck Blyth, a former superintendent of Nahanni National Park, about the river's annual usage numbers. I found it hard to believe my guidebook, which claimed that only about 700 people paddle the Nahanni each year—a far cry from the 18,000 commercial river trippers who experience America's big-dream river trip, the Grand Canyon. In fact, traffic on the Nahanni has fallen since the guidebook was published; the Canadian Park Service counted only 475 river travelers in 2015. Those who do come are older than ever, on average. "When I first started on the Nahanni, everyone was my age," Blyth said. "Now when I go down they're still my age."
Neil Hartling, owner of Nahanni River Adventures, told me that the average age of his customers has increased by one year, every year, for the last 30 years. Today the average age of his clients is 57. This aging phenomenon isn't unique to the Nahanni. Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is also experiencing a similar aging effect. In 1969 the average age of an overnight visitor there was 26. In 1991 it had increased to 36. By 2007 it was 45.
"Generation X and younger are doing adventurous things, but much less camping," Hartling says. "They want to be online by 5 p.m., posting their trophy photos, after a shower and before a beer at the pub."
Hartling, who is 54, isn't the first person of his vintage to make sweeping pronouncements about young people, but the research backs him up. While there is certainly a cohort of hard-core young adventurers out there, many in my generation are perfectly content with day-trips. Some just want to own the gear. The Outdoor Industry Association described my generation thusly: "Participation in a sport or activity is not a prerequisite to owning outdoor products." In other words, we're a generation of posers.
Hartling grew up in a different era, building his own fiberglass kayak and hiking in wool clothing from the thrift shop. Nowadays his customers show up with thousands of dollars of clothing and gadgets, which marketers have convinced them they need. Sadly, the cost of all that swag may keep younger people off the river.
Bill Hansen, owner of Sawbill Canoe Outfitters in the BWCA, recalls "an incredible fad among young people in the late '60s for backpacking and hiking. It was quite a phenomenon at the time, spawning great interest and media coverage." This surge got a lot of young adventurers hooked on the outdoors, and that generation has kept with it ever since.
Church and scouting have historically been gateways to wilderness trips, but Hansen has observed a steady decline in organized youth outings. On the upside, Hansen reports a marked increase in college wilderness courses. And Jason Zabokrtsky, founder of the Ely Outfitting Company in the BWCA, says there are still plenty of 30- and 40-something parents bringing their kids on trips into the Boundary Waters.
One river contradicts this aging theme: the Grand Canyon. In 2006, the National Park Service instituted a weighted lottery system for private permits, replacing a wait-list that had swollen to more than 20 years. Suddenly, younger paddlers had an opportunity to get on the river, particularly if they targeted less-desirable winter launches. Self-support kayaking trips on the Grand have become something of a trend for paddlers of my generation. According to the NPS, the majority of winter permits are drawn by people in their 20s and 30s.
The surge in Grand Canyon self-supports marks a change in the way paddlers today explore wilderness. New types of craft, from crossover kayaks ideal for multi-day whitewater trips, to standup paddleboards and packrafts, allow a whole new range of experiences and multi-sport adventures. If that diverts young paddlers' attention from classic canoe trips such as the South Nahanni and the Boundary Waters, that's fine—they'll discover the classics soon enough. "The millennials we see in the Boundary Waters absolutely love the experience," Zabokrtsky says. "And find real satisfaction in the wilderness experience."
For my part, I've already learned that life passes too quickly, and all too often people put trips like the Grand, Nahanni, or BWCA out of their reach. Those experiences are here now, completely within your grasp. Don't wait decades, or until you have all the gear. Nothing's stopping you from loading a little food into a boat and immersing yourself in a wild landscape.
—Watch John Nestler’s film from his Nahhani River trip on C&K
–This story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of C&K