Winter Reading: ‘That Summer on the Nahanni 1928’ by Fenley Hunter

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Take my word for it: If you love canoe tripping, anything put out by Ottawa-based boutique publisher McGahern Stewart Publishing is worth reading. The label's first book, an updated reprint of Sleeping Island, an enchanting book by P.G. Downes first printed in 1943, is hard to beat. Publishers and veteran paddlers Patrick McGahern and Hugh Stewart followed it up with a two-volume collection of Downes' journals, and, then printed arctic explorer W.H.B. Hoare's 1928-29 Thelon River journal. Reading McGahern Stewart's Forgotten Northern Classics series is an invaluable resource for modern-day paddlers looking for a new lens to shape their own experiences in the Canadian wilderness.

The publisher's latest book is That Summer on the Nahanni 1928. It compiles the field notes of Fenley Hunter, a New York-based businessman with a penchant for Canada's North. Only 50 copies of Hunter's original 1923 journal documenting a trip to Dease Lake in northern British Columbia were printed. A similar print run was made from his 1928 expedition, which started in northern Alberta and ended in Fort Simpson, in Canada's Northwest Territories. McGahern Stewart's volume presents both journals, as well as Hunter's sketch maps. Perhaps the most intriguing element of Hunter's 1928 journey, at least from a modern standpoint, is a five-week side trip he made up the Liard and South Nahanni rivers.

Today, the South Nahanni River tops the bucket list of many canoeists. In Hunter's time, the river's deep canyons were thought to contain lodes of gold. In 1908, the headless corpses of prospectors Willie and Frank McLeod were found on the river's banks, inspiring stories of lost mines. Hardscrabble prospector Albert Faille was but one captivated by the region's mystique; British ex-pat R.M. Patterson was another. Patterson and Hunter met one another on parallel Nahanni explorations in the summer of 1928.

Hunter's journals detail his quest to survey the Nahanni's centerpiece waterfall—and to name it after his 16-year-old daughter, Virginia. Editor Stewart notes his journal has "the ingredients of a classic wilderness tale. There is a quest. There is much arduous travel. In time, there is impatience to get out of the country… There is character development." I agree with Stewart assertion that "Hunter writes evocatively about many parts of the trip."

I envision That Summer on the Nahanni 1928 sharing a drybag with Patterson's 1954 classic Dangerous River, to be read around the campfire by modern-day Nahanni canoeists. Then and now, as Hunter concludes while camped at the stunning, 316-foot Virginia Falls, "A great adventure is worth more than gold any day."

Read about a family's journey down the South Nahanni River

Click here to order a copy of That Summer on the Nahanni 1928 from the publisher