Sights and Sounds of the Nahanni

Documenting a fly-in inflatable kayak descent of a North American Classic

FILM PHOTOS AND STORY BY JOHN NESTLER

Ask a Canadian river-tripper about the Nahanni and you’ll hear it immediately listed as a lifetime goal. Ask an American and you’ll likely see a blank stare. There’s good reason for the disparity: North American classics such as the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and Middle Fork of the Salmon are world-renowned rivers, and they’re relatively close. Names such as Alsek and Stikine conjure images of frothing whitewater in remote northern canyons, but such rivers remain inaccessible to all but the most skilled boaters. There is another North American classic though, and it deserves a closer look by anyone seeking a multi-day adventure through beautiful canyons with Class II-III whitewater to spice things up. Consider too that this area was the first location to become a UNESCO World Heritage site, and less than 1,000 people navigate this river each year. Interested?

Broaden your gaze into Canada, and you’ll find that a full day’s drive (as in 24 hours) from the northern border of Montana brings you to Fort Simpson, NT. It’s a small town at the confluence of the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers as well as the most common point of entry to the South Nahanni River, which flows from the Mackenzie Mountains. That’s where my girlfriend Avery and I found ourselves in early July, walking around a town blanketed with smoke by nearby forest fires, arranging a bush plane to drop us off along the banks of the South Nahanni. We’d received a Ritt Kellogg Grant from the Colorado College, and ventured north to catch a glimpse of this fabled river.

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We arrive to news that multiple forest fires are burning around this area as well as 170-plus miles upstream along the South Nahanni. Our planned trip is 18 days, savoring 230 miles of river from Rabbitkettle Lake to the takeout at Blackstone Landing though our plans are dashed, however, as Parks Canada has temporarily shut down all river travel at our proposed launch site. We decide to skip the first 70 miles of river, and fly directly to Virginia Falls, arguably the centerpiece of this river.

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Virginia Falls, a thunderous drop of 315 feet, is twice the height of Niagara and equally mesmerizing. We spend two days here, exploring each angle of the waterfall, acquainting ourselves with a hearty band of Canadian canoeists, and learning about the culture of the native Dene. Hungering for the routine of downstream progress, we depart the falls and spend the next 13 days surrounding ourselves with the sights and sounds of the Nahanni.

A blazing sun illuminates the canyons as we pass through, and rain later drenches any remaining wildfires. Bear and caribou tracks litter the beaches we sleep on each night as clear tributaries flow steadily into the main current. Porcupines plod along the shoreline providing a spectacular display of quills after dinner one night, and a beaver swims alongside our inflatable kayaks after an exciting set of rapids. A baby black bear even provides us with a morning show as it steadily ferries across the river, nearly 500 feet wide, hoists itself of the opposite bank and gives its fur a quick shake before scampering into the woods.

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Ridgeline views bring us right below low-hanging clouds on the rainy days, and camaraderie keeps spirits high, especially as friendly groups leapfrog with us down the river. All travelers are required to sign into a logbook at various stops, which allows groups to leave small greetings for others upstream. The spirit of community is strong here, and an old cabin in the woods houses miniature, decorated paddles left by river-trippers wishing to leave something of their experience.

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Rainy days immerse us in The Dangerous River, and the landscape comes alive with tales of prospecting from an intrepid generation. Topographical feature names such as Deadman Valley and Headless Range are finally explained within these pages. There’s a small bit of sadness though; early explorers talk of spotting caribou and Dall sheep at every river bend. Despite the abundance of tracks, we have yet to spot a caribou. Just a day later, as the canyons of the Nahanni fade, a caribou stands motionless on the bank, gracefully silhouetted against a waning sun. We float past in quiet awe, content and fully immersed in the grand landscape.

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— Watch Why Rush Through Paradise, Nestler’s film documenting his experience paddling the Grand Canyon alone, as well as an inflatable kayak descent of the Tatshenshini-Alsek.

— Check out the Nahanni pop up on Editor-at-large Conor Mihell’s winter reading list, and see more on the fabled river in our Digital Feature documenting a family’s adventure down the South Nahanni.