This story featured in the 2013 Beginner’s Guide issue.
By Conor Mihell
Canada's South Nahanni River is to canoeists what the Colorado River's Grand Canyon is to whitewater boaters: the ultimate bucket-list experience. The Nahanni cuts through canyons more than half a mile deep, plunges over a waterfall that dwarfs Niagara, and roils through wave trains in the remote Northwest Territories. For paddlers with intermediate skills, wilderness savvy and a healthy sense of awareness, it's not a difficult river says photographer Henry Georgi. "But the vast majority of paddlers spend big bucks to go guided. That's why our trip was different."
Last July, Georgi, his wife, Bernadette, and their 11-year-old daughter, Maija, joined former river guides Brian Bell and Andrea Graham and their children, Kasha, 11, and Niki, 9, plus friends John and Jo McRoger and their brood—Jesse, 16, Jack, 13, and Jerri, 11— to set out on a self-guided, 13-day expedition by canoe and raft through the stunning limestone gorges of Canada's most spectacular waterway.
From 320-foot Virginia Falls, the South Nahanni passes through a series of four canyons numbered in descending order. Here, Brian and Kasha Bell paddle the 3,600-foot-deep Second Canyon. "Andrea and I guided canoe trips on the Nahanni from 1991 to '96," says Brian. "I love the canyons most of all. The river flows through more than 45 miles of canyons and each is different and awe-inspiring."
"The national park only allows campfires if they're contained in a firebox," Henry Georgi says. "On this day we collected our firewood just upstream from our campsite … Fire is essential to cook with a Dutch oven. We baked cinnamon rolls for breakfast and a cake for Niki's ninth birthday. In the middle of the trip we even had roast beef."
John McRoger's journal describes the group's initial Twin Otter flight to the put-in at Virginia Falls, which was aborted due to weather: "Our first flight is summed up by this take on an old nursery rhyme: 'Jo dear, Jo dear, have you any puke … Yes, sir, yes sir, three bags full.'" The second flight went smoothly: "The pilot flew us right over the falls!" wrote 11-year-old Jerri McRoger.
"As a photographer, Virginia Falls was a big reason why I wanted to paddle the river," says Georgi. "There's a bit of a trail to this massive flat rock at the brink, called the Sluicebox. Brian rigged a safety rope and we all walked out with the huge wall of thunderous water in the background." After the group completed the portage around the falls, a native Dene park interpreter blessed their journey with a traditional ceremony.
"For the 20-minute scramble to the top of Pulpit Rock, the view is a big bang for your buck," says Andrea Graham, pictured here with daughter Kasha. "You get up there and see a complete bend in the river—it makes a complete 180-degree turn. The water is so calm and deep."
"We were on vacation and didn't want to be missing out on anything when it came to food," says Graham. "We baked and made sushi. We spared nothing in terms of quantity. If we needed 10 ingredients, they were all there." And so were the mosquitoes: "The Nahanni usually isn't bad for bugs," says Brian Bell. "But last year was different. At the end of the trip the girls counted over 500 bites on Maija [Georgi]."
The crew took part in a Nahanni tradition, carving miniature paddles to leave at a warden's station along the way. "We went to the paddle cabin and hung our paddles together," Jerri McRoger wrote in her journal. "It was so cool in the paddle cabin, and it was exciting when Brian found his paddle from 1991."