Paddling Canada’s Nahanni River

By Eugene Buchanan

For a true dose of north country wilderness from a canoe, it doesn't get any better than the South Nahanni River in Canada's Northwest Territories. Navigable from June through September, the Nahanni's big volume and powerful currents command respect – the stretch should only be run by experienced canoeists with well-practiced rescue skills – but its rewards come on many levels, foremost of which is its wilderness and scenery.

The Nahanni is one of the most spectacular destinations on earth, with a backdrop of towering granite monoliths that will make your mouth drop (the area is as popular with climbers as it is with paddlers for its massive multi-pitch walls). Reservations are required for all river trips in the park, with the park service recommending getting them well in advance due to demand. To help ensure safety, parties also have to register at park headquarters beforehand and upon return.

Do so and you're in for a true treat. The park offers six different river sections to paddle, all varying in difficulty and all with inspiring vistas every stroke of the way. Most paddlers tackling the South Nahanni proper begin at one of the two put-ins – Virginia Falls (seven to 10 days) or Rabbitkettle Lake (10 -14 days).

In the 73 miles from Rabbitkettle to Virginia Falls, the river meanders through a broad valley, with no major rapids of consequence. All that changes at Virginia Falls, one of the most spectacular waterfalls on the planet (and an obvious portage), measuring twice the height of Niagara Falls. Below the torrent, the river enters the first of four massive canyons. First is a 91-mile section down to Kraus Hot Springs, with up to Class III rapids including Canyon, Figure 8 and George’s Riffle (most parties bring spray decks for this section).

A 22-mile flatwater section called the Splits, where the river branches into several different channels, takes you to the park boundary. After another 30 km you'll arrive at the confluence of the Liard River at Nahanni Butte, where you can continue on to its confluence with the MacKenzie River at Fort Simpson.

Several shorter paddling options also exist, most above Rabbitkettle Lake. For advanced paddlers, Moose Ponds (or Rock Gardens) marks the headwaters of the South Nahanni, offering 50 km of continuous Class II-IV (depending on flow). It usually takes five to seven days to reach Rabbitkettle Lake. An alternate put-in is at Island Lakes halfway down, shortening the trip to three to four days. It's on this stretch that you can hike to Glacier Lake and the magnificent Cirque-of-the-Unclimbables.

Still another option for experienced canoeists is the Little Nahnni, accessible from Tungsten. The 56-mile trip serves up Class II-IV rapids before joining the South Nahanni between the Rock Gardens and Island Lakes.

If You Go

Difficulty: It all depends on the section you do. Portions range from Class I-II to III-IV depending on flow, with, of course, a mandatory portage around Virginia Falls.
Getting There: There's a price to pay for such wilderness; it's in the boonies. Two airlines fly to Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, First Air and Air Tindi out of Yellowknife (or you can drive the 900 miles from Edmonton). With no public roads in the park itself, most paddlers access it via chartered floatplane from Fort Simpson.
On Land: Pack light for portaging Virginia falls, but bring a pair of solid hiking shoes. The area offers spectacular side hikes in the Ragged Range, including the renowned Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Other Padding: The Flat River offers a great Class III- V (portage Cascades of the 13 Steps on river left) section within Nahanni National Park. Most people access it from Seaplane Lake, 12 miles upstream of the park boundary, and take four to five days to float it to its confluence with the South Nahanni.

Find other excerpts from Eugene's book Ultimate Canoe and Kayak Adventures and learn where to purchase it HERE.