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Carrying on a family tradition: Pauline Campbell's history of Nahanni National Park Reserve

Pauline Campbell an interpreter at Nahanni National Park reserve hikes in the spectacular Northwest territories

Carrying on a family tradition: Pauline Campbell's history of Nahanni National Park Reserve

Her grandfathers felled trees, split logs and laid them down flat in marshy areas to provide a path to portage around Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) and a viewpoint at the top. Years later, her father and uncle toiled through the spring and summer months to build an elaborate boardwalk along the path their father set. Today, over that very boardwalk, Pauline Campbell guides visitors up to the iconic Nahanni National Park Reserve waterfall, twice as high as Niagara. 

Her family history is written all over this breathtaking place, flowing through the park like the Nahɂą Dehé (South Nahanni River), which has carved the deepest canyons in the country along its course. At age 7, Campbell flew to Náįlįcho with her father, mother and younger sister to spend two weeks at Sunblood Cabin (also built by her grandfathers and uncle). “Every day we’d take the boat down towards the falls and then my dad would work on the boardwalk. My mom would take us for a walk over to the falls and just hang out around there,” she says. “I was always playing in the trees there, so I was very familiar with that place.”

An aerial view of the community of Nahanni Butte along the Nahanni river in the spectacular Northwest Territories

Campbell (née Vital), a cultural interpretation officer with Parks Canada, shares these stories with curious park guests. “They get very interested when I tell them I’m from Nahanni Butte and this big park is right in my backyard,” she says. Nahanni Butte is where Nahɂą Dehé meets the Liard River. The community of 87 is the usual endpoint for Nahanni adventures; most paddlers who pull up on shore at Nahanni Butte are forever changed by the experience. 

A big part of Campbell’s job is to tell the story of the area and the Dene who have always called it home. She leads an interpretive hike to Náįlįcho for day-tourists and river-travellers who spend a mandatory overnight at the falls. At Gahnįhthah Mie (Rabbitkettle Lake), she guides visitors on a hike over terrain that is blessed with beautiful rolling hills and stunning tufa mounds–the largest in Canada. At Náįlįcho, Campbell also leads a campfire program for overnight campers, where she serves Labrador Tea and bannock to guests, shares Dene games and stories and answers questions.

Storytelling comes naturally to her. When Campbell was young, her cousins would constantly look to her for entertainment. “I remember at a very young age, my cousins would say, ‘Pauline, tell us a story!’” she says. “I was very young. I wasn’t even reading yet! But I listened to my grandparents’ stories and I would tell them these stories.”

An aerial view of giant cliffs in Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest territories

Campbell shares some of these very same stories at the park, taking seriously her role to provide a Dene perspective of the area. “We tell not only the story of people like prospectors coming up the river, but we also talk about moose-skin boats that come down the river,” she says.

She has a funny story about that, actually. Back when she was seven at Sunblood Cabin, while her father was working on the boardwalk and her mother was cooking, Campbell went wandering through the trees and came across a wringing post and frame for stretching a moosehide in a clearing. Her first thought was that her grandma must have been there a long time ago, because that was who she associated with moosehide tanning. It was many years later that she mentioned the place to her father, and it dawned on her that this must have been where moose-skin boat-makers processed their hides for trips down the river.

A person stand in front of Virgina falls as a rainbow beams across the water in Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest territories

Over at Gahnįhthah, she has personal, family connections too. Groups will begin each hike with a tobacco offering for safe travels. It’s something that the Dene have done there for generations. “My grandfather, as a young child with his father, travelled in that area,” she said. “In those days, they walked everywhere and he does remember walking in a valley there to the tufa mound, doing their offering and then continuing on their journey.”

During the summer months, Campbell works ten-day shifts in the park. She gets four days off, before returning again for another ten days. The days can be long, especially when day-touring flightseers arrive in bunches from the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. By the evening campfire sessions, she can be absolutely drained. But once she starts talking to guests, she comes back to life. It’s true of tours around Náįlįcho too. Campbell gets energized by the enthusiasm of guests. “It’s like seeing it with new eyes again.”

Pauline Campbell an interpreter at Nahanni National Park reserve shows traditional indigenous beadwork in the spectacular Northwest territories

Still, their questions or comments can sometimes catch her off-guard. Often, guests will be overwhelmed by the sensory experience or the spirit of their surroundings and they’ll ask sensitive questions or express regret and sadness about Canada’s history and how it has mistreated Indigenous peoples. On one hike back from Gahnįhthah, an older man hung back; instinctively, Campbell knew he wanted to speak with her. When she approached him, the man opened up and told her that his parents were immigrants to Canada. At that time, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was travelling across the country, gathering accounts from survivors for a public record of residential schools and injustices perpetrated by Canada and the church. “I just wanted to say I’m really sorry that happened and I wish it didn’t,” he told her. It caught Campbell by surprise. “All I could think to say was ‘thank you.’ And in the Dene language, it’s mahsi. I told him mahsi for saying that.”

“For me, as a Dene person, I get all of these questions,” says Campbell. “I can only share my perspective, from my family. I can’t speak for anybody else and I always tell them that too.”

People sit a the top of a cliff viewing the breathtaking virginia falls at Nahanni National Park  in the spectacular Northwest territories

Campbell has been with Parks Canada since 2011. She started as an administrative assistant until, the following year, an outgoing manager convinced her to take on a cultural interpretation officer role. At first. she had a hard time understanding exactly what it is she was supposed to do. Nothing about the job description sounded like actual work. To this day, Campbell says she still doesn’t feel like she’s really working. “I feel like this can’t be a job! It’s like I’m on vacation and I’m just visiting, and everyone’s coming by to visit. I can’t believe this is a job. I get to stay here for ten days and connect.”

Now, Campbell’s nephew may be next to follow in the family tradition. He had been peppering Campbell with questions about her job. “What do you do? Like, what’s your job?” When Campbell explained that she goes on guided hikes and shares stories with visitors, he would repeat: “Yeah, but what do you do?”

A float plane on the water in Nahanni National Park in the spectacular Northwest territories

An opportunity came up and Campbell’s manager let him accompany her on the last shift in August. “As soon as we got there, a plane of visitors landed, so we had to do a day-tour right away. We just dropped our gear at the cabin and went to meet the plane,” she said. Her nephew came up to her afterwards. “This is your job?!?”

Upon returning to Fort Simpson, her nephew knocked on her manager’s door, who eventually hired him on as a summer student. Now he and Campbell work together, providing yet another layer to their family’s story–and their people’s story–in the Nahanni.

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