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A group of 11 adventurous middle-aged travellers, along with guides, headed out on a three-week journey down the Nahanni River this past summer, keen to escape the workaday world and test their personal limits. “When they asked for an extreme experience, they didn’t realize what I could offer them,” laughs Dave Hibbard, owner of Nahanni Wilderness Adventures. "Their breath was taken away in terms of the quality of the wilderness."
The group – coming from southern Canada as well as England, France and Holland – tackled a mix of paddling, hiking and mountaineering on their off-the-beaten-track tour of the famous Nahanni. One of the group’s organizers was a 58-year-old who’d travelled the world on eco-escapes from the hectic and the humdrum. “He’d been well-travelled on about every continent,” says Hibbard. “He wanted to explore some wild and untouched wilderness.”
Hibbard knew Nahanni National Park Reserve was ideal for such an experience. Starting at the Flat Lakes, the group navigated inflatable kayaks through the whitewater of the Little Nahanni. One of the guides paddled a “kataraft” – an inflatable catamaran with the food, guide gear and safety equipment.
There was a wide range of skill levels among the paddlers, but with the help of some training at the outset, and thanks to the forgiving inflatable kayaks, Hibbard says everyone paddled successfully and safely. After four days on the Little Nahanni and two on the South Nahanni, they made it through the crux of the trip, Crooked Canyon, where drops and boulder gardens give the river a “three-plus” rating – moderately difficult. After that, it was smooth sailing through the mountainous Eden of the legendary national park.
Even in the Nahanni, extreme adventures aren’t necessarily the norm. Every age group and skill-set takes to the waters and trails of the Northwest Territories. At Black Feather, another popular paddling-trip outfitter, guests generally range in age from 45 to 65. Guide Steve Ruskay says that, increasingly, families have been joining their adventures, complete with children and even grandparents.
“The majority of our trips are two weeks in length, which works out well with most peoples’ holidays,” Ruskay says. Their shortest excursion is a 10-day trip, taking paddlers down the Nahanni from Virginia Falls – always a shock to the company’s Ontario-based guests, who discover that the chute is twice the height of Niagara Falls.
Black Feather’s longest trips in the Nahanni max out at three weeks: One trip tackles the full length of the river, while another pays a visit to the epic peaks in the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Ruskay says groups of friends often journey north from the city to “get back to nature,” sharing an eagerly anticipated adventures. “It’s really common to see groups of friends that went to university together 30 or 40 years ago, and they’re still doing canoeing trips,” he says.
The remoteness of the Northwest Territories, he says, helps them re-unite. “It’s not the easiest place to get to, which is one of the things that attracts people. There’s not a lot of people up here. You can truly get away from it all.”
Whitewater, of course, isn’t everyone’s way to have a splash. Urban escapists who venture to the Northwest Territories can enjoy plenty of other invigorating eco-experiences in the region.
About a 40-minute four-by-four drive from the Yukon border, the Northwest Territories’ Dechenla Lodge and Wilderness Resort offers all of the amenities of city life with none of the distractions. “We had one large family come up one year from New York,” says part-owner Barbara Barichello. “They just wanted to do something really different.”
The lodge is along the Canol Trail – an old military road-turned-hiking path through the Mackenzie Mountains, which can be reached either by road from the Yukon or via remote wilderness airstrips.
While the lodge’s amenities – shower house, sauna and home-cooked meals included – have a huge appeal, Barichello says that’s not what prompts most people to visit. “I think it’s probably the wilderness,” she says. “The closest community would be Ross River, about 350 kilometres away, and there’s no services between there and here.”
Dechenla gives guests a lot more than just a comfortable bed to sleep in. The lodge was originally marketed for its nature tours – birds, flowers and wildlife viewing – and for day hikes out into the alpine wilds. But not long ago, the Kaska First Nation became a part owner, and Aboriginal education became a major component of their programming.
Authentic cultural and natural experiences far from city streets, topped off with a good night’s sleep in a cozy cabin: It’s enough to make any urban-dweller feel one with nature.