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It changes you: How a river adventure in the NWT is more than just a physical journey

two canoes paddle down the nahanni river with mountains looming in the background

It changes you: How a river adventure in the NWT is more than just a physical journey

There’s a magic to this place.
It’s the way a journey down a wild river gives you a glimpse at our planet in its purest form. It’s how a physical challenge provides countless spiritual rewards. In the Northwest Territories, life does not take place at some future time. It happens right now, right in front of you.

Here, you will create lifelong bonds of friendship. You will come to realize that the farther you go from home, the closer you get to who you are. You will discover that the Northwest Territories changed you.

The nahanni landscape never stops being breathtaking

It’s a trip that feels more necessary every day.

You want to get away from it all. To trade the daily commute down clogged throughways, passing the same big-box stores and glass skyscrapers, for the vast expanse of nature uninterrupted. To steer yourself down a river that has forever run free and wild, like when our planet was new. You close your eyes and dream of the Northwest Territories.

Here, it is still possible to push away from a riverbank with the Arctic Ocean as your destination and never pass under a bridge or even see another soul until you get there. The rivers of the Northwest Territories are age-old highways and byways into the heart of pure, rugged Canadian wilderness. And there are roads leading just about anywhere.

A man paddles down the nahanni river

There’s the incomparable Nahanni, considered the greatest wilderness river on Earth, that takes you through a series of ancient and towering canyons. Or the mighty Thelon, “the place where God began,” that runs unimpeded through the Barrens until you reach saltwater. Maybe you’d rather float the bracing snowmelt of the Thomsen, the northernmost navigable river on Earth, passing muskoxen along the way. Or paddle through otherworldly landscapes on the mythical Hornaday River. Or descend the Mountain River, a whitewater paradise, and gawk at the geology that changes around you many times a day.

You decide.

a group of people set up camp on the shores of the nahanni river

On the flight in, you are awed by the river that stretches on forever below you and by the fact that this will be your home for the coming weeks. You don’t know it just then, but the dozen or so people seated around you in the plane’s cabin will soon feel like family. The plane lands and everyone gets to work unloading it. Then, in a flash, the aircraft lifts off, dips its wing to say goodbye, and disappears—first from sight, then from sound. The weight of the world lifts from your shoulders. You’re truly free.

Bonds form almost immediately with strangers you will come to know more intimately than people you’ve been close with for years. There’s a camaraderie that maybe you haven’t felt before. It’s truly all for one and one for all. When you hit a rainy patch, you find yourself encouraging on others instead of complaining about the momentary discomforts.

The selfishness and solitude you are often surrounded by in the city seem so foreign out here.

A couple takes on the white water of the nahanni river

This is no pleasure cruise, but you didn’t expect that. There are stretches where you fight to battle a strong current and your muscles strain from the effort. You pump yourself up for a coming portage and put on your bug jacket and hat just in case. But the rewards of the hard work are immediate. There’s the new landscape to devour with every bend in the river. You stop for a day-hike up into an alpine meadow or for a stunning, panoramic view of the river’s valley. You take a break from the paddling with a soak in a geothermal spring or with a quick shower a small, chilly waterfall. You pull out your camera and snap photos of muskoxen or caribou that are just as curious of you as you are of them.

And there are physical rewards. Nothing has ever tasted as scrumptious as the rehydrated chili you devour at the end of the day. You can feel it begin to provide nourishment to every extremity, as the energy returns to your spent body. Maybe you have a glass of red wine around the campfire, but it’s the laughter about the day’s events that’s actually intoxicating. You are compelled all of a sudden to walk down to the river. There, the fireside stories echo up the walls of a magnificent canyon. You hear the rush of the river beside you. You stare deep into the night sky and realize this place is even more serene than you’d imagined back home. When it’s finally time to turn in, your lay back and sleep deeper than you have in years.

A group of people share some laughs in the hot springs along the Nahanni River

At the end of your voyage, after forging new friendships and witnessing the natural world in its realest form, you will return to civilization. You will dig out your cellphone, once attached to your hip, and it will look out of place in your calloused hand. It may even take you some time to turn it back on. That’s because you have just finished a spiritual pilgrimage on a wild NWT waterway. And no matter where you wound up, the river will end at one place: self-discovery.

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