There’s laughter, both nervous and excited. Some boasts of adventures past. And a few connections are already being made as the ‘what a small world’ stories ensue.
You’ve just landed in Fort Simpson and introductions are being made. Tomorrow, you will head out with this small group of strangers on a trip you always dreamed of making.
You’re on the cusp of the timeless, iconic and wholly unreal Nahanni.
You hand over your bag and watch it disappear into a Twin Otter airplane. Before you know it, you are airborne and flying over the most spectacular landscape you’ve ever seen.
This will be home for the next eight days.
You look down onto the Ram Plateau, touched only by nature’s hand, ancient canyons carved out by the elements over eons. Your flight follows the course of the South Nahanni River until you spy Virginia Falls, the towering cataract that looks even taller and more powerful than you imagined.
The plane makes a smooth landing on the water and putters over to dock on shore. You share a hearty meal cooked over a campfire with your chatty crew—no one can believe the scale of what they’ve seen so far.
You think it might be tough to get to sleep tonight, feeling so much anticipation for the week ahead. But after a glass of wine around the fire, you retreat to your tent and discover how bushed you are after such an eventful day. You fall asleep in minutes.
You’re up early to soak in Virginia Falls from Sluice Box Rapids. Standing above the falls, with mist collecting on your face, you still can’t quite comprehend the massive volume of water that plunges 90 metres (295 ft.) below you.
Returning to camp, your canoe partner invites you on a half-day hike up Sunblood Mountain. You join her. At the mountain’s peak, you peel off your coat under the glowing sun, take a deep satisfying sip from your water bottle and look down for a bird’s-eye view of the falls. You then turn your gaze downriver, where, sprawling out in front of you, you see the epic week-long journey that awaits.
Finally, you’re on the water.
The morning is crisp, but that makes the air seem even more pure. As you paddle away from the falls, its near-deafening roar recedes into the background and the sounds of the Nahanni come to the fore. The plunk of the paddle into the river. Your calm, steady breathing. And your heartbeat picking up as you ride into Fourth Canyon and its alternately yellow, gray and rust-coloured walls. You deftly navigate the whitewater—your partner in the stern calls the shots and you obey when she tells you to paddle like mad. The adrenaline continues through to Figure Eight Rapids, before you end your day near the confluence of the Flat River.
You sleep better than you have in months.
You once heard someone refer to this part of Nahanni National Park as the Grand Canyon of the North. It now makes sense.
The rock formations around you change with every bend in the river. You enter Third Canyon and its walls dwarf you and the rest of the crew on the water. It’s all you can do to keep from looking up the whole time. You remind yourself to look to the river ahead.
You stop to make camp at the Gate, where the walls rise 460 metres (1509 ft.) in height. Everything here feels epic. Nahanni has made you feel so small. This change of perspective delights you.
In the morning, you head out on a steep hike that takes you high above Pulpit Rock at the Gate. Here, you get heady views of the cliffs, the rock and the river. You feel like you can see to the edge of the earth. As you make your way back to camp, you notice bear and moose tracks intermingled among the footprints. Some of these tracks look pretty fresh!
The river moves quickly after Third Canyon, but then slows by Second Canyon. Even after a long day, you still can’t shake the smile that’s been plastered on your face since the morning hike.
Today, you encounter the toughest section of the South Nahanni River. Before you left on your trip, a friend told you they once tipped their canoe at George’s Riffle, which resulted in a few frenzied minutes in the frigid water. You’ve secretly been half-dreading this stretch.
The two most experienced paddlers in your group take the riffle first. You watch them quickly disappear in the whitewater, falling behind a wave before bobbing back up. And again. And again. They have blazed a path for you to follow and they wave you through.
You take a deep breath, look back at your partner. You nod to communicate that you’re ready.
Here you go.
You attack the main current head on, but you take it a little wide. A wave hits your canoe broad-side and knocks you back for an instant. But then instinct takes over and you summon energy and power you didn’t know you had to straighten out. Then you cut like a knife through the whitewater until you’re on the other side of it.
You let out a victory cry, feeling a little worn out, more than a little relieved and thoroughly proud of yourself. Now it’s time to cheer on the rest of the group.
The paddle through First Canyon is serene and silent and the group adapts to its surroundings. The river banter and joking has stopped and everyone seems to be in a contemplative mood.
You quietly pull your canoes to shore at Lafferty Creek to explore by foot. You wander the creek bed and marvel at how the canyon continues to narrow, down to just a few metres in width in some sections. You trail your hand along the canyon’s cool, smooth walls as you wade through chilly knee-deep water. When the water gets deeper, you have to plunge in and swim across a small pool to continue on. The cold water is a shock, but you’re soon met by the sun’s warmth and you dry off in minutes. Along the creek, you take trails etched into the land by wildlife. You pass caves and scramble up ridges that provide glimpses of ever more tantalizing landscapes. You think you could spend a week here without running out of things to do.
You’re up early and, after a short paddle, you stop to take a restorative soak in Kraus Hotsprings. Later today, you’ll leave the park and reach the end of the South Nahanni River—it splits and meets up with the Liard River just past Nahanni Butte.
You don’t want this adventure to end. You don’t want to leave this place. You look around at your new friends—some half-asleep in the springs with faces covered in mud—and make a note to make the next 48 hours last.
At least there’s still a long day left on the river.
The horizon begins to flatten out as you entered the splits and after navigating a maze of waterways, you pull into Nahanni Butte and arrive in time for lunch. You devour a glorious cheeseburger and savour an ice-cold soda at the restaurant. Here, you learn from a couple of the community’s 80-odd residents why the mosquitoes haven’t been so bad this summer. (You are now eternally grateful for the region’s dry spring!)
You push off from Nahanni Butte and wave goodbye to the community, to the South Nahanni River and to Nahanni National Park Reserve. Well, it’s more of a ‘see you later’ than ‘goodbye.’ You already know you will be coming back.
You spend a lazy afternoon on the Liard River, and pull out at Blackstone Territorial Park. A young couple walks over and helps you out of your canoe. When they learn you’ve just spent the last week paddling the Nahanni, they invite you over to their campsite for dinner. They are enthralled by the stories from your adventure and they confess that they would love to one day paddle the Nahanni, but don’t know if they’re up for it.
You tell them you felt the same way just one week ago. And now, fresh off the river, you can’t wait to be on the river again.