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The power of Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve

"Dene Mountain" in Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve in the NWT photo credit Parks Canada

The power of Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve

The mountain has always been a place of great power.

The ancestors of the Shúhtagot’ine (Mountain Dene) would camp at Nááts'įhch'oh, the iconic mountain that looks like a porcupine when they travelled by mooseskin boat to see Nááteho, the Nahanni prophet. Here, at Nááts'įhch'oh, traditional trails and travelling routes web out across the entire Sahtu and Dehcho regions of the Northwest Territories and into the Yukon.

But this mountain is more than a gathering place. The Shúhtagot’ine say Nááts'įhch'oh possesses díígóɂo—a prehistoric power. Young couples would take a newborn here to receive dreams and power bestowed by the mountain. “Our people used to bring their children to this mountain for help to have a good life and be strong in the future,” Frederick Andrew, a respected hunter, leader and elder in Tulita, has said. “It also brings them medicine power.”

Nááts'įhch'oh continues to be revered for its powers.

It’s no surprise that when this area became a national park, at the request of the Sahtu Dene and Métis, this legendary mountain would play a prominent role. Nááts'įhch'oh (pronounced ‘Nats-inch-ohn’) gives this 4,895 square-kilometre park of jagged peaks, rushing rivers, and deep Dene history its name.

2 people canoe on the Broken Skull River NWT. - Photo Colin Field

Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve is hallowed ground for thrill-seeking whitewater paddlers, with some of the most scenic, technically challenging and least travelled rivers in all of the North. Three rushing waterways, making up the wild headwaters of Tehjeh Deé (South Nahanni River), stand out in particular: Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (the Broken Skull River), Upper Tehjeh Deé (the South Nahanni), and Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni). Among whitewater lovers, these rivers are spoken of in reverential tones.

First, there’s Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (pronounced ‘Pip-en-ay Lee-toh Day’). It’s an unforgettable six- to ten-day adventure that most experienced whitewater paddlers can safely handle. In fact, it’s probably a good waterway for whitewater enthusiasts to choose as a first Northern river quest.

The next step up in difficulty is the Upper Tehjeh Deé (pronounced ‘Teh-jey Day’). From Nááts'įhch'oh, it’s a 21-day adventure down the entire Tehjeh Deé, beginning with the Rock Garden, a 50-kilometre-long series of world-famous rapids.

Finally, there’s Łáhtanįlį Deé (pronounced ‘Klah-tan-ee-lee Day’), which only the most expert paddlers should attempt. Also called Nahanni’s Scary Little Sister, this is 85 kilometres of hardcore whitewater.

These unbridled rivers wind through towering canyons, giving adventurers the chance to stop for day hikes to unspoiled natural hot springs or up mountain trails for panoramic picnicking. These journeys bring paddlers and packrafters through grizzly and moose country – these animals living mostly undisturbed in their natural state.

Really, paddlers can spend a week in the Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve and not come across another soul. Although that might be the great wilderness experience some travellers covet, it also presents a problem: these travellers would be missing so much of what makes the place special. “These are not just mountains and rivers,” says Tom Groening, an interpretation officer with Parks Canada based in Tulita. “This is a home and every place is full of tradition and stories.”

That’s why park staff are working so hard to tell the Shúhtagot’ine (pronounced ‘Shoo-tah-oh-tin-ay’) story of Nááts'įhch'oh before guests even arrive.

A tent along broken skull river in the Northwest Territories

Nááts'įhch'oh is co-managed by the Sahtu Dene and Métis, and they have been behind a push to return the original placenames to this land. Many geological landmarks in the region were given their official names by prospectors and surveyors in the mid-20th century. Mountains and rivers now bear the names of long-forgotten southern political figures or a geologist’s obscure colleagues. Some names are anglicized mistranslations of their true Dene names.

But the original placenames reveal the importance of the rivers, streams, mountains, rock formations and hot springs to the people who call it home. Each original name tells a story about life with deep meaning in this part of the world. As Tulita elder David Etchinelle has said: “All the places may not mean anything to all people, but they mean the world to the people who live off the area.”

Groening said when people think about the North, they often believe it’s uninhabited. “They think of it as wilderness,” he said. “It is wilderness, but it is not wilderness.” He thinks it’s important that people think of the North as a place of history that is connected with people.

“Maybe they won’t meet a person while they’re in the park, but certainly people have walked the path they are walking before. I think that’s valuable for people to think about versus thinking that they’re the first person to ever walk down that stream,” he said.

A man standing in front of Dene mountain in Nááts'įhch'ohPark Reserve NWT

The Sahtu Dene and Métis want guests to understand the place they are travelling through is more than spectacular mountains and rivers. Since the young park doesn’t have much in terms of interpretive signage yet, Dene historians, storytellers and elders meet with paddle groups in Tulita or Norman Wells to tell stories about the places they will witness in Nááts'įhch'oh before they fly in. These educators let guests know how to pay respect to the land, by making offerings of tea or tobacco. In order to get a license to operate in the park now, paddle guiding companies and outfitters must provide a cultural component to their trips.

And really, this enriches the experience. Now, when visitors fly into Nááts'įhch'oh National Park Reserve to begin an unforgettable weeks-long journey down the entirety of the Nahanni River, they have a profound experience immediately. After passing over snowy mountain peaks and stunning river valleys, their floatplane will land on Nááts'įhch'oh Tue (Nááts'įhch'oh Lake)—right next to Nááts'įhch'oh, that sacred and powerful mountain.

Standing in the shadow of Nááts'įhch'oh, having learnt the meaning and significance and power of the mountain, they come to better understand and respect this whole new world they have landed in and will soon be travelling through.

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