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Northwest Territories' Nahanni River

© By Masa Takei
  Nahanni River It wasn't until we were aboard our last flight-a Twin Otter stuffed with two canoes, six people, food barrels and dry bags-that it felt like we were actually going to be paddling the Northwest Territories' fabled South Nahanni River.
     We were still a full day and a kilometre-long portage from putting in, but were now close enough to see the light playing off the riffles below. Some in our group had taken five flights in the past 48 hours to get to this remote patch of northern Canada. "Other people I've spoken with said that this trip was one of the highlights of their life," said James-a jeweller from Toronto, ON, who not only missed a flight, but lost his luggage.
     The stress of modern travel harries us all the way to the shores of this crown jewel of Canadian paddling rivers. The South Nahanni carves its way toward the 60th parallel in the Northwest Territories, close to both the Yukon and British Columbia borders.
     A decades-long effort culminated in June 2009 with the Nahanni National Park Expansion, which boosts the Nahanni National Park Reserve to six times its current size. Because of its remoteness, relatively few make the pilgrimage to experience the river first-hand. But its reputation looms large. The river was one of the world's first four natural UNESCO World Heritage sites. It's also a Canadian Heritage River and was one of the favourites of late Canadian canoe legend, Bill Mason.
     Our charismatic Prime Minister of the day, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, an accomplished wilderness paddler himself, pushed to create the Nahanni National Park Reserve after running part of the river in 1970. Joining him for that trip was Jean Poirel, one of the four "crazy Frenchmen" who were the first to descend the upper river six years earlier. The river by that point had already claimed the lives of at least 41 other explorers who'd attempted to cover its length.
     Bucking the conventional wisdom at the time, Poirel and his team decided to travel downstream. We were to emulate them in this decision, but unlike them, we were landing in a floatplane on nearby Rabbit Kettle Lake rather than parachuting in to the headwaters. And unlike them, our group of 10 would enjoy the safety and comfort afforded by an expedition outfitter with over 20 years of experience on the river.
     The guiding company, Nahanni River Adventures & Canadian River Expeditions, is nearly synonymous with this famous waterway. As lore has it, company founder Neil Hartling had saved a Dene family whose powerboat stalled above some dangerous rapids. The brave act inadvertently paved the way for him to secure the permits he needed to start his guiding operation here. Now a quarter-century later, he's the foremost outfitter on the river. Growing his business to service several dozen rivers in Canada's North and abroad, the Nahanni still holds special significance for Hartling.
     He was among those active in the fight for the Nahanni National Park Expansion, billed as "the most significant conservation achievement in a generation." We also have groups such as the Dehcho First Nations-members of the indigenous Dene people-and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) to thank for fighting to preserve this national treasure. Now over 30,000 sq km (11,583 sq mi) around the South Nahanni River and its tributaries-an area about the size of Belgium-are protected from such threats as damming and mining.
     A couple months after the announcement of the expansion, our group is spending two weeks traversing the length of the national park by canoe, descending 370 km (230 mi) and 550 m (1,800 ft) to the river's confluence with the Liard. Those on the first-ever descent relied on hunting and fishing to augment their dwindling supplies; partially spoilt beaver meat and boiled willow leaves made it onto their menu. How times have changed: on our fifth day, we're eating steak, pulled from wannigan chests packed with ice.
     Now at Virginia Falls, one of the iconic features on the river, we anticipate our first real taste of white water tomorrow. We eat to keep up our strength, so we say, but we're more likely gaining weight on this trip. A typical meal: pork tenderloin medallions in a maple-and-apple reduction with macadamia-and-cashew couscous, cucumber salad with a vinaigrette dressing, followed with a fruit and chocolate fondue-after we'd had our way with the "appetizer table" and uncorked a bottle or two of wine.
     We're a third of the way into our trip and have settled into an easy rhythm of eating, paddling and relaxing in what feels like roughly equal measure. Each evening we dawdle, following moose tracks on the banks or inspecting caribou antlers in the brush. Each morning we wake to the clattering of pots and chopping as our four guides prepare breakfast on the bottom of an overturned 5.5-m (18-ft) canoe braced on logs. A percolator of their own blend of organic coffee gurgles on the fire, next to cinnamon buns baking in a Dutch oven specially designed by Hartling.
     Later today, we'll use another innovation of Hartling's, custom-made aluminum wheelbarrows with brakes to portage our loads down the steep trail. Rather, our guides, Rob, Maya, Scott and Lars (Hartling's son), use them to do the real heavy lifting. We help where we can, but have time to take heroically posed photos in front of the waterfalls, double the height of Niagara Falls and arguably twice as picturesque.
     It was British explorer and writer R.M. Patterson who, in 1927, brought back the first known photograph of Virginia Falls. But it was his words-in particular, his best-selling book Dangerous River (1954)-that brought a vivid picture of the area to the public's imagination. Amid descriptions of the natural beauty and bounty, he interlaced tales of hard-toiling gold diggers and fur trappers losing their fortunes and their heads (literally) amid the rapids and backwoods of this rugged country.
     Now we're here to experience for ourselves this place that pictures or words can only strive to capture. The steep walls of Fourth Canyon flash past as we concentrate on the rocks and eddy lines running ducky style through the turbulent current. The river is unique because it was one of the few places to escape glaciation in the last ice age. Hundreds of millions of years old, the flow even pre-exists the mountains; we float down some of the deepest ravines in the world, the distant rim soaring up to 1,200 m (3,937 ft) above us. We pass in the shadow of karst limestone faces that loom overhead like the walls of fantastical castles. Cliché is unavoidable when we discover that, as promised, each canyon is consistently more impressive than the last.
     As the days pass, our arms grow stronger, our bellies bigger, and something happens within us. Members of our group who, a dozen days ago were engineers and IT professionals, executive directors and accounting firm partners, now hoot and holler like little kids, splashing in a calm eddy of the river at the day's end. These waters appear to hold some magic powers of youth and rejuvenation. Or perhaps it's our mode of travel.
     "What sets a canoeing expedition apart is that it purifies you more rapidly and inescapably than any other," Pierre Elliot Trudeau had written in an essay, "Travel 1,000 miles by train and you are a brute; pedal 500 miles on a bicycle and you remain basically a bourgeois; paddle 100 miles in a canoe and you are already a child of nature."

Masa Takei is a freelance magazine and screen writer based in Vancouver, BC. Publications he's written for include Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Vancouver Magazine, Western Living and The Globe and Mail. His writing interests range from outdoor adventure, travel and subcultures to, apparently, structuring narrative arcs for mutant mercenaries and half-vampires. mtakei@shaw.ca

Photo Credits
Courtesy of Canadian Tourism Commission

If you go
Nahanni River, NWT
as seen on
YouTube
Nahanni National Park Reserve: Virginia Falls: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMXKvXjjxT4
Nahanni Pioneer Albert Faille in Fort Simpson: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOQyN22r_MQ
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nahanni_River
Nahanni National Reserve: www.spectacularnwt.com

What's happening, money, distance, time?
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