Adventure on the great Nahanni by Craig Oliver

Two men challenge the ‘dangerous river’ and survive

I first learned of the South Nahanni River in the summer of 1973. I had finished a backpack trip across the Chilcoot Trail, the famous Trail of ’98, and in a Whitehorse bookstore, I came across The Dangerous River by Raymond M. Patterson. Fifty years ago, he was one of the first white men to go there, and his book is still the bible of the Nahanni, a detailed graphic account of his search for the lost gold of that river in the 1920s.

When I returned to Toronto from Whitehorse during that summer, I had dinner with a longtime friend, Tim Kotcheff. I mentioned the Nahanni and the challenge it held. His first reaction was: “Why don’t we do it ?” From that moment until we hit the river a year later, neither of us wavered in our resolve.

The river was an obsession. Battling my way through rush-hour traffic, I daydreamed about paddling the Nahanni. Almost every night for a year, I read books and studied maps. I was fascinated with thoughts of the unknown waterfall twice the size of Niagara and by the dark tales of mysterious deaths as late as the 1940s that had given names to the Headless Range and the Deadman’s Valley Mountains. That’s where the river cuts through on its turbulent 600-mile journey from the Yukon Mountains down across the Great Divide into the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers on the flatlands of the Northwest Territories.

To say that we faced some problems before embarking upon the journey is to put it mildly. Neither of us had ever been in a canoe. We had no knowledge of the woods, nor did we possess any ability at wilderness cooking or map reading. Worse still, we were both over-weight with barely the physical strength to lift a canoe, let alone portage it and hundreds of pounds of equipment for miles. We agreed to meet every week to draft a plan of attack that would give us all the skills we’d need; we planned weekly shopping expeditions for equipment.

Our very lives could depend upon the decisions we made months ahead of time. We spent weeks arguing the merits of each item of equipment. We bought the best down-filled sleeping bags on the market, and talked for hours with experts about the type and style of tent we should get, finally settling on a light nylon, three-man, wind-resistant tent with a tight, enclosed fly. We knew a warm and dry night’s sleep is a key element to survival in the wilderness. We had been friends for a number of years, and had gone through many harrowing work situations together, but were still concerned about our ability to get along on a prolonged trip in which the necessity for cooperation would join us together like Siamese twins. We would be completely dependent on each other. We spent long evenings trying to foresee possible disagreements. More than one team has broken up in bitter squabbles under pressure of wilderness survival, where even mundane matters can take on enormous significance, far out of proportion to their ordinary importance.

For example, Tim insisted he had to have a dessert after every meal. I’ve never eaten desserts and resented the need to carry so much extra weight. The compromise: Tim would put cans of fruit and many pounds of sweets in his pack and carry them himself. Later, a can of peaches would seem like the greatest delicacy I had ever tasted. But our biggest handicap was lack of experience in a canoe. The best equipment and wilderness know-how would be useless if we were unable to handle the high waves, rapids, and rolling water of the Nahanni as it makes its way through three canyons that have walls shooting 2,000 feet straight up. We had to learn to canoe expertly, otherwise the trip could end in tragedy.

The people we contacted were of little help. Their sincere advice was that it was no task for novice canoeists. That advice was underlined for us during the first night of canoe training. It was a course for beginners on a small lake near Toronto. I had never dreamed, watching lovers canoeing across placid lakes, that there was so much difficulty in doing it well. We simply could not make the canoe go in a straight line. It kept going in circles, or running into the shoreline while we dissolved into angry disputes about which one of us was to blame. We argued over who should be in the bow or the stern, and rapidly lost confidence in our mutual ability. Our coach taught us critical manoeuvres by having us charge the canoe straight at buoys, using special techniques to avoid them at the last second. Each time we collided with the floating object, he reminded us that, had it been a rock on a fast-moving river, we would have been finished.

Gradually, over a period of months, we learned to master the many strokes necessary to handle a canoe in all conditions. We settled on Tim, with stronger arms and better eyesight, as bow man, and myself as stern man, since we felt I had a better knowledge of steering.

But the small lake wasn’t a river, and we knew we needed practice under actual “combat” conditions. One sunny weekend in May found us with a group of rugged young men learning to master the art of white water canoeing on the wild French River near Sudbury, Ont. During the first day of the training course, we upset five times trying to negotiate a fast-moving narrow rapid on the French. During one upset, I broke a cardinal rule, and failed to hang on to the capsized canoe. For the first time, I learned what a helpless feeling it is to be carried underwater through a bad rapid. After 10 minutes, I was pulled from the icy water in the early stages of hypothermia – when the body temperature drops to abnormally low levels. Unable to move my arms or hands, and barely able to speak, I was picked up by the rescue canoe. We capsized many more times during that week learning the delicate art of ferrying and learning to use proper balance and correct strokes in fast waters. Our life jackets saved us, and we vowed never to take them off.

By early summer, we had collected all the equipment needed: packs, tents, and for carrying freeze-dried, fresh and canned food, a large wooden wanigan (supply chest) with a leather tumpline (strap) that went around the forehead. Our final task was to get in shape. So, in the final few months before the trip, we met each morning at a jogging track and were running two miles a day by July. In mid-July, we left Toronto by air for Edmonton, and then to Watson Lake in the Yukon, jumping-off spot for the Nahanni. The last thing both of us did before leaving was to make out a last will and testament.

Then, early one morning, we packed our gear in a light seaplane and set off for the Nahanni. Our canoe – a tough, 18-foot Grumman aluminum – was tied to the pontoon. Five hours later, we were dropped off at a small lake near the river. I’ll never forget the mixed feelings of loneliness, fear, and exhilaration as our last link to civilization lifted off from the lake and left us in isolation. We slept that night in a silence so deep it was deafening.

The next day – our first in the wilderness – we experienced a near-disaster that shook our confidence. Even with map and compass, we were unable to find our way from the lake to the river. We spent the better part of the day seeking an exit, and failed. Frustrated and growing extremely irritated at ourselves, we pulled the canoe onshore to try walking a path to the river and return later for the equipment. Within a half-hour, we began to fee1 we were lost, and I worked out some compass directions.

As we grew more excited, Tim started to run, anxiously seeking the river or a lake. I tried to catch up, and fell over a log. Then, a hundred yards later, I realized during the fall our only compass had dropped out of my shirt pocket. I was unable to find my way back to the log; everything looked the same. Tim was incensed at my stupidity, and we found ourselves near blows. Deep in the swampy woods, black flies and mosquitoes were everywhere, and we were totally lost.

We had been warned against the greatest enemy of inexperienced woodsmen – panic. It sweeps over you as physically as nausea, builds and feeds on itself and finally, even as you feel it happening, can carry you away into erratic behaviour that kills. We were on the brink of it. We had no idea which direction to take; the woods looked the same everywhere, and each step might be taking us deeper into the vastness of the Nahanni wilderness. Darkness was falling; we were lost, confused, and near panic.

Perhaps it was cigars that saved us. We forced ourselves to sit down. Then, we each smoked a cigar from our precious supply, while we tried to re-capture our senses and, in some degree of calm, work out a plan of action. The solution was simple. I had read that animal trails made in the woods were not there by accident, but to serve a purpose. We knew we were between a lake and a river, and guessed the moose and bear trails would probably go from one to the other at some point. We decided to follow a trail and stay with it no matter what. It took lots of nerve, as the trail we picked seemed to be going in circles. But, by nightfall, it led us to the wide, brown, and fast flowing Nahanni. Next morning, another trail took us back to our canoe on the lakeshore, and we portaged it to the river.

The days following were serene and beautiful. The strong sun of the brief Arctic summer was hot on the Nahanni. We camped on sandbars beside some of the highest mountains on the continent in the most awe-inspiring scenery I had ever seen. The wind was up on the rivers and bars, so we were not bothered by flies. We ate large meals of spaghetti, beans and bacon, canned meats and vegetables. We sat in front of the campfire talking until midnight, then slept in the comforting security of a tent while wolf packs howled in the distance. This was the wide and peaceful upper Nahanni, and we knew that tough days and dangerous water lay ahead. But first, two natural features of the trip were to fascinate us – the legendary year-round Rabbit Kettle Hot Spring and the beautiful Virginia Falls.

Rabbit Kettle Hot Spring was reached by tracking our canoe against the current (walking along the shoreline and using ropes to pull the canoe) up the wild Rabbit Kettle River. It took us five hours to reach the spring and about 15 minutes to come back that night. At the junction of the Rabbit Kettle and another small river, we followed an old Indian trail through the thick woods, in search of the hot spring. In the middle of unbroken trees and swampland, we suddenly came across a wall of limestone, elaborately carved by sulfuric water. It looked like a medieval castle looming above us. It’s flat on top with hot pools hundreds of feet deep down through the stone, from which warm water bubbles all year.

It was easy to understand why the ancient Indian tribes had worshipped here. The swamp-like vegetation and warm springs in the midst of a deep Arctic winter were the source of tales about a hidden tropical Garden of Eden, a Shangri-la in the Arctic, a warm tropical forest in the centre of the thousands of miles of frozen Arctic wilderness.

After leaving Rabbit Kettle Hot Spring, we looked forward to reaching Virginia Falls. During the two days of paddling along the way, we could hear it roar. Twice the height of Niagara, vastly more powerful, it is undoubtedly one of the great waterfalls of the world. Someday, it may become a major tourist attraction of the North American continent; yet it is unknown to most Canadians. Already, one enterprising businessman from Fort Simpson takes tourists for a two-day trip to the falls in shallow-draft, aluminum jet boats. As we passed one on the river, it circled around us while American tourists took pictures of two bearded men in worn-out stetsons.

That night, we camped on a ledge jutting out over the falls and met a team of biologists from the federal government parks service, from whom we learned the Nahanni was to be made Canada’s newest national park. They told us it was hoped the river would be preserved for a special breed of outdoorsmen. One of their main tasks was to develop campsites for future park users, and they indicated the park would be open to motorboats as well as canoes. We realized then that those of us on the river that summer might be among the last to experience it as a wilderness area still full of moose and bears so unfamiliar with humans they were almost tame.

The enormous amount of energy generated by the big falls is dissipated in the three canyons through which the river swirls, and there, we knew, lay the most exciting and dangerous part of our journey.

The first day among the rapids and standing waves of canyon number one was terrifying. It never seemed to end. The canyon walls were sheer and 2,000 feet high. The river squeezed through, forming five-foot waves, breaking from everywhere, and rushing in and out between the canyon walls. Water seemed to come from all directions. Plunging through, we shouted instructions until we were hoarse. As the water splashed off the canyon walls, it exposed enormous, deep gorges, then crashed back to fill them in again. To be caught between the wall of a canyon and the onrushing water could mean capsizing and, perhaps, death.

During those 10 miles, we hop scotched from one tiny bit of shoreline to another, emptying the canoe of hundreds of pounds of water that could destroy balance and sink it. I was terrified as we negotiated the canyon, and my mouth became so dry I was unable to swallow. My companion had to force water down my throat to prevent me from choking. It was the worst canyon on the Nahanni, awesome and exhilarating. The river moved so fast as we were on a different time scale. Objects far ahead were upon us in seconds. A decision to reach a point of land had to be made far in advance, or we were swept by. Yet, there was no real sense of movement.

On our last day, the river was moving in full flood, and we covered 70 miles in 12 hours. The flooding had washed away hundreds of enormous trees, which were making the trip with us. Some became stuck in the river bottom. To canoeists, these deadheads are as dangerous as icebergs to an ocean liner. We had to dodge them constantly.

When we reached the tiny Indian settlement of Nahanni Butte, with a population of 50, Indian children ran away at the sight of us – two bearded, mud-covered, and very tired men. At the local store, I bought the first dry socks I had worn in a week. Tim drank pop as if he’d never see another bottle. Both of us, being journalists, were anxious for the latest news. An Indian told us U.S. President Richard Nixon had resigned. We were back in civilization, having missed one of the biggest stories of the century.

For a time, at least, we had submerged our identities and found a kind of freedom in the wilderness. We had met a great river’s challenge, and survived.

Craig Oliver

(first published in the Imperial Oil Review – 1974)