The Nahanni River by Tim Kotcheff
The Nahanni is probably one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. For canoeists, it’s also one of the most dangerous. The Nahanni is noted for its swift powerful current sweeping everything in its path, long and difficult rapids, vicious whirlpools and death defying canyons.
A rather ominous letter from the NWT travel counsellor warned us of the hazards of the Nahanni which is “dangerous and impractical for most canoeists. You should be aware that the price of inexperience and carelessness can result in tragedy in our cold waters.”
It’s obviously not a river for amateurs. Craig and I were amateurs. Greenhorns. We’d never taken on a major wilderness canoe trip in our lives. I was in great emotional conflict as the day neared for our departure. Thoughts swirled in my mind about my wife and two young children. Was this an irresponsible and perhaps foolish decision to tackle the Nahanni for someone with dependents? Craig’s stake in this venture was not as great. The stakes for me were sky high. I don’t know if he fully appreciated my predicament. I suppose you could say that all’s well that end’s well. But to this day I’m still haunted by the thought of the disaster that could have been.
The South Nahanni River is located about 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. It rises in the Selwyn Mountains that form part of the border between the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories.
The river then follows a south-easterly course to join the Liard River at Nahanni Butte. This is where our trip would end. Figuring that out was the easy part. Getting to the start point of our trip was another matter altogether, not to mention the hundreds of kilometres between put in and take out.
Our planning was meticulous – the best down sleeping bags and jackets for the cold, a strong rain and wind resistant tent, spare paddles etc. It also involved an intense whitewater canoe-training course for beginners. In 1973 we signed up with Glenn Fallis who ran the Voyageur Canoe Co. in Millbrook. The work out would take place on a section of the French River and include overnight camping.
The exercise was invaluable. Mastering the critical paddle strokes to move, turn and stop a canoe. Maintaining canoe balance. Running rapids in a controlled setting. Steering techniques that would help us avoid fatal collisions with rocks and outcroppings. We even practiced capsizing to experience the shock of hitting cold water fully clothed and bobbing helplessly through standing waves and fast water. This exercise provided us with a lesson in Hypothermia – that’s when the body gradually succumbs to the cold, immobilizes physical movement and eventually renders one unconscious. We were encouraged to wear wool clothing or a wet suite to ward of the cold in case we capsized.
Life jackets were mandatory. We learned the technique of righting an overturned canoe, and even climbing back on board, in deep water. We had already settled into our roles – Craig would be stern. Tim would be bow. My eyesight was impeccable and would serve us in good stead in the rough times ahead. Craig’s great strength was steering. In difficult rapids it’s the job of the bowman to find the safest line. The stern has to respond to movements left or right instinctively. Stern and Bow have to be closely synchronized to avoid hitting rocks and ledges. Teamwork was mandatory. In the years to come, that would be our strength.
It was now the first of July – a matter of days before flying to Watson Lake in Yukon. Time to pack the wanigan and our woods 200 canoe bags. Our choice of provisions though, was beyond the pale. We loaded up with canned goods and other heavy food items that would leave little free-board on our canoe. This would increase our chances of swamping in heavy water. Amateur time.
Our flight from Toronto took us to Edmonton and Watson Lake. There we loaded a small floatplane with all our equipment. An eighteen-foot aluminum canoe was strapped to one of the pontoons. Hours later we circled a small lake close to the River and landed near a dense wood, the location of our first campsite. We unloaded and bid farewell to the pilot and an eerie feeling crept over me as the plane disappeared over the horizon. It would be re-experienced in every subsequent canoe trip. Suddenly we were alone. Utterly alone. No way out but down the river. No one to turn to for help. Two men against the elements pondering what the next day would hold for us.
We woke early, packed up and started our trek to the river. Easier said than done. There was no clear route. Trees and dense brush blocked our path making it impossible to portage the canoe. We were disoriented. To compound matters, Craig accidentally lost the compass in the brush. Tempers flared momentarily. On the edge of panic, we took a quick break to assess our predicament. Steps from where we stopped, we noticed what looked like an animal track. It was the key to our exit and eventually we stumbled our way to riverside.
There was the great Nahanni. The sun was shining. Mountains glistened in the distance. The air was clean and refreshing. We had survived our first mistake. The canoe was loaded and we paddled our way over a very tranquil section of the river. A couple of kilometres down stream – our very first river campsite on a beautiful spit of land. The debacle back at the woods had left us somewhat shaken but time now prepare ourselves for the serious challenges ahead.
We spent two memorable days here exploring the general area and getting a feel for the land. It was as good as it gets. We were armed to the teeth. Some of our friends predicted we would probably end up shooting each other, drowning or both. Our enemies at the time hoped for all of the above. Curiously enough, it was Craig who was on nightly watch; gun in hand in case of a bear attack. Curious because he used to fall asleep within seconds of his head hitting the pillow. Which often left me staring down the barrel of his pistol for most of the night.
For years to come, Craig would be the camp bartender. His rum daiquiris were the hit of the Arctic. I was to be his first customer. The rum, lime juice and sugar sweetener were mixed in a cooking pot. Craig served it out from his own cup. One for me. One, two for him.
It was now time to hone my skills as camp cook. Breakfast: bannock, bacon and eggs. Lunch: canned salmon. Dinner: Canned spaghetti and meatballs. No freeze-dries for us now…or ever.
In addition to his role as security chief, Craig was also head navigator. He would pour over the maps for hours to ensure we were heading in the right direction on the river. He never failed in this endeavour.
But the short holiday was over. The Nahanni beckoned. We launched in the early morning. The waters were smooth. But suddenly, there it was. Our first rapid. The first stretch of whitewater.
At the top of the run yours truly clung fearfully to a branch at the side of the river. Were we ready? Should we? Shouldn’t we. Craig urged to proceed. Mind you, I was never quite sure if he could see the way ahead – maybe that was the secret of our success – see no danger, hear no danger. (I know we look a little wimpy here, but facts speak louder than words. In the years to come we became known as the OK (Oliver/Kotcheff) canoe and the OK canoe has never been KO’ed not at least with us in it. But that’s another story for later. We must have been doing something right.)
I let go of the branch and there we were running our first set of rapids. And we did so successfully. They say that the difference between an amateur canoeist and an experienced hand is one tough rapid. We were no longer greenhorns.
Our next landing was at the confluence of the Rabbitkettle River and the Nahanni. There we met 4 trippers from Toronto. Just days earlier, one of the party, Cam Salsbury, had broken his ankle on slippery rocks while lining a canoe. He was hobbling around on crutches fashioned from tree branches. It would be 4 more weeks before his ankle would receive medical attention. Sandy Richardson, a teacher at Monarch High in Toronto, seemed to be team leader. We gave him some of our canned food supplies. We were way overloaded so we were doing ourselves a favour by giving it away.
A short hike up the Rabbitkettle River took us to the Hot Springs. Warmed by volcanic energy, water bubbles to the surface from deep down. The temperature of the water is 20 degrees Celsius year round. As the calcium carbonate in the water overflow hardens, it forms a series of terraces and basins.
We stripped down and took the plunge. It was incredibly relaxing. (The area is very fragile and after the Nahanni was declared a National park, the Hot Spring is now only accessible through guided hikes with park staff.)
The next day it was on to the spectacular Virginia Falls, the Nahanni centerpiece. There were no major challenges along this section of the river. However, danger lurked in the canyons below the Falls. On the Nahanni you can float at about 11 k’s per hour. It took us a couple of days to reach our destination (115 k) in smooth fast running water – an excellent opportunity to refine our paddling skills.
When we reached the Falls, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The wide placid river we just paddled was suddenly transformed into a raging torrent heading spectacularly into a vertical drop of some 300 feet – twice the height of Niagara. The pictures speak for themselves. We camped on a ledge jutting out over the Falls. What an unforgettable view! (According to Park rules, it is no longer possible to camp on the spot we had chosen)
Now came the brutal 1.5 kilometre portage around the falls to face the fearsome Nahanni canyons. It took us the better part of 4 hours to complete this horrid task. By this time, we were joined by Sandy Richardson and his team who had set up camp on the spot we had just vacated. They were with us at riverside. I’m forever grateful to Sandy for taking the photo of us heading into the jaws of the fourth canyon. Whenever I look at this view, my stomach begins to churn. It brings back the fear and tension we felt heading into the unknown. (I recently met Sandy and he wondered why we didn’t wait for him and his group to paddle the canyons together for safety purposes. Why indeed!)
But there we were. Straight ahead, 4 canyons, steep cliffs, roiling water, for 140 kilometres. The nightmare was about to begin. Here is how Craig describes it:
‘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 16 kilometres, we hop scotched from one tiny bit of shoreline to another, emptying the canoe of hundreds of pounds of water that could sink it. 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 would be swept by.’
We made it! To this day I can still feel the excitement and a sense of achievement – an experience never to be duplicated.
At the end of the fourth canyon, we stopped and camped on a creek bed just below where the Flat River meets the Nahanni. By now things had calmed down and we felt exhilarated. After setting up the tent we noticed a group of strange men camped in a bush immediately across from us – like something out of the movie ‘Deliverance’. They were huddled around a small fire. Craig said we should ferry across to say hello. I was reluctant but finally agreed after some prodding. This of course involved a tricky manoeuvre where you point the canoe upstream and paddle against the current at approximately 15 degrees so that the canoe is forced to move sideways. One slip however meant we would have been swept downstream to god knows where if we didn’t drown. Risky to say the least.
It took us 15 minutes to cross. We introduced ourselves and learned that this bunch, Patterson book in hand, were there to explore the Flat River and perhaps find the source of the gold flecks which now littered both sides of the river. They mentioned that a short distance from their camp, lay the ruins of the Patterson log cabin. (In the summer of 1927, R. M. Patterson author of ‘The Dangerous River’, canoed down from Virginia falls in a 16 foot Prospector canoe. The following spring he returned with a companion, and the two men built a log cabin which they used as a winter camp for trapping and prospecting. He too was in the hunt for the mother lode.
The woodsmen said they would take us to the remains of the cabin. Sure enough, there was the cabin. Later, I expressed concerns to Craig about what we did. Craig said there was no problem because he carried a loaded pistol under his poncho and was ready for any possibility. The only risk, as it turned out, was getting accidentally shot by Craig.
Next stop as we passed through the third canyon was ‘The Gate’ where the river makes a narrow hairpin turn through a gap flanked by a vertical limestone wall almost 500 meters high. And there ahead of us was the memorable Pulpit Rock, a distinctive high point on the east side of the gap. We set up camp just below The Gate.
Sandy and his paddlers showed up shortly after. He took yet another photo of us – one of my favourites – standing on shore with Pulpit Rock in the background.
Next day it was the second canyon which carves it way through the Headless Range and Deadmen Valley named after the mysterious deaths of the McLeod brothers. And then an exciting run down the turbulent George’s Riffle between the towering walls of First Canyon (the last and most spectacular) which reach heights of over 1400 m. But now we were seasoned paddlers. The Riffles posed no problem.
We dropped into Kraus’ Hot Springs for an hour or so named after Mary and Gus Kraus, the only known permanent residents of the river, who lived there between 1940 and 1971. And then it was on to the Nahanni splits – a long and somewhat tedious run through a maze of islands that would take us to our final destination – Nahanni Butte. It was a short hop by floatplane to Fort Simpson for an overnight stay and our flight back to Toronto.
The dangers and difficulties were now behind us. The greenhorns were now seasoned canoeists. Our affection for the wilderness had grown, along with a new respect for Mother Nature.
Yes, we had arguments along the way because of personality clashes – they were minor – but we gradually adjusted to each other’s strengths and failings. And in the end, it was teamwork that got us through. Craig and I had survived the mighty Nahanni and lived to tell our story. It was the end of the trip but just the beginning of our Arctic odyssey. Tim Kotcheff
A few final notes:
Albert Faille, the inspiration for our trip down the Nahanni, died on New Year’s Day in 1974 at his home in Fort Simpson – the same year we paddled the river.
Craig Oliver wrote his own version of our trip down the Nahanni – Two men challenge the ‘Dangerous River’ and survive – and it was published in the 1975 edition of the Imperial Oil Review.
Since the park was established, use of the some areas along the Nahanni are now restricted. You may want to check the following page for the new rules guiding visitors to the river. Nahanni National Park Reserve of Canada rules for canoeists and campers. http://www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/nt/nahanni/activ/activ1.aspx