The Nahanni

Virginia Falls

A Twenty-One Day Wilderness Canoe Trip

The Nahanni for me is mythic. Like the Nile, or the Amazon. I first heard of it at fifteen from a school teacher. He had done the river in the 60’s and one of his party had drowned. Later I read The Dangerous River about a trapper who lived on the river for two years in the 20’s. For those that grew up canoeing Ontario’s lakes and rivers, the Nahanni represents the Holy Grail. I’ve wanted to canoe it for over 35 years.

On June 28 I flew to Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories of Canada, flew from there to Fort Simpson and from there for two hours in a Twin Otter, a school bus sized float plane, over mountain range after mountain range deeper and deeper into the wilderness. We landed on the Mooseponds, a shallow lake only deep enough to land a plane two weeks out of the year.

As the sound of the plane faded away over the mountains nothing prepared me for the remoteness and the silence. And the beauty.

The Nahanni starts at the Mooseponds. It then drops for sixty five miles in the longest stretch of navigable white water in the world. Not chutes, standing waves emptying into a pool so common in Ontario rivers. But mile after mile of tight, technical class II and III rapids. I had never heard of class III++ before. I got introduced immediately. Pale grey boulders the size of volkswagens loomed up hidden in the silt-filled water.

I have an image of myself: you know, manly, whitewater adventurer guy. The image exists in an internal world of fact and fiction. The Nahanni humbled it, forcing me to reconsider, embracing it one moment, crushing it the next. Those rapids hacked, exposed and remodeled that vision of myself into something more real, and more modest.

And I did dump, that is flip and swim, eventually. Everyone dumped eventually (except the guides). I dumped in a rapid aptly named the Massive Rock Garden. I was in the stern and we careened off a rock so hard and so unexpectedly I felt we were sideways and airborne before either of us could react. Even in a dry suit, the glacial water shocked me. Holding my paddle, feet up I bounced and careened off boulders and rocks able to do nothing against the tempest of the current. A quarter mile downstream the river curved right and I managed to eddy out left.

By day six the river flattened out. We moved with the current mile after mile past unnamed mountains and streams. We saw no one. No planes, no jet-streams. Nothing but untouched vast empty wilderness, with an occasional moose or bear.

Then we came to Virginia Falls, twice the height of Niagara. And below the falls followed four steep-walled canyons of spectacular beauty.


Fourth Canyon

When I was younger I went on several seven or eight day canoe trips. I always felt myself settling deeper and deeper into a communion with the land. I wanted to know if or when I would say, that’s enough, I want out. I thought twenty-one days might do it. What I hadn’t thought about is that now I’m married. So I missed my wife and our kids within a few days. So that interfered with any kind of simple comparison to past trips. Second, the Nahanni is alive and powerful. Both in physical fact and in spirit. She pulls you into her orbit, breaks you open and rearranges you. She controls the narrative. So unlike a week-long river trip in Ontario, say the Petawawa or Magnetawan, both challenging in the spring run-off, subdued during in summer and fall, the Nahanni felt more like a wilderness expedition, using canoes.

In the final couple of days I was ready to come home. The necessity of discussing plane connections and so on started to pull us out of the grip of the wilderness. Cold beer and steaks never tasted so good back in Yellowknife. Then I found myself floating in a surreal world of six airports to get home. The aimless mindset of airport travelers, the identical stores and restaurants and airport terminal architecture gave me the feeling of moving through some futuristic dreamscape unconnected to the natural world.

I’ve been home for ten days now. Every night in every dream I am still camping along the banks of the Nahanni. On the final days of the trip as it was coming to a close I was so happy I had finally embraced the river, followed her from her headwaters to where she empties out into the Liard and then the Mackenzie to end up in the Arctic Ocean. I saw it as a once-in-a-life time experience. Something I would not have to do again. But there is another river up there. A little further north.


I went on the trip with an old friend. The rest of the group, eight in total, plus two guides, were all from Ontario. Blackfeather was the outfitter. Excellent company!

One thought on “The Nahanni

  1. Ian, This is a great story, I really enjoyed reading it! My husband’s aunt, a doctor, did a similar trip in the 40’s and we have the journal that she kept while on the trip! Having read that, I sort of identified with your adventure too! Is this your painting of the area? It is very nice. Judy


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