Nahanni National Park
One of the most spectacular, wildest, and purest stretches of white water in the world is the South Nahanni River. Protecting a 300-kilometer (186-mile) stretch of this remote river is 4,766-square-kilometer (1,234-square-mile) Nahanni National Park. This roadless park is a vast wilderness inhabited only by bears, mountain goats, Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and wolves.
Accessible only by air, the best way to really experience the park is on a raft or canoe trip down the South Nahanni River, but many visitors just fly in for the day. However you decide to visit the park, the adventure will remain with you for the rest of your life.
But with names on the map like Headless Creek, Deadmen Valley, Hell’s Gate, Funeral Range, Devils Kitchen, Broken Skull River, and Death Canyon, you’d better tell someone where you’re going before heading out.
Slavey Dene, who lived on the lowlands along the Mackenzie and Liard Rivers, feared a mysterious group of natives living high in the Mackenzie Mountains, calling them the Nahanni (People Who Live Far Away). The first white men to travel up the South Nahanni River were fur trappers and missionaries, followed by men lured by tales of gold.
In 1905, Willie and Frank McLeod began prospecting tributaries of the Flat River in search of an elusive mother lode. Three years later, their headless bodies were discovered at the mouth of what is now known as Headless Creek; for many years thereafter, the entire valley was called Deadmen Valley.
Very quickly, stories of gold mines, murder, lush tropical valleys, and a tribe of Indians dominated by a white woman became rampant. These stories did nothing but lure other prospecting adventurers to the valley—Jorgenson, Shebbach, Field, Faille, Sibbeston, Kraus, and Patterson. Many died mysteriously: Jorgenson’s skeleton was found outside his cabin, his precious rifle gone; Shebbach died of starvation at the mouth of Caribou Creek; the body of Phil Powers was discovered in his burned-out cabin; Angus Hall just plain disappeared.
The headwaters of the South Nahanni River are high in Mackenzie Mountains, which form the remote border between the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. Flowing in a roughly southeasterly direction for 540 kilometers (336 miles) it drains into the Liard River, a major tributary of the Mackenzie River.
The South Nahanni, cut deeply into the mountains, is known as an “antecedent;” that is, it preceded the mountains. It once meandered through a wide-open plain. As uplift in the earth’s surface occurred, the river cut down through the rising rock strata and created the deep, meandering canyons present today.
The starting point for many river trips and the destination of most day trippers is Virginia Falls; at 92 meters (300 feet) they are twice as high as Niagara Falls. Over many thousands of years, erosion has forced the falls upstream, creating a canyon system with walls over one kilometer (0.6 miles) high immediately downstream of the falls.
The outfitters on the river are experts in their own right and can answer many of your questions long before you arrive. For specific information on the park, check the website (www.pc.gc.ca/nahanni) or contact Park Headquarters in Fort Simpson (867/695-3151). The Fort Simpson Visitor Centre (867/695-3182, mid-May–mid-Sept. 9 a.m.–8 p.m.) has park displays as well as relevant videos and books for visitor use.
© Andrew Hempstead, from Moon Western Canada, 3rd Edition