photo (above) by Robert Redshaw/GNWT
Day One: Fort Simpson to Virginia Falls
The boreal forest stretches out beneath us, broken only by the occasional sinkhole lake, as we leave Fort Simpson and the Mackenzie River behind. The Twin Otter floatplane lifts west, into the sun – still high in the northern sky – and over the Nahanni National Park Reserve, a 4,766-square-kilometre slice of N.W.T. wilderness near the Yukon-B.C. border and the headwaters of the South Nahanni River. Save for the roar of the engine and wind, our group travels in silence. We have waited all day for this flight.Some of us have waited our entire lives to raft the South Nahanni – a Canadian Heritage River that moved Pierre Elliot Trudeau to make it a national park reserve in 1976. Two years later, the area became the first natural region in the world to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We fly over the canyons and karstlands of the Ram Plateau in the Mackenzie Mountains, where every ripple of rock is lit golden in the evening sun. Shafts of sunlight burst through the clouds and we catch our first glimpse of the Nahanni, its Fourth Canyon and – with a collective gasp – Virginia Falls. In The Dangerous River, my grandfather’s 1954 account of his N.W.T. explorations, he writes about feeling the vibration of the “Falls of the Nahanni” from 20 miles away. One week later, on August 25, 1927, Grandpop snapped the earliest photographs of the then-unnamed falls, accompanied by Minnesota prospector Albert Faille. Now a lifetime, two days and four flights later, my father, brother, sister and I touch down in the heart of the Nahanni wilderness, as our plane scuds to a stop on the wide and silty river near the campsite above Virginia Falls. My heart skips a beat. This is where my family’s love affair with Canada began.
It was my brother, Jeremy, who planted the seed of this family expedition – to mark the 80th anniversary of Grandpop’s 1927-to-1929 paddle up the South Nahanni. Soon I was calling my sister, Sam, in Victoria, and urging her to join us. Her only reservation: our easy raft float downriver wouldn’t compare to Grandpop’s adventures navigating rapids in a loaded canoe, surviving sub-zero temperatures and living off the occasional kill of wild game – epic stories he recounted in five books, numerous magazine articles and over Sunday dinners at the Victoria home he shared with our grandmother. Raymond Murray Patterson was one of Canada’s foremost adventure writers. A legendary figure in our family, he also inspired a generation of Canadian adventurers, many of whom to this day attempt to replicate his journeys into the wild. His first book received rave reviews: The New York Herald Tribune described The Dangerous River as “an emotion of the north . . . recorded, it is not too much to say, in a mixture of Thoreau and Jack London.” The New Yorker called it “truly enchanting,” while The New York Times said its modest writing “betrays no indication that Mr. Patterson realizes what a remarkable man he is.”
Day Two: Virginia Falls to Strawberry Island
Nothing beats the Canadian North for bringing diverse groups of people together – my grandfather and Faille 80 years ago and now the Patterson clan: me, the writer, my father, a retired B.C. Supreme Court master, businessman brother Jeremy and architect sister Sam. Then there’s the rest of our 15-member group: Wall Street fund managers Jen and Laura; Corin, an amateur photographer; real estate mogul James and his 14-year-old nephew Jacob; journalist Michael and wife Vivien; guides Rob, Kaj, Jamie and Bhreagh.
Awoken early the next day by the camp bustle, we are anxious to pack up the tents and follow the wooden boardwalk through Jack pines and black spruce to Virginia Falls. The black-and-white photographs I’ve seen in Grandpop’s heavy, leather-bound albums soon come alive in full sound and colour: the Sluice Box Rapids, now a roar of whitewater, and just ahead, Virginia Falls, plunging 92 metres into the river’s Fourth Canyon. And at its base, dwarfed by limestone cliffs: the three sky-blue inflatable rafts that will transport us 200 km downriver over five days. From here, they are the size of jellybeans. My 71-year-old father and I stand for a moment, spellbound.
We could spend hours here, but the river awaits. We strap bags to backs for the 1.2-km portage to lower ground through rosemary-like Labrador tea, northern starflowers and kinnikinnick. A dirt trail descends in a steep series of switchbacks, where the waters’ gentle mist falls on us like fresh dew.
The Nahanni is the stuff of legends – tales of gold and adventure, trappers and prospectors, of the indigenous Nahanni and European adventurers, my English grandfather included, drawn here in the quest for freedom and fortune. After the Klondike Gold Rush, placer gold was rumoured to have been found up the Flat River, a tributary of the South Nahanni. But men stayed away, fearful of the unforgiving terrain and the numbers of dead or missing that led to tales of “head-hunting Nahanni.” In reality, the string of murders and deaths by starvation, accident or misfortune along the river were more likely the result of greed or poor planning – in the wake of the frenzied and lawless gold rush. Even when Grandpop and Faille set off from Fort Simpson in 1925, their dream of paddling up the Nahanni was considered pure suicide.
From a rocky launching point on the beach, we don wet-weather gear: sou’westers, Patagonia rain pants, rubber boots and life jackets. Packs loaded and secured in the 18-foot Moravia rafts, we then settle in, five to a craft, a guide at the helm. The dramatic rust-coloured Fourth Canyon is the first of four to come. At their greatest height, these sheer rock faces – which escaped the last ice age – rise steeply to 1,200 metres, then curve into natural amphitheatres of dolomite, limestone and layers of sedimentary rock that rival the Grand Canyon.
In one of the other rafts, Jeremy and Sam swap old jokes, leaving me, the baby of the family, alone with Dad. I feel privileged, keen to experience the river through his eyes as he trades anecdotes about Grandpop and the river with the guides. His face lights up as he sees for the first time the landscape he has until now only heard about. “The cliffs and this marvellous, calm water flowing through here – it’s just extraordinary.” He points to the shore: “That’s the sort of spot where Grandpop would have camped, on that grassy bank, with a place to beach a canoe.” Further downstream is Marengo Creek, which Grandpop named after Napolean’s favourite horse.
But it isn’t long before the clouds roll in. And just a few hours later, at a rocky camp on Strawberry Island, I lie in my tent and listen to the rolling thunder echoing off the canyons and mountains like bursts of gunfire.
Day Three: Strawberry Island to The Gate
A light mist rises off the river as we launch the inflatables and head downstream toward the Figure 8 Rapids, a stretch of whirlpools, boils and eddies that Grandpop and Faille, remarkably, navigated without portaging. High water has since changed these rapids – now categorized as class III-plus in difficulty. But by canoe, says Rob, the Nahanni has always been an incredibly challenging river to run, so “you can imagine what it was like for your grandfather and Faille to canoe upstream. That’s why The Dangerous River is so talked about now, because it would have been tough to paddle up. It’s too deep to pole, and in these canyons there are no beaches for tracking a canoe.”
Travelling downriver at about 10 klicks, we soon pass the Flat River and the site of Faille’s cabin, where in 1927 Grandpop stopped on his way to the falls. Faille spent decades on the river, prospecting for gold and trapping furs. But large quantities of gold were never found.
We fall into a rhythm: awaken early, breakfast and break camp. The guides buzz about, prepping the rafts for another day on the river, and preparing meals that provide the day’s structure in a place where time cannot be gauged by the sun’s position in the sky. Pancakes and sausages one morning, eggs Benedict the next. Lunches are eaten en route – pita stuffed with tabbouleh or caribou smokies roasted over the fire. Dinners feature smoked arctic char and asparagus soup starters, main courses of pork tenderloin, chicken curry or lamb kebabs on a bed of couscous. Later, we perch on camp stools, sip tea and talk well into the evening. But always, the focus comes back to the river and Grandpop’s books. Vivien encourages my father to read from The Dangerous River while Michael takes notes. Jamie, the son of bush pilots, who now studies at Oxford, observes, “What’s most compelling about these stories is the legend that was R.M. Patterson himself. He’s a great writer, but he was also out there living life in a really big, amazing way.”
Day Four: The Gate to Headless Creek
The rafting life is making some of us restless. Keen to climb mountains in search of Dall’s sheep, eight of us scramble to the top of The Gate, a narrow limestone passage with 460-metre-high walls, for a view of Pulpit Rock and downriver toward Big Bend, a 90-degree hairpin turn in the river. I study the almost-bonsai twists of stunted trees and tundra plants, brittle reindeer lichen and low-lying shrubs laden with crimson berries, thinking of Grandpop and the “dreamy afternoons” he spent hiking here, where “the river was a distant murmur through the warm scent of pines.”
We soon pass through the foreboding Funeral Range to the Headless Range and Headless Creek, so named for two brothers whose decapitated skeletons were discovered tied to trees here in 1908, or so the legend goes. In 1927, strangers again warned Grandpop against setting out on another expedition: “Men vanish in that country,” one cautioned. “Down the river, they say it’s a damned good country to keep clear of . . . a country lorded over by Wild Mountain Men . . . the river fast and bad.” The MacLeod brothers’ murder was but one of hundreds of dark stories about the Nahanni. From 1908 to 1945, many more men disappeared, starved to death or died here mysteriously.
Fittingly, that evening on a river-rock beach under blue-and-pink brush strokes of cloud, Dad reads a passage about Willie and Frank MacLeod from The Dangerous River – ghost stories in a haunted valley.
Day Five: Headless Creek to Lafferty Creek
We paddle past Headless Creek and through Deadmen Valley, stopping at Sheaf Creek. We’re looking for the site of the cabin where Grandpop and the English trapper Gordon Matthews, his companion on his second Nahanni trek, overwintered in 1928-1929. We pull the rafts onto the beach, and while Vivien and Jamie investigate wolf, bear and raptor tracks in the sand, Sam stumbles upon a rusted stovepipe and a conspicuous clearing in the trees. Further upstream is the likely site of the men’s food cache, where foodstuffs and fur pelts were stored on high wooden platforms to deter animals. We examine sunken cabin beams and the remnants of a makeshift stove, fashioned from an old oil drum, with the enthusiasm of amateur archaeologists. Kaj is certain we have found the site, exactly as Grandpop described it, in a clearing in the trees. Dad’s chest puffs with pride as photos are snapped for posterity. Even Rob and the guides make a note of the find for future trips downriver.
We lunch at Dry Canyon Creek, ride the high-standing waves of the Cache Rapids where Matthews almost drowned after falling overboard in 1928 and enter the dramatic First Canyon, its towering limestone walls the highest yet. Later, at our Lafferty Creek camp, Dad reads from Grandpop’s journals, written in the form of a letter home to his mother in England and published posthumously as the Nahanni Journals.
Day Six: Lafferty Creek to The Splits, a.k.a. “Bug Hell Island”
It is the last full day on the river and we slip into swimsuits in preparation for the hot springs ahead. From here on, we’re at the mercy of the infamous mosquitoes of the North; Rob warns us to keep bug shirts at the ready. Soon enough we reach Kraus Hot Springs, greeted by the sulphur stench of rotten eggs. The rocks in the pool overlooking the river are covered in a brown sludge, the water warm and brackish. Kaj slathers his face with mud, a Nahanni tradition, though a light river breeze keeps the bugs at bay.
We camp on what Bhreagh dubs “Bug Hell Island” in The Splits, where the Nahanni widens as it braids and weaves in myriad directions. Bug shirts are the preferred dinner attire, with dragonflies dive-bombing our heads, hunting for insects. We bat the bugs away from one another. But when the hordes reach class-IV-plus we escape to the sanctuary of the tents, diving in and quickly zipping up the fly. But I still count – and kill – more than 60 mosquitoes that have somehow followed us inside.
Day Seven: To Nahanni Butte and Fort Simpson
It is with mixed feelings that we leave the river behind. All of us feel humbled by the epic journey made so many years ago by Grandpop, without the security of experienced guides or their gourmet meals. Soon we are returning by plane from Nahanni Butte to Fort Simpson, where roads replace rivers and hot showers, flush toilets and bed linens await. The group scatters to B&Bs and frontier hotels, with promises to meet up for a last supper at the only restaurant in town. But like Grandpop, after months of sleeping in the open air, I cannot bring myself to stay indoors. Instead I lounge in a hammock in the B&B’s garden, reading and rereading passages from his books in an attempt to prolong the euphoria of being on the river. Later, unable to sleep, I lie staring at the ceiling fan, plotting my return – this time for two weeks, in a canoe.
Row Row Your Boat
• Outfitter Nahanni River Adventures/Canadian River Expeditions (1-800-297-6927; nahanni.com). Cost: $5,022.20 per person for seven-day expedition.
• Gear Quick-dry clothes, hiking boots, rain gear, insect repellent. Checklist at nahanni.com.
• Additional Intel The Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) works to protect the 40,000-square-kilometre Nahanni watershed from mining and to expand the park’s boundaries. cpaws.org/programs/nahanni
• Critical Reading The Dangerous River: Adventure on the Nahanni by R.M. Patterson (TouchWood Editions, 2009; $19.95); Nahanni Journals: R.M. Patterson’s 1927-1929 Journals, ed. Richard C. Davis (University of Alberta Press, 2008; $29.95).
• On -Screen Nahanni (1962), a short National Film Board classic, following Albert Faille upriver to Virginia Falls. nfb.ca/film/Nahanni