The Nahanni & Northwest Territories
By Faith Knapp
July 22, 1999: Mike Jacobs, Lynne Martin and myself off to Montreal to catch our first of four legs to the Northwest Territories, Fort Simpson and the Nahanni River. After staying overnight in Edmonton, we arrived at Ft. Simpson and greeted by Roioli Schweiker, daughter Vi, and our guides, Ange and Adam. We also met a family of 12 cousins who were doing this same trip with another outfitter. There was a real party atmosphere on the plane coming here.
July 24, 1999: Day began as cloudy with rain forecasted for four days in the area. We hoped it was not going to be in the area where we were going in the MacKenzie River valley and down the South Nahanni. Our dry bags and gear was brought down to the dock where we met out outfitter, plane and guides. Our weight was good and nothing had to be left behind. We later found out that if something had to go it would have been the large tarp. Something to think about when going on a trip like this is that if individuals are not monitored, the group might pay for the extra weight! Definitely a piece of info to be noted and stored away. The Twin Otter was loaded up with us(Roioli, Vi, Mike Jacobs, Mike Lebwohl, Lynne Martin, and me), our guides, Ange and Adam, gear, and a canoe. Three other canoes were up at Rabbit Kettle Lake; otherwise, it would have been another plane or trip by this plane.
As we gained altitude, we saw many, many lakes, marshy land and few if any roads once we were out of the Ft Simpson area not that there was more than one road out of Ft Simpson. Clouds were getting thicker, visibility dropped, rain began, and the plane became colder and colder. We all had extra gear accessible and probably had most of it on by the time we landed. The pilot did a lot of navigating by his GPS unit. After being socked in for a while, the clouds began to break up and we started seeing the breathtaking views of the Nahanni River Valley.
Once we deplaned at Rabbit Kettle, lunch was put out as we started to portage the gear 3/4k over to the river. A park warden gave us an interpretive hike and ride in a dory using a pulley system over to the Tufa Mounds some of which are more than 10,000 years old. To prevent damage, we are asked to go barefoot to see the springs on the mounds. Springs (20.5 to 21.5C) flow from the top of the mound and minerals are deposited at the water reaches the surface. The mounds are always growing. We were able to drink from these springs. This hike was informative as to the formation of the area as well as the flora and fauna.
After the hike, we returned to the canoes, ferried over to a campsite at 61`57.87N, 127`11.97W starting our 374k trip down this river. I had brought my GPS along and took bearings at each campsite as well as other data. The river was moving quite fast and probably a bit bigger and stronger than most of us have seen before. Boils and whirlpools appeared out of nowhere. These were small to what we would see in the days ahead.
Camp was set up, dinner served and we started to settle into a routine. Lynne spotted a Sharpshinned Hawk on a hike. I think we all kept waiting for dark that first night which never really came. One could read at 11:30PM without a light. Dark was more like twilight. I personally never used a flashlight the whole trip.
25 July, 1999: The day started off with rain but stopped while we were having breakfast enabling us to enjoy the sun as we packed up. We started in the Ragged Range which was full of snow capped peaks and the two distinguishable batholiths that earmarked the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Mike L. & Lynne had binoculars and were quick to spot birds knowing them fairly well. A Great Horned Owl was spotted. A nice extra was the library which was furnished by the outfitter. The reference books and reading materials were well used and appreciated.
Although the water was flat here, it was moving very fast. The current would grab a boat quickly and spin it around. The smallest eddy was quite fearsome. Our campsite today was by a wonderful clear stream and some of us opted to take water from here instead of the treated water. A few pesky mosquitoes but a head net took care of them. The Nahanni was green with glacier rock. Several of us had topo maps of the entire area. I chose to track our progress either by compass or GPS having fun naming the creeks and ranges as we approached.
26 July, 1999: Another wet start but drying up before we got off. Today we started seeing the Sunblood Range. Each range is distinctive and the river meanders through the incredible sights. The meandering form of the river was due to the slow formation during the glacial period. At a rest/pit stop I spotted an exceptionally large pile of scat and prints. We all gathered and tried to identify what we saw coming up with caribou, lynx, Dall's sheep, and the scat? maybe bison. Later on we spotted a grizzly in the water who looked up as we approached and decided he would rather be alone and left. After a break on a sandbar on the 'other' side of the river we ventured to where the grizzly had been. Here it addition to the grizzly's prints, which were huge, were other bear prints, lynx, wolf and sheep. Now we start to run into the mountains with the spectacular alluvial fans. With each bend of the river, there is something more incredible to see.
Our campsite is near another clear stream and good area for an afternoon hike. This site was on a lake and upon entering we saw moose. Mike L. located some fresh bear scat very near our tents which made everyone aware of what needed to be out of the tent. There was always a can of bear spray in the kitchen area, and when anyone went on a hike, a can of spray did too. More rain the night before Virginia Falls and throughout the morning. Here we practiced putting together a cat-a-canoe in anticipation of the upcoming rapids. On our way down to the Falls we all had a chance to get in the cat and experience how it handled. It was sturdy and strong. One had the feeling of being in a Sherman Tank.
By the time we reached Virginia Falls the rain had stopped enabling one to pick a camp site, hang up wet gear to dry, and go off to see the Falls that roared from quite a distance and made the ground tremble. Needless to say, we were all astonished by them; more spectacular that any pictures we had seen. Plans were made for an all day hike to Sunblood Mountain the next day. We noted that the river was coming up. Some gear was portaged and stowed below the falls. Mike Jacobs kept saying he was going to carry two canoes at a time or lift and carry the cat-a-canoe. We never did see if that happened!
The following morning was a bit gray clearing by the time we were ready to tackle the mountain. The river had come up more than somewhat overnight. The river before looked like it was standing still compared to what it was doing now! I went over in the first canoe with Adam and Mike L. riding third feeling somewhat apprehensive but the river nicely deposited us on the opposite shore near the trailhead for Sunblood. Adam & I went back for Vi. Then Mike J. & Lynne came over. The day became better and better and warmer and warmer. Some of the temperatures we had experienced up to this point were close to freezing. It was nice to hike in shorts and short sleeves. One of the things that made this hike so interesting was that all of us were able to contribute some piece of information about something whether it be wildlife, birds, trees, flowers, geology, etc. So we were all able to go away with new information. Each lookout gave one a different perspective of the valley seeing different rivers and creeks feeding into the Nahanni as well as ever-changing views of the Falls. We spotted Dall sheep across a ridge. Mike L & Lynne were busy with their binoculars and finding birds. They were trying to sight a raptor a day and were well ahead of schedule. The summit was anything but warm. We bundled up from head to toe set about eating lunch and enjoying the sights. We could see the snow capped mountains into the Yukon, the meandering river and spray from the falls. Virginia Falls is the highest natural falls in the North America being twice the height of Niagara. We wondered over to a promontory leaving our packs by the summit. Well some little critter wasted no time in getting into what was left from our lunch. We wondered along a ridge was wanting to leave the area but Adam reminded us we needed time to get down and Ange would have dinner ready for us.
Everything was portaged over the next day. After a wet start, the sun came out again and stayed out. Our guide said she had never seen the river this high and for safety reasons we decided to make two cat-a-canoes. Two canoes were placed side by side about 15-18 inches apart. Logs were cut to fit in back of bow paddler, along center thwart, and just in front of the stern paddler. These were then lashed to the thwarts. Covers on the canoes came next which reached the entire length of the canoe with cockpits where one sat. Wet suits were required by this outfitter in all the rapids. A wise decision considering the water temperature is 45 degrees or less. We then proceeded to have the ride of our lives through Fourth Canyon and Falls Fourth Canyon. How big were the waves? It is guess but higher than any I had ever been in but boy were they fun. Our ride through the canyon was FAST and when we had a breather, we tried to take in the scenery. The next stop was the spot to scout Hell's Gate or Figure 8 rapids. We first stopped at a gravel bar from which you can ordinarily go on the portage trail but that was under water, so back in the canoes to where we could get onto the bank. The pictures and descriptions of Figure 8 somehow don't quite prepare one for what is really there. Then again the water was VERY high. Off went the first cat. What fun! Some people opted not to do the rapid giving others a chance to do it twice! Going through it, one then understands why the books say this is not a rapid to play around it. The current doesn't give one a second chance what with the large standing waves, unstable hydraulics, boils, instant whirlpools and the threat of the canyon walls. Even at low water, it is a rapid that warrants respect.
We camped in the Flat River area having gone approximately 144K. This day was a bit cool but the sun is extremely intense. As we went through the rapids and were splashed, there was absolutely no question as to how cold the water was. It was good to be well prepared. Mosquitoes seems to come out around 8 but not bad at this point. Out of the sun, the air is cool and pleasant. The butterflies are plentiful coming in many different colors and sizes. No matter where one stops, it is only a minute before a flash of color appears. Lynne found a moose rack at this campsite.
The clear evening sky brought a colder morning which didn't last long as the sun crested the mountains. We had nice big waves today that we could all enjoy. This day took us the Third Canyon with other types of formations. Ange filled us in on most of the folk lore of the different creeks, rivers and mountain ranges. Many of the people who had something named after them still had relatives in the area and we happened to meet them. Even through we traveled through Fourth Canyon first, Fourth Canyon was formed last. More sightings of raptors and sheep with their young. We did close to 40K today rounding the bend and coming upon our next campsite at Pulpit Rock. Another sight that defies description. The river thousands of years ago came around to the left and followed a different route. At some point, enough ice had built up and crashed through this area now called the Gates. Coming upon this, one can easily pick out the preacher looking down upon Pulpit rock which stands off by itself. The amazing thing here is that there is such a constriction in that the river is cut down to about 1/8 of its former width, and there are no rapids or waves. Apparently, the locals have no idea of how deep the river is at this point. We had the opportunity to hike up here and enjoy the views again. From this summit, the former path of the river is quite evident. The weather has definitely changed and there is not a cloud in the sky. The sun is intense and reaches peak late in the afternoon.
Sunday, August 1 brought us through Third Canyon with even more magnificent views, colors, shapes and then the start of Second Canyon and the Headless Range. This area is characterized by three large anticlines and two synclines which represent about the best examples of folding in any Canadian park. The river level was still up and good waves and fast water into Second Canyon. Adam had been busy all morning carving a little paddle that we would leave as a momento of our trip at an old forestry cabin now called "Cabin of 1000 Paddles". As we tied up the canoe, the mosquitoes greeted us. They rounded up all their buddies and came to see us. Not that we wanted to appear discourteous but we tried to outrun them to the Cabin. It was neat. More paddles than one could count hung from the windows, ceiling, beams or were fastened to the walls. I noted some dates in the 70's. Too bad the mosquitoes felt we were trespassing, so we made the visit fast! Of course, the day was not without our wildlife and bird sightings.
Dry Creek Canyon was the stop for the evening. Word apparently was send on ahead and the mosquitoes greeted us here. The temperature had been increasing all day and now being fully clothed against the bugs was becoming unbearable. The tent was put up quickly, and we done in zipping up as quick as possible. A couple more trips in and out, and Lynne and I devised a plan of diving in and out and closing the door in the least amount of time. This preliminary training was to serve us well in the days to come. Mike J. & Vi took a hike up the Canyon this evening. I opted for the safety of the tent staying as still as possible to counteract the heat. Roioli gave us an interesting show that evening as we lay in the tent. Those mosquitoes as they hammered on our tent to come in and feed still had other scouts out. They lost no time in finding Roioli who was trying to bathe outside her tent. She swatted, stomped, sent out baseball signals which were all done with increasing speed somewhat like a film that has been sped up, and showed us how to dive into the tent when all else failed! When we told her the next day how she had us giggle, for some reason she didn't offer to repeat the performance. I can't understand why, the mosquitoes were certainly willing to do their part.
The morning was cool and the Canyon was in the shade. We hiked up for a couple of miles. It was too cold at this point for the scouts to come out. Mike J. told us last night when he came up here, he stopped on spotting some sheep and they eventually returned to where they had been which was within 50 feet or so of him. The stones of Dry Creek became larger and larger developing into VW Beetle size to tank size to house size. We scrambled up ledges, peered into caves and crawled up boulders. With the sun not entering this canyon early, the morning was pleasant giving us again more awesome views. As has happened the whole trip, each time one turns there is something more to see. It is just a shame that a camera cannot capture all the eye takes in.
Wetsuits again donned for George's Riffle. We scouted this as best we could. It was another rapid that doesn't give one much room for error. The force with which the water hits the canyon wall can make matchsticks of anything. Adam and I went for the big waves. Fun - just too short. Of course, short is relative at this point. It is still quiet long by our New England river standards. We rafter up and floated through S First Canyon enjoying the sights. It is true that First Canyon is the most magnificent. I had the GPS out and in spite of the water going down somewhat, we were floating along between 12-20kph. Towards the end of the day, we stopped at Whitespray Spring to fill up with its well known delicious water. Unfortunately, the smart critters again sent word on ahead the we were again welcomed by the mosquitoes. They sure have some smart scouts and communications system. No again no lingering or loitering, just fill up and run. This time, they decided not to desert us but opted to stay close and accompany us to the campsite. They had decided the feedbag was there, and there was no way they were going to lose a good thing in having eight bodies to feed upon.
We look for a gravely area to camp. There was a large gravel area already occupied by that family group of 12 cousins and after Ange checked with them, we got set up at the other day so as not to disturb them. She also found out that two of their canoes when over in the canyons below Virginia Falls. They were in the water for quite a time, rescue being difficult, and became hypothermic. The group had to stop at first available area being Marengo Creek and build a fire. With that accident the whole group decided to portage the Figure 8 rapid. This group's outfitter did not require wetsuits. So after hearing this tale and remembering how cold the water was when we got splashed surely made us all thankful that we were required to wear wetsuits. It was too bad they missed Figure 8 but we thought they were smarter for it. The gravel was our tent floor staying away from the vegetation. That didn't outsmart the bugs either. I made a stab at dinner returning quickly to the tent. Our little friends have decided they can get in the tent as quick as we can. So after closing up, Lynne and I would go on a search and destroy mission. Every hit that elicited blood got an excited whoop. After all, she didn't get to enjoy her meal.
Well the evening didn't do anything to dissuade the little buggers. They were hours hungrier after trying to beat down the walls all night long as well as nastier. They just settled on the tent awaiting the first sign of food. Peeking out of the tent, we see that Ange and I are in full bug gear. Even Adam who has not had shoes on the whole trip, now has his neoprene booties on. They don't bite through neoprene. Probably one of the few things they don't go through! A stab at breakfast. No one lingered but moved out fast. Our goal today was to make miles to ensure we would not take any chances in missing our shuttle Thursday. We again had on the wetsuits as George's Riffle was coming up was just down a piece from the campsite. This too seemed short but powerful. We by now have become wary of being to close to the edge because of the tremendous force and pull this water had. It doesn't take much to realize that if a boat is grabbed and sucked in, there is not much chance of getting out bottom side down. A short jaunt brought us to Kraus' Hotsprings which we could smell as we neared. Roioli was the only one opting to take advantage of this. Most of us opted to stay fully clothed and in the water away from our friendly hitchhikers. We found a breezy lunch spot which we thoroughly enjoyed. This was also a good spot to get washed up for who knows what the evening will bring.
We now go by the Yohin Ridge and start entering the splits taking special care to watch for strainers log jams and deadheads. The mountain ranges again change and as one comes upon Twisted Mountain there is no question of identification. The colors, foldings, active rock glaciers surround us. Ange skillfully leads us through this entrance to the splits. We all stay close not wanting to get off track. The current pulls at your arms as if never to let go and tries its damnedest to get the boat into a whirlpool or deadhead. The boils just pop up all over the place here and try to wrest the paddle from the hand. Ange finds a gravel island that is heaven sent. It even has a clear pool which we all take advantage of bathing in. The sun beats down and the tarp goes up. Any bit of shade is welcomed. Dinner is enjoyable. Oops I made the mistake after dinner of taking short walk towards the pool again unprotected. Big mistake, it was the bewitching hour and Blood Beasts arrived. Every inch of bare skin was covered immediately by the beasts. Into the tent as quickly as possible. When Lynne came in, we resumed our Search and Destroy Mission. We fell asleep to the drone of the mini B52's that were reconnoitering for the next onslaught.
Wednesday, August 4. Forget breakfast. Couldn't lift my headnet without inhaling our little friends. Today was the Splits. Ange led down through these expertly and without any hesitation. From reading about this area, we knew this was quite a feat. The river changes its path constantly here and the perils of the logjams, deadheads and stringers are omnipresent. We spot the Sand Blowouts from the water. This is eroded sandstone that has been sculpted by the winds through the ages. This area is not accessible by land as it requires supreme bushwhacking efforts through swamps, scrub, etc. We eventually spot Nahanni Butte which we were warned we would see again and again as river meandered all over. Today there is no relief from the Bloodthirsty Brigade. The headnet and clothing covering every inch of one's body is the fashion of the day except for Mike J. who is constantly putting on bugdope that is sweated off. The temperature today is about 100 without a cloud in the sky.
Ange feels that a floating lunch is out of the question, and the goal is the screened in porch at Nahanni Butte. My tolerance of the bugs has worn out and I feel if there is an out here, I'm taking it. We landed at the Butte and as we unloaded our lunch gear, our very astute friends found the palms of my hands. Sorry guys - you have been going to all the off limit places once to often. Lunch was thankfully on the screened in section of the Nahanni Butte General Store. We were able to clean up some, use their bathrooms and sit in comfort. I had had my fill of bugs, bites and swellings so questioning found a boat willing to take us (Lynne & me) to Blackstones Landing where our shuttle is to pick us up tomorrow. The brave (?) ones went on. The manager of the store spent some time talking to Lynne and me after our group left. We find out everyone bugproofs his house and the animals are eaten up to madness and the children cannot go out to play. Bugs not bad at this time of the year is a relative phrase to say the least. Lynne and I repack our stuff cleaning about a quart container of mosquitoes who died in battle out of the tent. We went by motor boat up the Liard to Blackstones which took about 40 min.
Once the Liard enters, the river totally changes its character. The Liard brings in darkish brown muddy water. This is now a plains area and the river becomes over a mile wide in some places. The flat row of trees follow along the bank. Not much than an occasional bird is to be seen here. We see our fellow paddlers setting up camp at Swan Point and hope the evening is good to them.
At Blackstone's we get a campsite and set up. Still bugs but we have the option of going into the Visitor Center. The Ranger, Herb, is most convivial telling us stories of the local folk, prospectors, river trips, accidents and on and on. We certainly enjoyed all this. We ate in the center and then off to bed. No the Bombers were still here but we were able to get away from them some of the time. Tonight they knew was the last chance of breaking down the doors for a blood feast and they went at it making it sound like rain and hail against the tent as the B-52's dove, bombed and regrouped to have at it again. No effort was spared in entering when we had to get in or out. I might add these times were kept to an absolute minimum.
Thursday morning had us up breaking camp quickly. Cleaned and dressed in the last of clean clothes we were off to the visitor center where we had breakfast and freshly brewed coffee. Herb again gave us more info. We spent a pleasant time talking to other people coming in and watching videos of the area. One of the most interesting was of one of Albert Faille's last trips up the Nahanni. He is one of the folks that the stories and lore are made of. He never gave up hope of striking it rich in these mountains and searched for most of his 76 years. Our gang comes in around 1PM and our bus comes in shortly thereafter. They said the campsite last night was good with another clear pool but when the Blood Beasts found them they were there to stay. We were told they just packed up in the morning as breakfast was not an option under the conditions. But we are together again and off to the B & B for the evening.
A piece of information that should be added is that sometime in this last day or so, I found out that getting out an Nahanni Butte is an option with some outfitters. The cousins got out here the day before we came it. Getting out at the bottom of The Splits is by plane is another option.
This last trek is on the Liard Highway, one long, long, long dirt road that brings one to the ferry across the MacKenzie River. Finally we arrive at the Bannocklands B&B. An afternoon of R&R is welcomed. The guides stay with us here and we had a great dinner together. The evening ended with us chatting away about all the highpoints of the trip and acquiring Nahanni River t-shirts. As we reminisced, there seemed no end to all the great things that happened and sights we saw. In spite of the bugs it was a great trip. This is truly the land Jack London novels where Jack London type novels are written.
Copyright 2000, Faith Knapp. All rights reserved.