By Jörgen Johansson
Below the Virginia Falls portage trail the Nahanni makes a complete shift from a river shaped by the last ice age into an antecedent river. Four tremendous canyons line the meandering river for another 150 kilometers. The key word here is 'meandering'. Rivers that can cut through rock usually does not meander, they cut it as gently as a meat cleaver; that is straight through.
An antecedent river is "is a stream that follows a course that formed before the tectonic uplift of the surrounding terrain and maintained its course through continuous downcutting of its valley" to quote Wikipedia. So the Nahanni had meandered across a plain once upon a time. And the the plain had started rising. Slowly. And the river had kept its meandering course by cutting through the hill rising in its way. For a long, long time.
For this to happen you need a unique balance between the force of the river, the hardness of the rocks and the speed by which it is being lifted into the path of the river. The Grand Canyon has been shaped the same way.
We had to wait for about 20 minutes for the canoes to catch up, since one of them had overturned. Later I also found that my friends the Limeys had one flip in Fourth Canyon. This made me even more confident about having made the right choice when hitching a ride. I was not here to prove anything, neither to mysefl or to anyone else. As one of my fellow passengers put it: Your family will think you made the right choice.
Waiting in Fourth Canyon can by no means be considered painful. It has been said to be the most beautiful of the canyons of the lower Nahanni and I will readily agree. Compared to the canyons that will follow, the walls are not that high, but the magnificent coloring brought to vivid life by the sculptured limestone is what leaves you stunned. No photos by this photographer can truly capture the magic of light and shadow playing on these cliffs, all orchestrated by the clouds playing across the sun getting low on the horizon.
It took about an hour to pass through Fourth Canyon. By this time the shadows were lengthening and Dave and his group stopped at Marengo Creek and started setting up camp. Me, I inflated my packraft, said my goodbyes and started paddling downstream on this magic summer evening.
Nahanni river legend Albert Faille said the first time they both saw Figure 8 rapids in 1927: "Strangest piece of water I ever did see".
Today Figure 8 is much easier to negotiate than it used to be, because the gravel bank seen in the upper left corner of the photo got flooded to pieces a few years back. Before it was connected to the bank to the left outside the photo. This gravel peninsula then led the whole might of the river straight into the rock wall, the 90 degree corner of which can be seen at the upper right of the photo. This whole mighty flow of water then bounced back and across, heading more or less straight for the rock wall from which I am taking the photo. Some of it did of course slip around the corner and downstream out of the right hand side of the photo.
After hitting the rock wall at my feet some water was split of to the right and downstream and some back upstream, forming a big eddy in the bay there. With more or less the full might of the river taking two 90 degree turns in a very short distance, the under currents and whirlpools you encounter in Figure 8 are legendary. Fully loaded canoes, with all the flotation that entails, have been said to be sucked under for 30 seconds in whirlpools here.
Today the river runs much more straight through the Figure 8, since much water can pass around the big gravel island that used to be a penisula. A couple of hundred meters downstream there is another bottleneck, as can be seen above. And beyond that the end of the portage trail and a beautiful campspot.
On the edge of the bar I saw some tracks from mama bear and baby bear. Most likely black bear, they were not big enough for a big grizzly IMHO. Yessss, this is where I want to camp, I exclaimed and proceeded to get my tent in place and gather fuel for my Bush Buddy.
Looking back, this particular evening was a high-light of the trip that will linger in my memory bank, safe from inflation and recession. Something I will savour when I am sitting on a porch somewhere with a blanket across my knees, while my brain leafs through some of the snapshots life has given me.
Further along a rocky beach at the downstream end of a small island became the spot for another sunlicked lunch-break. As can be seen on the photo, the current on both sides of the island is swift, but right at the point of a place like that you will find an eddy with un-moving water where you can easily step ashore.
I have no photo of George' riffle, the rain had made me tuck my camera away. Besides, I was not in the mood. So I borrowed this video from assistantdoctor on Youtube. It gives a pretty good idea of the scouting from the island and the bouncy ride. If you like that sort of thing...
I carried my raft across the island and got into the water, planning to follow the outskirts of the rapids, just so I could sneak by the protruding rock. It worked well up to a point. Being to scared of the whitewater I got too close to the very powerfull eddy line above the protrusion of rock from the left canyon wall. Being halfway in and halfway out of an eddy that strong is no place to be and before getting sucked in I paddled out into the waves. Now it was a question of not getting to close to the rock outcrop while still managing the erratic waves, clinging to the outskirts of the whitewater. For a second, just after having swept past the rockpile there seemed to be waves coming from all directions and I was gutwrenchingly close to loosing my balance and overturning. But through luck or by saying all the prayers I knew I stayed on the right keel and then I was through. Out of the wave-trains, continuing down on the swiftly moving river.
Me, I was looking for the next suitable gravel bar on which I could camp and rest after a long and tiring day. Around a big bend by an awe-inspiring limestone wall decorated with shredded clouds I found my bar and pulled my raft up on the beach.
The last stretch of whitewater in the canyon and on the Nahanni was Lafferty's riffle, but contrary to Georges's this one was one hundred percent avoidable by keeping to river left, since it did not slant across the river but stayed by the right canyon wall. Before I knew it and really wanted it Fourth Canyon ended and the canyonlands of the Nahanni were behind me.
It was now raining pretty insistently so I pitched my tarp and fired up the Bush Buddy for a lunch meal, before continuing down into the Splits.