Nahanni II - rocks and roll

After some 50 kilometers of bushwhacking I was afloat on the Nahanni. Another 50 kilometers waited, the (in)famous Rock Gardens. This is described as "almost continous whitewater" and "not the place to learn whitewater skills". The more serious rapids rate from II to III and III++ and have fanciful names like Hollywood, Danish Dynamite, Bailing Rapids and The Sequel. Being a coward by birth and habit, and not a very experienced packrafter, I had already decided that I would probably portage all of the more difficult rapids.

By Jörgen Johansson

The Moose Ponds were behind me after a couple of chilly hours, dressed only in rainjacket and thin pants since it was pretty hot when I started paddling. Since the shore was boggy and shrubby (is that a word?) I took the first possible campsite at 7 pm, dead beat. I put the tent up on a gravel bed with Mt Wilson for backdrop and was cooking my noodles when I heard some splashing of an animal crossing the river. It was a caribou, which rapidly disappeared when I went for my camera.

The first morning on the Nahanni was glorious. The sun shining, no more bushwhacking. I leisurely packed my stuff and prepared for the whitewater. It was also a morning of trepidation; would I manage?

The photo shows the welldressed packrafter; drysuit, helmet, sunglasses, inflatable PFD, whistle, knife to cut myself loose in an emergency and bear spray on the hip, ready for a fast draw. Time to go.

It started out nicely enough, with a few swifts that sped up the journey. The Moose Ponds are more or less at timberline and my friends the shrubs were almost all that lined the shores as I drifted downstream in the sunshine. This was the way to travel.

As I knew well from the river guides things soon started to speed up as we descended into forest. Pretty soon I was very glad for the packrafting experience I had and the practice run along Voxnan this spring. Reflexes seemed to be working and the packraft was responding nicely.

Then things began to get very serious indeed. I also ran into some other parties that were canoeing. This was group from Whitehorse with four canoes. One group lined, one portaged, one got soaked and one shot this rapid. I portaged together with a couple of canoists; the guy being the owner of a couple of packrafts himself. He looked at all the gear he and his partner would have to portage and then at me, simply strapping the deflated packraft to my pack and heaving it onto my back. He jokingly kow-towed to me and said: "River ninja, very fast, very silent".

It took more than a week before I saw the Whitehorse group again at Virginia Falls, but another group hove into sight that I would run into off and on for almost half my journey. Three canoes, many occupants in yellow and an unmistakable British accent made me label them 'the Limeys'. A couple of grizzled gents of late middle years (something that has also been said of yours truly) turned out to be the head honchos of the British Open Canoe Association and the rest was a bunch of younger, certified instructurs.

Mark Gittoes and Dan Spry as front end motor took this rather uncomplicated whitewater in their stride. In fact it was not even particulary taxing even for an amateur like me.

As could be expected this expert group went straight through the entire Rock Gardens without a single swim, albeit with some passes being done backwards, from what I heard later. They even claimed that the only rapids they had difficulties in where the ones they scouted.

With a packraft you are of course riding lower in the water than in a canoe. Photo by Mark Gittoes.

Whitewater certainly can be fun, and needs a lot more focus than just drifting... Photo by Daniel Spry.

This photo shows why the pack usually is soaked, as well as the fact that the way down very often also is through. Photo by Daniel Spry.

The nights in the Rock Gardens, still being at a fairly high elevation, were chilly and damp along the river. One morning I got tired of waiting for the sun shining on the other bank to work itself over to where I was, and lit a small fire. Fires are not allowed in the national park unless you have a fire box or fire pan, but this was still outside the park (so don't report me).

My plans to portage anything that looked serious seemed a good idea. The problem were the less serious looking rapids that became more serious under way and that I almost, but not quite,managed to run. During these 2-3 days in the Rock Gardens I took three involuntary swims. The force of the water grabbing me when I was up-ended was terrifying. This was a big, forceful river, even if it was still in its teens.

On all three occasions I did everything by the book; held on to my paddle, held on to the raft and kept my feet and legs, mostly, out of harms way. Flushed across rocks and into sucking holes my knees got a couple of knocks, but I got out of it all by climbing halfway up on the packraft floating upside down. When the current slowed down I managed to kick my way into an eddy and get up on the shore. My expression in the photo above sums up the feelings after one of these occurences pretty well.

The third swim did hit me on a different level than the first two. I do not know if the swim was longer or the current faster or the rocks harder or the holes deeper. Even if you have trained self rescue as well as swamped IRL before, as I have, and your mind knows this, your body is certainly fighting for its life when it happens, the adrenalin is pumping and you loose track of things not essential for basic survival.

But after the third swim it did hit me emotionally with full force: This cannot continue; you can die here.

And suddenly I knew; I do not want to fall out of a packraft into a cold, viscious river ever again. There is an expression for this kind of experience:
Loosing your nerve.

It took me a long time to regain part of my nerve. However, this meant that the last rapids in the Rock Gardens; the Hollywood and the Sequel (both III++) and Graduation Rapids (II+) were rapids that I portaged. In the photo above I am having lunch on an island in the middle of Hollywood. A sheer cliff on my portage side forced me to ford the narrow channel. After a nice lunch in baking sun I then ferried across the wider channel seen behind me, with one whitewater stretch starting just downstream.

Suddenly I was back to bushwhacking again, cutting across some promontories when walking at the very edge of the river proved too difficult or impossible. And, believe it or not, I was happy to be walking.

The Rock Gardens ended rather distinctly and I could inflate the packraft and start to go with the flow again, with a minimum of whitewater to be expected until Virginia Falls almost 300 kilometers downstream. Another phase of my trip down the Nahanni was about to begin.


  1. Sounds like the drysuit came in handy also for its intended purpose.

    Better safe than sorry, I'd say - especially if on your own. Nice photos, and the self portrait of you in glasses - Gangster =)

  2. Hendrik,
    Yes, the drysuit was really a lucky stroke that came to me because I met a friend on the canal at home when we both were out paddling, he in a kayak. It would have been a very cold trip many times, without that. But since it was leaking my feet and butt were soaked most of the time anyway.

  3. As Clint Eastwood would say, "Know your limitations". I can't imagine enjoying the dip in the river much either. I'd probably have skipped the earlier ones too!

    Still: "live to fight another day" is another good saying.

  4. Mark,
    Yeah, a man's gotta know his limitations. The problem being that in order to find out those you have to push the envelope a bit. As my text indicates there were times during my trip when another Clint Eastwood quote would have fitted nicely: Do you feel lucky, punk?

  5. Great post Jorgen!

    How would you feel doing this kind of trip with a partner? Would it have helped you 'keep your nerve' longer and been possibly 'too brave'? Either through bravado or confidence that someone would be able to pick up the pieces when you took a swim?

  6. I love the well dressed rafter pose, I am visualizing you running in that outfit after you set the camera up. Rafting on your own like hiking on your own in remote areas always requires thought, care and a bit of luck. I suspect rafting is a little more challenging because there is a little less control over the surroundings. It was handy to have others able to take photos as you passed through the rapids.

  7. Joe and Roger N-B,
    Running the rapids with a partner would have been another thing, I'm pretty sure. At least in theory there would be someone to pick up the pieces and give you emergency treatment fairly quickly, should that be needed. I mentioned banging my knees against rocks when I was swept over them and into holes etc. This could have been a lot more serious, like a dislocated knee-cap. A sharp rock or a branch could have ripped skin and muscle. All this would have changed the rather simple swims I had into something pretty dangerous, especially being on my own. It was these thoughts that made a serious dent in my nerve.

    Of course, I am very much used to hiking solo in remote country, something that obviously scares other people. I'm not that used to packrafting, so there I have another perspective. This probably contributed.

    However, I also think there is an objective difference, as far as danger goes, between those two pursuits. IMHO packrafting is much more 'instantly' lethal. That is, you could be gone in a couple of minutes if you get tangled and trapped under water by the current. It is difficult to imagine this happening while hiking, unless you step off a precipe.

    As you will see further down the line, this trip entailed much more social exchanges than I had expected. So there were people in the vicinity most of the time. In the Rock Gardens however, the Limey's were usually ahead of me and the Whitehorse group turned out to take it really slow and was about three days behind me at Virgina Falls.

  8. Exciting!
    I nearly got sweaty hands when reading about that terrifying feeling and adrenaline rush when capsizing ;)
    I made the decision "never ever again falling into icy water" already after the first bander-snatch with my packraft - so your are not alone loosing your nerve and being a coward!
    A packraft ist called a packraft because you pack it when there are rapids ;)

  9. Exciting!
    I fully understand your nerves - I had nearly sweaty hands when reading about the terrifying feeling and adrenaline rush when capsizing.
    I made the decision never ever again falling into icy water already after the first bander-snatch! So you are not alone being a coward ;)

    A packraft is called a packraft because you pack it when there are rapids!

    p.s. My comments are disappearing?

  10. sabi has left a new comment on your post "Nahanni II - rocks and roll":

    I fully understand your nerves - I had nearly sweaty hands when reading about the terrifying feeling and adrenaline rush when capsizing.
    I made the decision never ever again falling into icy water already after the first bander-snatch! So you are not alone being a coward ;)

    A packraft is called a packraft because you pack it when there are rapids!

    p.s. My comments are disappearing?

    I got your comment in my e-mail but it does not seem to show on the blog. I do not know why. Anyone?

    On involuntary swimming: I had planned to a lot of self-rescue exercises this summer, but never got around to it. But to feel safer in water I did a lot of swimming. I suppose getting dunked now and then is par for the course in packrafting. I think I can get used to that. It's in combination with being virtually alone on a wilderness river that got me.


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