Nahanni III - big wilderness river

When the Rock Gardens ended it became even more obvious that the Nahanni had picked up a lot of water from streams and creeks since the Moose Ponds. It was now a wide river that swept me along rapidly, at speeds around 10 km/h.

By Jörgen Johansson

Maps, river guide and solar charger for my cell phone/GPS were from now on steady companions on the 'foredeck'. Contrary to what one might think, being out of the white water did not necessarily mean being able to drift with the current at half-snooze.

Above is an example of what is callen 'drunken forest'. The Nahanni is continously changing the landscape it travels through, undermining banks and toppling dirt and trees into its flow. The trees are potentially very dangerous for packrafters and not to be neglected by canoeists neither. My packraft has literally bumped into hundreds of rocks, often at high speeds, without showing much wear. It is in fact amazing how tough it is. But the sharp end of an underwater branch of a tree jammed beneath the surface, a ka 'strainer', can rip the paper-thin material of the raft from fore to aft in a second, especially if you hit it at 10 km/h. And if the same sharp branch encounters your thigh in this process, that will not slow this incisor down much. But is sure will slow you down.

Being swept under a drift-pile like the one above, which is where some of the drunken trees end up, is probably the worst nightmare a river traveller can imagine. At least this river traveller. The chances of getting out alive from under such trap are pretty well nil. The powerful current and your belt, clothing and PDF tangled in a myriad of branches under water will probably make your last minutes the least enjoyable minutes you've ever had.

So I kept my eyes well peeled and pointing downstream, to detect the slight ripples or other disturbances in the surface of the moving river that might indicate something under water best avoided. And you bet I gave drift-piles a wide berth.

In 1978 a young couple spent their first year of marriage in a cabin by the Nahanni. This honeymoon cabin is now known as Moore's cabin and it was also the first checkpoint for Nahanni National Park Reserve, which I had now entered. Recently enlarged to the size of Belgium, visitors to the Park do need a permit and are encouraged to put their name in check-point ledgers along the route. This ledger was kept in the box at the right hand corner of the cabin.

I had read Joanne Moore's nice book "Nahanni Trailhead", describing her honeymoon year and would have liked to spend more time at the vicinity of the cabin, but the day was late, it was raining and my 'dry-suit' was leaking, so I moved on after taking a stroll around the building and taking some photos.

My goal was Moore's Hotsprings a couple of kilometers downriver. The opportunity to soak in a 35 C degree natural hotspring after more than a week in the bush and a chilly afternoon in the rain seemed to make it an ideal place to camp. Reality was less delightful. As mentioned, it rained steadily. But with the hot springs keeping the immediate surroundings at hot house temperatures even in winter, the mosquitous had a hey-day and the herbs were thigh high with sturdy and woody stems and no hint of a spot open for a tent or a tarp. I found a muddy hole with hot water that proved I was indeed at the hot springs and did not linger, which in retrospect might have been wise. Later I heard from other river travellers that they had thought the hotsprings a nice place.  I guess they were there when the sun was shining or were simply in a better mood. Beauty is ever in the eye of the beholder

Instead I ferried across the river to a nice camp-able gravel bar with considerably fewer moskers and pitched my tarp for cooking. In the photo above there is a hint of steam at the opposite bank, where a small creek is seen to run into the Nahanni. That is where water from the hot springs enter the river.

The rain stopped during the night and a wonderful morning was unfolding in front of me. From the start it felt like a great day, and so it turned out. What more could a man ask? I was in a wilderness, the size of which would stagger most people, including myself. Yesterday I had passed Corner Rapids (class II), a rather long stretch of choppy waves of moderate size and with hardly any rocks. It would not normally have bothered me, but now it was slightly unpleasant, although there were no incidents whatsoever. So I had no more whitewater to worry about until below Virginia Falls. Then I would hit Fourth canyon, a long stretch of class II/III with high standing waves for 4-5 kilometers. I did not look forward to that, but right now the sun was shining and white-water nerves could rest for a while.
Many fantastic views and things, big and small, were to be found along the big wilderness river that was now my highway, sweeping me along at a brisk pace. The Ragged Range, a bunch of massive granite peaks, would be the next mountain range the river passed through. They soon dominated my the horizon and this continued for the rest of the day. Lunch was on a sun-baked gravel bar in the nude, all my wet gear drying on the rocks around me. Mashed potatoes and 'beer' sausage was on the menu.

Around 6 pm, when I had begun looking for a suitable campsuite, I ran across my friends the Limey's. While stopping to exchange a few words I was faced with an ultimatum: Would you like to have dinner with us? It is ready NOW.

Never one to walk away from a free meal, the decision was easy to make. So in a minute or two I had a stainless bowl the size of a wash basin in front of me. It contained a meal which I barely managed to internalize without bursting at the seams, but as a guest you have to do your best imitation of Homer Simpson, and I did. It was not particulary painful.

Afterwards I pitched my own tent in the vicinity, looked at some wolf and bear tracks in the sand together with my hosts and, never one to walk away from a free drink, had some whisky and port in their big 'community' bug tent. Wilderness life sure ain't easy, but someone's gotta do it.

Another fine day on the river followed. This day as well a gravel bar, nice and hot in the sun, offered a great place to stop for lunch. I dried my gear as usual and enjoyed the marvelous view of the Ragged Range upstream.

'The Cirque of the Unclimbables' is an out of the way version of the big walls in Yosemite. The name of one of the peaks, Lotus Flower Tower, indicates that it was named neither by natives nor by early white explorers, but by climbers. It is in the 'definite' guidebook "50 classic climbs of North America" and has been called "one of the most aesthetically beautiful rock faces in the world".

A couple of hours after lunch the sparkling conveyor belt I was riding on brought me in touch with the man-made world again. At Rabbitkettle I was to find the first of two manned Parks Canada warden stations along the Nahanni. A check-in kiosk by the river with a trail leading to Rabbitkettle Lake and the wardens hut 1 kilometer away greeted me. In spite of free whisky and port picked up along the way my supplies were now running low and I was looking forward to collecting my box of supplies at the warden station cache, with food for another eight days of travel.


  1. Hey, your first couple of posts made this trip out to be some kind of drama but things look a lot brighter in this post!

    And the true UL traveler get's other people to carry the stainless steel crockery and booze ;)

    The scenery looks jaw-dropping.

  2. Joe,
    Hiking is like life; sometimes it's drama and sometimes the scenery is jaw-dropping.

    Rumour has it that some people have hiked the Appalachian Trail with very light packs, scrounging of other travellers. When my wife was in her teens, going to the mountains, she was teamed up with another girl who left most of her food behind. Too heavy. She then begged food from the others in the group for the rest of the trip. Well, she did not get far with my wife, but the guys were more pliable...

  3. Wonderful scenery and a much sunnier tale as joe has mentioned and the sunshine is evident in every photo. Those mountains sure look fantastic.

    Ohh, having taken many student groups away in the past I have also met those that live off others, they usually don't get far and go home hungry.

  4. If it's scenery your looking for, you ain't seen nothin' yet...

  5. The Cirque of the Unclimbables' is jaw dropping and what an amazing wilderness. Wolf and bear tracks. How did you sleep at night. Keep it coming.

  6. Great!
    It is funny how a bit of sun or rain in combination with tiredness and hunger can change the perception and memory of a landscape.
    And always these images that build in your mind about what a wonderful evening that will be with hot spring, nice campsite ... and then you see the reality - nope. Then life has these gifts like unexpected invitations for dinner or the sun makes just this moment an awesome view!
    Thanks for sharing.

    p.s. diasppearing comments seem to be a blog-related problem as I have this also in other "B"-based blogs.

  7. sabi has left a new comment on your post:
    It is funny how a bit of sun or rain in combination with tiredness and hunger can change the perception and memory of a landscape.
    And always these images that build in your mind about what a wonderful evening that will be with hot spring, nice campsite ... and then you see the reality - nope. Then life has these gifts like unexpected invitations for dinner or the sun makes just this moment an awesome view!
    Thanks for sharing.

    p.s. diasppearing comments seem to be a blog-related problem as I have this also in other "B"-based blogs.

    Sabi, you still disappear. And yes, I find that comments do not always work very well on blogs. Frustrating when you've just written a Nobel Prize contending comment that disappears...

  8. Martin,
    Yes, one of the stunning things about the Nahanni is the tremendous variety of landscapes and very special natural features. And the best along those lines is yet to come.

  9. I too have been having problems leaving comments. Hopefully third time lucky. Jorgen, what an amazing trip. I'm in awe of the undertaking.The walk in realy adds an extra dose of spice to what would otherwise already be a serious trip. I was very releaved to read of your safe return!

    This write up really strikes a chord with me. I fell in love with Canada at first sight (fortunately my wife is a very understanding woman) and the Nahanni has been on my list ever since: although I would fly in and take a canoe and certainly portage or line anything vaguely White. I can taste the fear of which you speak.

  10. Dave,
    Thanks. And this time the comment got through :-)

  11. I really like these reports Jörgen. You don't almost kill a character just before the end or hang a dire thread in the air, yet, despite this lack of serial tension-building, I'm still benched for the next installment :)

    It is good to see you admit to being scared. Strong common sense and maybe a bit too much of curiosity than is good for you, is shure signs of an accomplished wilderness-man. Well, at least pretty bankers signs of accomplished AND alive wilderness-men ;)

  12. Quag,
    Thanks for your comments. As for admitting fear, as they say, only a fool has never been afraid.
    The bottom line really is, I guess, that most of us bloggers write as much for ourselves as for our readers. I've never had an outdoor experience that has made such an imprint on me as the Nahanni trip and I am still processing it, the blog being a help. In a situation like that it is not much good lying to what is actually yourself.

  13. I think I have solved the "disappearing comment mystery":

    It seems Blogger has a spam filter for comments, that deletes some posts. I just noticed this , and also noticed there was a folder with the deleted comments!
    So Sabi, we are so sorry - a few of your comments obviously ended up being automatically treated as spam. I've now labelled them as "not spam" and will keep an eye on the filter from now on. :)

  14. Very good, Martin.
    Luckily the filter seems to work on real spam as well. I got notifications about a couple of crap comments from spammers in some old blogpostings. However, when looking at the postings the comments were not visible.

  15. Yes, I got the notifications too and went in to delete them - that's when I discovered the filter :)
    (and that's why you didn't see them published)

    Hopefully the filter is a learning one, and will stop that kind of spam in the future. And stay off the legit ones.

  16. About your comment on needing to blogg to better process the experience... I also find this to be 100% true, and when doing solo-trips it's almost essential to remembering the experience.

    Maybe it has something to do with the final thought of Christopher McCandless (portraited in the book "Into The Wild" that I'm sure you read or seen the movie)... : "Happiness is not real unless shared" :)

    Really appreciate your reports, inspiring!


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