The Nahanni can only easily be accessed by float plane. We chose to start our trip out of Fort Liard and fly with Decho Air. Our pilot had left the soon-to-be war-torn Croatia where he would have entered the military, to end up flying the spectacular canyons of the Nahanni — good choice Sam!
After two days of waiting in Fort Liard for weather to clear, the single engine Otter gently sat us down on Rabbit Kettle Lake. Here we met the Park Ranger, Carl Lafferty, descendant of Jonas Lafferty,early Nahanni explorer, after whom Lafferty Rapids has been named. We obtained fishing licenses from Carl, but don’t plan on augmenting your diet with fish. For some reason, fishing on the Nahanni is sparse. This is borne out by conversations with other paddlers, so our technique was not totally at fault. .
The two day’s paddle from Rabbit Kettle Lake to Virginia falls was fairly peaceful and scenic. Had we known what spectacular geography awaited us below Virginia Falls, we would probably have opted to put in at Virginia and taken a few extra days on that lower stretch. The two day delay at the start of our trip was unfortunate because we could easily have spent 3 or 4 weeks and only have seen a small percentage of what the Nahanni has to offer. The Nahanni River is unusual in that you have a meandering river with cathedral type walls that reach 3,000 feet straight up. Usually in canyons of this nature, you would have straight runs with impossibly rough water. Without turning this into a geography lesson, the reasons can be very simply stated (understated). The meandering river which formed on a flat plateau, eroded the surface at about the same rate as the uplift of the land (which later were to become mountains/canyon walls). This balance of erosion at the same rate as the rate of uplifting, allowed the meandering river to hold its course. This uplift of about 1 millimetre every 1,000 years, with corresponding erosion created this unusual antecedent canyon.
Because we were travelling fairly late in the year (last two weeks of August) most birds were on their way south. Other wildlife was also fairly illusive. Black bear were the most prominent, especially around Kraus Hot Springs. The only dahl sheep we saw was perched on a small precipice on the side of a canyon wall. He stood still and posed despite our urgings for him to demonstrate his ability to leap from ledge to ledge.
Four of the more dedicated fisherpersons in our group decided to try their luck at a small creek that emptied out from the left bank. My son, Aaron, age 15, and George and his daughter Karen, 13, floated on ahead. After 10 minutes or so Karen shouted “Grizzly!”. Although Karen had never seen one before in her life, there is no mistaking it when you see a full mature grizzly. He was descending down a small slope which was interrupted by a small stream at the bottom, with another little rise before the river’s edge. The grizzly was headed straight for a point up ahead that our canoes were soon to be occupying. He did not see us and proceeded down the slope, across the small stream up the other side and over the bank right down to the river’s edge. About this time he sensed our presence and stood straight up. There is nothing more imposing than a grizzly standing rigidly in an upright position. At this point our canoes had drifted to within 30 metres of this awesome beast. Perhaps he heard our amateur attempts at juggling paddle, camera and bear spray all at once. The bear spray won out, hence we have no pictures of him to put in this article. After a sniff, he slowly returned to all fours and sauntered off. There was no hint of fear in his purposeful but unhurried gait. Such was not the case on our part.
Pictures of Virginia Falls grace the covers of many magazines and brochures, but the immensity of the Falls is only fully appreciated when you are standing at its base. The spray travels for nearly half a mile. Five Mile Canyon, which lies below the Falls is an extremely challenging bit of whitewater (grade 3). Of the 1600 or so paddlers that travel this river each year, most go with licensed guides, so even if your whitewater skills are lacking a bit, you can still enjoy this amazing river trip. If you do paddle the river on your own, you will be required to check in at two sites along the way, neither of which were attended by park officials when we went through. Don’t plan on being rescued by Park Rangers if you get into trouble along this stretch of river; you really are on your own.