Experiencing the Nahanni is like passing into heaven.
Its beauty leaves you breathless. I would get up in the morning and just stand there listening to the water and soaking in the unbelievably magnificent views. It inspires me. It lifts my heart and leaves me in awe of its sheer magnificence. It makes me passionate to share its beauty with my family and those friends I’ve paddled and hiked with in other wilderness settings. I have hardly ever been on a trip that makes me appreciate my life as much as the Nahanni with its spectacular Virginia Falls which are taller than the more well known Niagara falls located a thousand miles south in the urban heart of Ontario’s wine country.
The Nahanni begins at tiny Moose Ponds high in the alpine peaks of the continental divide. This reach of the river is the domain of experienced whitewater canoeists. The first four days of this stretch are laced with the exciting Rock Gardens, miles and miles of thrilling excitement. The adrenaline soon yields to flat water and even more gorgeous scenery, with the granite Peaks of the Ragged Range and spires of the Cirque of the Unclimbables. In many places the call of the mountains is so strong that the canoeist eagerly morphs into a hiker to explore a particular peak or cove.. On the edge of the Ragged range you reach Hot Springs Valley and Rabbitkettle Lake .
I have travelled the world and seen many beautiful landscapes but the high terraces of soft calcium known as “Tufa Mounds” are uniquely special formed by sulphurous hot springs that gurgle to the surface both summer and winter and leave large, delicately featured calcium deposits as large as a meadow and as intricate as a Japanese garden, that have built up over millenniums.
The Nahanni is a life altering adventure that everyone should experience. It makes you think differently and find peace in your soul and courage in your heart. It inspired Pierre Burton and launched his career as a writer and so affected Canada’s favourite Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau that he convinced Canada’s parliament to protect it by having it named a National Heritage site and a National Park Reserve. Subsequent leaders have expanded the Park to cover the entire watershed, increasing Nahanni to the sixth largest park in the world!
The Nahanni is unique. It has an unforgettable magic. It is incredibly powerful yet inviting with an abundance of nimble footed Dall Sheep, spectacular Grizzlies, Black Bears, and Caribou.
Fortunately with digital photography you can snap and snap and snap and not worry whether you take fifty or a hundred photos each day. Just when you think you have taken your best photo, your viewfinder discovers another one even more beautiful. The experience reminds me of my favourite niece, she and I would go out into the woods near our home and spend hours snapping pictures. She would take three for every one that I took, some weren’t terrific but many were just plain better, more artfully composed and more insightful.
I was now experiencing this all over again. There was no shortage of great views and more fascinating subject matter than I ever thought possible, so I merrily snapped away experiencing one great view after the next thinking no one could capture the beauty better than I could. Then I met Neil Hartling, he has been travelling these rivers for more than thirty years and has seen more of the nooks and crannies, the eddies and islands than anyone I know. He is intimately familiar with the wild life and the history.
Although to my eye it is uninhibited wilderness, humans have dwelt in these regions for thousands of years and they captured and shared their experiences with the animals and the river through stories shared at the campfire. The story tellers of the North can recite their stories for hours talking about the layers of meaning each one has. The First Nations people that heard these stories generations ago carefully passed them down from generation to generation and Neil has heard more of them than most. He gave me an appreciation of the area the camera alone could not capture. He added history and humanity giving my understanding a depth and nuance the pictures alone could not capture with details picked up over thirty years of careful listening.
Neil has a good friend that has been photographing the rivers in Canada’s northwest for over thirty years, his name is Terry Parker and like my niece his photographs of Dall Sheep, caribou herds, Peregrine Falcons and Musk Ox put mine to shame. The link above will take you to some of his best work.
Painted canyon begins at the base of Virginia falls. This is where the raft expeditions begin, enjoying the rapids and taking advantage of the fast water and avoiding the slower sections above. This is one of the four canyons that add to the visual drama. The final canyon is one of the deepest river canyons on the continent with arguably one of the most spectacular campsites in the world. The canyon is over 3,400 feet tall and at one point there is a beautiful sandy beach almost a mile long. This area also boasts the largest, most complex “Karst system” in the world with an amazing number of linked sinkholes, caves, and underground streams
If you haven’t rafted, canoed or kayaked in Alaska and northern Canada, seen the Northern Lights or paddled under a midnight sun, then put this region on your list of “must do” trips in your lifetime. With migrating herds of caribou and birds, waterfalls twice the height of Niagara, and Canada’s deepest river canyons, hot springs and glaciers, a rich history of Klondike pioneers, and a thriving First Nation culture, this is a vibrant world which will fascinate you. Of the many spectacular northern rivers, Nahanni is the most diverse and celebrated.
If my description of the Nahanni or Terry’s pictures have sparked your imagination you couldn’t go wrong by contacting Neil Hartling. He operates Nahanni River Adventures out of Whitehorse. He is a keen ambassador for the Yukon and the acclaimed author of Alaska to Nunavut. Terry Parker can be reached at www.terryparkerphoto.com
Live well and if you have a minute let me know of some of the spectacular places you have visited.
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