Blog written by Matthew Klema #teambeer

“The North Nahanni? That should be a nice float trip, are you bringing sea kayaks?” This exemplified the reaction upon informing other kayakers that we were headed to this river. Given that this is a significant drainage, in a large mountain range just outside a UNESCO World Heritage site there was surprisingly little knowledge about the river and the possibility of whitewater. The most helpful information came from a bush pilot: “I think some canoeists flew in there in the late nineties but turned the plane around….I think that was the river….” That was about it.

The North Fork of the Nahanni River drains a northern portion of the Mackenzie Mountains in the Dehcho region of Canada’s Northwest Territories Province. The river flows eastward approximately 200 miles from its headwaters to the Mackenzie River, which then flows to the northern edge of North America. It does not combine with its more famous sister river, The South Fork of the Nahanni. The South Nahanni River is a famous canoe expedition containing Virginia Falls, which flows into the Liard River, another tributary of the Mackenzie.

Getting dropped off on a lake in the middle of the Mackenzie Mountains

After three days of waiting on a storm to pass, Sergai, our bush pilot informed us that the weather was clearing enough to make the flight. We took off in floatplanes from the middle of the Mackenzie River at the town of Fort Simpson. After two flights and most of the day had passed, the six of us found ourselves watching the plane disappear over the mountain ridges next to a high alpine lake. The limestone mountain ridges made me feel like I was in the Grand Canyon, but with the flora of a tundra rather than cacti. Making our way to the river the chill set in as the sun started setting. The River had just enough water to float our kayak when we reached it, but we elected to make camp and start our journey back down to the Mackenzie in the morning.

Hiking down to the river

Using Google Earth and topographic maps the average gradient of the North Nahanni looked promising from the comfort of a desk chair. The South Nahanni loses the majority of its gradient in Virginia Falls. Elevation loss and whitewater looked more consistent than its Northern sister river, but one thing was clear: the canyons were narrow, and some of them very deep. The fifth and final canyon of the North Nahanni was over 3000 feet deep and less than 1000 feet wide in some places. We wondered and reasoned that there was likely not such a drop contained in the river…especially in this final chasm.

Quality whitewater in the first canyon

By the afternoon of our first day on the water, we reached the entrance to the first canyon. The blue, crystal clear river narrowed and proceeded into long sets of narrow and fast rapids, sometimes narrow enough you wouldn’t want to be sideways heading downstream. Eventually, the character of the canyon changed and the drops were created by the ledges of limestone, which pooled the water upstream. At the end of the canyon, we exited to brilliant sunshine and a perfect set of ledges overlooking the river on which to make our second camp of the trip.

Rapids starting at the entrance to the second canyon
The massive crumbly walls of the third canyon
Camp 3, an example of the scenery between the canyons
All you can eat blueberries and grayling, always

On our third river day, we had reached the entrance to the fourth canyon. The river had more than quadrupled in size and the water was now slightly murky from the contribution of the tributaries. Just past the entrance of the canyon, a hundred-foot waterfall plunged of the canyon rim to the river. The fact that this waterfall came plunging off the side of the cliff less than a hundred meters from the entrance of the canyon showed why these canyons are so narrow: both of the forks of the Nahanni are antecedent rivers where the topography, Mackenzie Mountains, have risen around the river as it has maintained its existing course. Rounding the first corner a thunderstorm let loose turning the dark grey limestones and shales making up the canyon walls black. As the rain let up we continued for miles of quality class IV and V whitewater with tributaries pouring into the canyon on almost every corner. The weather continued to be temperamental but at the exit of the canyon, we were happy to see a giant cobble beach lined with enough driftwood to survive.

Large waterfall at the entrance to the fourth canyon
Quality whitewater and added water in canyon four
Camp 4 at the exit of canyon four
Looking down into the sieve and wood choked slot at the entrance to the fifth canyon

Two days later we found ourselves less than a mile as the crow flies from camp four. After a few corners, canyon five constricted the river into its narrowest and deepest canyon. Unfortunately, after the first bend, the river made its way through a sieve and log filled slot that wasn’t even wide enough for a kayak. The angle of the limestone caused the walls to go from river level to almost 2000 feet over the course of the first mile, this slot being just below the entrance. Could we get around this obstacle and get back to the river? Did we want to put ourselves back in the slot even if we could? If not, it meant a multiple-day hike along the rim of the canyon over the last major ridge in the Mackenzie Mountain range. We had prepared for this possibility, but after two days of scouting and assessing our thoughts, we were preparing to get back to the river. A couple of very well positioned ledges and some complicated rope work got us back to the river. We had no choice but to exit the canyon on the river. The whitewater was of great quality and the feeling of being so deep in a canyon had us enjoying every moment as we made out way downstream.

Camp 6 on a ledge part of the way back down to the river from the rim
Contemplating going back into the slot and finishing out canyon five on the river
The final ledge on the descent back to the river below the log jam

Two days, and may miles later we reached the confluence with the Mackenzie. The North Nahanni had provided the exact adventure that we had thought it would. Aurora Borealis, wolves, caribou, bison, bobcats, bears, moose and no sign of human activity added to the adventure of the river and its canyons. We are not sure if anyone has done this river before, or if anyone will ever do it again, but that doesn’t matter. Now we know what the spirit the river that drew us. We got to see this place on the map that had piqued our curiosity. Greeted by salutary gunshots and smoked moose in the home of a native family at the take out, what more could you ask for after a nine-day trip on the river?

Whitewater in the fifth canyon
Exiting a slot in the fifth canyon
The limestone walls were filled with amazing fossils
Camp 9 at the confluence with the Mackenzie River

All photos credited to TB 2018

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