Northern Sanctuary: A Packrafting and Climbing Journey in Northern Canada's Nahanni National Park
Over 40 hours of driving, only stopping for gas and the occasional burrito, took us from Southern California to Fort Simpson, NWT, nestled under impossibly large boreal skies.
I’ve always been drawn to anything with a sense of journey. I guess that’s why I make documentaries. When it comes to outdoor sports I’m the same way - I’ll take a long alpine climb to a summit any day over a bunch of hard sport routes, or a long multi-day paddle down a river ahead of running the same stretch over and over. The problem with this draw is that there are fewer options. In North America one generally has to go into some of the bigger mountain ranges, or even better, head straight up to the far North to seek out those huge distances of wild rivers and jagged peaks.
As a kid I’d spent a lot of time in the North West Territories of Canada, and once flown over the isolated and daunting sounding Cirque of the Unclimbables. I knew of friends that had been into the Cirque, and I knew of other friends that had paddled the famously beautiful South Nahanni nearby. Flying into the Cirque straight off would feel to me like I hadn’t worked hard enough for the reward. Packrafting in for 6 days to get there might remedy that, not to mention another 9 days to escape to the nearest road downstream. This was definitely going to fulfill my adventure requirements.
Brian, Dean and I had divided 22 days of rations amongst us in bear-proof bags, and together with camping stuff, paddling gear and a heap of climbing equipment, our three 110lb packs snuck in a hair under the cargo limit for Thor’s floatplane. Within 40 minutes of lifting off the wide McKenzie in Fort Simpson we were peering out at the granite walls of the cirque, before passing them, crossing a drainage and dropping down to Flat Lakes, the headwaters of the Little Nahanni River. Feelings of anxious excitement prevailed as we inflated our rafts. For the next 22 days or so, everything would be new to us, unknown. To add a little more excitement, none of us had dabbled in packrafts before - pre-trip workload had eaten away any possible gear testing opportunities.
It took about 2 days to understand how best to get about 100lbs of gear strapped onto our rafts. Eventually we found that most of our food strapped behind us provided good back support while our bulky packs were lashed on the spray deck, the weight helping to punch thuggishly through waves we didn’t have the skills to avoid. While our Renegade rafts had handy internal storage zippers, we made a decision given our inexperience that we’d rather be able to shed all our heavy gear in an instant should things go south.
Where the lake gave way to a swift but still caring creek, we giggled as we learnt how to cut around boulders and nestle our little boats in eddies. It didn’t take long though for smiles to be accompanied by a furrowed brow or a grimace as the Little Nahanni grew into a grade 2 and 3 playground of rock gardens, bouncing us around but charitably ensuring the boulders we hit were smooth, allowing us to slide awkwardly over them. Dean, a fairly seasoned kayaker, looked on, pleased none of his friends were around to see the incompetent company he kept these days. By the third day, the Little Nahanni had taken its kid gloves off and offered up 2 miles of Crooked Canyon almost impossible to scout as it dropped deep below the surrounding wilderness. It was punctuated by sharp shale outcrops that swiped at our boast as we bounced passed, once scoring a small rip in Brian’s, thankfully easy to patch in a tiny eddy in the canyon
This last boiling hole crept up on us, we were enjoying the immersive and committing crooked canyon so much we forgot about this obstacle that many portage.
Lack of knowledge definitely served me well, and I miraculously dropped in and ploughed through it without ‘yardsaling’. The others weren’t quite so lucky (I’m under no illusion that it was luck not skill that saw me through!!). In the eddies beneath the hole, the other two shed the heavy packs and ran the rapid clean and light while I snapped pictures of the only play boating of our journey.
After 3 exhilarating days paddling, the playful Little Nahanni’s clear blue water carved a clean line into its turbid older sister where they met, and the three of us floated into the placid current happy that we’d passed through the hardest canyons of our journey without serious mishap. What lay ahead was two days of expansive floating to reach the foot of the Ragged Range and the faint trail that lead to the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Day to day rarely allows time for your mind to wander off the map. This is for me perhaps the most valuable quality of the wilderness and particularly the river.
Sometimes we floated rafted up, sometimes up to a mile apart, enjoying the silence, thinking about things everyday life doesn’t allow time for. The northern wilderness is perhaps the best place in the world to empty your brain and allow it to fill up naturally with whatever flows through it. Silence, or rather the sound of the river and its banks, brought with it an intoxicating and almost overwhelming sense of tranquility.
Our first real sight of the Cirque of the Unclimbables.
Five days in, we arrived at a muddy beaver scrape on the north bank that marked the trailhead into our home for the next week. We hung the rafts, paddling gear and the 10 days of food we would need to escape down the river, and headed through the stunted spruce and muskeg with relatively merciful 80 lb packs. It was nice to be on our feet again, despite the weight. A long tramp took us to Glacier Lake, were a few old canoes are stashed for whoever wants to use them to paddle the 3 miles to the base of the cirque.
Once seen, never forgotten. Our slow paddle towards the towers was both beautiful and daunting. The Lotus Flower Tower, our climbing objective, was a long way from the protecting embrace of the river that we’d got used to.
The following morning the sun fought a fierce battle with the rain clouds and only after were had decided to bail did it emerge victorious. Both Brian and I were exhausted and perhaps should have taken more time to warm up in the cirque before setting off up the tower. Despite our failure to reach the summit, disappointment was partially edged out by excitement as I realized this journey was only half way through, with 10 days of paddling down the South Nahanni to come. What actually turned out to be 9 days didn’t disappoint. We had joined a stretch of the South Nahanni that is for good reason a popular paddling and rafting destination. Majestic canyons encouraged us through large rolling rapids in a river that now dwarfed our tiny boats.
We set up shop in the mouth of a cave looking up at the Cirque, happy not to be packing and unpacking for a least a few days, but always keeping a watchful eye on the weather, much more changeable than in the wide valleys below.
Climbing into the base of the long chimney section of the route, the weather began to look threatening and we were moving slow. Even so, it was hard not to be impressed by the surroundings.
While Dean was our river brains, he was not a climber, but had agreed to give the tower a go. After an early start the day after our tiring hike in, we arrived on the talus beneath the face knowing that switching gears away from the tranquility of the river was going to be difficult. Brian coached Dean up the first 3 steep pitches of the 2000 foot face before Dean retreated to camp, to binge on a stash of cheese. Brian and I continued up under increasing cloudy skies. The clouds seemed to bring with them more than just a light drizzle. Brian was feeling nauseous and we climbed slowly up the 600 foot of chimneys before arriving at a barely useable sloping bivi ledge in the dark. There was another much more spacious ledge 100 feet further up, but the rain and lack of light forced our hand into resting up in cramped quarters.
Waking up after a less than ideal night of sleep on the sloping ledge we were met by an ethereal sight of heavy mist blanketing the glacier below us.
The South Nahanni was rarely threatening in comparison to the Little Nahanni at the beginning of our trip. It was instead unadulterated fun, each one of us disappearing behind the crests of waves and then shooting over the top of the next roller.
After the canyons, the huge river bifurcated into hundreds of shallow channels before fusing back into one barely moving mass. Our last day consisted of 8 hours of arduous paddling around the lazy and seemingly never-ending meanders before reaching the tiny and isolated village of Nahanni Butte.
Standing on the banks of this tiny settlement, mosquitoes interesting themselves in the newcomers, it was the old boat beached on the muddy banks, the dilapidated school behind us and a lone local wondering slowly down the only dirt road that brought our journey quietly to a close. I was sad, but it was a deeply satisfying sadness. So many memories, so much fun, yet we drove the long road back to California my mind refreshingly and inexplicably empty.
The only portage of our trip around the impressive and deafening Virginia Falls.
Late summer brought with it the dynamic glow of the northern lights, seemingly a closing ceremony as we spent our last night on the river, sleeping out in the open to enjoy the show.
- Perfect for Backcounty Whitwater
- Whitewater Series
- Type: Self Bailing
- Weight: 8 lb 6 oz (3.8 kg)
About the Author
Dominic Gill is a 35 year old British Adventure Filmmaker based in Los Angeles California, but rarely there. He and his wife run Encompass Films, a production company that specializes in telling adventurous stories about the world around us. They both believe that adventure comes in many different forms, often far removed from the world of outdoor sports that the word is commonly tethered to. Sometimes he’s been known to take a camera on his own adventures.