Fulfilling a dream in Nahanni National Park
Nahanni National Park is a World Heritage Site with a waterfall twice the height of Niagara Falls. This remote park in Northwest Territories, Canada, has no roads into it and is visited by float plane landings along the river.
After years of dreaming, I can now say I’ve been there.
My kayak and gear was shipped to a chartered aircraft company in Fort Simpson, N.T. that was hired to fly me into the park with 160 pounds of gear plus food for the two-week solo journey down the South Nahanni River.
My Harley ride from Tahoe through Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Craters of the Moon Park was a prelude to an eight-day, self-support kayak trip down the Middle Fork Salmon river in Idaho with just my wife June and daughter Kea. When they headed back to Tahoe to begin high school, I took the back roads to Banff and Jasper as I headed north.
Shortly after crossing the Alberta, Northwest Territories border, the road turned to gravel ” not good for my new bike.
About 210 kilometers of rough road riding in the rain on slick calcium-covered gravel later, I arrived at Fort Simpson, N.T., in early September. Within the first hour there, I had received three invitations to dinner by friendly locals who all told me, “We haven’t seen a Harley up here in … years!”
Along that road I was about to run out of gas when I came across a campground closed for the season. There, a native Canadian Indian man walked up to me to tell me the place was closed. When I told him of my fuel shortage, he walked 50 feet into the forest and came out with a 5-gallon gas can! I happily gave him $40 U.S. dollars for offering it to me. He then asked, “What is this?”
He had never seen American currency before. They also offered me a spot for the night.
The satellite weather picture looked ominous with a big winter storm moving in early. This two-week trip would have to be done in questionable weather within a week or wait. I waited 17 years and came a long way. It’s now or never, Nahanni.
The first attempt to fly the 200 kilometers into the park was thwarted by a low cloud base at the first canyon, which prevented penetration into the park’s airspace. Two days later, with five minutes notice, I loaded my gear onto the plane again and had a great flight into the Nahanni. As we approached Rabbit Kettle Lake, the beginning of my journey, the ever-present grizzly and black bears of the Tufa mounds area were in full force.
We unloaded the plane in two minutes and I was pushing him off as the storm closed in. As the plane disappeared from sight, all that was left was the sound of the water washing against this remote region.
The park had officially closed a few days before my arrival and the Rangers told me that I would be the only person in the park for my solo trip. A thumb and elbow injury that delayed the trip, at least now, had a bonus of extra solitude. I had also planned on climbing Lotus Flower Tower in the “Cirque of the Unclimbables” up near the Nahanni headwaters and start at Moose ponds, but the injuries and late-season low water prevented this.
A stormy sunset sent me to slumber after stashing the food up high away from bears.
Day 1 on the water began after 10 kilometers of portaging gear and supplies from the lake to the river. Then, I was hit with a strong squall with 60-mph winds that blew me all over the river. Pitching a frantically flapping tent in wild winds and driving rain had me saying to myself aloud, “You wanted adventure, buddy? Well, you got it!”
There was no place to safely stash the food, so the plastic barrel sat 15 feet in front of the tent with a pile of rocks at the tent door to defend my sustenance. Losing my food now would turn this adventure into a survival situation.
I arrived at Virginia Falls on Day 4.
Sitting at this magnificent location alone was a treasured spiritual experience and well worth the 17-year wait. The beautiful “Sluice Box” rapids above the falls are worthy of park status alone; then the majesty of the fabulous falls follows. After an hour at this World Heritage Site reflecting on life, I began the 12 kilometers of hiking while carrying my gear around the falls to where the whitewater rapids began.
On Day 5, two playful otters followed my kayak, carrying on a conversation with me. As I mimicked their sounds back to them, I thought about the importance of creatures communicating with each other and the good will it creates.
Day 6 saw me paddle over 100 kilomters, until almost being swept into the huge root system of a downed tree in the river after dark. The next morning, there were wolf tracks circling my tent and bison tracks all over the gravel bar. As I arrived at the remote, native Canadian settlement of Nahanni Butte on Day 7, I met the park river rangers, who were just finishing their final sweep of the park. They were amazed to see that I had caught up with them because they were four days ahead of me. The rangers said my 100-kilometer day was a record day of travel on the South Nahanni River. I didn’t even get on the water until noon each day and was just trying to outrun the larger, more threatening storm still approaching.
Snow and sleet began falling as I rode west out of Fort Simpson towards British Columbia on another 220 kilometers of slick, calcium-covered, rough gravel road on my Harley. Four hours later I pulled up to a cafe in a small settlement in northern B.C. with snow plastered on my packs and windshield. As I stepped in the door clad in wet leathers dripping from head to toe with ice built up on my chaps and jacket, the place went totally silent as all looked at me. One warm smile later, everyone wanted to know my story and warned me of the approaching storm front.
As I headed south towards Tahoe in the driving snow storm, I thought that the next time I come up to run the Nahanni, I may just take the truck.
Visit Steve Jolicoeur’s Web site, http://www.AdventureBoss.com, for more about the 25-year local.
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