Rafting the Nahanni

  • 3,612 km travelled
  • 01 bear sighting
  • 7 tent set-up races

We waved goodbye to the comforts of the modern world and flew into the Northwest Territories — Nahanni to be exact. Sure, we were city people by definition, but if we wanted freedom and nature, this was the best place to get a crash course. Massive winding rivers and towering rock walls became the norm as we paddled past all sorts of wildlife, stopping only for impromptu cookouts, gold panning and swimming adventures. We all agreed that we’d never been so close to the wild, and yet at the same time — never felt so at home.

Day 1
Wild Blue Yonder
Not only were we leaving our continent; we were leaving civilisation. Well, not entirely at first — we did do a quick stopover in sunny Vancouver before flying north to Fort Simpson. As we flew further away from the land of lattés, the ground beneath us became pockmarked with lakes and steep valleys. The nose of the plane finally dipped towards the edge of Great Slave Lake as we approached Yellowknife, landing under a bright sky at 10 pm. Yes … 10:00 PM. We boarded another floatplane and flew over mountainous terrain and the massive Virginia Falls before landing in a wide river and making camp. And more importantly, dinner.
Day 2
Hell’s Gate
We woke up to another bright northern morning and the smell of bacon and sausages cooking over the grill. We ate, and packed up for our last portage around Virginia Falls. With the water roaring in the background, we watched the guides assemble the boats, ate a quick spot of lunch and set off. The river was fast but manageable, a good beginning for some of us who had only seen rapids on television. Things got a little wilder (okay, a lot wilder) when we hit Hell’s Gate. With a name like that, we kind of saw it coming. After some white-knuckled paddling, we arrived at Wrigley Creek with smiles and well deserved nervous laughter — a good start to our meeting with the real wilderness.
Day 3
Raft & Reel
Up again and into the rafting gear. At this point, all of us save for Cory had figured out the ideal sitting position for keeping the river out of your trousers. His occasional yelps were a sure sign of that. The walls of Third Canyon towered over us as we meandered down the Flat River spotting wolves and other animals peeking out at us through the dense forest. We stopped to fish, pan for gold (no instant millionaires today) and skip some of the flattest rocks I’d ever seen. After a few more hours on the water, we set up camp and had a campfire for dinner and a show. What show? The midnight sunset, of course.
Day 4
Early cloud gave way to sun in the late morning as we finished a hearty breakfast of homemade cinnamon buns and floated into Big Bend. Things were relatively calm through Second Canyon before getting really (really) fast through Headless Creek. If there were any animals near the shore, they were long gone when Marie-Claire started whooping as she got tossed around (and almost out of) the raft. The sun heated up in the afternoon and we opted to pull over for a swim in a wide spot of the river. After a cleansing dunk, Marie got calm with a bit of yoga, and we figured this was as good a place as any to make camp. But first, we made dinner. Priorities, right?
Day 5
The Canyon Hustle
It took a group effort to pull Tyson out of his cosy sleeping bag in the morning, but we managed to coax him awake with yogurt and granola. The sun beat down hot and the river was wide and ideal for letting a few of us rookies take a turn at the raft’s big steering wheel. Cory scored a perfect 10 with his cannonball before we decided to pull over and make an early camp. We secured the boats and took off up-canyon for some rock scrambling and creek cruising. Cold? Yes? Amazing? Also yes. Some bush-made boreal herb tea warmed us up before dinner, and a little flashlight reading in the tent closed out another quiet night in the bush. No Internet, no TV, no phone — no problem at all.
Day 6
Leisure lovers
With our canyon journey complete, it was time to play. We’d purposely made camp where a hot springs intersected with the river. Someone had rocked off a sort of natural hot tub where the cool river and scalding hot springwater mingled into a perfect bath temperature. The hours ticked off like minutes, and there may or may not have been skinny-dipping. A short paddle into the river was the site of a little backflip contest before dinner, where we found we weren’t the first sniffing around the camp for snacks. Little paw prints dotted around the food. We were relieved they weren’t big paw prints.
Day 7
Up in the air
Things were winding down on our last day. Tyson was insistent on catching breakfast in the river, but came up short. This was fine, as pancakes fit the bill better than river trout (for everyone except Tyson). We took our last river bath and rafted downstream to our awaiting speedboat — all of us happy to finally not travel under arm-strong power. We boarded our small floatplane and headed for civilization. Upon touchdown, we went straight for our B&B, serving lunch, hot showers and fluffy white towels that didn’t stay white once we washed off a week in the bush. The comforts of home felt good, but what we couldn’t wash off were the smiles on our faces, stuck on their permanently after our larger-than-life Canadian adventure.