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Adventure Rafting in the Northwest Territories

We jump into one of Canada's grandest canyons in NWT's remote Nahanni National Park Reserve

rafting northwest territories

Riding high with Nahanni River Adventures through Canada’s deepest river canyons.

"Hang on, here comes the first one!" yells Neil Hartling as he steers straight into the maw of a huge standing wave. The churning river propels our raft upward, then drops it with the splash of a giant beaver tail. A barrelful of water pushes past my collar; it splits into a delta of ice-cold tributaries, creating eddies in my boots. It's like being on a log-flume ride – except this one, in Nahanni National Park Reserve, is 240 kilometres long.

It's in the frothy rapids of Fourth Canyon that we get our initial South Nahanni River baptism. While we'd seen the force of the river the previous night, camping close to the raging Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls), now we feel it underneath. For the next six days, our group of five urbanites is sloshing through Canada's deepest river canyons – chasms that already have us craning our necks to take in their monumentality – sculpted by eons into austere limestone ramparts and sandstone gorges that seep copper and gold, as here in the aptly nicknamed Painted Canyon. Snaking through the ragged folds of the Mackenzie Mountains in the Northwest Territories, the silty Nahanni carries with it muddled stories of mineral deposits and missing men, of plants and landforms found nowhere else in the country. Like the gold diggers who disappeared here, giving rise to names like Funeral Range, Broken Skull River, Headless Creek and Deadmen Valley, we're all prospecting for some kind of treasure: pristine wilderness, adrenalin jolts, perfect solitude. Because this is the backcountry of the backcountry, accessible via float plane that touches down above the thundering Náįlįcho, which I can still hear, even if only in my imagination, as we come out on the other side of that first stretch of whitewater.

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park Virginia Falls

Churn, baby, churn: The roiling waters at the precipice of Nálcho, a.k.a. Virginia Falls.

We pull over on a wide gravel bar. The beach, about two hours downstream from the Dene people's "big river, falling," is showered with the golden rays of a northern sun (this time of year, it only dips behind the jagged mountains for a power nap). I set my tent and stow my gear. By now, it's so hot we all change into swimsuits and head to the water's edge. Hartling, who's taken people down this river since 1984, when he founded Nahanni River Adventures, knows every rock and eddy. "Over by those aspens," he says and points to a spot of slow flow past the makeshift kitchen. The two other guides, Margaret Fahey and Mark Thomson, glance at each other with a "yeah, right" expression while slicing chicken and veggies for a stir-fry.

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park South Reserve

In Nahanni National Park Reserve, both ends of the rainbow present a pot of gold.

Tiptoeing into the current proves counterproductive – all it does is unleash a stream of expletives. The boulders and broken branches strewn on the river bottom don't help, so a strategy is devised: Three. Two. One. Plank position, down. And no cheating: head below surface. Someone's had the smarts to throw a six-pack of Kokanee into a mesh bag in the river, so after the flash freeze we find a driftwood log in the sun and clink cans to celebrate. When I have to slap on SPF 50 again – at 8:30 p.m. – I think I know why Thomson refers to this site as "Rasta Beach." The bright sun, the soft sand and the chilled vibe… you could almost pretend to be in Jamaica.

With dinner and dessert (chocolate mousse with raspberry coulis) out of the way, Hartling gathers us, Scout-style, to give us the lay of the landforms. We sit down in a circle around a Pelican case; it's the portable library, stacked with books on northern plants, animals and geology, some fiction and even a guide on how to heed nature's call in the woods. (We don't need to worry about that last bit, as the crew knows how to rig the perfect loo with a view.) "The central area of the park was not glaciated during our last ice age," Hartling says, flipping through pages depicting land art seen in few other places on the planet. While the ice roughed up most of Canada, the topography in Nahanni got away. There are tufa mounds – warm springs that bubble with calcium, slowly building up terraced formations that look like 3-D-printed wedding cakes. You float by cliff walls that in some parts reach more than a kilometre from the river's surface, up to where golden eagles spread their wings. "What you've got here," says Hartling, "and what makes Nahanni so special, is a set of canyons that, if you ask me, are every bit as grand as those in the Grand Canyon."

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park Breakfast

With eggs Benny for breakfast, grilled tenderloin for dinner and chocolate mousse for dessert, no wonder this trip has been called Float ’n’ Bloat.

When someone asks, "So, was this during the Plasticine?" Hartling laughs. Taking the hint, he closes the tiny library and declares the geology lesson over. "Just think about it when we enter Third, Second and First Canyons," he says about the huge gashes that were named by prospectors travelling upriver, not going with the flow as we are. "And unlike most other mountain waterways, which rush more or less straight downhill, the Nahanni meanders like a prairie river. It's an antecedent river, much older than the mountains, which rose around the water." It's almost dizzying to think that while the canyons remain in a time warp, retaining their ancient stature, the river is even older. Our rafts are a time machine.

The next-best thing about waking up on the banks of the Nahanni is the pre-breakfast. At 7 or 7:30, depending on the plans for the day, there's hot cereal with dried fruits and nuts, and coffee, to give you a kick-start and enough energy to wolf down the real breakfast, which can be anything from French toast to eggs Benny to freshly baked, sticky cinnamon buns. The best thing is to zip open your tent door and not lay eyes on another human being, if you manage to sneak out before your new friends. With only about 500 people paddling through the canyons each summer (the total number of visitors is larger, when counting the day trippers who flight-see into the Parks Canada campground and stop for a couple of hours to be hypnotized by Náįlįcho), you're pretty much guaranteed the feeling of having the place to yourself.

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park tea time

Tea time comes in handy on cool northern evenings.

As we head out on the river, Thomson tells us that while people have lived here in Nahą Dehé for the past 10,000 years – this is traditional Dene land of the Dehcho First Nations – it's never been crowded. "It's not the kindest of environments: Legend has it even the Nahą, a fierce mountain-dwelling people feared by their Dene brethren, disappeared without a trace," he says. Still, as I sit with my legs dangling over the water of Third Canyon, admiring how the paintbrush flowers of a thousand yellow dryads stroke the riverbanks, it's obvious why Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared this area a national park after paddling through in 1970. Passing beneath stacks of shale that dance like drunken titans, I see why UNESCO gave Nahanni special status as one of the first World Heritage Sites in 1978.

Halfway through Third Canyon, the river narrows as it comes to a hairpin turn called the Gate. For a raven's-eye view of its vertical walls and Pulpit Rock, a sentinel that will eventually wash into the current, we get our land legs on. The scramble up a steep boulder slope dusted with lichens takes us 460 metres above shore. From here, the rafts appear like puny yellow bathtub toys. Everyone skips around like Dall sheep, posing for photos on outcroppings that jut over the Nahanni. When clouds roll in, we start our hike back down, but before we hit camp it's raining. "Look, a double rainbow!" says Fahey. Shooting up from an abandoned meander among the white spruce, the brilliant ribbons land where Thomson has put up the dining tarp. If anyone doubted this place is made of magic, those doubts disappear when Thomson passes around the dessert: a Pot of Gold box of chocolates.

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park camp life

The friendly chefs are also your guides, historians, geologists, naturalists and comedians.

As the river meanders, its chasms rise and fall. Cutting through Headless Range, Second Canyon opens up to the gentler slopes of Deadmen Valley, carpeted in a deep-green shag. Our rafts float through fog, but over on the riverbank I can still make out toppled trees that dip like a soggy fringe into the water. Hartling navigates through a thatch of reeds: We've arrived at Dry Canyon Creek. Forming a line, we haul gear and food onto a campsite studded with cinquefoil, moss campion and larkspur. I look for the Nahanni aster, a flower endemic to the 30,000-square-kilometre park (that's roughly the size of Belgium), but apparently it only grows around hot springs. Instead, I plant my hands in the fresh paw prints of a wolf and a grizzly bear that seem to have waded into the current for a drink. It turns out this spot is a great watering hole for humans, too: The crew serves up happy hour, with mojitos and gin and tonics (and we toast the canyon's ironic name). It's a feat that's topped only by the unveiling of a birthday cake, baked on the sly in a portable oven and slathered in vanilla icing.

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park South Nahanni River

Taking in the view of the meandering South Nahanni River, which is older than the mountains that rise around it, from the top of the Gate in Third Canyon.

Maybe it's Nahanni's way of saving the best for last. When we cross the threshold of First Canyon, George's Riffle grabs our boat; it slaps us with a wave of adrenalin and tries to pry open our white-knuckle grips before bouncing us into the deepest canyon on the trip. Rising vertically, the limestone walls dissolve in the clouds above. But closer to the river's surface, they open up to reveal secrets. At Whitespray Springs, Fahey rows across the turbid swell and parks in front of a fountain gushing like a fire hydrant from the mountainside. We roll up our sleeves and dunk our buckets and bottles, filling them with the South Nahanni's only supply of crystal-clear water. We drink it on the spot, before bobbing toward the river's hottest water feature.

Rafting Northwest Territories Nahanni Park River

Nahanni River Adventures takes you down the South Nahanni River, starting at Nálcho (South Slavey for “big river, falling”), which is almost twice as high as Niagara Falls.

As I ease into the Kraus Hotsprings, a sulphide-scented natural hot tub on the other side of First Canyon, I look around for the Nahanni aster. While it's easier to find the star-shaped blossom than it is to strike gold along this waterway, I'm out of luck. The only gold in eyeshot is a sea of wild parsnip flowers swaying in the breeze. But for the first time on this adventure, I linger in the water. In fact, we're all reluctant to get out, happy with the full immersion – our final baptism in the wilderness.


Raft Pick

A rafting trip (you can also choose to canoe) with Nahanni River Adventures on the South Nahanni River takes you through one of Canada's most geologically diverse landscapes. So when you're not digging into Taku River salmon, lamb souvlaki and caribou smokies, you'll be floating past waterfalls, tufa mounds, hot springs, karst features, dense boreal forests and the deepest river canyons in the country.
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