Canyons of the Nahanni: First Canyon

Nahanni sky

Nahanni sky

Headless corpses? A man by his fire, match in hand, frozen solid? A woman who wanders off cliffs and over rivers before her track disappears? A mysterious tribe called the Naha who wear armour, swoop down from the mountains, and behead their victims?  Ah yes. Nahanni is a dangerous river, and on some days it seems to live up to its legends.

Behind the walls of the cliff pictured below lies a complex cave system known as the Grotte Valerie. Early visitors found a frozen waterfall with a large chamber at the bottom which they christened “Gallery of Dead Sheep” because of the hundreds of skeletons within. Over the centuries, sheep wandered into the cave, slid down the waterfall and were unable to get out. The Grotte is now closed to visitors to protect its delicate formations.


Grotte Valerie. Main entrance is behind trees at extreme upper left.

First Canyon is a rugged landscape.


Beach in First Canyon

One can only imagine how this canyon must have appeared to R.M.Patterson. A young Englishman with no experience in the north or with a canoe, and stoked by warnings that people went up the river but never came back, he found himself dwarfed by walls that rose 1000 metres above him. Today, we may laugh at his fears, but would any of us attempt his journey or survive it?


At play in inflatable kayak. We know where we are camping tonight and we have experienced guides in rafts behind us.

Gradually we leave the high walls and canyons behind.


End of the canyons.

Time for a frolic in Klaus Hot Springs.


Klaus Hot Springs

We carry on toward Nahanni Butte under a spectacular sky.


Storm over Nahanni Butte

Rain doesn’t bother us, but lightning forces us to put to shore several times and wait.


A scene that is more beautiful than it felt at the time.

We camped in the rain, woke to mist and a fair day. A motor boat came to take us to Nahanni Butte.


Last camp.

This was my second time down the Nahanni. It will not be my last; the river works it way into your soul and beckons you back.



Morning at The Gate

Morning at The Gate

We prepare to enter Second Canyon under a clear sky. A group of canoeists had shared our site. They had a blue raft to carry baggage.

Second Canyon is sheer rock cliffs that dwarf our rafts, but there are gentler areas as well.

Cliffs of Second Canyon

Cliffs of Second Canyon


Time to lean back and let the beauty take over.

Time to lean back and let the beauty take over.

We stop for lunch at Painted Rocks Canyon. Time for a short hike. Or not.

There are many ways to enjoy the river.

There are many ways to enjoy the river.

On past Headless Creek (ah, those wonderful Nahanni legends), Meilleur River, and Sheaf Creek, where R.M.Patterson built his cabin and spent the winter of 1929. If you haven’t read his book The Dangerous River, you’ve missed the best of Canadian nature writing.

We camped at Prairie Creek, a broad delta, flat and open, with nice tent sites. Next morning, I rose early, put the camera to work, and then sat down to describe the scene.

Early morning at Prairie Creek

Early morning at Prairie Creek

Across the river, a dense lodgepole pine forest rises to rounded hills and behind them, the reddish brown mass of Tlogotcho Plateau. The wind and the river are quiet, the only sounds the chirping of birds, the soft talk of the guides preparing breakfast, and the ever-present whine of mosquitoes.

Prairie Creek camp

Prairie Creek camp

Shrubs, reeds or grass, shallow pools of still water, hard-packed damp sand, and beyond, a range of mountains.. Wispy clouds seem to promise a fair day, but on this river, sun and storm play hide and seek.

Sheltered tent site

Sheltered tent site

To my right, a tent nestles among spindly poplars. It’s a perfect day for a nature hike, and we go in search of a wolf den. No luck with the wolves, but we see our first dall sheep. They’re too far away to photograph clearly, even with my 800mm digital lens. Predictably, storm clouds chase us back to camp.

The night was too warm for a good sleep, so I listened to the sprinkle of rain on the tent, one the most soothing sounds of camping. Mosquitoes bad in the morning. We load up and splash through George’s Riffle and into First Canyon.

George's Riffle.

George’s Riffle.

George Sibbeston was a trapper who capsized here. Our rafts scoffed at the tiny waves.

Bad weather came in quickly. What did First Canyon have in store for us?

Storm clouds

Storm clouds


Next post: First Canyon and the end of our journey.