There wasn’t time for pre-wedding jitters. Paddling the Little Nahanni is a fierce challenge even when water levels are low, and in the summer of 2017 the river was flooded. Mira Freiman and her fiancé hadn’t had much of a conversation with each other in a week other than directions to keep the boat steady. It was all “Left” and “Right.” Their wedding ceremony was days away, but far from their minds.
“There wasn’t much thinking about what was happening after,” says Freiman.
The bride-to-be and her future husband were in the middle of a three-week wilderness crusade that climaxed just before Canada Day with a summer destination wedding at Nailicho (Virginia Falls) inside Nahanni National Park. The two experienced adventure guides began their nuptial journey in ankle-deep water in Flat Lakes, and ended it tying the knot at a waterfall twice as high as Niagara.
“It’s just a spectacular place,” says Mark Loewenberger, the groom. “The mist is filling the air, there are orchids—wild orchids! The romance saturates the place.”
Freiman and Loewenberger live just outside of Whitehorse, but the water is really where they feel at home. It’s where their relationship began, 15 years ago, as teenage paddling guides. So what better wedding venue than paddling the Nahanni? And like many—but not all—of the other couples who’ve trekked into the backcountry for their big day, Freiman and Loewenberger came prepared. In the North, destination weddings are a wild picked bouquet of logistics, adventure, and romance.
“Mark and I have been planning canoe trips for a very long time and have no experience planning weddings, so this was probably less stressful for us,” Freiman says.
“It’s an enormous amount of work, but work that we were sort of used to,” adds Loewenberger.
First on the checklist was booking the venue. The couple consulted with the Dehcho First Nations for months in advance of the big day to ensure they were honouring this important natural site.
“We had to convince them it was respectful and that we would not leave a huge impact or make it a raging party,” says Freiman.
“I had a whole proposal,” adds Loewenberger. “It was 12 pages—a safety plan, the logistics, and how we were going to have the right personnel to make it safe. The other half was why that place is special to us, and why the North is special.”
The Dehcho representatives were kind and generous hearing the plans, says Freiman. Once the couple had that assent, only then would Parks Canada give its blessing.
Compared to planning a wilderness trip through the North, planning a wedding is, and forgive the expression, a walk in the park. But not this park. One of the natural wonders of Canada, the Nahanni is a crown jewel of the North. Great care is taken by its guardians to ensure the hundreds who visit every year don’t disturb these lands. So hosting a wedding and reception in the heart of all this wilderness poses some unique obstacles.
The Dehcho First Nations, for instance, requested Freiman’s bouquet be thrown into the river when the ceremony was complete.
“But you’re not allowed to bring invasive species or pick flowers in a national park,” she says.
Thankfully, Parks Canada’s representatives offered to pick some wildflowers from the area on her behalf.
In total, 28 guests were on hand that late-June day, with some arriving by air and some by water. Several of the couple’s friends paddled with them into the Nahanni, including their officiant.
“No matter what, we had the most important part with us,” says Freiman. “We were going to get married, no matter what.”
Back-up plans were almost needed after an odyssey of a flooded Little Nahanni ate up all of the couple's buffer days. Freiman and Loewenberger arrived at the river’s confluence with the South Nahanni with over 200 kilometres left to cover in just two days if they wanted to make it to their impromptu church on time.
“Oh my, we’ve got a lot to make up for,” Freiman remembers thinking. “It’s time to go to bed without dinner. Just sleep and paddle.”
Then, the waters slowed. The intensity of the Little Nahanni eased into the calm of the wider, gentler South Nahanni. The mood relaxed. Under the summer sun, a young wolf—jet black—emerged from the woods and watched the happy couple float by.
It was the only wildlife they’d spotted so far that trip. The wolf seemed to signal a turning of the page, both in their paddling and in their lives together.
With a final 50 kilometres to go on the South Nahanni, Freiman and Loewenberger separated from their guests to journey on ahead and get ready for the big day. They paddled into the night, staying on the water until 1:30 am in order to meet the first plane full of guests in the morning.
Everything from Freiman’s wedding dress to her family were brought in on the day by planes organized by Northern Rockies Lodge and Liard Tours. Food was stored in Parks Canada’s caches, which “helped us a lot,” says Freiman—not only by allowing the ceremony to have more supplies on hand, but also in keeping away any crashers. No one likes uninvited guests at their wedding, especially when those guests are bears.
It's why for every wedding Joe Connolly heads out to in the wilds of Alaska he makes sure to carry his .44 caliber handgun.
“Which is not very Canadian, of course,” he says. “But here in America, we carry handguns.”
A photographer with Chugach Peaks Photography in Anchorage, Connolly has also become something of an unofficial wedding planner. Since 2006 he’s helped organize and shoot (with a camera) “800 to 900” destination weddings in the wild.
The weapon, it should be said, is as much for the comfort of the newlyweds (who like to have protection) as it is for fending off wildlife. Call it a backcountry spin on a shotgun wedding. Connolly says he’s brought his sidearm along on nearly every wedding he's photographed and never had reason to use it—save the one time he left it at home.
“It was the one time a bear ran at us.” There he was with an Alaskan couple on top of what he's now labelled in his GPS as “Bear Chase Ridge.” The location was only a short helicopter ride away from the ceremony proper and—foolishly, it turns out—Connolly didn’t think he needed his gun. But that was before a black bear decided to object to the nuptials and charged at the party.
The groom, himself an experienced outdoorsman, and Connolly immediately put themselves between bride and bear.
“We locked arms and got really big and started stomping and yelling,” he says. “Within 10 seconds of that, the bear was like, ‘I don’t know what you guys are doing but I’m getting the hell out of here.’”
The photoshoot resumed and soon after the couple were escorted back by Connolly to their waiting friends and family, arriving by helicopter with a truly wild wedding day story.
Those seeking a destination wedding in the North aren’t always rugged wilderness lovers, however. Connolly says couples come from all over—Germany, Estonia, Australia, the United Kingdom—and many have little-to-no experience in the backcountry. He blames Instagram for ruining the “traditional” destination wedding aesthetic.
“Everybody knows the beach option,” he says. “That’s kind of the low-hanging fruit in something different you can do.”
But on top of a glacier? That photo’s worth braving the elements. Of course, some “soft” travellers do end up regretting the decision, due mostly to their own unpreparedness.
“I always tell people, just remember, you’re standing on 1,000 metres of ice,” Connolly says. “It’s going to be cold. Bring warm clothes.”
Most of the challenges with a wedding in the backcountry come from the geography. Darren Roberts, an Albertan photographer who specializes in helicopter and hike-in elopements, has shot brides and grooms from Banff up to Tombstone Territorial Park in the Yukon. To get the right light, he says, often means starting the day hiking in the dark in order to arrive on location, get hair and makeup done, and start shooting while the sun shines.
“But most of the couples that I do this for have experience hiking,” says Roberts. “So, for them, they see it as an opportunity to get married in a place they want to check off their bucket list.”
The ceremonies themselves are usually small—only close friends and family. Some will host a big reception, but save their ring and vows for the bush. Occasionally, it’s just Roberts, his assistant and the wildlife acting as witnesses. In such an environment, even the best wedding plans can go awry.
“I let couples know to try not to plan a perfect day,” he says. “Whether it’s a sunny day or it rains, it’s all just part of their story. Whatever happens, that’s your day.”
Case in point, it rained dramatically both before and after Freiman’s ceremony. The bride had to wait it out until the clouds let up just long enough to walk down her two-kilometre “aisle” of mud and rock from the Parks Canada boardwalk to the falls. It was beautiful, but perhaps not the best terrain to be wearing high heels.
“They were definitely finished by the end of that day,” says Freiman.
As for the guests, everyone in attendance was encouraged to have weather-and bug-appropriate dress. The bride and groom were also able to spruce themselves up a bit after a week-and-a-half of paddling.
“I washed my hair,” says Freiman. “I was burned, so it might look like I’m wearing blush or something. There wasn’t really makeup. But we did all wash.”
Then came the party. Music, dancing and lots of food. Chef Daniel Schildknecht of Liard Tours and Northern Rockies Lodge cooked up a menu using locally-foraged ingredients, including smoked salmon with whipped herb cream cheese, radish salad, spruce tip baklava, a wild herb sorbet and truffles with caramelized white chocolate and birch syrup filling.
Once the plates were cleaned and the dancing was done, it was time to say goodbye to those family members who preferred a real bed to sleeping out in the wild.
“Some of my family came all the way from Israel, so they’re not used to the Canadian North,” says Freiman.
A smaller group of guests stayed on for a post-wedding camping trip, followed by another paddling cruise floating down to Nahanni Butte. Finally, the newlyweds met up with a pre-arranged shuttle that took them back to their car in Tungsten.
When it was all said and done, the cost for this one-of-a-kind destination wedding wasn’t “nearly as much as a normal wedding would be,” says Loewenberger. It helped, considerably, that guests bought their own plane tickets. The couple only had to cover cargo costs and food.
“It would have cost us far more to have it in Ontario,” says Freiman.
A wild wedding like this isn’t for everyone, but it meant something special for Freiman and Loewenberger. The paddle trip harkened back to their teenage years as river guides.
Their relationship has always been tied to the water. Loewenberger even proposed on the Heart River. It also helped having different degrees of involvement for their visiting guests. Friends and family could choose a level of wedding participation that wasn’t too challenging, but not too comfortable, either.
“I felt like a real pain in the butt asking people to do that for us,” Freiman says. “But it sounds like they actually got something from it beyond what I thought we were going to get from it... I think everybody pushed themselves a little bit out of their comfort zones.”
Everyone walked, flew, and paddled away from Nailicho with memories to last a lifetime, having taken part in Freiman and Loewenberger’s love for the North, and for each other. After all that, where do you go for a honeymoon?
“We paddled the Mountain River.” Naturally.