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River of Dreams

River of Dreams

The experience is beautiful. Sometimes it's crazy. But as river guide Neil Hartling writes, the Nahanni can change your life forever.
By Neil Hartling
May 09
From the May/June 2003 Issue

I was below Second Canyon in Deadmen Valley when I ran into Father Peter Mary, OMI. A humble man, he was the stuff of legends. He had been in the Nahanni region since 1955 and had come with a desire to serve humanity born of his experiences in the French Underground during the Second World War. For many years, Father Mary depended on riverboats and dogteams to visit his parishioners, who lived out on the traplines and in the small settlements. He was fluent in Slavey and, although the facial injuries he incurred many years ago tormented him in winter, he was undaunted in serving his people.

Our meeting was accidental. Father Mary, a respected expert on the ways of the South Nahanni River, was leading a group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police up the river. I was travelling with a group of friends on my first trip down the river—an experience, I was beginning to understand, that would shape my life for years to come. Our two groups happened to make camp at the valley in close proximity to each other. One thing led to another and we ended up sharing a campfire. That night, over the flames and crackle of burning driftwood, I queried Father Mary on his feelings about the Nahanni and his life on the land. He looked me directly in the eye, the glint of firelight revealing the sincerity in his gaze. "It's not the beauty alone," he said, his accent a mix of Parisian French and Slavey, "it's what happens to the heart and soul." His words were simple, but something clicked.

When I was at the tender and restless age of 15, a family friend gave me a copy of Dick Turner's book, Nahanni. I hung on every word as Turner recounted the tales of Canada's deepest canyons, Virginia Falls, the exceptional geological features, the hotsprings, the wildlife and the macabre events. I dreamed that I might see these things for myself one day. And now it had come to pass. With its exhilarating rapids and meandering reaches, its myth and romance, the Nahanni had worked its magic on me. It had seeped into my veins. That night, after the stories were finished and I was alone by the fire, a strong and warm chinook wind began to blow in from the west. The twilit sky showed the tell-tale lenticular cloud, the chinook arc, giving the illusion of a dome over the mountains to the west. I couldn't sleep. Surveying the beauty of Deadmen Valley from our camp, I reflected on Nahanni pioneer R.M. Patterson's long-ago words about his own nearby camp. "We were kings, lords of all we surveyed." The wheels rolled in my mind and visions of possibilities filled my head.

* * * *

Nahanni never fails to exceed expectations. It's difficult to describe the river without stooping to strings of superlatives. The sights and experiences were not lost on me during this first trip, nor was the serenity of such a beautiful and unspoiled environment. But the trip was an adventure worthy of the river's reputation.

I had come here at the invitation of Rick Driediger, a friend from northern Saskatchewan, and four others. To prepare, I read R.M. Patterson's The Dangerous River. "Men vanish in that country," Patterson wrote. "There were some prospectors murdered in there not so long ago and down the river they say it is damned good country to keep clear of..." I didn't swallow Patterson's description and wrote off his ominous title as a ploy to sell books. We began our trip at Rabbitkettle Lake and I was spellbound by the scenery as we made our way towards Virginia Falls, the centrepiece of the park and the point where its famous system of canyons begin. Patterson's words dropped off my mental radar. When we reached Virginia Falls we laid over for a few days to absorb the magnificence and take in some of the side attractions. As it turned out, we were not the only people who'd settled in to enjoy the view. Before long, we were joined by four husky young fellow from a big city in the United States. They claimed to be following in the footsteps of their "Grampy." Grampy, apparently, had left the Nahanni with $32,000 in gold back in 1952. The young men—who we decided to call the "prospectors"—were determined to follow in Grampy's footsteps.

When we first met the prospectors, they were anxious to fill us in on their plans. They told us they had never paddled canoes before. But that was okay, they said. They planned to prospect at the falls for four months and head south when the water level subsided. "At that time, a guy can scoop up the nugget lying in front of the rocks," one of them said. They didn't seem to be aware of the legalities of their plan. For all their enthusiasm, it wasn't long before we began to have doubts about the outlook for prospectors' trip. That night, we heard great rumblings from their camp. When we saw them the next morning, they were sporting black eyes and cut foreheads and looking as though they had survived a fight with fists and axes. By the time we left the falls, we had decided that if they didn't finish each other off, the river surely would. We never expected to lay eyes on them again. Surprisingly, we met them again some days later. But by this time they were on the lam, racing away to escape the swift justice of park officials. Unbeknownst to us, the prospectors had had their fill of the North within a few days and had begun to bungle their way down the Fourth Canyon, the portion of the South Nahanni below Virginia Falls. Two of them got dumped when they negotiated the tricky stretch and their companions just laughed. They cruised by and left their soaking friends to rescue themselves. The group reunited and camped that night at the Big Bend. A beautiful location with steep canyon walls, it was also the choice site for six members of the Canadian Armed Forces out on adventure training. The soldiers were strapping examples of all that is good and patriotic. In short, they were the antithesis of the prospectors and the two parties kept a respectful distance. All was well until about 2 a.m., when one of the prospectors, drunk, decided to see how well rifle shots would echo in the canyons of Big Bend. The soldiers decided they weren't sticking around for anything like that. They quickly moved their camp to a new position, which they camouflaged. The move, by all accounts, was accomplished in seconds. The prospectors beat a hasty retreat downriver when they raised their groggy heads in the morning, fearing the soldiers might have radioed the park wardens about the night before. They were correct in their assumptions.

* * * *

In the meantime, our group had reached Deadmen Valley. The Kraus Hotsprings are one of the main riverside attractions in the valley and we made camp there above the beach, where you'll find the main springs. While two members of the group disappeared into the lush bush in search of more springs, the rest of us settled in for a good soak in the relaxing water. We had reclined in the luxurious pools when we spotted two familiar canoes rounding the distant bend. It was the prospectors. They pulled up and were naturally anxious to bend our ears with stories about how they had spent the day eluding the law. They were bragging before they got out of their canoes. Their strategy, they explained, had been to "pull off the river and hightail it for the bush" whenever they heard the approaching jetboat of the wardens. The four soon retired to the clearing above the river bank to rest before unloading their canoes. They were nervous and exhausted after their river game of cat and mouse. We didn't help by telling them the legend of the head-hunting savages of Deadmen Valley, which I believe they took for gospel. While all this was taking place, our two friends who'd gone looking for other springs had made a discovery in the depths of one of the hottest pools—black, gooey mud that stuck nicely to the skin. They decided it would be fun to smear themselves with mud, arm themselves with spears and surprise the rest of us on the beach. They hadn't know the prospectors had also arrived, and they came charging out of the bush into the midst of the prospectors' cam. Our savages mistook the prospectors' looks of fear for jest and they began to ham it up by giving chase. The prospectors fled for their lives yelling, "Get the gun! Get the gun!" From the beach, we were startled by the commotion. We were certain a grizzly was after the prospectors and feared it had already mauled our friends back in the bush. Just then, four blurred figures flashed towards the prospectors' canoes, still yelling, "Get the gun!" They tore the spray decks off their boats and began searching frantically. Our spear-wielding friends appeared a split second later, looking blacker than our cooking pots. We burst out laughing. The prospectors, now confused, stopped looking for their precious rifle. Then they began to laugh, nervously. It dawned on all of us that our savage friends, had come within seconds of being shot. Shortly, however, the hilarity of the situation returned and the prospectors retreated to their camp, one still holding his chest from all the excitement. Then, like the cavalry appearing over the hills in a movie, the wardens and their jetboat appeared from around the bend. The jig was up for the prospectors. After a confrontation and some discussion, the wardens politely relieved them of their rifle. We didn't see the prospectors leave the next morning, but I imagine they did it quickly. Apparently, they showed up at Nahanni Butte at 11 p.m. that night, demanding their rifle. They made good time for beginners.

* * * *

If the story of the prospectors lent unexpected excitement to my first trip down the Nahanni, it would be wrong to let it overshadow the whole Nahanni experience. It was here in Deadmen Valley that I also met Father Mary and came away feeling deep thoughts and the beginning of inspiration. I left my chance meeting with Father Mary knowing that my future lay in this place. I just wasn't sure how.

While floating through the majestic depths of the First Canyon and navigating the braided channels of The Splits as we neared the end of the journey, I contemplated the possibilities of becoming an outfitter and a guide here in the Nahanni. Unfortunately, the hurdles would be many, not the least of which would be the politics of licensing. But youth was on my side. Unattached and without dependentst, I was free to chase a dream born not of business sense, but of romance. And the river—where you must expect the unexpected—would soon toss up a very special surprise. When I left Nahanni after my first trip, I vowed to return—soon.

The wardens had told me that only one canoe outfitter was allowed to operate on the river. That policy may as well have been carved in granite. Wally Scahber, who later became a good friend, had been running trips since the mid-seventies. I was already running a canoe outfitting business in the Alberta Rockies, but I couldn't sit easy with the knowledge that a monopoly existed for canoe outfitting on the Nahanni. I was determined to acquire an outfitting licence. I didn't realize at the time, but the Government of the Northwest Territories was besieged by hundreds of requests for outfitting licences each year and had become adept at turning them away. I began with inquiries to obvious departments and was given the runaround a number of times. Eventually, I was given the prescribed set of hoops through which to jump. They were designed to be almost impossible.

Besides the bureaucratic prerequisites, I had to obtain the permission of the people in Nahanni Butte. With a population of 80, this community was understandably not known for its responsiveness to outsiders with proposals. The bureaucrats would have stumped me if it hadn't been for a trump card I didn't even know I held at the time.

In September of that year, a group of my friends were keen on a rip to the North and we went to the Nahanni River. We parked our van at Blackstone Landing on the Liard Highway, a convenient exit point on the Liard River for paddlers who have come down the Nahanni. I was answering nature's call in the bush. It was early on a frosty morning and from out on the river I heard shouts for help. Rushing to the bank, I saw an aluminum boat floating with the current in the middle of a voluminous flow. Aboard were a man, a woman, a little girl and a new refrigerator. The man was the new teacher in Nahanni Butte. He was bringing his family and winter supplies to his new posting. I couldn't see paddles or oars. I couldn't make out the exact cause of their distress, but it was clear they were frightened of the Beaver Dam Rapids that lay downstream. Their motor appear inoperative. I quickly searched the campsite where I planned to leave the van and found a couple camped in a tent. I woke them in a hurry. The husband followed me and we grabbed a canoe and paddled out to the boat. Tying our painter to their boat, we began the task of paddling them towards shore. The process seemed to take forever. Finally, and fortunately, we landed two kilometres downstream and within striking distance of the homestead of Edwin and Sue Lindberg. The family had run out of gas the day before on their way to their home in Nahanni Butte, about 25 kilometres upriver, and they had drifted through the night. They were all hypothermic, especially the man, who had jumped out of the boat in a vain attempt to ground it on a sandbar. Sue Lindberg soon had the family secure and recovering in her cosy log home. My fellow rescuer and I were treated to a welcome feed of pancakes before returning to our respective endeavours. As I was leaving the cabin, the father shook my hand and said, "Any time I can help, let me know." "Thanks," I replied, but my mind was already on my upcoming Nahanni adventure and I doubted we would ever cross paths again.

At Christmas, I phoned Father Mary to wish him the best of the season. And I asked him about the family I helped save. He told me they were fine and it dawned on me at that moment that they could be my emissaries in Nahanni Butte. A radio-telephone call to the community on a winter's night set the stage. My friend told me that if I came to Nahanni Butte he would be my ambassador. No promises, but he would do what he could to help. Whatever he did, it worked. My friend from the river introduced me to various members of the community. They agreed to provide the vital endorsement for my application, provided I made sure there was benefit to the community when possible.

* * * *

It's been 20 years since my first trip down the Nahanni and I've come to know that the river leaves an indelible mark on all those who taste its waters. I've kept in touch with most of the people I've hosted through my outfitting business and they consistently claim that Nahanni occupies a particularly fond spot in their life's memories. It is a touchstone, something reminiscent of a time and place when their spirits soared most freely. I've had the good fortune to be a part of this. I can happily report that I, too, have found gold in the Nahanni. Not the shiny metallic sort, but the kind that lets me review, without regret, two decades spent sharing the valleys and canyons of this enchanted land with my fellow river travellers. These years have been rich. My only regret is that I am unable to take part in all the trips offered by my company. For me, Raymond Patterson probably said it best in The Dangerous River. "We had been allowed to live for a little time in a world apart, a lonely world of surpassing beauty, that has given us all things from somber magnificence of the canyons to the gay sunshine of those windswept uplands; from the quiet of the dry side canyons to the uproar of the broken waters—a land where men pass and the silence falls back into place behind them."