Imagine the Nahanni River

By Willa Mason, Guide and Instructor

Photo of a campsite along the Nahanni River on a Black Feather trip
Photo: Willa Mason

I hear the rustle of an early-rising camper. I open my eyes, take a second to orient myself. It’s a familiar sight inside my little tent – my sleeping bag feels like a comforting home now. I glance at my watch, then say goodbye to my comfy, quiet haven with the distinctive zippppp of a tent door.

I’m struck by the unfamiliar sight waiting just outside my door. Slowly, I remember. I remember last night: staring at the mountains, entranced by the midnight sun dancing across the pristine alpine water, skipping from mountain to mountain. Now, the sun is already high in the northern sky, creeping down into the valley and winding its way around the river bends.

Located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the Nahanni River, or Nah?ą Dehé is many people’s bucket list trip, and for good reason. The diverse wilderness, timeless adventure, and unique history make it an unparalleled river trip.


As I squint into the early morning sun, which has already been up for hours, I see sparkling mist floating ominously over flat, slow-moving water. As my mind gradually wakes up, I begin to register a thundering roar, the second clue that the river does not, indeed, remain flat. Just downstream, the river funnels through Sluice Box rapids, dropping 96m over Nái̧li̧cho (Virginia Falls). If I stand perfectly still, I can feel the vibration of the chundering water underneath my feet. 500 metres away from the horizon line, and the river already overwhelms my senses.

It’s hard to comprehend the grandeur of this space. It’s day four of our river trip, and the crick in my neck attests to the impressive mountain ranges that have framed our entire trip so far. Every single riverbend greets us with a scene that belongs on a postcard. Every bend immerses us in a scene that fuels artists across Canada.

In 2009, Nahanni National Park Reserve expanded from 4,766km2 to include 30, 000km2, now covering the South Nahanni River, the granite spires of the Cirque of the Unclimbables, the smelly waters of natural hot springs, impressive skyscrapers of Karst formations, and an extensive limestone cave network. A tropical ocean between 550 and 200 million years ago provided the habitat for sandstone, and later, limestone to form. Over the past two to eight million years, continental erosion shaped Nahanni National Park Reserve into the swath of wilderness that it is today.

Photo: Willa Mason

Looking upstream, the river flows from around a bend. Its winding path is faintly highlighted by the dip of the trees at the bottom of the river valley, and I find my eyes tracing the river bed as it zigs and zags for miles. An antecedent river, Nah?ą Dehé was born as a prairie river, slow and meandering. At a rate of 0.5 mm per 1,000 years, the mountains slowly rose around the river. This happened so gradually that the river maintained its course, while picking up gradient. As a result, we get to coast down a fast-flowing but winding river.

As river travellers moving with the current, we get to become a small part of a system so timeless that it has been flowing through this wilderness since before the mountains existed. Caribou, mountain goats, dall sheep, deer, and bears give us the sense that this vast wilderness is not solely ours to enjoy. While small fractions of Nahanni National Park Reserve have been adapted for river travel, and a portion of land is exempt from the park for mining purposes, the vast majority of it remains untouched. Surely, it’s the immensity of this wilderness that makes the Nahanni my favourite river.

The River That Never Fails

Time to move. Tent down, fire started. Hot water on. Breakfast on the way. Wake-up call: coffee, tea, hot chocolate for all, to soften the chill in the air. Full bellies and smiles all-around, it’s time to pack up. Boats are loaded, we push off, and once again we instantly become a tiny component of the powerful Nah?ą Dehé system. We round the first riverbend, and blinding sun bounces off the most famous whitewater of the South Nahanni. The renowned fourth canyon awaits us. “Left! Right! Hold on!”, we weave our way between towering waves and intimidating whirlpools. I quickly glimpse over my shoulder and see the paddlers pulling hard, faces contorted in grimaces that come from working hard through 4km of continuous whitewater. I feel the current start to slow beneath me, and I spot our target landing zone coming up at the bottom of the rapid. The hardest part is now under our belts. “Look up!” I call. The grimaces disappear, quickly replaced with awestruck gaping mouths. Just like that, this group has experienced the quintessential Nahanni experience: whitewater so fun you need a reminder to look at the famous landmarks towering overhead. From mountains to whitewater, snow to sunburns, rapids to flatwater, the Nahanni never fails to deliver an unforgettable experience.

Photo: Willa Mason

This one is my sixth trip down the Nahanni. Every single time down, even for a raft guide on trip #50, has something to teach everyone. Each trip never fails to be different. Yet it consistently delivers the fantastic weather, scenery, whitewater, and memorable moments that make it so many people’s dream river trip. Nah?ą Dehé brings first-time river travellers and seasoned guides alike to tears. As I ponder my aching muscles, I think to myself that Nah?ą Dehé’s unwavering ability to provide a moving experience must be what makes it my favourite river. It never fails to fully immerse paddlers in a timeless wilderness experience.

Story of Many Chapters

The jubilant hoots and hollers that are characteristic of a successful descent of a famous rapid, Lafferty’s Riffle, have hardly subsided when the faint smell of Sulfur reaches my nose. Our boisterous group slowly quiets, recognizing that their whitewater milestone is about to be followed by an equally memorable experience. Gradually, I usher the group towards the right hand side of the river, landing at Tułetsȩȩ. Commonly named Kraus Hotsprings, we push aside the surface layer of algae and immerse ourselves in a heavenly shallow pool of warmth. Any cold toes, muddy feet, or stinky paddling gear is quickly forgotten.

I notice a cool wind blowing the hair out of my face, and acknowledge that a head wind is picking up, just in time for the final push of our river trip. My mind drifts to all the people before me who would have had the same thought. River trippers, including Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, outdoor ed students, adrenaline junkies, rock climbers, environmentalists, my own grandparents, photographers, and sight-seekers. The Kraus family, who built a small homestead at this very location. Prospectors, who travelled up and down (yes – upriver!) in search of the infamous Mackenzie Mountain gold. Names like Deadmen Valley and Headless Creek never let me forget the unfortunate fate faced by many of them. The Dené Peoples lived on this land long before any of those famous characters. Their stories are just beginning to be heard, and I feel minute amongst the history contained in this very spot. Every time I travel down this river, I read a new book. And I’ve hardly made a dent. I’m grateful for those who take the time to speak or to write their stories. I have so much to learn.

The wilderness, history, and the way in which the river impacts every single individual, makes the Nahanni my absolute favourite river. It’s earned its place on bucket lists across the world.

Downstream, we make our home for the night, and dinner is done. Tomorrow, we will make our way to Tthenáágó, known as the village of Nahanni Butte. For now, tales of the day and campfire smoke drift into the sky, as chatter and laughter waft out of our blue-barrel-and-log dining room. Dishes and kitchen cleanup are done, then goodnights are said. I crawl into my little haven of a tent, into the familiar feeling of the sleeping bag that kept me warm last night, the night before that and the one before that. I feel tired, sore, satisfied and grateful. I feel like I could sleep forever, but the anticipation of tomorrow sends me into dreamland with a smile.

Experience the Nahanni River

Learn more about Boreal Adventures rafting trips on the Nahanni.