For thousands of years, the ancestors of the modern day Dene of the region lived and hunted in the Nahanni. Over time, three distinct regional bands of native people became established in the area. The Slavey people lived along the shores of the MacKenzie and Liard Rivers. The mountainous country to the west was home to two nomadic bands of natives, the Mountain Indians and a small group of Kaska Indians known to the Slavey as the ‘Nahaa’. These were the mysterious Indians referred to as the ‘Nahannis’ by the white fur traders who came into the country in the 1800’s. The South Nahanni River is named after this group.
Alexander McLeod, the Chief Trader at Fort of the Forks, a Hudsons Bay Company Post soon to be renamed Fort Simpson, was the first recorded European to venture into the land of the Nahaa in the year 1823. Others seeking furs and gold soon followed, Macabre incidents and traditional native lore intertwined to weave legends about the region. In 1908, the headless skeletons of the McLeod brothers were found along the river in what is today known as Deadmen Valley. Other skeletons and corpses followed and the Nahanni became fertile ground for lurid tales – a place where brave men and women feared to go.
It wasn’t until the late 1920s, when prospector Albert Faille and adventurer R.M. Patterson ventured up the river, that some of the myths were dispelled. Patterson’s book, Dangerous River, brought world-wide attention to the region. Although rumours of gold in the Nahanni still abound, it has never been found in any quantity.
The Nahanni River begins in the Selwyn Mountains. It flows through the mountains and gorges of the MacKenzie Mountains and ends in the wide valley flats near its mouth. Geographers describe the river as an antecedent river, meaning one whose direction of flow was established before the mountains rose. Before the mountains in this area were created, the Nahanni wandered across a wide plain. When the rock uplifts occurred, the river maintained its course by cutting through the rock strata. This resulted in the formation of canyons believed to be 1.4 million years old.
Unlike most of Canada, this area was not completely covered by ice during the last ice age. Because of this, parts of the Nahanni River Valley have not been affected by glaciation for at least 300,000 years. It is believed that the scouring and widening of the river valley was caused by advancing glaciers 2 million years ago.
This wilderness region contains rugged mountains and one of the deepest river canyon systems in the world. It also hosts one of the most remarkable karst limestone landscapes found anywhere. Caves, hot springs, tufa mounds, sand blowouts, spectacular plateaux, fossils and countless other geological phenomena are evident along the Nahanni valley.
Be prepared for a wide range of weather conditions. Summer weather may be hot and dry or it could snow, especially near the end of August. Inclement weather is a possibility at anytime but the weather is usually moderate. The average July temperature is 16°C. and during August is 14°C. Summer precipitation is mainly convective in nature, occurring mainly in the afternoons or evenings in the form of showers or thunderstorms. Our clothing list takes all these conditions into account.
The flora of the Nahanni River area may be more diverse than that of any other region of comparable size in the NWT. Although white and black spruce predominate, there is a fascinating variety of other vegetation in the region. This is primarily due to the existence of highly specialized habitats like hot springs, mist zones near waterfalls, unglaciated terrain and areas of discontinuous permafrost.
Moose, woodland caribou, wood buffalo, Dall sheep, mountain goat, grizzly and black bears frequent the South Nahanni River valley, as do porcupine, beaver and a number of smaller rodents. Because the river is often silty, fishing is not great. Dolly Varden, lake trout and grayling can be caught in the clearer waters of the many tributaries that join the river. One hundred and seventy species of birds have been recorded in the park including trumpeter swans, bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine and gyrfalcons.
Your guides will carry a small reference library that will include field reference books. Following are some books for winter reading
Nahanni – River of Gold… River of Dreams by Neil Hartling. This is available from our Northern Bestsellers List.
Nahanni – The River Guide by Peter Jowett. This is available from our Northern Bestsellers List.
Dangerous River by R.M. Patterson. This is available from our Northern Bestsellers List.
How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer. 10 Speed Press, PO Box 7123, Berkeley, CA 94707.
A Naturalist’s Guide to the Arctic by E.C. Pielou. This is available from our Northern Bestsellers List.
After the Ice Age – The Return of Life to Glaciated North America by E.C. Pielou. This is available from our Northern Bestsellers List.