South Nahanni River
Situated in the Nahanni National Park Reserve in Canada’s Northwest Territories, the South Nahanni River is the central feature of this 4,766 square kilometre wilderness area, set aside by Environment Canada-Parks in 1972. In addition to its dramatic setting among the Mackenzie Mountains, the South Nahanni River displays many nationally significant natural features to those who visit it. These include Virginia Falls, spectacular canyons, hot springs, geological formations which escaped glaciation, and many wildlife species that are threatened with extinction elsewhere.
Accessible only by boat or aircraft, the South Nahanni provides a wilderness river experience which is unique in Canada, in a setting of world-class, natural beauty. In 1978, Nahanni National Park Reserve was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites recognizing the river’s valley as an exceptional natural area forming part of the heritage of mankind.
In recognition of its valuable natural and recreational resources, the Canadian Heritage Rivers Board, in January 1987, formally designated the section of the South Nahanni River within Nahanni National Park Reserve as a Canadian Heritage River.
The South Nahanni originates outside the park reserve in the icefields of the Selwyn Mountains, just east of the Yukon-Northwest Territories boundary. From here, it flows 540 km southeastward, cutting through the Mackenzie Mountains and across the park reserve to empty into the Liard River, a major tributary of the Mackenzie. The section of the South Nahanni River designated as a Canadian Heritage River is 300 km long. It is approximately 1,400 kilometres northwest of Edmonton and 600 kilometres west of Yellowknife.
Within the reserve, the South Nahanni drops 475 metres from an altitude of 825 metres down to 350 metres above sea level. Although the overall drop in elevation along the river is considerable, 90 metres of it are accounted for by the perpendicular drop at Virginia Falls. The rest of the river course has a relatively easily paddled gradient of 1.2 metres/kilometre. The width of the South Nahanni also varies considerably from a few metres at canyon entrances such as “The Gate”, a narrow gap flanked by a vertical wall 460 metres high, to several kilometres across at “The Splits”. The volume of water flowing through the South Nahanni varies from 55 to 1,500 cubic metres per second making the river a relatively significant contributor to the Mackenzie River system.
The South Nahanni has many outstanding natural heritage features. Travelling downstream the visitor will encounter:
Located at various points along the river are:
The original inhabitants of this area are ethnologically ‘Goat’ or ‘Mountain’ and ‘Kaska’ peoples known historically as “Nahannis”, or “People over there far away”. It is an apt description of the nomadic Slavey Indians who were found inhabiting the area when the Northwest and Hudson’s Bay fur- trading companies established their trading posts along the Mackenzie River in the early 1800’s. The lure of placer gold brought itinerant prospectors with names like Patterson, Faille, McLeod and Sibbeston to the area between 1900 and 1940. Several died under dubious circumstances giving rise to myths and legends surrounding Nahanni. Their names are commemorated in the names of peaks and tributaries along the river.
The South Nahanni provides a number of outstanding recreational opportunities in this wilderness area of great scenic beauty.
River Touring: Wild river touring by canoe, kayak or raft is by far the most important recreational activity in Nahanni, Canada’s premier wild river national park. Between rapids, lengthy flat water provides for many unique viewing and photographic opportunities.
The South Nahanni offers a number of river trips for visitors ranging from those totally inexperienced, accompanied by guides and outfitters, to skilled white-water enthusiasts. The best of these include:
The suitability of the South Nahanni for navigation changes with seasonal variations in water flow. It is generally recommended from early July to late August. Caution is advised during violent summer storms which can cause sudden flooding of campsites, powerful currents, and high standing waves, making rapids too difficult to run. Changes in weather and water levels may also affect air access, travel times, and clothing requirements. Visitors should be flexible in their plans and are strongly advised to contact park officials for information and park regulations in effect before setting out.
Fishing:Fishing is a popular activity along the river with catches of Arctic grayling and Dolly Varden. Lake trout and northern pike can be caught on upstream tributaries. A national park fishing permit is required.
Hiking: There are no developed hiking trails, as yet, in the park reserve, but the river does provide access to several routes which are used by hikers. These include an 8 kilometre hike up Sunblood Mountain; a 4 kilometre hike to Marengo Falls from Virginia Falls; a hike through the Nahanni Karst area near Lafferty Creek and the Hole-in-the-Wall; and a short, guided hike to Rabbitkettle Hotsprings.
Camping: Primitive campsites are situated at Rabbitkettle Lake, Virginia Falls, the Rabbitkettle portage (to be developed), and at Kraus Hotsprings. Visitors are encouraged to camp on alluvial fans and beaches at the mouths of tributaries and on sand-bar islands: the practice of no-trace camping techniques is also strongly recommended. The Blackstone Territorial Park on the Liard Highway, a one-day’s paddle downstream of “the Splits”, provides developed camping facilities for those concluding a trip here.
Access: The South Nahanni River is inaccessible by road. The nearest highway is the 392 kilometre Liard between Fort Simpson on the MacKenzie River and Fort Nelson, B.C., which passes within 64 kilometres of the park reserve. Aircraft charter is the most popular and practical means of reaching and leaving the South Nahanni River. Aircraft landing is possible at Rabbitkettle Lake and at Virginia Falls. Outside the park, air charters to the Moose Ponds and the Little Nahanni River provide challenging 5 to 6 day trips for skilled outdoor adventurers wishing to explore South Nahanni headwaters.
Accommodation and Services: No commercial accommodation is available within Nahanni National Park Reserve. Visitors can enjoy the exhibits and slide programs at the park administration centre in Fort Simpson and at Blackstone Territorial Park. A river guidebook for the South Nahanni has been prepared to help in pre-trip planning.
Rafting and canoeing are the favoured means of travel for the 800-900 visitors to the South Nahanni River each year. These trips are usually organized using private air charters which are generally arranged in advance through licensed outfitters and guides in the communities of Watson Lake, Yukon (200 air kilometres from the river’s upper reaches), Fort Nelson (400 km), and Fort Simpson (280 km). Air charters from Yellowknife, Hay River and Blackstone Territorial Park may also be arranged. Scheduled commercial airlines serve Fort Simpson, Watson Lake, Yellowknife and Fort Nelson. Packaged tours for day trips to Virginia Falls are also offered for those who do not want an extended river trip. For more information on this area, visit http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/nt/nahanni/index_e.asp and www.nwttravel.nt.ca
Topographic Maps: Topographic maps for the South Nahanni are available from the Canada Map Office, 615 Booth Street, Ottawa, Ontario, K1A 0E9, Tel: (613) 952–7000, (http://maps.NRCan.gc.ca): 1:250,000 series: 95 L (Glacier Lake), 95 E (Flat River), 95 F (Virginia Falls) and 95 G (Sibbeston Lake). Maps for the Moose Ponds (105 I, 95 L, 105 J, 105 O and 105 P), Little Nahanni (105 I, 95 L, 105 H) and Nahanni Butte – Fort Simpson (95 H) are also available. 1:50,000 scale maps are available for most of the park area but are not required for an average canoeing or hiking trip.
“Ten year Monitoring Report for the South Nahanni River”, available from the parks Canada Board member (see “Contact Us”)
South Nahanni River and Nahanni National Park Reserve – Services, Permits and Regulations: Before making plans to travel on the South Nahanni, it is essential that you write to: Superintendent, Nahanni National Park Reserve, P.O. Box 348, Fort Simpson NT, X0E 0N0, Tel.: (867) 695–3151, (http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/nt/nahanni/index_e.asp)
Tourist Information: Superintendent, Nahanni National Park Reserve at the address indicated above, or www.nwttourism.nt.ca
Canadian Heritage Rivers System: National Manager, Canadian Heritage Rivers System, c/o Parks Canada, Ottawa, Canada K1A 0M5. Tel. (819) 994–2913, Fax (819) 997–0835. E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chadwick, D. H. “Nahanni: Canada’s Wilderness Park”. National Geographic. Volume 150, No.3, September, 1981.
Harding, L. “A Canoeist’s Exploration of Nahanni Park”, Canadian Geographics. Volume 100, No.3, June/July, 1980.
Joweet, Peter. “Nahanni, the River Guide” Rocky Mountain Books, Calgary, 1993, Revised 1998
Keogh, Pat and Rosemarie. “The Nahanni Portfolio” Stoddart/Nahanni Don Mills ON. 1988
Joanne, Ronan Moore, “Nahanni Trailhead”, Hancock House Publishing, Surrey, BC, revised 2000
Patterson, R. M. “Dangerous River”. Grey Publishing Co. Sidney, BC revised 1980.
Turner, D. “Nahanni”. Hancock House Publishing, Surrey, BC 1975.
Hartling, Neil, Nahanni: River of Gold... River of Dreams, Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association (March, 1999)
Jowett, Peter, Nahanni : The River Guide (rev. ed.) Rocky Mountain Books, 2001