I walk toward the tumultuous roar of the falls. Sergei Mjatelski, pilot for Simpson Air and my only partner for most of the trip, had pointed out the boardwalk’s white line zigzagging through the trees as we flew over it just minutes ago. He explains the walkway offers an easier way for paddlers to portage past Náįlįcho, also known as Virginia Falls.
“They call that the Last Chance Harbour,” Mjatelski says, pointing to a shoulder in the river, where people can pull up their boats to the rocky shore above the falls. As we walk further along, he points to a similar spot, only this one is much closer to the water’s descent. “This is really your last chance to get out.”
I look over to see the rush of water gushing past the massive limestone pillar dividing the waterfall into two. I inch closer to the edge of the cliff to take a photo and that’s when I feel my stomach flip. At 92-metres tall, Náįlįcho is twice the height of Niagara Falls. The massive rocky walls around it are taller than the CN Tower. Looking down at that descent is a little unnerving.
Still, on a sunny and cloudless September day, I feel grateful to be here. The roar of water reverberates around me and I can hardly wrap my senses around what I am seeing. All I want is to try and let this unfathomable scene sink in. And while feeling small is not an unusual notion for me, given I’m literally five feet tall, the sight of the falls makes me feel miniscule. I imagine the triumph an ant has from conquering a sand hill and (if an ant was capable of such intellectual thought) how it might feel seeing the expanse of land laid out before it. There is so much more, past the horizon, than my eyes can grasp.
Just the week earlier, I sat in my editor’s office while he flipped a coin to decide who would get to visit Nahanni National Park Reserve. “Heads,” my coworker and I say at the exact same time.
“Okay, tails then,” I say.
My editor flipped the quarter over to reveal a caribou and I beamed at the prospect of going, before immediately trying to compose my joy for the sake of not rubbing it in.
I was excited because I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—though why that was, I wasn’t quite sure. With an interest in the macabre, my only points of reference for the Nahanni were the stories of men found decapitated in the aptly-named Headless Range. But I didn’t feel too much shame in not knowing a lot about the park, because I wasn’t the only one. My family had never heard of the place, and when I asked a few Yellowknife friends what they knew, their answers weren’t much better than mine. A Vancouver friend who I told I was going to the Nahanni summed my feelings up nicely with her response: “I don’t know what that is, but yay!”
“Most people don’t even know it exists, even in Canada,” says the owner of Simpson Air, Ted Grant. “Most people in Canada don’t know much about the North, and people in the NWT—they know there’s a Nahanni park out there, but they just don’t know what it entails or they’ve only seen a couple pictures.”
But pictures don’t do it justice. Over my day trip, the pilot and I fly past endless, indescribable scenery. From Canada’s largest tufa mound to rivers snaking through canyons and an unbounded expanse of mountain ridges—some rocky, some snow-peaked, and others sprouting hundreds of trees—the park is its own little world. Or its own country. At about 30,000 square-kilometres, Nahanni National Park is the same size as Belgium. Compare that to Banff National Park, which is just under 7,000 square-kilometres. And yet, in 2018, Banff had 4.5 million visitors while, in the same year, Nahanni had just 1,500.
So what is it about this incredible place, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that keeps it so secret? The people who visit the Nahanni preach its beauty, but there are so few visitors, the tales don’t reach very far. And even if they did, would people really be able to appreciate what they were hearing? As Grant says, “you need to be able to see it to understand it.”
Even after 45 years of visiting the park, Grant says there are still new places to see. His first visit, back in July of 1976, was at the invitation of friend and author of several Nahanni books, Dick Turner. Grant was working with the RCMP at the time and immediately switched his shift the following morning. “We took the trail and hiked to the bottom of the falls,” he says. Back before the manicured boardwalk was installed, Grant and Turner ambled down the muddy and narrow pathway until they eventually reached the base of Náįlįcho. He proudly recalls taking the photo of Turner standing near the falls that’s printed on the back of one of the author’s books. It’s a great photo that shows off Turner’s personality and the majesty of the water behind him, but having seen Náįlįcho for myself, it doesn’t capture the energy or the sheer volume of the falls, as it crashes against the pillar and into the bed of rocks below. It doesn’t capture all its glory because, really, nothing can.
Grant found the trip so memorable that he decided to do it again on his own floatplane. Five years later, he bought Simpson Air. The tiny airline, located beside a Fort Simpson cemetery, provides trips to communities within the territory’s Dehcho region, while also acting as an adventure company specializing in excursions to the national park. “Normally in a good year, we’re in there five or six times a week,” he says. “Sometimes we have two flights, sometimes all three planes are out at Virginia Falls or Glacier Lake at the same time.”
With a pandemic shutting down travel all over the world, 2020 wasn’t a good year. But even in the best of times the Nahanni never sees that many visitors. How many people come and where they arrive from has varied over the decades since the Nahanni park was established in 1976. While the 1980s saw plenty of American tourists, Grant says he’s also taken many tourists from Germany and Switzerland, and more recently China, Japan, and Korea. Lately, he’s also seen a lot of Albertans and NWT residents—people close enough to the park to have heard about it.
The main draw is the South Nahanni River, which is 540-kilometres long and features spectacular views of the canyons as you glide through its waters. There are four usual entry points where people begin their trips, including Náįlįcho, Rabbitkettle Lake, Island Lakes, and Moose Ponds. But there’re several other, lesser-known spots for people with more technical skill, like Little Nahanni (which Parks Canada refers to as the Nahanni’s Scary Little Sister) or Flat River. Parks Canada Visitor Safety and Fire Coordinator Nick Bergen mentions Moose Ponds as a great potential starting point, but there are more rocks to be wary of (hence its nickname, Rock Gardens). “It gets easier with more water,” says Bergen, reassuring me that it’s not all about dodging rocks.
As for other tourists, Parks Canada Visitor Experience Manager Vanessa Murtsell says Americans and Europeans are usually there for the climbing. “It’s a bucket list for these climbers,” she says. “We get climbers from all over the world who train for this.”
I’m not able to get into the Cirque of Unclimbables, myself. Mjatelski and I make a pit stop instead at Glacier Lake, where the first few mountains of Ragged Range are visible. Neatly framed in between two tree-lined slopes, the massive snow-topped mountains loom over us. Just past those rocks is the base camp, Fairy Meadows, which is just as idyllic as its name suggests.
Whether you hike or fly in to the Cirque, you’ll first land at this bright grassy terrain, which is interrupted by a winding blue stream, scattered boulders, and sharp granite spires soaring into the clouds from the ground around you. The tallest of those spires is the Lotus Flower Tower, which is some 200 storeys high (taller than the record-breaking Shanghai Towers). It’s a remote location that relatively few have ventured through and the climb itself requires hours of strenuous work and focus to find the right footholds against the towering granite wall. But the view from the top is worth it, as you overlook miles of mountain tops sprawling across the landscape, practically daring each climber to head back down and tackle the others. And yet, despite the intrigue many climbers may have about the Cirque, Parks Canada is still trying to figure out how to connect with this group of tourists and invite them to the park.
“We only had river visitors [for a long time], so we get them, we get their language, we get their breed. But rock climbers are a totally different breed of people,” says Murtsell. “We haven’t done a ton of advertising on the Cirque because we were still trying to figure out how to get to that community. We were going to do some big marketing this year for the Cirque, but then COVID happened.”
Although there aren’t official numbers on-hand about how the pandemic slowed tourism from international climbers, Parks Canada knew it was the wrong time to invite visitors, so a more thorough guide to the area will have to wait. In the meantime, the lack of information on climbing could be what’s stopping more mountaineers from visiting. Most information out there comes from the ’80s. Either from a book titled 50 Classic Climbs in North America, which was first published in 1981, or the website Guide to the Cirque of Unclimbables from 1988 (which updates every few years). That guide was then published by the Canadian Alpine Journal in 1996, but there’s little else available for the climbing community outside that information—adding to the park’s overall mystery.
Climbers and paddlers still make up most of the park’s overnight visitors, but after flying over multiple canyons, hot springs, glacier waters, boreal forests, and mountains, it’s clear there’s so much more to the park that people are not aware of. “It’s like going to six other national parks in one,” says Grant. And all that beauty didn’t happen overnight—in fact, the land’s formation is half a billion years in the making. And despite its current mountainous and forested terrain, it began as an ocean floor—which is something you can see proof of today.
During our walk along the boardwalk, Mjatelski crouches down to show me a pile of rocks he splays out on the bench. He points to a spiral printed across one of the rock’s surfaces, which he explains comes from seashells that lined the park more than 200 million years ago. When those rocks, along with sand, mud, and other organisms, got deposited, they built up a large layer of sediment on the ocean floor. And then, as the tectonic plates shifted, sedimentary rocks began rising from the water, shifting the landscape around it. It led to how the park got the rugged terrain it has today.
Back in the air, Mjatelski tips the wings of the plane ever-so-slightly to point out one of the park’s newest additions, the Tufa Mounds. Creating a gap in between the endless forestry is a massive layered rock and, at the centre of its flat surface, a pool oozing a rust-coloured orange liquid, which leaks down its sides. Even from kilometres up in the air, I can make out its intricate terraces and basins, which formed less than 100,000 years ago from spring water dissolving calcium carbonate and other minerals before eventually hardening. In contrast to the park’s reputation as a tough landscape, the mounds are fragile and can only be visited with park staff, while barefoot.
For several centuries before tourists began following guides through the park, however, Indigenous people have been navigating the landscape with ease.
“Dene history goes on for hundreds of thousands of years,” says Murtsell, whose mother grew up here on the land. Using the same kind of caribou-skin boats that her grandfather offered tours to Nahanni visitors in, the Dene who originally lived on these lands used to travel down the South Nahanni River, often heading to Fort Simpson, where they took apart the boat to trade the skins as well as furs. Their journey often started by going down the Mackenzie River before eventually hiking over the mountains to follow the caribou herd.
“The Dene would follow [the caribou] into the South Nahanni River quarter through the winter and then come spring, they would rebuild those moose skin boats and come down the South Nahanni River again and do it all over,” says Murtsell. “So, it was a huge circle.”
Dene still utilize the land for harvesting, but the Naha, otherwise referred to as Mountain Dene, is one tribe that’s no longer around.
“There’re stories about mountain tribes that would come down into the river valley and steal and burn down camps of other groups of people and then go back into the mountain,” Murtsell says.
One story Murtsell has heard many times before relays how Dene living in the valley decided to strike back against the Naha who would raid nearby settlements. But when the Dene went to the Naha’s settlements, they found the fires were smouldering and camps were laid out, but there wasn’t a single person around. The Naha disappeared completely.
“That group doesn’t exist anymore, but there are descendants of the Naha in some of our communities,” says Murtsell. There’s also speculation that the Navajo, from the southwestern United States, are decendents of the Naha. “The language is very similar to Navajo and they have very similar origin stories that the Naha have here.”
While there may have been skirmishes, the Indigenous peoples of the Nahanni lived off the land for centuries until they eventually moved closer to nearby settlements—around the same time settlers began honing in on the land. Of course, when southerners first started arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were not nearly as adept at navigating the area. Many came north in search of gold, while others arrived at the Nahanni to trap fur. But most were out of their depth. There are many stories of trappers and miners who went into the Nahanni and never returned. Back in the early 1900s, stories circulated across the country about the McLeod brothers. After Charlie, Willie, and Frank McLeod returned from their gold-panning trip two years prior, Frank and Willie decided to venture out again with an engineer named Robert Weir.
When two years passed and they didn’t return, Charlie set out to look for them, but found only his brothers’ decapitated bodies next to the Nahanni River. Their heads were nowhere to be found. The engineer was never seen again, although some claimed to have seen him as far as Vancouver, with thousands of dollars worth of gold. Since then, dozens of people have unsuccessfully gone in search of the Lost McLeod Gold Mine.
Strangely, the headless story isn’t a one-off. In 1917, another decapitated body was discovered, this time of Swiss prospector Martin Jorgenson. He was found next to his burnt-down cabin near Flat River. And in 1945, an Ontario miner was found headless in his sleeping bag. It’s those stories—of headless bodies and vanished peoples—that first captured the imagination of the south, as several national newspapers reported on these mysteries.
Among those speculating was Maclean’s magazine, which in March 1947 wrote, “the gold and head-hunters of the Nahanni may be myth—its murders are hard fact.”
And questions around these mysterious deaths still continue.
“I’ve heard a couple things. I think the most popular, though, is that they passed and animals had eaten their heads,” says Murtsell. “Other things I’ve heard are the Naha were still in the mountains and were after their gold or just wanted to protect their lands and decapitated them.”
According to Indigenous legends, a white wolf-like creature, dubbed the Waheela, may be responsible for the beheadings. The creature, known to tear people’s heads off, wanders the wilderness and has supernatural strength.
While these stories still persist, it’s no longer just the morbid tales driving interest to the park. Back in the 1970s, it was former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s interest in the Nahanni’s nature that changed its status to a national park. At that time, there were proposals for creating a massive hydro-electric dam near the falls, but the late Trudeau advocated to protect it. The land received park reserve status in 1976, and Trudeau cherished the memories of his visit for years to come—so much so that his son Justin Trudeau made the trip for himself in 2005. Long before becoming the current prime minister, Justin advocated for the park’s expansion from about 5,000 square-kilometres to more than 30,000.
Dene Elder Jonas Antoine was a part of that expansion project. He spent years trying to protect the park from mining—knowing the establishment of the first, smaller park boundaries would put the rest of the area’s watershed in jeopardy from mineral or gas exploration.
“So, when it came time… we approached a really good idea, alongside Parks Canada, and Canada as well, to expand the park to include the entire watershed.”
Today, Parks Canada and the Dehcho First Nations continue to work together under the Nahʔą Dehé Consensus Team to keep the park ecologically sound, while respecting its Indigenous history and connections. That means teaching people about the park’s history and Dene culture, and also returning landmarks to their traditional names. It’s a process that’s 25 years in the making. Written Dene language is relatively new and there are many dialects within the territory, so deciding on the correct name and spelling can take time.
“We’ve been working for a long time naming the NWT’s tallest peak, which is in our park,” says Murtsell. “A lot of climbers call it Mount Nirvana, which is super cool, but our groups have a name that translates to something like Thunder Mountain. But they can’t decide on the proper spelling.”
Despite the national recognition, the Nahanni still seems like the type of place you’d have to seek out for an adventure, as opposed to just having heard of it. It’s the kind of place you happen upon, while flipping through a book or a magazine, and wonder why you never knew of its existence. And while understanding its background will help you to better appreciate the park, I don’t think anyone can be prepared for the serene beauty the Nahanni has to offer.
I certainly wasn’t. I’ve travelled from Australia to Europe to Peru, and the still, blue waters and sandy shore of Little Doctor Lake, just outside the Nahanni, was the prettiest place I’ve ever been. It was the first stop on our trip and I recall seeing the plane’s reflection in the water right before we landed, and stepping onto one of the floats to hear nothing but the subtle whoosh of the water rippling up against the shoreline. The view ahead of me displayed stony-ridged mountain tops with a gap in between that revealed the silhouettes of awesome peaks ahead. Among the trees behind me were three log cabins, where you could look out the windows or open the front door and immediately be immersed in the gorgeous scenery. There’s no way to get on or off the beach except by float plane, so it’s just you and the Nahanni, until the day comes to head home. Unlike many other Canadian hotspots, which have concrete roads winding their way through the forests, the Nahanni is pretty much untouchable by anything other than flight. And it’s that fact that plays into what keeps this place isolated. Dehcho Tourism Development Officer Allyson Skinner says that even though there’s a limit on the number of visitors allowed in each year, the Nahanni never reaches capacity. “It’s never been an issue,” she says. “As far as I know, they’ve never been worried about having a cap on their visitors.”
Which begs another question—if the park suddenly saw an influx of tourists, would the Nahanni lose its magic?
Antoine thinks not. Because while the rarity of people to share stories may play a role in its mystery, it’s the park’s size and diversity that makes this place impossible to know. Even those who have seen the park once, twice, or 10 times can tell you there’s always something more to discover. You could spend a lifetime trying to see it all and you may never fully grasp it. You’ll forever be in awe of its landscape.
“If you’re in any place in the park, especially the great beautiful deep canyons there, look around yourself,” says Antoine. “You start to get that feeling like you are the only person in the whole wide world in the middle of this right now—that’s how you feel. With the immense beauty of everything surrounding you, you are a tiny speck in the middle of all that and you become a part of that environment.”
I feel Antoine’s words to my core, as I recall standing above the falls, trying to make sense of the scene in front of me—this massive incredibly powerful rush of water that’s almost deafening. Forget Machu Picchu or the coral reefs—this is right here, right in our backyard. I’m full of an overwhelming sense of just how big the North is—how much beauty and nature is right at our fingertips.
Even after the books I’ve read and the many hours spent trying to research every aspect of the park, I’m left with pieces of an indescribable puzzle. The dozens of people I spoke to have all experienced the park differently, but nearly every person describes it as being “special.” And they’re right. This place is special—with its vast history and landscape, its wildlife and culture, there is so much to see and experience. Each visit is simply a taste of what the park has to offer and it would take a lifetime of visiting to get a grasp on it. And so, after all this, I find myself going back to Grant’s words, which ring so true. When it comes to the Nahanni, you need to be able to see it to understand it.