Great Canadian Parks / Northwest Territories

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The Parks / Northwest Territories / Nahanni National Park Reserve


The South Nahanni River is one of the premiere canoeing destinations in the world, although fewer than 800 paddlers a year visit. For many, the journey begins outside the National Park at the Moose Ponds, headwaters of the South Nahanni. The river here is barely more than a trickle, but it quickly widens and increases in volume. By the end of the first day of paddling, you are in the Rock Garden, a stretch of continuous white water punctuated with Class II and III rapids. It is described as a ‘cauldron of racing current and swirling boils’, with curling waves and souse holes to challenge the most experienced canoeist. The river drops 5.5 m/km before the river settles into its new environment in a broad glacial plain.


The river enters the National Park at Rabbitkettle Lake, and paddlers must register here with the Park Warden. This enables the park to keep track of people on the river, and facilitates rescue should someone not sign out at the expected time. It is also a good opportunity to view the Tufa Mounds, one of the park's unique features.


From here, the river meanders in broad arcs across the valley as the Sunblood Range comes into view. The mountains are tinted pink and red by the iron content in the rock, especially visible in the magic hours of early morning and late afternoon. At Sunblood Mountain, all river travellers must pull out at the 1.2-km mandatory portage on the river's south shore, around Virginia Falls to a put-in downstream. The Falls, twice the height of Niagara Falls, are best appreciated from a vantagepoint below.


The Four Canyons of the Nahanni introduce more whitewater to the river. Sheer volume of water confined by the steep walls of the canyon results in large standing waves, best approached head on. Twists and turns through the canyon produce whirlpools, eddies and boils at Figure 8 Rapids or ‘Hell’s Gate’, Georges Riffle and Lafferty's Riffle, until the river deposits you at Kraus Hotsprings. This is another mandatory stop, not for your safety, but for the pure enjoyment of soaking in the warming natural sulphur springs that bubble to the surface here.


As you leave the park, the river enters a floodplain and becomes braided into a maze of shallow channels called The Splits. Successful navigation of the river here will reward you with an easy paddle to Nahanni Bute and the confluence of the Nahanni and Liard.


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