North-West Expeditions Exploratory Trip: Nahanni Butte to Fort Simpson
One of the best parts of starting North-West Expeditions has been to hear these old stories from Dad.
We hope you enjoy them too.
Taken from excerpts of emails with Dad the story below is the story of how the original company was formed and their first incredible trip down the Nahanni. Dad’s writing is in italics.
You can see more pictures from this trip on our instagram.
A Little History
Late in 1972 five of us who had canoed and kayaked together decided to try to start a rafting company, and by early 1973 Northwest Expeditions was formed.
We offered trips on the Red Deer River and Athabasca River in Alberta and on the Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories, then, later, on the Coppermine River, NWT. Joe ran the Red Deer trips, Henry and Shirley ran the Athabasca trip and Prokop and I ran the Nahanni trips
I worked through the winter of 1972 designing a logo and brochures for the Company and trying to get some advertising out on our very limited budget.
The first exploratory trip of North-West Expeditions was “just three guys, two river men, David Rowe and Prokop Lobkowicz (did you know that Prokop was actually a prince of the Austro-Hungarian empire) and a friend/photographer Mike Scapa and the 329 miles/526 km from Glacier Creek to Nahanni Butte and then on through the twilight night to Ft. Simpson with two Avon 12 ft. rafts tied stern to stern, two guys sleeping in one raft and the other rowing changing shifts.“
Talking with Dad we’re fairly certain that the coordinates for the exploratory trip launch were 61º03’11.09″N. – 123º19″41.27″W. We’ve commemorated that moment by including the coordinates on our Campfire Mug.
“We flew out of St. Simpson, NT to the Glacier Creek landing on the river. I don’t think there was anything we asked from the government, a lot of canoeists flew in to the Moose Ponds significant distance up river from where we landed at Glacier Creek.
After we knew that we could do the river -the Park officials had decided that we could run through the Nahanni, but we had to start our trips outside the park. We could then go through and pull out outside of the park which was then down in the Splits.
We landed about two miles upriver outside of the park, which was about two miles upstream of northwest of Rabbit Kettle Lake if you want to see it on Google Earth. So that’s where we started carrying clients. We had two put-in points the exploratory trip and the client trips. That saved us a few miles, probably 15 miles more or less, and who wanted to land where there were grizzly tracks around ☺.
“Don’t know if you can make out Rabbit Kettle Lake just above the Hot Springs Valley. All our client trips were out of Watson Lake, YT. One of the pilots we first flew with was killed in one of his bush plane trips so had different pilots after that”
Figure Eight Rapids
If you find Virginia Falls on google Maps there is a Float Plane landing a few kilometres up river. I asked Dad about that.
“Yes that is correct, but we never saw any land above the falls, so I think the float planes came later when the Nahanni became more popular.
Above Virginia Falls the Nahanni is quite slow and it gets slower as one approaches the falls, then below the falls it goes like hell, probably could do 2 or 3 times as fast as above the falls.
Here’s another little tale.
The Figure 8 Rapids was pretty scary when we first got started -such that I had nightmares on every trip until much later. The first time we went down with clients, we made them walk over the portage trail, but as we got to know the rapid we learned how to deal with it, which was to cross the eddy line as close to the point as we could.
The great fear, whether imagined by the earlier Nahanni, or real, was that the downriver side was undercut such that if one got too close they would be sucked under.
I’m adding a photo that always amused me.
“Everyone seems to be pointing in a different direction at the Figure 8 rapid. On the left you can see part of the eddy that spins clockwise the other eddy turns counter clockwise hence the Figure 8.”
The Splits, then Home
“We had significant difficulty finding our way through the Splits, a number of channels which meander through what is essentially the delta of the South Nahanni. We had to use our compasses to triangulate of prominent peaks to have some idea of where we were on the river. (No GPS in those days, just Topo maps and compasses.)
We arrived at Nahanni Butte about 21:00 hours after threading our way through the Splits. Darkness was not a problem “north of 60” in late June and we initially thought that we would camp a few hundred yards (we spoke of feet, yards, and miles in those days) down river from Nahanni Butte.
Now if you have canoed, you will know that usually when you’re on the river the mosquitos are either none existent or few. Where we had proposed to camp beside the Liard River the river was probably three quarters of a mile wide and the mosquitos were intolerable bank to bank. So we decided to keep going until we got to the ferry crossing a kilometer or two from the Liard’s confluence with the Mackenzie River. We tied our two eight-foot Avon Red Shank inflatable rafts stern to stern. We agreed to take two hour shifts, one guy would row and the other two slept under a mosquito net. We were probably on our way by 21:45.
We rowed through the twilight and into the bright northern sun. Rowing through the twilight-night was a magical, surrealistic adventure, well worth experiencing even if you are rowing.
The distance from Nahanni Butte to Fort Simpson is 114 miles or 184 km. Six hours later it was my turn to row and also time to have something to eat. I set up my little Svea burner and pot of water on one side of the rowing frame while I sat on the other side, added oatmeal and cooked us breakfast. It was probably 08:00 by then and we had not stopped.
Our first stop was at Beaver Dam Rapids about 30 miles (48 km) downriver from the ferry crossing before the McKenzie. We stretched our legs, took care of some other physiological functions and scouted the rapid, not much to be concerned about we decided. We re-boarded the rafts and arrived at the ferry crossing in good time to catch a ride into Fort Simpson where we had a vehicle waiting.
We looked around Fort Simpson a while, loaded up our vehicle, and headed out on our journey of 899 miles (1446 km) to Edmonton.