Nahanni Nagha

Photo: Denis, flickr creative commons.

Photo: Denis, flickr creative commons.

This story was originally published on Got Parks.

In grade 11, I was fortunate enough to be chosen as a participant for a 10-day canoe trip down the Nahanni River with some of my classmates. We were trained up in white water canoeing, survival, and trip planning. An elder from the region, Gerry, joined us for some cultural teachings beforehand. He came down the river with us, pointing out traditional sites, sharing ceremonies, and constantly scaring us witless with stories of Nagha (the bushman). It was an unforgettable journey.

My best friend and I were in a canoe together. Both of us had paddled a bit before, which put us marginally ahead of our peers in the skills department. In fact, we felt pretty good about our abilities. We absolutely sailed through the flat water sessions, and excelled at the white water. As the only pair that didn't tip once in training, we were set to go on our adventure as the two most talented paddlers.

On day one, we met the Canyon - a high walled, narrow channel of river, with huge rollers that bobbed us around mercilessly (I swear they were 10 feet tall). Everyone came out unscathed, and full of adrenaline -- the river was FUN!

We continued down, enjoying the spectacular mountains and the clear water. There were intermittent sections where rapids came to life, tossing and rolling, without a care in the world for canoeists and their mortality. Upon reaching those sections, we would stop the boats, get out, and scout the area. We would always make a game plan before tackling the chaos -- piece of cake.

About halfway through the trip, we reached a Nahanni landmark called the Gate. It’s a huge spire of skyward rock. The river runs through it, and you must, too. On this day, the sun was finally shining for the first time. We were in the highest of spirits as we pulled our canoes up on shore and hiked up the rock.

After lunch at the top of the rock, and some jaw dropping (or hair raising, depending on your personality) views, we got ready to paddle through. Now the Gate - although it sounds scary from my descriptions so far - boasted next to nothing in terms of white water. There was one small rapid to the left of the channel, but as long as you stayed to the right it was basically just moving flat water. We didn’t even have to game plan.

Everyone was so hot from our hike that half of us didn’t even put our wetsuits on (this type of trip required paddling in wetsuits and helmets at all times). We launched our boats, and headed off, giddy from conquering the Gate. As we approached the single rapid, we watched in horror, as the pair in front of us got sucked towards the small line of white, and flipped over. We kept our cool and paddled towards them, knowing we had to help in their rescue and then get them and ourselves safely to lan. Hearts pounding, but a bit smug in our dry, safe situation, we entered the channel. Without realizing, our boat began to drift towards the tiny frothing roller to our left. Calmly, upon noticing, we angled our craft away. We weren’t in any danger. We hadn’t tipped all through canoe training! We were pros. This laughable lick of bubbles had no chance of claiming our dignity. This time, however, we were wrong. That little faker had some serious momentum. Before we could even be surprised, it grabbed the bottom of our canoe, and threw us nonchalantly upside-down. And then it laughed (I promise).

The water was ICE cold. Thankfully, we had both opted for wet-suiting up in the recent heat fuelled debate. We were momentarily trapped under the boat, and had to kick our way out, while still being dragged mercilessly down river. We clung to the side of the boat that had betrayed us, shivering with cold and disbelief. The paddlers behind us were actually able to learn from the two consecutive mistakes before. They pulled up beside us, and hauled us out of the water. We were swiftly paddled to shore.The rescue was flawless.

Since the river canoes are covered, if they tip, they take on water and can travel downriver backed by 4000 pounds of force. No mere human can stand in the way of a rampaging dumped canoe. Thankfully, a strategically rigged small rope around a tree can. The wayward boat lost its taste of freedom as it swayed into the bank, while we sat on shore, tried to get warm, and processed what we had happened.

After the incident, the rest of the trip went smoothly. The river widened and flattened for the last few days. Although we left the mountains and had to contend with swarms of tiny airborne demons, there was no more tipping drama. We all learned so much on the trip, made wonderful friends, and saw a part of the world that is usually restricted to evenings on the couch with David Attenborough.

We learned to be humble in nature, or eventually it will set you straight. Humans are on Earth for such a short time. The Nahanni is so much more than we can even comprehend; twisting and weaving its way through time and space. Whether it chucks you into its freezing mountain waters, refuses to provide any respite from the wind, or rains for the third night in a row before you can dry out your things -- all we can do is be thankful for our chance to be present, experiencing a glimpse of its steadfast existence.

This time, I only lost my sense of invincibility (and an old raincoat). Good riddance.