How it all began…
In the summer of 1984, at age, 23, Neil Hartling headed up to Nahanni National Park in the Northwest Territories from his home in Edmonton to experience and paddle a river that had haunted him since he was 15 years old.
Two things happened that summer that would change his life forever…
The north is a diverse region, with stunning highlights that fill us with awe and wonder. For more than a quarter of a century, we have sought out the best highlights the north has to offer and perfected experiences that are truly one of a kind – and to risk an overused, but accurate term: world-class. With this foundation of iconic features, we have drawn together a group of guides who are second to none, consistently creating enjoyable and memorable expeditions with their groups. This is a labor of love for all involved and we feel privileged to have this opportunity. This team has made us the top-of-the-food-chain in the north and this means we are able to attract more of the best guides.
We consider ourselves doubly lucky because we have found that the participants who are drawn to our trips are “salt of the earth” – the best people you could want to spend time with on such an undertaking. If you have been drawn to this web site and our type of travel, there is a good chance you are the same. Looking for an adventure with good people, wanting to learn about the surroundings, appreciative of attention to detail, little extras and special moments.
Hopefully you can tell from our web site that we aim for the highest standard of leadership and to meet and exceed your expectations. We never stop learning and growing and that has helped to set us apart. We don’t rest on our laurels and continually seek out improvements and adapt to the changing desires of our participants.
“How did all of this begin?” is a question often posed by our guests. Here is a brief account of the winding path that has taken us through many canyons and over countless ridges and most recently earned the designation from National Geographic Adventure Magazine: “One of the best adventure travel companies on earth.”
I don’t know about you, but for me, the notion that life imitates art, seems to prove out in my experience. The poetic art of Robert Frost’s lines resonate in my life:
As a youth growing up in Alberta, I enjoyed outdoor pursuits and would read every outdoor publication that I could lay my hands on. When I was 15, I read Dick Turner’s book Nahanni. Each page was rich with the details of his enviably adventurous life in a dramatic and larger than life land with a beautiful name. While the dreams of outdoor adventure fueled the imagination of my youth (especially during math class), I would not have dared to dream that one day I would guide expeditions across “the top of the world” or that my geographic range would span one third of the continent, many times bigger than even Texas. Even if this had entered my wildest dreams, it is certain that I would not have imagined that one day I would outfit on the famous Nahanni River or read the words “best seller” on the cover of a book I had written about these adventures. Perhaps most importantly I would not have imagined the impressive group of fellow guides who would return season after season to lead the best river expeditions stretching from Alaska to Nunavut, nurturing the dreams of our guests who would return year after year for yet another adventure in the most exotic regions of the planet. In those youthful years I had not yet learned of the joy and satisfaction of sharing wild places with others, which was to become for me at least, the “icing on the cake.”
Looking back, it was a modest beginning. Nearly 30 years ago, like so many other young outdoor enthusiasts, I graduated with a degree specializing in Outdoor Education and was not surprised to find that no one awaited with the perfect job on a “silver platter.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was likely one of my luckiest breaks. I realized that if I wanted to fulfill my dreams I would have to start my own company. Beginning with a small outdoor skills school operated from my parent’s garage, I focused on teaching outdoor courses: canoeing, cross-country skiing, backpacking and first aid. In the shoulder season I even taught moccasin and mitt making. My needs were simple, and as long as I had money to buy new socks and gas for my vehicle, I was content. I turned my parent’s garage into a canoe factory and managed to destroy their lawn with the many canoes and kayaks that emerged from late night building forays with my paddling friends.
In those early days, “eco tourism” was not part of the lexicon. A serendipitous series of events found me living out one of my dreams of a three week trip on the fabled, far-away Nahanni River. The Nahanni River and I experienced love at first sight, and immediately following my return home, I sought out a license to operate guided trips on the Nahanni. This required the permission of the local First Nations people – not easily granted. During the trip I had rescued a local family above the Beaver Dam rapids. This connection in the community was a crucial link. Once again I was in the right place at the right time and I landed one of the rare licenses. My goal at that time was to be able to offer a Nahanni trip once a year as a diversion from the routine of teaching canoe courses.
I teamed up with other keen young guides and we pursued our dreams. If we had a strength that set us apart it was that we were anxious for feedback from our guests and used this helpful information to fine-tune our offerings. This resulted in immediate and lasting success. As the phenomena of eco/adventure tourism began to sweep the world, we were once again in the right place at the right time. As the seasons passed we were thrilled as we shared with our guests this majestic land that never ceased to please and amaze.
The next cue for action was the often-repeated phrase at the end of a trip: “That was fantastic, where do we go next?” I knew that there was a diverse array of spectacular northern rivers to be paddled and so we set out to add to our list a new destination each year. Our strategy was to grow slowly so we could continue to “do it right” and maintain high standards. To this day we continue to operate with the spirit of a family business.
Moving to the Yukon was a lifestyle choice. It’s hard to resist the Yukon’s mountainous surroundings and the many adventures that await at your door step. The additional benefit of living in the north is that it allows me to be close to the areas in which we operate and the local people who know the land so well. We have our ear to the “moccasin telegraph” and this allows us to provide the best service possible and include local and cultural insight into our programs.
On one of my early Nahanni trips I met Barry Beales at Virginia Falls. He was guiding for Dan Culver of Northwest Expeditions. It was the beginning of a long friendship. In succeeding years Barry purchased Dan’s company and named it Whitewolf Adventure Expeditions. After many seasons of friendly competition we merged the two companies in 1997. We managed to draw from the expertise of both groups in order to offer the best expeditions available across the north. In 2006, we acquired Canadian River Expeditions, founded by Big John Mikes in 1972, and we now offer canoeing, rafting and hiking adventures on 20 world-class northern rivers across Canada and Alaska. Both Barry and Big John have since crossed the last divide, but their spirit and high standards continue to show through in all that we do.
In three decades I have not tired of this profession. Apart from the inspiring settings and great co-workers, I think it is chiefly due to the great people who join our expeditions. I have come to refer to our clientele as “salt of the earth people.” They love the outdoors and are easygoing but interesting people who are making their dreams come true. It is a privilege to be part of this. Many guests have returned to travel on each of the more than 20 different rivers we offer. It has taken years of hard work to achieve the level of success we now enjoy. We realize, though, that we cannot rest on our laurels, which is why we continually seek ways to upgrade and improve the holiday experiences we offer.
I have learned over the years that our guests are looking for more than just adventure. They want information, stories, history and geology, and they want to meet the local people they see along the way and learn first-hand about their past. I am especially proud of our staff. Some have been with me from the beginning and we have very little turnover from one year to the next. The quality of these guides is evidenced by the steadily growing popularity of our expeditions. They are all knowledgeable, and possess extensive leadership and interpersonal skills. As professionals in the field they provide training to younger guides for other companies, even First Aid and rescue for national park wardens. They consistently create adventures that are fun, informative and adventurous – and I have a bulging file of glowing letters from satisfied guests to prove it.
Our trips have become known through the north by other operators as the standard to strive for. As I see it, our expeditions are more than just river adventures – they are explorations of regions, using the river as a conduit to travel through the land, taking time to hike, explore, learn and savour the beauty of these wild places. Watching thousands of caribou on the move, spying on a family of grizzlies feeding on fresh salmon or floating through canyons so steep that you can’t help but get a stiff neck, are just a few of the unique features one can experience on our northern rivers.
We have a long list of reasons why a northern adventure with us is a “must” on your list. But it is the lure of the “magnetic north” that will keep you coming back, season after memorable season. The diversity of the north is so beautiful and captivating that the greatest personal danger for you, quite frankly, is that you will become as hopelessly addicted as I am to this passionate love of wilderness trips and return year after year to the land of the midnight sun …
Neil Hartling delivers speaking engagements for corporate events. For additional information, please call us at 1-800-297-6927.