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Albert Faille: A Nahanni River Icon

During the winter of 1970, the Canadian Wildlife Service assigned me to lead a small team to study the South Nahanni River area for possible development as a national park. Fort Simpson, a small community at the Mackenzie and Liard rivers’ confluence, was used as a base for getting to and from the Nahanni. One of the first things I did there was to look up Albert Faille (Fay-lee), a legendary wanderer in the remote, notorious Nahanni region. In his eighties, Albert was suffering the lingering effects of a severe back injury sustained during World War I and reinjured in a fall while pulling his canoe on the South Nahanni River in August of 1929, as well as old age.

Albert Faille spent much of his life in the Nahanni watershed: exploring, trapping and prospecting.

Some government officials tried to interview Albert about the Nahanni area’s park potential with limited success. He had little use for bureaucracy and did not react well to questions from strangers. I used a different approach. Albert loved to play cribbage, so in the evenings, I played with him and asked a few questions about his Nahanni experiences as the games progressed. Though bent in the body, Albert was a canny card player and possessed a keen mind. Albert told me much about the wildlife and special features of the Nahanni. He pinpointed particular components such as plants, hot springs, and a sand blowout area where the wind had carved beautiful features in the soft rock near Yohin Lake. His extreme view that the only good wolf was a dead one would have made my wolf-studying friends blanch.

I visited Albert at his one-room shack perched on a picturesque location overlooking the mighty Mackenzie River. His boat with “NAHANNI OR BUST” on a side in large, tattered letters lies near bye. Later visits were at St. Margaret’s hospital. The staff indicated that there was little hope Albert would improve or perhaps even leave the hospital.

George’s survey led him to remote and fantastic corners of Nahanni National Park, including the Sand Blowouts

Back in my home in Edmonton in April of 1972, my daughter, Alicia, met me at the door and, with a great deal of excitement, told me that one of my Nahanni friends was going to visit her school.

“Who is that?” I questioned. “Dick Turner?” Dick wrote a book entitled “Nahanni,” I had edited several chapters while I was weathered in at his and Vera’s home in Nahanni Butte the previous autumn. I thought he might be coming south to promote his book.

“No.”

“Gus Kraus?”

“No.”

“Raymond Patterson?”

“No.”

“Dad, you know something like Fail.”

“You mean Albert Faille?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“That cannot be right, Alicia. Albert is sick and probably in the hospital.”

A little frustrated, Alicia stamped her feet and replied, “If you don’t believe me, just call my principal.”

In disbelief, I did just that. The next morning I called Mr. Such, principal of Westbrook Elementary School. Albert Faille was indeed coming to Alicia’s school and one other in Edmonton.

Albert did not want to talk with academics, bureaucrats, or business people. Albert only wanted to talk to school children!

The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, Pacific Western Airlines, and school groups funded Albert’s trip. He stayed with a local family who was instrumental in arranging the trip, his first trip to Edmonton since leaving his wife there in 1926.

I sent Mr. Such a few articles on Albert, including “The Obsession of Albert Faille” by William Weintraub published by Maclean’s in 1962, as enrichment material to help the teachers prepare for his visit. I also suggested that the school borrow a copy of “Nahanni,” an 18-minute award-winning film produced by Donald Wilder for the National Film Board in 1962. This classic film portrays Albert Faille, then more than a 70-year-old prospector, making one of several dogged quests up to the legendary South Nahanni River, a challenge even for an athletic young man, let alone a septuagenarian. The school obtained the film. With the sound off, Albert narrated the film for the students.

Albert’s tales about gold, missing people, headless bodies, hot springs, trapping, and other features enthralled the students. The talk and question period scheduled for an hour lasted much of the afternoon, highlighting the school year!

It was Albert’s last trip to the “outside.” He died a few months later on 31 December 1973 at Fort Simpson. His home and some possessions are now a heritage site. Albert Faille became a legend in his own right, a name inextricably linked to the Nahanni’s wondrous land and all that is wild there.

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