In Our Element

As we settle into our fall routine in the North full of gear maintenance and gathering firewood I often find my mind returning to some of the sublime moments of seasons past. Those points in time where my senses were fully engaged and a point in time became seared in my mind; these are moments both profound and ordinary in the wilds of the Nahanni watershed.

30 kilometres downstream from Rabbit Kettle Lake, Flood Creek enters the Nahanni River in the midst of a cobble, alluvial fan on the left bank of the river. Its clear waters flow across an expanse of colourful stones where each rock tells a part of the complex geological history of the Nahanni Valley. Across from its mouth, a boulder strewn slope provides access to an unnamed peak with a towering and rarely hiked limestone ridge. With my mind filled with stories of raptor nests and sheep from mentors and family I longed to climb it. As I washed up the dinner dishes I formulated a route and headed to bed with a plan for the morning.

As we wrapped up breakfast the air warmed around us. Eager to explore, we began our hike and I kept my binoculars close at hand in case we came across some wildlife. Dalls Sheep were particularly on my mind as the previous afternoon we had come across the rare sight of a Dalls Sheep swimming the Nahanni!

From a distance it had looked like a gnarled root being dragged across the current. “That is some strange behaviour for a beaver” was what immediately popped into my head. But as we paddled closer to this strange object we realized it was the full curl of a mature Dalls Sheep ram with its nose pointed straight up into the sky. It turns out that these animals’ large horns, thick neck and powerful shoulders which make them adept at climbing mountain ridges also enable a swift front ferry! We watched it make its way to the far shore and with a large splash it pulled itself from the river. With hooves back on solid ground, it gave a dog-like shake and disappeared into the boreal forest with intent. I can only believe it was bee-lining for the closest mountain top.

The powerful neck and leg muscles of a Dalls Sheep ram support their heavy horns and help propel them through their mountain habitat. 

My mind returned to the path in front of me as we wound our way uphill, we were following sheep trails and if we were lucky we might soon see another animal. Dalls Sheep are creatures of habit that follow the path of least resistance which can provide observant hikers a route through challenging terrain. From a distance these trails etch a spider web across mountain sides, testament to hundreds of generations of animals that have called these peaks home.

Within moments another sensory experience was soon upon us. As we crested a ride five goldeneye ducks passed by just above our group. Their wings make a characteristic whistle, a sound that Hemmingway compared to the “ripping of silk”! (listen to the sound here)

They flew a twisting path and were dropping fast into the valley as they headed towards the river. This close encounter had us all looking skywards when we could again hear air rushing through feathers. In a blur another bird hurtled past at what seemed to be twice the speed of the ducks. It could only be one thing, a peregrine falcon.

A Peregrine Falcon finds a moments respite from its endless hunt

It was almost instantly upon the ducks and with a puff of feathers the chase was over. As an unlucky duck fell from the sky the falcon circled wide to follow it to the ground, and we lost sight of it against the valley floor.

In the moments following everything seemed to be moving very slowly, our own bipedal motion suddenly slow and inefficient. Much like the swimming ram we were struggling in comparison to the creatures that surrounded us. But there we were, at the right moment, to see life unfold in all its spectacular glory. I couldn’t help but feel that on this mountain ridge, far from home, we were all in our element and all was as it should be.

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