Mary Kraus, First Lady of the Nahanni

The Nahanni watershed is widely recognized as a place of global significance. Its diverse geology boasts landforms that include Canada’s deepest river canyons, some of the largest tufa deposits in the world, as well as hot springs, karsts and pseudo-karsts. For those travelling the Nahanni River, it is the stories of the people who spent time in the Nahanni that add dimension and colour to the magnificence of the landscape they’re immersed in. Read on for a bio of Mary Kraus, First Lady of the Nahanni.

Mary Kraus, known by some as the “First Lady of the Nahanni,” is an intriguing figure who lived and thrived in the Nahanni region for over 30 years. Along with her American husband, Gus, Mary lived on the banks of the Nahanni at what is now known as Kraus’ Hot Springs from 1940-1971. Though not the first to spend time in the Nahanni River valley, Mary and Gus made the banks of the Nahanni their permanent home in a way that few people in the twentieth century have.

Mary, a Dene woman, was born in 1912 near Fort Liard. While Gus was an accomplished woodsman, it is Mary’s skill in the bush, her deft hand at sewing moccasins and traditional crafts, and her knowledge of plants and medicines that is credited with keeping them alive during the decades they spent living in remote locations. Not to mention her prowess as a hunter and trapper.  

While it is difficult to glean many details of Mary’s life from “official sources” it is apparent that she led a unique and interesting life. Like many women of her time, records of Mary’s life and achievements are overshadowed by historical references to her husband, Gus.  

Stories passed down between guides, garnered from Fort Simpson locals and others, retold while soaking in the hot springs or around the fire in the evening keep Mary’s legend alive. One such tale recounts a visit to Mary and Gus’ homestead by a group of Nahanni paddlers. Mary allowed the paddlers to accompany her on a hunt. These young men, fit and hardened from their weeks paddling the Nahanni, could barely keep up with Mary in the bush. Stumbling over logs and scrambling over uneven ground, when the men finally caught up with Mary she was in a small clearing with a perfect aim at a large bull moose. Rather than taking a shot, Mary turned and walked away; the men were incredulous that she would let such a perfect opportunity pass by. Her rationale? She didn’t think the men were up for the physical task of carrying the carcass out of the bush!  

Mary and Gus hosted many visitors over their years on the Nahanni including Pierre Trudeau on his infamous journey down the Nahanni in 1970. Following Trudeau’s visit the Nahanni National Park Reserve was created and Mary moved with Gus to the shores of Little Doctor Lake. Since leaving the Nahanni, generations of Nahanni travellers have stopped and enjoyed the warm waters of the springs and the piece of history that Kraus’ Hot Springs represent. 

Health problems and old age eventually saw Mary move into the community of Fort Simpson where she passed away in 2009. Interviews conducted in her final years reveal that Mary’s heart remained in the mountains where she had spent most of her life. 

Those who visit Kraus’ Hot Springs on a Nahanni journey can see evidence of Mary’s home. A small outbuilding remains as well as parsnip and other perennials that grow on the grassy banks above the thermal pool.

More photos of Mary and Gus can be seen here:

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