Looking at it on a map it is hard to comprehend the scale of these valleys. Part of what makes this area so unique are the limestone and granite heights of land that separate this watershed into areas with dramatic differences.
We have outfitted and explored each of these watersheds over the past thirty years. Dana Hibbard is among one of the handful of paddlers to have descended all three of the headwaters of the South Nahanni; the Little Nahanni, the Mooseponds, and the Broken Skull River. Not only has she paddled these rivers she has led expeditions on each, helping people live out their dreams of wilderness exploration.
There are other tributaries as well, like the Flat, the RabbitKettle, Black Wolf and Prairie Creek. Each with its own unique geology, eco-regions and ideal craft for exploring them. Not all of these rivers are suited for guided trips but the character of each influences the Nahanni River as a whole and is part of what makes this watershed such a superb wilderness destination.
It is under the towering Mt. Nááts’ihch’oh (Mt. Wilson) that the South Nahanni begins. Considered the true headwaters of the Nahanni the first 100 km of the Nahanni are a feather in the cap of any expeditions canoeist. It has been 30 years since Nahanni Wild first led a trip here and it continues to amaze. With challenging but approachable rapids, incredible camping and wildlife running the gamut from river otters to grizzly bears this is northern canoe tripping at its best.
The Little Nahanni
Known as the Nahanni’s wild little sister, the Little Nahanni is the most challenging of all the Nahanni headwaters. Starting from Flat Lake this tributary soon grows into a dynamic, fast moving river. Staircase Rapid, Crooked Canyon and the notorious Step are but a few of the challenges on this stretch of water. With clear flowing water, an alpine start and 85 kilometers of adventure this incredible adventure is a jewel in the Nahanni triple crown.
The Broken Skull
The Broken Skull has long captured the imagination of paddlers heading to the Moose Ponds but has only recently become regularly paddled. Flying over this remote alpine valley we always wondered what treasure this turquoise ribbon of water held. After participating in a Park’s Canada exploratory trip we have come to love the Broken Skull as one of the most aesthetic canoe trips around. From its start in an alpine lake (conveniently full of arctic grayling) it is full of approachable white water, beautiful vistas and even some incredible hot-springs. While there is a short portage at the start, this river is an excellent choice for those building their skills as a whitewater canoeist.
The Flat River
Flowing out of the same valley as the Little Nahanni the Flat is another rarely travelled white water experience. With over 200 km of adventure until it joins the South Nahanni the Flat flows through wild and remote terrain. With hotsprings, incredible hiking and thrilling unnamed rapids this test piece culminates with the famed Cascade of Thirteen steps. Perhaps the most challenging rapid of the Nahanni’s canoeable tributaries this feature been paddled only a few times with David Hibbard’s descent in 2007 perhaps being the first.
They say type two fun is the type of experience that seems like a good idea only in hindsight. With only two recorded descents, both by members of the Hibbard family, this tributary flows off of the Nahanni plateau and is the product of Nahanni National Park’s unique limestone geology and exhibits some incredible karst features. Accessed through the Cadillac mine airstrip running this river requires us to face the duality of wilderness. We often experience it only through its degradation.
Prairie Creek’s kilometer deep canyons harbour Dalls Sheep airies, deep pools full of threatened bull trout and and kilometer after kilometer of class III/IV whitewater. This is not a journey for the unprepared but if you are looking to get away and experience a remote, steep and rewarding run this river has what you are looking for.