South Nahanni from Island Lakes

CanadaNorthwest TerritoriesMackenzie
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Additional Route Information
452 km
8 days
Loop Trip: 
Portage Information
No. of portages: 
Total Portage Distance: 
1300 m
Longest Portage: 
1300 m
Difficulty Ratings
River Travel: 
Lake Travel: 
Not applicable
Background Trip Info
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Route Description
Access to Put-In Information: 

Several reputable companies fly from various points in B.C. & NWT. We used South Nahanni Airways as they had a twin otter. Highly recommended!

Technical Guide: 

Fly to Island Lakes. If you land on the north lake you can paddle out into the river. If you land on the big lake you have to portage through the bush, across a swamp and you will come out at Moore's cabin.
The river flows nicely to Elbow Rapids which are only a CI. From here the flow is very slow until you reach Virginia Falls. After the portage you launch into the fourth canyon which has large waves but nothing techincal. Figure 8 rapids will challenge you however, but there is a portage. The third canyon is wonderfully scenic and terminates at the Gate which a perfect camp spot. The second canyon has a nice flow but no rapids. The first canyon is headed by Georges Riffle which is just big water (BIG WATER). The first canyon also holds caves, Lafferty Riffle and Kraus' Hotspring. When you leave the first canyon it is a slow big meandering river until it meets the Liard then it is a huge meandering river.

Trip Journal/Log/Report/Diary: 

Location Distance Trip Total Section Total
Island Lake
Broken Skull River 47 47
Brintnell Creek 30 77
Park Boundry 14 91
Rabbitkettle Lake 4 81 95
Hell Roaring Creek 37 118
Flood Creek 15 133
Sunblood warden cabin 51 184
Viginia Falls 10 194 113
Marengo Creek 8 202
Clearwater Creek 6 208
Figure 8 7 215
Wrigley Creek 1 216
Flat River 9 225 31
Mary River 14 239
The Gate and Pulpit Rock 15 254
Big Bend 21 275
Second Canyon 1 276
Headless Creek 17 293
Deadmen Valley 12 305 80
Dry Canyon Creek 4 309
George's Riffle 3 312
Whitespray Spring 19 331
Lafferty Creek 4 335
Lafferty Riffle 0.5 335.5
Kraus Hotsprings 3.5 339 34
Splits 20 359
Park Boundry 16 375
Nahanni Butte 32 407
Blackstone Landing 45 452 113

The Story Version
The floatplane disappeared over the ridge leaving silence, stillness, and isolation to envelop the six friends left standing upon the shore of Haywire Lake located in the South Nahanni River Valley. They stood, in awe as the northern sunset ignited the calm waters of the lake in a surreal illusion, like looking down into a molten sky. They appeared stunned by the realization that their two yearlong dreams had finally materialized. Before them lay the reward for the hours of planning, practicing, reading, emailing, organizing, and waiting it had taken to prepare for this 16 day, 500km canoe trip. The group was motionless as if absorbing the tranquility, but their brains buzzed like high voltage lines, and their hearts beat allegro. Finally, their excitement could be contained no longer and they exploded with leaps, hoots, and hollers that echoed across the lake. A bottle of Everest Whiskey, brought from a recent trek in Nepal, emerged from a dry bag and a toast was given to this new adventure. It was a fitting start to a trip that would earn the name "South Nahanni Lounge Tour" on which the team would call themselves "The Back Channel Paddlers".

Here is their story...July-August 2003
As the Twin Otter piloted by Jacques from South Nahanni Airways soared above the Liard River leaving Ft. Simpson behind we peered out the windows at the flat lake covered landscape. We could see the scarified marks left by past Ice Ages and the unique rectangular lakes that the retreating glaciers left behind. Soon, we passed Little Doctor Lake and the first range of mountains, which we recognized from photos. Beyond this first range of mountains lay a high, relatively flat, treeless dome shaped plateau that was etched with deep vein like drainage systems. We assumed this plateau was the result of flat laying sedimentary strata eroding slowly, because further west where the strata sloped or dipped the geography contained high treeless ridges with deep river valleys. As we flew further west the terrain grew more and more mountainous with hanging valleys and sharp peaks. We kept expecting to see the Nahanni Valley but we were too far north to see it. Then, after an hour of flying we finally saw the famous Nahanni River with its wide U-shaped valley. Instead of turning north towards Island Lakes we fly west into the Ragged Range for a special side trip, courtesy of Jacques, heading towards the Cirque of the Unclimbables. Unfortunately, turbulence turned us away, so in exchange, Jacque thrilled us by skimming over an alpine ridge flanked by two peaks then like a shot goose, we plummeted into the Nahanni River Valley towards Island Lakes. To us, the lakes appeared too small to land on, yet we aimed straight at the smallest and furthest of the lakes where Jacques promised we could paddle directly into the Nahanni River. As we approached, the pontoons appeared to skim the top of the tree whizzing by. Suddenly, we dropped onto the lake, at which point the engines roared and the plane stopped. Jacques then spun the plane 180 degrees and nosed the pontoons against the south shore of the lake. Off to the west a cow moose and calf watched our arrival. We exited the plane like kids stepping off a roller coaster, swaying, and giggling with wide grins. After Jacques and his plane were gone we set-up camp and went for a paddle on the quiet lake at midnight as the sun painted the horizon crimson. At 2am, when we eventually crawled into our comforting sleeping bags, we realized how exhausted our bodies felt and soon where asleep. It had been quite a day, since we had driven from Ft. Nelson to Ft. Simpson and flown out all in this one day. We named this camp Kamikaze Jacques after our pilot.
Our first morning began with the mirror-surfaced lake covered in mist. We fished for a while and caught a grayling and some trout, which we cooked over the fire and served for breakfast. After breakfast, we loaded our three canoes, a We-no-nah Spirit II, an Old Town Tripper, and a Clipper Prospector 17, then we paddled into the stream at the north end of the lake, over a beaver dam and onto the swift flowing, cold waters of the South Nahanni River. Our first stop was at the Moore's cabin to hang the photo, covered plaque we had made. After reading Joanne Moore's book, Nahanni Trailhead, it felt familiar walking around their cabin while relaying to the group, the story of the Moores, one year long honeymoon here. Next, downstream on river left, we found the hot spring in which we soaked, enjoying the warm water. Beside the spring, there were large grizzly tracks in the sand. Even so, a debate began over camping by the hot spring. Two of us three men liked the idea, mind you we were thinking more about, liquor, and our three paddling babes soaking in the hot spring. While, one man was thinking, with common sense, about sandy tents, mosquitoes, and no shelter. Darn common sense! It always makes such sense! So we found an ideal spot on an island further downstream that set the criteria for future good campsites. So, we erected a shower in consolation of the hot tub! We named this camp Action Island for obvious reasons.
The next day we set out eagerly on the quick flowing river in anticipation of the Elbow Rapids, which disappointingly had only a couple of 4ft waves to tease us. The rapids contained a few corners with 3ft standing waves and a few gravel bars and some shallow riffles followed by 3ft wave chains. It was now that we thought maybe we should we have started at Moose Ponds instead. From Elbow Rapids to the Broken Skull River the flow was very slow so we took our time to admire the surrounding mountains. Through that section we watched a grizzly swim across the river, a wolf follow along the bank, and a lynx relax on a sandy beach. We arrived at the Broken Skull River to find a nice camping location. The big, blue tarp had just been set up when the rain began. The rain finished with a beautiful rainbow that spanned the valley. We named this camp the Big Top after the large tarp.
During breakfast the following day, we spotted a grizzly on the opposite bank tear at logs and overturn rocks. We feared he may swim across to see what was for breakfast, but as soon as he realized there were six humans watching him he headed for the hills in a hurry. Before noon, we launched our flotilla, which arrived at the Rabbit Kettle camp, six and half-hours later. We covered most of the distance tied together, rafting, sailing, snoozing, floating, and fishing. This section was wide and slow. At camp that afternoon, someone remarked that the Old Town Tripper, which had been placed upside down as a table, was quite a sight with the collection of liquor containers that had accumulated on it when a dry bag was emptied in search of something else. The comment was it looked like we were at a lounge. The name stuck, and we named it the Tippy Canoe Lounge, since the table construction was not very stable.
The following morning we portaged a canoe into Rabbit Kettle Lake to do some fishing before our guided tour of the Tufa Mounds. It wasn't until after we hauled the canoe the 900 meters uphill that the Warden's Wife explained there weren't any fish in the lake. We couldn't believe this so we fished until we were believers. No fish, who would have thought? The guided hike to the Tufa Mounds, with Warden Doug Tate, was informative and interesting. Joining in the tour was a guy who arrived by helicopter specifically to study the mounds. Apparently, the "Tufa Guy", as we called him, is in the know when it comes to mounds of tufa. His arrival had coincidentally corresponded with the arrival of the floatplane carrying Herb "Federal Minister of Resources" Daliwall, Justin "Son of Herb", some guy claiming to be the Mayor of Ft. Simpson, and Jim Anton the MLA from Yellowknife. These men introduced themselves to us "Nahanni Paddlers". We shook hands, chatted, and posed for some pictures. Coincidentally, it was my 33rd birthday that day. Later, my wife informed me she had arranged for all these dignitaries to fly in for my birthday. However, they departed before the party began back at the Tippy Canoe Lounge. Speaking of dignitaries, some reporters and Justin Trudeau, had finished the trip the day we started. They started at Virginia Falls, and finished at Lindberg's Landing.
The next day we paddled downstream to Hell Roaring Creek. Along the way, the flow was slow and we began adventuring into the side channels or synes in hopes of short cutting across some of the huge meanders. We soon discovered however, that these side channels were great spots to bird watch, and interesting to explore, while providing relief from the wide slow meandering of the big river. As a result, we named ourselves the "Back Channel Paddlers" and our motto became "We are definitely not mainstream". At Hell Roaring Creek, the Trent's Foot Lounge had just been erected when the rain began. It rained all night. I love the sound of rain on the tent fly.
It was still raining in the morning, and by 8am Hell Roaring Creek was roaring at three times the volume it was the day before. Luckily, we have the sense of mind to always keep canoes, and camp above high water lines. When we prepared to leave it was still raining so the lounge, and the tent flies were packed away wet in separate dry bags. Our clothes, tents, and sleeping gear were kept dry and clean thanks to good quality flies and careful packing under the flies or a golf umbrella. It rained all day, as we explored Nahanni's back channels. There were not many nice places to camp near Flood Cr. so we chose a location further down on a bit of an island with a dry back channel behind it. It was here we named this trip the Back Channel Paddlers', South Nahanni Lounge Tour 2003. That nights lounge activities involved a crib tournament under the Big Tarp in the rain. After 24 hours of rain our bodies began to feel damp and sandy. In fact, everything we touched felt wet and sandy and our spirits were starting to fade. Our only sanctuary was our tents and sleeping bags, which were very dry and soothing. It rained all night. Okay, the sound of rain on a tent fly is soothing as long as you don't think about the packing up part.
When we awoke it was still raining and the back channel was flowing around the island, we thought this was appropriate considering our new name. During breakfast we learned two of the females had bladder infections, one of whom, did not have the proper medication to cure it, and hence had been up all night in discomfort. A discussion began about different options we had, on how to spend the day. There were several factors to consider; a scheduled reservation at Virginia Falls in two days, the infection, the endless rain, and the fact that we had 50 km to paddle and apparently there were no good places to camp that would be half way. In our wet and sandy rain gear we stood against the cool rain, under a low dark sky, and a decision was reached that we would camp here one more night and hopefully tomorrow in better weather we would paddle the 50km in one go. This was our most uncomfortable moment on the entire trip. However, we had fire, food, cards, and a lounge so we idled away the morning. Fortunately, in the afternoon, the sun emerged and all the wet things like, tent flies, rain jackets, paddling gear, and dishtowels were strung up like a colorful bizarre in Katmandu and the drying began.
We awoke to sunshine. When we thought of the 50km paddle, the spectacular falls, and the needed medication, camp was dismantled like an evacuation notice had been served. As the paddles first dipped into the water, we felt energy pouring into every stroke, as if driven by the desire to get away from the wet and sandy camp, to see the falls, and to attain relief for the assumed discomfort of the lady with the infection. Soon we realized however, this was too much of a pace and we slowed to do some fishing. We missed our back channels, as they were few through this stretch, yet we didn't mind much as we were intent on arriving at Virginia Falls. We laughed when we noticed there were actually many good places to camp, where, supposedly the only last good site before the falls was Last Chance Island. We decided this was promoted more to control what time and how many people arrived at the falls rather than a lack of good sites. We arrived in the evening, set up camp, and attended the campfire talk. We had planned to see the falls the next day but couldn't contain our curiosity so at just before midnight we stood above the falls in awe. That night we fell asleep to the sound of the falls instead of raindrops.
The next morning we awoke to the sound of the falls and ate breakfast to the sound of the falls as they thundered down 92 meters to the start of the Fourth Canyon. After breakfast we paddled across the river and began our accent of Sunblood Mountain reached the summit in a leisurely 3 hours. It took us 1.5 hours to descend the 1,000 vertical meters on the 8km of trail. While we were hiking one couple remained behind at camp with the Park Warden, Sylvie, where they called the hospital in Ft. Simpson, via Sat-phone, and arranged for the proper medication to be flown out the next day on a scheduled plane tour. After completing the hike we found, at the base of the mountain, vast patches of sweet blueberries. We could have easily filled two 1 liter Nalgene water bottles in 14 minutes then wash them at camp and bake them into our muffins and have them on our pancakes the next morning. (We could've if we weren't in a National Park... wink). We attended another campfire talk given by Felix the young native park interpreter. The lounge at Virginia Falls was named "The Look" because there were many people at the campsite and only a few looked to be paddlers.
The next day, after the medication had arrived right on schedule we began the portage around "The Falls" to the Fourth Canyon. The Fourth Canyon had some large waves that entertained us but it wasn't until the Figure 8 Rapids that our paddling skills were put to the test. We all passed the test. Not perfectly, however as one canoe was almost drawn backwards into the eddy on the right and another canoe got a bit sideways on the largest wave. We also passed the test, this time perfectly, on Wrigley's Tricky Currents. We paddled them by accident actually, as we expected them further downstream. The currents were definitely tricky with strong eddy lines and whirlpools but we found the right line and were fine. The flow, from Virginia Falls to our camp that night was a prefect rate at between 9 and 11kph. We wished the entire 500km could be like that. We camped just below Wrigley Creek at the Adrenaline Lounge, aptly named for that enjoying stretch of river between Virginia Falls and Wrigley Creek.
The next day we paddled through the third canyon to Pulpit Rock where a black bear sow and her cub waited to greet us. This was by far our favorite camp spot. It had all the requirements of a perfect camp location, which included; non-sandy tent sites, tent sites protected in trees, and a clear stream that ran into a deep fishing hole containing bull trout and grayling. The site was also up off the river with a gentle breeze to keep the bugs away, and from the lounge we had the most impressive view of The Gate and Pulpit Rock. This camp was named Jack Attack after an incident that occurred during our shore lunch of freshly caught grayling cooked on a fire. It so happened that our faithful companion Jack Daniel had run out on us the evening before. But, during the shore lunch, while searching through a different dry bag two more containers were discovered that contained Jack's precious liquid.
The next morning we woke before the sun rose and hiked to the top of the gate to take some pictures. Just the three "hikers" went and the round trip took less than an hour. It was a beautiful clear morning. The warm sunshine radiated on us when we launched. All that changed however, as a result of one inappropriate act by the man we called "Our Chief". As "Our Chief" paddled through the gate he announced he would ask the "River Gods" for their blessing by touching Pulpit Rock with his paddle as he went by. We eddied out and gathered in our canoes as "Our Chief" prepared his prayer. As he spoke he over-zealously swung his paddle with lightening force and a loud slap echoed through The Gate as the blade spanked the Pulpit Rock. This obviously displeased the "River Gods", as our trip through the second canyon was hell. In fact, we never saw the second canyon. For, as we paddled deeper and deeper into the canyon, the wind, rain, sleet, and low cloud punished us with extreme force. We took shelter for a time after "Our Chief's" canoe was spun sideways to the strong gale and the force of the wind was almost pushing him back upstream against the 11kph flow, it was quite a sight to see his canoe side surfing, without a wave! At one point when "Our Chief", the Pulpit spanker, stepped off the river into the bush to get some water, the headwind became a tail wind and we zoomed along at 14kmh but the moment he stepped back into his canoe the wind lashed our faces with sleet. Go figure! By the time we reached Deadmen's Valley the visibility had deteriorated to almost nil yet we struggled determinedly on against the wind in the slow flow. The conditions were so adverse "Our Chief" insanely joked it couldn't get any worse so he yelled out at the storm, "Come on! Is that all ya got? You can't beat us!" Just then a gust blew our canoe sideways and we were drawn in reverse down a side riffle where we ended up stuck in an eddy, and his canoe ran aground on a shallow gravel bar. At this point some of the saner heads began to question the safety of the group and suggested we start searching for a camp spot. I believe she suggested, "we had better stop before there were a few more dead men in the valley". Would the females or the storm have delivered this sentence, I'm not sure. However, I am certain that if we hadn't stopped, a few men would have suffered the same fate as the McLeod brothers. So, we camped just downstream of the Paddle Cabin on the Prairie Creek delta. We named this camp The Tempest Lounge, after the force that tormented us through that gauntlet. Also, that night we forbid "Our Chief" from speaking to or about any supernatural forces for the rest of the trip.
The next morning we awoke to frost and a blanket of snow in the mountains. We hiked, fished, and picked berries in Prairie Creek Valley. We hung the shower and cleansed ourselves of the previous day's encounter with something evil. We had another card tournament. We also placed our art-covered paddle in the cabin and signed the book. We renamed the lounge Nona's Nose after the wife's bright red sun burnt nose that had guided us through the dark storm. Her nose was so red you could feel the heat off it as you walked by.
We rose to a perfect day for paddling through the spectacular First Canyon. George's and Lafferty Riffles entertained us with large waves, as the canyon walls loomed vertical thousands of feet above us, bored by many caves. Our necks ached as we gawked up and around at the magnificent cliffs. At the end of the First Canyon we found Kraus' hot spring. It was closed to camping due to bear warnings, which was very disappointing, as we hated to get out of the warm, soothing water. The heat felt so good and heated us to the core. As we paddled on towards The Splits we passed up several good camp spots, which we later regretted as we ended up at the end of the day settling for a sandy, buggy island in The Splits, which we chased a black bear off of. Again, the Big Top Tarp was set up just as the rain came. That evening, we were treated to the most spectacular sunset. The colors mixed with the mist, and clouds into what appeared to be a forest fire that consumed the horizon. The sun's rays in the other direction produced a double rainbow arching over the river. It was truly spectacular and a fitting end to our last night of no civilization. The lounge was named the "Ten Day Lady" for the woman who had, days previous, admitted she had just enough adventure after 10 days of rain, sand, dirt, and mosquitoes. The name was fittingly appropriate, for that evening she looked utterly defeated as she stood in the rain, and sand. Her arms drooped by her sides. Her Gore-Tex jacket and pants were slick with rain and sticky with Grey sand. Her wet hair clung to her face and her cheeks were streaked with tears. Without raising her head she looked up at me only with her big sad eyes as the rain dripped from the brim of her hood and the tip of her cold nose. I wished I could place her in our warm clean bed and tuck the thick down duvet around her, but it was 3,000km away. So instead, I wrapped my arms around her and tucked her head under my chin onto my chest and held her by the fire.
We vacated the island as quickly a possible the next morning. We were drawn by the desire to make phone calls to children and family, and buy junk food at the store in Nahanni Butte. The paddle was a slow and meandering one on the wide river but we did find many side channels to get us through. That night's lounge was named Stable Table out of respect for the Old Town canoe that had faithfully been our table and lounge every night.
The next day we paddled from Nahanni Butte to Blackstone Landing where we arranged for a shuttle to take us back to Ft. Simpson. In Ft. Simpson, that night we drank beer at the Ft. Simpson Inn and summarized the success or our adventure into four categories: teamwork, knowledge, equipment, and location.
In regards to teamwork we recognized that everyone had contributed personal strengths and character towards the common group goal. All decisions were unanimous and achieved through brainstorming. Everyone acted safely to prevent injury or damage. Everyone was included, appreciated, and respected. Together we overcame adverse conditions. Everyone shared in the work and tasks. Everyone appreciated and respected remote, unique, and beautiful wilderness. Above all we had fun!
In regards to our abilities we felt our experience, skills, knowledge, preparation, planning, and coordinating was sufficient for a trip of this length, remoteness, and paddling level. We also gained skills and knowledge for future and possibly more difficult trips.
In regards to our equipment we found it was never an issue and met all our needs, thus our good quality gear was appropriate for the conditions and geography that we explored or adventured in.
In regards to the South Nahanni itself we felt it is a truly unique, remote, picturesque, and historical location. It seems to have everything; wildlife, legends, history, waterfalls, hot springs, caves, fishing, wilderness, mountains, world recognition, adequate services and transportation, unique geology, remoteness, not many people, some sections of challenging whitewater while other sections safe enough for guided non-paddlers, etc....

Maps Required
Topo Maps (1:50,000): 
Oh boy there is a lot. Contact me!
Topo Maps (1:250,000): 
Not as many. 1:50,000 are the way to go though.
Special Comments: 

This river has everything! Unique geological history, colorful human history, caves, falls, rapids, hikes, fishing, canyons, hotsprings, wildlife, and isolation.
Info from the Park
The Park has implemented a mandatory reservation system to help evenly distribute visitor use in the park throughout the visitor season. Visitors must register prior to entering the park and at the check-in stations along the way and deregister when leaving the park.

Two non-guided departure units will be allowed each day to a maximum of 40 departures. The maximum stay at Virginia Falls is two nights.

The Park has implemented a cost recovery fee of $100 per person. Since river trips can start at different locations, for purposes of administration the date of arrival at Virginia Falls is used as the date of your reservation.
You MUST apply to Parks Canada for a reservation. The air charter company cannot do it for you. The Park Office
Here are some typical starting locations and travel times to Virginia Falls:

From Moose Ponds 10-14 days
From Island Lakes 7-10 days
From Rabbitkettle Lake 3-4 days

NOTE: It usually takes about 7 - 10 days for the second half of the journey from Virginia Falls to Blackstone Park.
Island Lakes - generally flat water with a few class II rapids. Allow 3 - 4 days to reach Rabbitkettle Lake.
Rabbitkettle Hotsprings - hiking trail from Rabbitkettle Lake round trip takes 5 hours.

Sunblood Mountain - This is a full day hike, but well worth it, according to the people who have done it. You start by crossing the river just above Virginia Falls (keep paddling!) and then follow the trail to the mountain top.

Ending your trip
Canoeists continue down the Liard River to Blackstone Park, which is alongside the Liard Highway. Air staff will come to Blackstone with a van and a canoe trailer and pick you up. This is the most economical way of returning to your starting point at Fort Liard. Remember to deregister when you leave the Park.

Camping is permitted anywhere in the park along the river corridor except for these restrictions: Camping is not permitted at park patrol cabins. Designated campgrounds must be used at Rabbitkettle Lake, Virginia Falls and Kraus Hotsprings. Low impact camping is encouraged.

A National Park fishing license ($13.00) is required for angling in the Park. These are available from Deh Cho Air or the Rabbitkettle Warden Station. The Regulations are not too complicated. Daily catch limits are 2 Arctic Grayling, 3 Trout and 5 Pike. The daily possession limit is 5 fish. Fish remains can be burned, but only in a hot fire to avoid attracting animals. Park regulations allow fish remains to be thrown into the river.

In addition, you will be flying in a float plane and travelling in a canoe, both of which have weight limitations. Prepare accordingly. For flying in, keep your gear below 100 pounds or 45 kg per person. Don't forget to include a safety factor for food as the trip may take longer than expected.
To more information contact Park Administration at:
Nahanni National Park Reserve
Box 348
Fort Simpson, NWT, Canada XOE ON0
Phone: 867-695-2310 867-695-3151
Fax: 867-695-2446
Duty Warden: 867-695-3732 (June - September)
Total Distance
A. 517 km (324 mi) from Moose Ponds to Nahanni Butte
B. 610 km (381 mi) from Island Lake to Nahanni Butte
C. 184 km (114 mi) from Nahanni Butte to Fort Simpson
Average Gradient
The gradient from Rabbitkettle Lake to Virginia Falls is .7m/km. The drop in the river from Virginia Falls to Kraus Hot Springs is 1,7m/km, and the average gradient from Kraus Hotsprings to the Splits is 1.1
In the park you must have a fire box or pan if you want to have a fire.