Our floatplane bumps and whirs far above rocky plateaus and sparsely treed mountains with stubborn snow patches in shadowy creases. Ribbons of rivers and tributaries, even further below, look like strewn extension cords. After more than an hour in the sky we land above falls twice the height of Niagara on a calm section of river where the steady flow is just about to be dragged into rapids and every last droplet hurled over the precipice.
Those of us getting off this flight for a night at a remote standing camp before a weeklong paddling and camping trip down the South Nahanni River in Canada's Northwest Territories are in a similar state to that water. We are right on the cusp of comfortably floating along in our relatively predictable everyday lives and being drawn into a journey that will quickly gain momentum and launch us into the unknown.
Our guides are waiting on the dock to greet us. They have sun on their faces and a boreal forest backdrop and look as relaxed as three friends on a summer holiday. But they've been working hard in preparation for this river expedition and have already portaged masses of gear around the 96-metre falls, including a week's supply of food and water, plus double classic canoes and an inflatable raft.
That 1.7-kilometre portage trail – we'll discover the next day when we collectively transfer the last of the load – is slippery and steep in parts. But, for now, an interpretive officer with a can of bear spray protruding from her handmade canvas and leather shoulder bag introduces us to Nahanni National Park. She is from the community of Nahanni Butte; our journey will end there over 200 kilometres downstream where the South Nahanni drains into the Liard River after descending 396 metres in altitude.
The parks officer leads us along boardwalk to the top of Virginia Falls – traditionally known as Nailicho, meaning "big falls" – and points out a black spruce ideal for making a canoe among the stocky northern trees and berry-bearing scrub and wildflowers. Sun Blood Mountain watches on from across the Nahanni as we search for animal shapes in the waterfall's light-refracting mist.
Back at camp we regroup with the guides for wild Taku salmon dinner under a blazing evening sun. The nine other guests are a septuagenarian and his teenage grandson, a guy whose wife is in her third trimester of what will be their first baby and three married couples in their forties, fifties and sixties. All are from the country's southern provinces, investing time and good money to travel the wild waters of one of the first designated Canadian World Heritage Sites of UNESCO.
That evening we crawl into tents we've erected ourselves – because this is no glamping experience – to privately consider what we've committed ourselves to, up here above 60 degrees north, where just about everything is more extreme that what we're used to.
The 563-kilometre South Nahanni, for instance, is a geologically eccentric mountainous river. It is antecedent, meaning it predates the mountains. What began as a meandering prairie river managed to maintain its course as the mountains formed and cut canyons into the rock.
Over the next week we'll see evidence of this geological history.
At Painted Rocks Canyon, it will only be a short walk from the riverbank to a wall of fossilised creatures dating back 500 million years to the time when the area was a tropical sea bed. Through Deadman Valley, where Prairie Creek meets the Nahanni, the broad braided spreading of the river will give an idea of what this waterway was like before the mountains rose. We'll wade and swim through the Chasm of Chills in Lafferty Creek where the water has, over eons, carved elegant hallways and rooms into the rock. A soak in Kraus Hot Springs will help us appreciate the area's geothermal attributes.
We transfer the last of the gear the next morning from the standing camp down to a rocky riverbank where bleached driftwood lies in naturally formed bundles. We're lured closer to the base of Nailicho for the drama of sound and spray before lunch and the final pack and briefing. Downstream the Nahanni winds away out of sight like a true life path.
Nahanni River Adventures offers guests a choice of rafting or canoeing with this itinerary. The guides tell us there are usually two rafts and a couple of canoes but in our case six guests have requested canoes, one has brought his own inflatable kayak and three of us are in the raft. The canoers have varied levels of experience and some have recently been on a training camp in Quebec, but one barely slept the night before and all six are visibly nervous.
"It's not a learning river; you've got to come with a skill set," says the lead guide who, at 38, is a very experienced one. She knows exactly when to be the clown and when to be deadly serious. Such as right now, dressed in her dry suit briefing the wetsuited canoers on the Class II and III rapids just around the first bend.
My enjoyment of white water paddling isn't worth the risk as I see it. So I take my place at the front of the raft which eats Class II and III rapids for breakfast and from where I can put in a paddle when the guide on the huge oars at the back of the raft needs help. As it turns out I'll get a chance to canoe during the week for a couple of half days on flat water when the others feel like a break – though not through canyons.
Downstream from Nailicho the major canyons are quite simply named Fourth, Third, Second and First. They are within one of the largest and most complex high-altitude karst systems in the world and by the time we reach First Canyon the walls will tower more than a kilometre above the water. In one of First Canyon's high cliff-face caves, a pile of more than 100 Dall sheep skeletons dated at more than 2000 years old has been discovered in recent years.
We won't access that cave but we will see living breathing moose, bison, black bear, porcupine, beaver, Dall sheep and birds of prey. We'll also be fed meal after meal of impossibly fresh food – pork tenderloin, tabouli, cheesecake, cinnamon rolls – all prepared with a portable camp kitchen and open fire. We'll fall asleep to rain on our tents one evening and wake up to a blue sky and surrounding mountains caked with snow. The only capsize will happen during our first half an hour on the water and will be quickly managed.
But this is all ahead of us.
The guides systematically pack the last of the gear in place as everyone silently wrestles with the competing feelings of desire to get going, versus trepidation about what's ahead as Nailicho thunders away nearby. Then it's time to push off and we're suddenly all on the water, picking up speed as we're drawn between canyon walls and into the journey with no turning back.
Air Canada and Qantas fly daily to Vancouver. Connections to Yellowknife are available on Air Canada and Air North. See aircanada.com; qantas.com.au; flyairnorth.com.
First Air flies between Yellowknife and Fort Simpson several times a week (see firstair.ca). Flight prices fluctuate and can at times be unreasonably high so consider hiring a car in Yellowknife and driving to and from Fort Simpson.
Overnight in Yellowknife at the centrally located Explorer Hotel for its friendly staff, free Wi-Fi, free parking and complimentary airport shuttle bus transfers. See explorerhotel.ca.
Canadian River Expeditions and Nahanni River Adventures have been taking people down the Nahanni for decades. From late June to early September join a Nahanni Canyons from Virginia Falls one-week trip – Canyon Kingdom. Seven river days, fully catered, tent camping for $CAN5967 (plus 5 per cent GST and $CAN200 park fee and a $CAN250 flight surcharge for each two-person canoe). Rafters need no experience but canoers do require Class II white water experience. See nahanni.com
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Destination Canada, Northwest Territories Tourism, Nahanni River Adventures and Canadian River Expeditions.
FIVE MORE EXTREME PLACES IN NORTHWEST TERRITORIES
THE CANOL TRAIL
This derelict WWII pipeline route from the Yukon border to the Mackenzie River is now an epic 355-kilometre summer hiking trail of vast scenery, wartime relics, abundant wildlife and plenty of space to yourself.
Situated 200 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, this small coastal community is one of the territory's more far-flung. Its name means "looks like a caribou" and Beluga Jamboree, in spring, is worth aiming for.
TUKTUT NOGAIT NATIONAL PARK
Near the western mouth of the Northwest Passage, this magnificent remote park sees less visitors a decade than Banff sees a minute. Basecamp is the traditional Inuvialuit community of Paulatuk, which is accessible by floatplane.
WOOD BISON NATIONAL PARK
Canada's largest national park and the world's second largest, where the rare wood bison still roam free, is bigger than Switzerland. Located in the south of the territory down near the Alberta border, the park is accessible year round by road from Fort Smith.
The Northwest Territory's capital and only city was built, by chance, on Aurora's sweet spot of 68 degrees magnetic north. In winter you can see lights just about every clear night from the centre of this friendly and diverse 21,000-person city.