Nahanni Neil’s Canyon Memory

by Neil Hartling

Georges Riffle or Cache Rapids as the old timers knew it, is a formidable rapid that guards the mouth of Canada’s deepest river canyon. A jet boat, a float plane and the dignity of many a canoeist have all been victims of its maw in the depths of Nahanni’s First Canyon. But on a mid September afternoon in 1985, I was resting above the rapid with 5 friends after tracking a 27 foot voyageur canoe du nord up through the canyon and the cataract. It was the tenth day of a dubious venturewe had spontaneously dreamt up only weeks prior. Inspired by RM Patterson’s classic novel Dangerous River, we were slogging upriver, through four canyons, from the confluence of the Nahanni and Liard rivers to Virginia Falls, a drop nearly twice the height of Niagara. Unemployed, adventurous and with more enthusiasm than good judgement, we were perfectly matched to the challenge. With a 200’ rope, lots of muscle, some river reading and gymnastics, we had managed to wrestle our weighty bateau through the maelstrom.

After surmountingthe rocky point at the head of the rapid, we gathered on a sand beach to watch a herd of Dall sheep across the river at the base of the sheer canyon walls. The afternoon sun glinted off the white coats of the yews and lambs as they foraged and licked at the calcium in the rocks for which this spot is known. A startled gasp from a crew member drew our attention upriver. A white wolf sat on our side of the river, showing no concern of our presence, looking longingly at the mutton on the other side of the rapid and no doubt dreaming canine calculations of probability to swim the waves and enjoy lamb chops.

I don’t know if that wolf lived out his yearnings, but he and the herd of sheep created one of my fondest wildlife encounters that afternoon, on that river of gold, river of dreams.

Neil Hartling
Owner, Canadian River Expeditions and Nahanni River Adventures

Editors note:
Nahanni Neil went on to become one of the most experienced river guides and champion for the majestic Nahanni - and probably knows the river better than anyone else, writing 3 books along the way. CPAWS worked closely with Neil on the "Nahanni Forever" campaign to protect the entire South Nahanni watershed in an expanded national park. He mobilized his vast list of clients, provided leadership among other outfitters, and participated as a speaker on the nation-wide tour, and even offered trips so CPAWS supporters could experience the majestic beauty for themselves! It's because of people like Neil that we were successful in protecting arguably one of the most beautiful places in Canada in a HUGELY expanded national park reserve.