make a donation

Nahanni’s greatest test awaits

With expansion comes new concerns
David Finch
Originally published in The Calgary Herald on Friday, August 10, 2007

"The Nahanni wilderness contains some of the most breathtaking terrain in the world," Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on Wednesday, the day he visited Virginia Falls on the South Nahanni River.

This river valley has amazed people for hundreds of years, attracting prime ministers, poets, prospectors and adventurers from around the world.

I have travelled the Nahanni six times, returning each time with new experiences and a deeper appreciation of a wild, untameable river.

In 2005 I canoed its waters alone.

Wednesday\'s announcement of an expansion to the boundaries of the south Nahanni National Park Reserve is good news, but news that must be tempered with concern.

What makes the Nahanni special also threatens its "ecological and cultural treasures" -- resources the prime minister promised to protect.

For centuries, the natives ascended its waters to trap and hunt, then made big skin-covered canoes for the ride down the Nahanni\'s raging spring waters with their furs back to the trading post at Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River.

During the 1890s gold rush, ambitious prospectors forced their way up the Nahanni to gain a back-door entrance to the Yukon gold rush.

And during the 1920s, R.M. Patterson started a mini-gold rush of his own when he showed up in Edmonton with promising samples. They turned out to be fool\'s gold.

But Patterson\'s real gold mine came from recounting his adventures in a book called The Dangerous River. It was recently voted the best book about canoeing ever published in Canada.

It made the Nahanni world famous and so hundreds of paddlers take to canoes, kayaks and rafts on its waters each summer.

Camping along the way, we withdraw from city life.

We watch moose, Dall sheep, black bears and grizzly bears go about their daily routines. Coming around a corner on the river we see wolves scatter from a fresh caribou kill.

Hardcore rock climbers tackle the huge vertical slabs of granite in the remote Ragged Range, formed 110 million years ago.

We hike, barefoot, up fragile tufa mounds and gaze down into the clear waters of the hot springs that created these rare cones of calcium carbonate, 30 metres high.

We paddle through spectacular canyons -- only the Grand Canyon is deeper -- dwarfed by walls a thousand metres high.

Just below the Lower Canyon we soak in a soothing sulphur hot springs.

Garden parsnip and berries growing there gave the Nahanni a reputation as a Garden of Eden.

Nights find us under the largest of canopies on which the northern lights paint their ever-changing landscapes.

And we howl at the moon that hangs low on the horizon and wait for the return call of the wolves.

Wicked storms can turn the beautiful landscape into a maelstrom of blowing sand or lashing waves and pounding rain. Annual floods wash away almost all hints of human passing in Canada\'s third largest national park -- now more than four times the size of Banff National Park.

"I had to come and see for myself, the place that was named the very first World Heritage site by the United Nations in 1978," Harper said on Wednesday. For details see

I extend my congratulations to our prime minister for this announcement but the hard work is still to come.

The natural resources of the North are just now starting to be exploited on a massive scale and large companies are itching to take its resources, even within lands that belong in the Nahanni National Park.

The entire Nahanni watershed should be set aside if we want to honour the prime minister\'s promise to "ensure the long-term protection of this wilderness."

One-quarter of the watershed still needs protecting -- about 10,000 square kilometres.

Two mines, on the Flat River and on Prairie Creek, currently threaten the Nahanni waters into which they flow.

Oil exploration companies are also sniffing around, hoping to find another massive gas field like the one at nearby Fort Liard.

Native hunting rights must be recognized -- they are still the rightful owners of this land until the land claims are settled -- but the white hunters that operate in the watershed will want to stay, too.

The prime minister needs the wisdom of Solomon to, as he said, "balance the interests of the various stakeholders in the park\'s future" including the "commercial interests, whose existing investments must be recognized and respected."

Environmental groups, including the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Canadian Boreal Initiative, have voiced cautious support for the park expansion.

The NDP\'s Jack Layton has called it "a Harper half-loaf" and "a missed opportunity."

Local Deh Cho Grand Chief Herb Norwegian calls it "catch up for Canada."

And a mining company assured investors that its operations are not affected. Can everyone be appeased?

My heart goes back to my time alone on the Nahanni. Giant dragonflies hovered in the low sunlight, gorging themselves on the hordes of mosquitoes that buzzed outside my tent.

"I know the way in to the gold rivers," R.M. Patterson wrote in his Nahanni diary in August 1927, "and I have seen very great beauties in a wonderful mountain world."

Canada needs this wilderness to remain unspoiled for another 80 years. And then another 80 after that.

David Finch is a Calgary historian and adventurer.
© The Calgary Herald 2007