top of page

2023: Nahanni packraft expedition

July 2023

A picturesque wilderness river unknown to most. 

Most Americans have never heard of the Northwest Territories. If they have, they commonly overlook it for more-popular Alaska. Canadians, similarly, know little about the mighty Nahanni River, which is also a huge national park.

Around two decades before this trip, before the internet was so resourceful, I remember seeing a photo of Virginia Falls, and being impressed with how remote it was. I knew I'd go someday. 

It's not easy to get up here. It's a solid two-day drive from the US border, or a flight and then an expensive car rental with a long drive from Yellowknife. I put off visiting this part of the world for many years for these reasons. Eventually, while living in northern Montana in 2023, I knew there never be a better time, and we opted to drive.

Due to the bad weather and lack of trails, we decided to use packrafts to explore the vast forests and mountains of the Northwest Territories. About a month out, we chartered a bushplane out of Fort Simpson to drop us off on the river, which is the only realistic way to get deep into this wilderness if going for less than a month.

The original plan was to packraft the scenic Broken Skull River. In the days before our trip, however, several huge forest fires broke out, in the warmest summer ever recorded up here, and many bushplane flights were cancelled due to limited visibility. We were thus unable to reach the Broken Skull, unfortunately missing meeting up with our friends that we had planned the trip with, and at the last minute the pilot suggested we fly into Virginia Falls and paddle out instead. We accepted.

It was a rough flight over hazy peaks into Virginia Falls, and the falls were absolutely spectacular. From here, we began an eight-day paddle back to civilization. The river was very swift and fast, yet also wide and offered little in the way of rapids or challenges. We had four straight days of a cold rain, followed by four drier days with poor visibility from the smoke. Lamentably, the smoke and heavy rains dampened our spirits, and we didn't do as many side hikes as planned, and I at least came away felling somewhat underwhelmed by this river. For me, one of the highlights was a short side-hike to a slot canyon with relatively warm water, which is the northernmost slot in the world as far as I know. I published this canyon, called Lafferty Canyon, on Ropewiki.

While the Nahanni Rivers cuts through some scenic peaks, it would be hard for me to describe it as majestic or life-altering. We saw no other groups on the river due to so many weather/smoke-related cancelled bushplanes, but knew that the majority of the park's 1,000 visitors come here on guided raft trips that cost $8,000 for a week. We had chosen to do it independently for a fraction of the cost. 

When we got to Nahanni Butte eight days after starting, it took two days to hitchhike back to Fort Simpson, where we had left our truck for the bushplane flight. From here we drove out to Yellowknife.

Were I to return - and someday I probably will - I'd choose a trip with a mountain pass or two, a crystalline stream with plenty of rapids, some majestic lakes to fly-fish at, and build in plenty of extra days to wait out the bad weather. Just my thoughts.

bottom of page