Medical science writer Michael Smith came home safe and sound after canoeing and camping along the remote South Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories (NWT)—even with tales of wild animal sightings. One day, a moose swam across the river toward his group, then turned tail and swam back. The group also saw wood bison, small northern loons, and brown bears on three different days, including a mother with cubs.
The swift-flowing river is “what [Mount] Everest is to mountaineers—remote, breathtaking, and mystical,” according to National Geographic. Accessible by helicopter or floatplane, but not by road, it is located in a World Heritage park and nature preserve.
It passes between kilometre-high gorges and tumbles twice the height of Niagara Falls at Virginia Falls. Smith’s group took 12 days to paddle 358 kilometres downstream from Rabbitkettle Lake. They ended up in Nahanni Butte, the village of a Dene band located near the borders of Yukon and British Columbia.
Howling with the wolves: “Magical”
Among the wild animals Smith encountered, a family of wolves enchanted him most. “We came around a bend and saw four wolves…an old black male, a cub, and two grey females. We ‘backed water’ and one of our group cut loose with a wolf howl. A bunch of other [wolves] responded from up in the woods. Then the cub gave us a very soprano howl, followed by the two females, and finally the old guy responded with a very basso howl. Magical!”
Other wildlife found in Nahanni National Park include black bears, grizzly bears, mountain goats, Dall’s sheep, woodland caribou, mule deer (requires Adobe Reader), white-tailed deer, weasels, wolverines, beavers, muskrats, marmots, snowshoe hares, minks, martens, otters, lynx, red foxes, and 180 bird species.
Paddling adventure trips can also afford the chance to meet interesting adventurers. An acquaintance of Smith’s happened to go along with singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot. Other trips have included former prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chretien, and more recently Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Whitewater rafting open to amateurs
Canadian River Expeditions of Whitehorse, Yukon, has been outfitting and leading paddlers down the Nahanni and other rivers for the past three decades. Beginners may travel by rubber raft, west from Virginia Falls, for either 8 or 12 days, but canoeists must have some experience in whitewater rapids.
All of the trips are expensive, from $5,460 per person for the seven-day raft trip to $7,650 for 21 days in a canoe, plus 5 per cent federal sales tax and a $150 park fee. Most of the cost is for travel by air in and out of the park, along with the weight of the watercraft, tents, food, and safety gear. Plus, there is the cost of getting to Fort Simpson, NWT, nearly 1,000 kilometres by air northwest of Edmonton, Alberta. From Toronto, the cost would be a minimum of about $1,200 in July.
Despite the potential dangers of whitewater paddling, Neil Hartling, owner of Canadian River Expeditions and Nahanni River Adventures, boasts an admirable safety record.
One man died during a trip in 1995 when he and his companions encountered a flash flood as they hiked away from the river. Yet Hartling estimates only one in a thousand paddlers has suffered an injury, most often from slipping and falling at a base camp or while hiking. Never has anyone been injured on the river, or during an encounter with wildlife, he reports.
Risk management program “effective”
“A lot of [the safety record] has to do with the information we provide, the prerequisites [for skill levels] and the safety equipment we give people,” he explains. “We have an effective risk-management program. [Nahanni National Park is] not (emphasis mine) a golf course, and that’s why people are there. So you have to watch where you are going.”
Hartling suspects a minor increase in the frequency of accidental injuries has occurred as a result of a rise in the average age of trippers—now about 57 years old.
Each group leader is equipped with a satellite phone to contact the outside world and an advanced wilderness first aid kit. Visitors who break a bone or have a serious medical issue must be airlifted out.
“There is no such thing as a cheap floatplane or helicopter,” notes Hartling. Anyone requiring surgery or the attention of a medical specialist would likely be taken by jet to the University Hospital in Edmonton, since Fort Simpson has only a health clinic.
“We strongly encourage people to purchase medical evacuation insurance,” says Hartling. “Few people have that much space on their credit cards [to cover the cost].” Travel medical insurance includes coverage for air ambulance services.
Going wild in Canada
Nahanni National Park is not the only place in Canada where adventurers can encounter wild animals. Several other parks also offer wilderness experiences, where animals both large and small may be encountered, or viewed at a distance, while hiking or paddling. (For safety reasons, food supplies should be hoisted up a tree at night to avoid four-legged, hungry visitors.) The more remote and lightly travelled the park, the more important it is to have experienced leadership and a rental satellite phone to call for help. But even visits to parks close to civilization call for safety precautions, first aid supplies, adequate footwear, lifejackets when on the water, and, in some cases, safety helmets. Paddle Canada provides information about canoeing courses, materials, as well as the sporting accident insurance the organization has arranged for its members. And the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association has prepared a Safe Canoeing Guide (requires Adobe Reader) for adventurers to read before they hit the water.
Adventurous travellers may encounter completely different risks when travelling to see wild things in different parts of the world. This could include mosquitoes carrying infectious diseases, thundering herds of wildebeest and elephants in parts of Africa, or road hazards and taxi drivers in cahoots with shakedown artists in the Galapágos. We will take a closer look at Galápagos cruises next, then Tanzania safaris. Stay tuned!
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