No Rookies Allowed: Taking on the Little Nahanni | Canoeroots Magazine | Rapid Media
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No Rookies Allowed: Taking on the Little Nahanni Photo: Dustin Silvey

An ambitious and remote scouting mission takes on the famed Nahanni River’s scary little sister

It wasn't until the tenth day of the expedition that it happened. The canoe was sideways; my paddle could only reach air. All I could see was the icy rapids of the water below. Ken, in the stern of my canoe, was screaming at me. Was this it? Was I finally going to dump the canoe? Was my camera gear going to go floating down the river? All the fears that the team had about having an inexperienced paddler on a remote wilderness trip were about to come true. 

Ten days before I almost brought about catastrophe; a storm was rag- ing in the small town of Fort Simpson in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Our rag tag group of six travelers had arrived 24 hours before in preparation for the 14-day exploratory canoe trip down the Little Nahanni River. Sponsored by Parks Canada, our aim was to scout the river and create a guidebook, turning the intense 85-kilometer route into the next must-do whitewater canoe destination of the north. It’s everything a river tripper could want: fast crystal water, thrilling rapids, looming canyons, wildlife sightings and remote landscapes. Also, maybe a couple things you don’t want, such as lack of beta, high consequence drops and, at the time, seriously terrible weather.

Located about 60 kilometers northwest of its more famous coun- terpart, the Little Nahanni River runs through two national park reserves that border each other: the famous Nahanni National Park Reserve and little known and recently created Nááts’ihch’oh National Park Reserve. Combined, the two reserves cover an area of almost 40,000 square kilometers, larger than the country of Ireland.

Until now, fewer than 10 paddlers have descended the river each year. Most have been doing so with very little beta.

“We knew that people had paddled the river, but there was very little information available,” says Lyn Elliott, our trip leader from Parks Canada. “It’s a technical beast, so the goal was to collect enough river information so that more paddlers can enjoy it. And there’s only one way to get that—by paddling the river.”

Prior to the trip, Lyn scoured online resources to find more on the Little Nahanni. She got in touch with half-a-dozen paddlers who had run the river over the past few decades. One paddler, Mike Fischesser of North Carolina, paddled there in 1987 and recalled being given a hand drawn map by a friend at the time.

“He drew a line on a piece of paper and said, ‘I think there’s a rapid there,’” Fischesser says.

“That’s the scope of the information they went down the Little Nahanni with in the ‘80s. Despite all my research and interviews, I didn’t feel like we had much more tangible information almost 30...

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