If your heart is still young enough to quicken at stories of a faraway, secret land where verdant valleys bloom amid arctic snows, and lost gold mines are guarded by wild men and spirits of the forest, then the Nahanni River will be able to offer the holiday of a lifetime. Add to this places with names like Deadmen Valley, Headless Range, Funeral Range, Valley of No Return, each with its legend and fascinating stories, and your bags are halfway packed.
Remoteness is guaranteed to the area by the Canadian Government and UNESCO, which placed the river and its surroundings on the World Heritage list, allowing access only by boat or light aircraft. It was a wise decision, for the splendours of the river country, the magnificence of its dark canyons and towering waterfalls, owe much to its aloofness. In part, this has been assured by sheer size – the Nahanni drains a wilderness half the size of Scotland. But it is also because of the reputation it has held since the beginning of the 20th century when gold prospectors began to penetrate its hinterland.
In 1905, two brothers were rumoured to have struck it rich. A year later, their headless skeletons were discovered near the river. Then, in 1915, the headless corpse of another prospector, a tough Swede, was found in the woods, and the body of yet another was discovered frozen to death while kneeling by the ashes of his long-dead campfire.
The fates of still more were suggested by upturned canoes drifting in the river. Altogether, some 50 either died or disappeared – in such wild country probably by accident or starvation, but legends of evil spirits grew, along with tales of treasure guarded by half-human monsters that lived in fertile, hidden valleys where snow never fell.
All great wilderness has a touch of the uncanny, but nowadays on the Nahanni, this is largely forgotten in the overwhelming majesty of the place. For most visitors, the only way to see it is to take the guided motorboat trip 130 miles (210km) upriver from Nahanni Butte to Virginia Falls – fighting a 17 1/4 mph (28km/h) current all the way.
At the mouth of First Canyon, dramatic limestone walls striped yellow, brown and orange climb to some 4000ft (1200m) on either side, their faces pocked by caves. One of these faces is pocked by caves. In one of these caves, Valerie Grotto, are the bones of more than 100 Dall (or Thinhorn) sheep that at various times over the past 2000 years sought winter shelter in its depths and starved to death. At the upstream end, the canyon meets Deadman Valley, named after the headless skeletons discovered there in 1906.
Second Canyon, which cuts through the Headless Range, offers the best chances of seeing Dall mountain sheep perched on dizzying ledges, black bears turning over rocks at the water’s edge and moose browsing in the shallows. Jagged, rocky Third Canyon, the narrowest of the three, slices through the Funeral Range. Its narrowness gives the impression of greater depth than its 3000ft (900m) or more and makes it a suitable curtain-raiser for Hell’s Gate, a double hairpin boat-killer of white water that spins into whirlpools.
Round the next bend, you come face to face with Virginia Falls, the truly astounding climax of the whole trip. High above, the Nahanni swirls royally round a spruce-capped roky tower to plunge on each side in twin cataracts that shake the earth with their thunder. The drop from the rim is 294ft (90m) – almost twice as high as Niagara Falls.