We slide into Deadmen Valley, the silt from ancient glaciers hissing against our rafts. For days now, we have been slinking between the skyscraper cliffs of the South Nahanni canyons, when suddenly the river lolls into fat braids and the Mackenzie Mountains sprawl open. The Tlogotsho Plateau wavers in the distance, a luminous blue, almost lifting off, but the slabbed clouds seem to weigh everything down.
The three rafts snug into the cobble beach of a vast alluvial fan spread by Prairie Creek. To the Dene, this place is known as Dahtaehtth'I, which can be translated as "wide-open plain along the bend in the river." With practised moves, we pitch our small village of bright tents and tarps as the first big drops darken the stones. We have been travelling for nine days now - three guides, plus three brothers from across the continent, their father and their teenage sons, a mother and her son from Vancouver, another mother and son duo from Saskatchewan, and a gallivanting couple from Toronto - and already this riff-raff crew can accomplish the urgent tasks almost without speaking.
On our first night, after a 240-kilometre Twin Otter flight over the mountain ranges, the tents looked a bit mangled. And everyone seemed stiff in their new gear. But Andre, a doctor from Victoria, had already popped out his trumpet and scatted a tune over the riffles of the Sluice Box rapids. And Linda, a fine-boned woman who bobbed like a chickadee as she was setting up her tent, confided that she had brought her son, Scott, with her because her husband had died six months before and they wanted to remember him here, a place he had always dreamed of paddling.
Guiding on this river has become something of a yearly migration for me. Each spring for the past 10 years, feeling grubbed out by a winter of deadlines and e-mails and hunching at a desk, I have hoped that the river will return the suppleness I've forgotten.
Nahanni National Park protects a remote tract of land, recently expanded to encompass almost the entire South Nahanni watershed. It is a vast ecosystem, home to more than 600 grizzly bears, a species that has been decimated elsewhere by human presence. This subarctic park also protects the world's most unique karstland, a terrain of water-eaten caves and sinkholes and underground rivers feeding in to the valley. And the Nahanni River is a swift, veering ride through deep canyons that were not glaciated in the last ice age.
On our first night, Marcel, a Parks Canada warden and a Dene person whose family grew up in this territory, invited us to feed the fire. So we each sprinkled a small gift of tobacco into the flames with gratitude, with prayers for the journey. And in the morning, we fed the river.
Day 10, I wake to the sound of rain on the tent. A good excuse for a little more sleep. We decide to lay over in Deadmen Valley rather than spend a wet day in the boats. The crew heads out to fish and hike up into the Prairie Creek canyon - if they can ford the creek that is swelling with the rain. My ankle's injured, so I stay back.
All day the plateau hovers close, like a breath on my neck.
For centuries, maybe millennia, this valley has been a gathering place. And the Dene still fish and hunt here. The Dall sheep come down at dusk because they know the sustenance of salt licked from the stones. The silvery dryas plants shimmer over the flats. The raindrops bead on the summer's last fireweed plumes.
Out of sight, but just upstream, the Prairie Creek mine sits within the park. Its old tailings ponds and plans for new development within the watershed are an ever-present threat in this seismically active area.
This place is both sacred and a resource, protected and used. We are here, after all, with jet fuel and nylon and aluminum. We drag our civilization with us. As pristine as it feels, the glaciers are retreating here, too. There is no place untouched by our carbon footprint. Who can understand the vast ways we are changing this world and the shape of its flowing?
And still the nighthawks hunt overhead and the stones roll in the creek. And the ground is a good place to nap as the plateau presses its blue light against your closed eyes.
Two days ago, we hiked up The Gate, a steep pitch of boulders that crests at a lookout, 460 metres high, a sheer drop to the river. The boats are specks. The river is relentless, carving its way through rock.
As we rested, Linda spoke of her husband's long illness and how he died. Next to her in bed. How his breath so quietly ceased.
They had wanted to do this trip together, had planned it and dreamed it for years. But then sickness took its place in the centre of their lives.
On her way down the steep, boulder slope, Linda takes it slow and easy, two hiking poles lending balance on the tricky terrain. Soon the others are far ahead and we are left in our quiet, stepping stone to stone. And soon - for the first time in years, she says later - she starts singing. Her voice runs high and clear.
As the water slows, it lets go. Prairie Creek spreads thin over the plain of stones sorted by the water. A rusted-out oil drum, perhaps washed down from the zinc mine, sits stranded in the scrub. In the low light of evening, Andre and his son take photos, their headlamps painting patterns with a slow shutter speed. Others move off to read or sit alone. Linda bends at the side of the river, washing her face. Here we remember, yes, we are made mostly of water.
Yesterday was the day of dipping our heads in the iciest creek. Of rowdy water fights with the bailing buckets. Of thwarting piracy efforts by pushing enemies overboard. The smoke from forest fires far off stung our eyes and made the sun red. And in the afternoon, sleep was thick and syrupy on the hot tubes of the rafts as we drifted lazy spirals down the river.
When we rounded a corner in Second Canyon, a moose lay on the thin strip of shore. We drifted closer, expecting it to bolt. But it lay there gazing back at us. The moose heaved a couple times, then went slack, sick or wounded, and held us again in its gaze as we floated on.
Ten years ago, I hiked the Tlogotsho Plateau with two of the park wardens on boundary patrol. In the Dene language, tlogotsho means "big place of grass." For at least 10,000 years, it has been a place to hunt, a travel route, a quarry for tools. The plateau sprawls out in long, knotted fingers. We walked the high country for days on the lookout for signs of poachers. The cloudberries were thick and ripe, low to the soggy ground. And from the rim of the high country we could see the deep cuts below.
Before we had left Fort Simpson, there had been a phone call. I was losing my love. He was leaving.
And even before that, the signs I was losing my brother too, in some way, illness, strangeness, seeping in.
In the timescale of our lives, these mountains and canyons seem immutable. But nature, all of it, our lives and the mountains are fleeting, impermanent. There is grief in this too.
When I read my poem, Tlogotsho, and dedicate it to Linda, I also dedicate it to the others.
We all carry loss. Like the stones in our pockets. Some have been held in an open palm, shown. Others held in secret, the surfaces slowly rubbed smooth.
Tomorrow, we will carry on downriver into the last canyon, its sheer, kilometre-high walls streaming all this rain in hundreds of fleeting waterfalls.
Tonight, we are silent, huddled under the tarp. The rain paws its delicate, indecipherable Morse. We're out of words. Andre picks up his horn and plays a slow, muted melody. And when the last notes curve away, we're left with the sound of the river.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Editor's Note: The Virginia Falls was incorrectly identified in the original version of this story. This story has been corrected.