Nahanni Paddles

    Assorted broken and “lost” paddles with inscriptions. © Parks Canada

    The exclusive club in Nahanni National Park Reserve 

    Deep in the midst of Nahanni National Park Reserve, in the Northwest Territories, as the park’s beloved Naha Dehé (South Nahanni River) threads its way through massive peaks and colossal canyons, small carvings of paddles and other mementoes rest within the log walls of old cabins; relics of paddlers that have passed by this storied route. Even in its busiest year, only a few hundred visitors take trips down the river that makes this World Heritage Site famous. Over the last 35 years or so, those several thousand visitors have stopped at the forestry cabin in Dahtaehtthi (Deadmen Valley) or at Tułetsęę (Kraus Hotsprings) to check‐in and leave behind a small memory of their trip, recognition of the life‐changing experience following in the footsteps of the Dehcho Dene, who have lived and travelled in this area for generations.

    Along the river, at either end of the First Canyon, are two rustic buildings that now serve as modern day check-in points. The original Deadmen Valley Forestry Cabin overlooks the river’s bank in this beautiful location. Built in the 1960s by employees of the Northwest Lands and Forests Service, when the land was still part of the Mackenzie Mountains Game Preserve, the cabin is now part of Nahanni’s cultural and natural heritage. Paddlers will often stop here and reflect on the trip they’ve had before threading the rapids of their last canyon on the journey and heading onwards. 

    Downstream from First Canyon is Tułetsęę; the hot springs and remains of the homestead of Gus and Mary Kraus. All that remains of the early homestead is the log generator shed. Gus and Mary lived here from 1941 until the establishment of Nahanni National Park in 1976. Today, groups travelling the river tend to rest and reflect at either of these locations as their descent of the river begins to come to an end. Since at least the 1980s, people have also taken this opportunity to leave behind small mementoes of their journey, evidence of having completed a trip on one of Canada’s great rivers and acknowledgement of the life-changing impact of the experience. 

    No one knows how it started, but one possible explanation for this unlikely tradition is colourful: whenever canoeists experienced a huge dump in the massive rapids of the Nahanni, if the paddles could be salvaged, then signing them and leaving them behind was testament to having survived their harrowing experiences. Some of the mementos include these broken paddles: undoubtedly with stories to share. Over the years, as paddlers and guides began to take note of this tradition, they got their own groups involved and began leaving their own works behind. Creating and hanging one in the rafters of the Dahtaehtthi cabin serves as a means to join the exclusive club of successful river trippers — leaving them hanging for future visitors to see and as a striking visual representation of the memories of thousands of Nahanni visitors past. As the tradition of leaving these craftworks behind grew in popularity, they expanded into the Kraus shed as well. Perhaps as a means of bringing a group together or simply as a means to pass the time while in camp along the river, some of the creations in either location are truly remarkable and unique. 

    Nahanni river map on leather, stretched on driftwood and mounted with cord, and reverse.

    When standing and looking at them at the cabin’s entry point, it’s easy to imagine a group of travellers — sometimes starting out as strangers but ending up bonded by their experiences on the river. It’s something to picture: visitors gathered around a campfire under starry skies or during a drifting river float, whittling and carving a piece of the Nahanni experience in their own unique ways. The experience of the river and commemorating it with a carved paddle brings travellers together. 

    A form of folk art, these paddles and carvings represent the memories and experiences of travellers from across Canada and around the world. 

    During the summer of 2006, park staff were at the site of the Deadmen Valley cabin, conducting restoration work. While working, Cultural Resource Specialist Patrick Carroll recalls an interesting experience: 

    “When we were working to restore the cabin and relocate it back from the eroding riverbank, I took an interest in documenting and taking an inventory of some of the paddles. While the assets crew was working away, a small group of paddlers arrived at the cabin. An older man and a younger woman asked me if they could enter the cabin and then began scouring the walls in search of a very specific paddle. This was a paddle that the older man had left behind when he did the Nahanni several decades previous. And it turns out that the woman was his daughter. After they located the paddle he had left behind when he was a young man, (perhaps no older than she was at the time), the two of them placed a new paddle of their own to commemorate this new trip that they were completing together. I was struck by the multi-generational connection that this father and daughter duo had and saw the meaning of all these small mementos left in this wild place.” 

    Lumber carved bear claw with wire/wood claws.

    In the summer of 2021, taking river trips here is a little harder to do, but it won’t be that way forever. Until then, just imagine yourself on a raft amongst towering canyon walls and mountainous valleys, with a group of like-minded adventurers, leaving your own paddle behind at the end, saying, “I too was here” and “humbled by it all,” and, like travellers before you, you may vow: “I will return.” What connections will your river trip create on the Naha Dehé? 

    Contributed by Parks Canada-Southwest NWT Field Unit. Facebook: @ParksCanadaNWT 

    VIAKevin Gedling & Patrick Carroll
    Previous articleArctic Corridors and Northern Voices Research Project
    Next article75 ᐊᕐᕌᒍᐃᑦ ᑖᕗᖓᒋᐊᒃᑲᓐᓂᕐᓗ / 75 years and counting