The Dangerous River, Excerpt from Chapter Two – South Nahanni River

I overslept and was roused at six by the sun, which was blazing down, as usual, out of a cloudless sky. A little after seven I hit the river and poled on up the reach that I had seen the night before from the hill. Where the caribou had swum the river there was a tangle of tracks, some moose but mostly caribou: it was evidently a regular crossing place—there was probably a lick, not too far away, that attracted all the game. Shortly after that the walls of a low canyon closed in and I became busy, dealing with the hazards of the river.

About ten I came to a little bay, beyond which the canyon walls went on again, thirty- to forty-foot sheer on either side, with no beach and with a swift current between them. At the far end of this canyon reach I could hear the roar and see the boiling white water of a bad rapid.

The only thing to do was to beach the canoe and walk ahead some five or six hundred yards along the cliff to a rock point from which it looked as if one could see down on to the rapid. There were faint signs of an old trail: it took the easiest way through the bush, back from the cliff edge, and then dipped down to a great, sandy bay above the rapid; no doubt it was the old portage trail. I turned aside from it and pushed through the screen of trees on to the point. I stood still there for quite a time, just looking—and then I sat down and looked some more. It was an amazing sight, though by no means designed to make the voyageur burst into any hymn of thanksgiving: it was the Rapid-that-Runs-Both-Ways, the most dangerous bit of water on the lower river—now known as Hell’s Gate.

The Nahanni swept downhill here, at great speed, round a right-hand bend: suddenly, at the foot of the bend, the river made a right- angle turn to the left, entering the low-walled canyon. But the current and the whole volume of the Nahanni could not make that sharp turn.

The mass of water was hurled clean across the river in a ridge of foaming six-foot waves, to split on this point of rock on the right bank, thus forming two whirlpools, the upper and the lower. It would be almost equally difficult, one could see, to run this rapid either upstream or downstream: the only way would be to climb on to this surging hill of water at a fine angle and to drop off it on the far side in the same way and as soon as possible. The trouble was that if the canoe was driven up too soon on to this “ridge of the white waters” it would be swamped by the big waves—and if it climbed on to it too late or stayed on it too long, it would be hurled across the river and smashed, with its occupant, on to this rock point on which I was sitting. I looked down at the boiling water beneath: if one looked long enough, straight down, it seemed that the water stood still and that it was the point itself that was moving, surging upstream like the bow of a destroyer.

I walked back to the canoe and took out my axe and rifle, my pack-sack and some food and clothes, and laid them on the beach in case I lost the whole outfit but managed to get ashore myself: then I started up into the canyon.

I tried that rapid three times, but the current in the canyon was stronger than I had thought, and I was not able to get speed enough on the canoe to drive it up on to the crest of the riffle that barred the way. Twice the canoe climbed the ridge, close under the big waves, only to be flung across the river and driven down the canyon, almost touching the cliff on the portage side. At the third and last attempt the eddies worked in my favour: the canoe was climbing the hill of racing water with speed enough (I thought) to take it on and over, when suddenly a gust of wind blew down the river, the nose swung off course and the canoe slid down into the lower whirlpool. It started to spin and then was lifted on the upsurge of a huge boil from below. It was like the heave of one’s cabin bunk at night in some great Atlantic storm. Then the water fell away from beneath the canoe, and I caught a glimpse of the white waves of the rapid, a long way above, it seemed. The canoe rose once more and spun again, and then at last the paddle bit into solid water and drove the outfit out of the whirlpool and down the canyon for the last time, taking a sideways slap, in passing, from a stray eddy and shipping it green as a parting souvenir of a memorable visit.

Persistence is one thing and plain obstinacy is another. That last frolic with the rapid had set my mind at rest: some other fool could try his luck at running the thing in a light canoe—I would portage. And I put into the bay, beached the canoe, took the axe and started to cut out the portage trail.

By suppertime the whole outfit, including the canoe, was lying on the sand in the big bay at the head of the portage. Supper was in the nature of a celebration and included two fool hens split in half and fried. These courageous birds had been eating blueberries along the trail, and had obligingly stuck their heads in the way of bullets from the Luger instead of seeking safety in flight—hence the name.

After supper I strolled back along the trail and cut into the sides of a couple of old blazes that marked the path. I counted the rings: thirty years, as near as dammit, since they were made; that looked as if some, at least, of the Klondikers had got this far, and I wondered whether they had won through in the end to their Eldorado on the Yukon River, or whether the Nahanni or the Indians could best tell what became of them.

Author's freind Faille at his cabin on the Flat River
Author’s freind Faille at his cabin on the Flat River

I walked out on to the rock point and looked at the river; then I went back to camp and studied the rapid from river level. Evening is the time to see fast water; the midday sun seems to flatten out the waves and smooth down the smaller boils and eddies, but the low evening light throws every movement of a river into sharp relief, just as the cool evening air seems to release and intensify all the varied sounds of moving water. So it was on this evening. The angry voices of the rapid would drop for a moment to a troubled muttering and then rise again as suddenly to a wild clamour as a fresh crest of waves reared up and hurtled across the river to split on the rock point. It was plain from here that the little canoe could never have made it in time through the gap between the big, unclimbable waves and the rock—and I went a few steps further down the firm sand of the shore to get a better view of the turmoil at the foot of the point. Suddenly there was a rush and a surge, the whole surface of the upper whirlpool heaved up and I found myself standing knee deep in the water: that was evidently the nature of the thing—it filled and emptied according as the waves divided on the rock point. Fortified with this valuable piece of knowledge, I hung my dripping moccasins in a tree and went to bed.

The next day was one of blazing sunshine and joyous venture on the river, winding up with an unseemly fracas in camp at suppertime. Camp, that evening, was under the cottonwoods on a sandy beach in an eddy at the foot of some fairly strong water. Immediately behind was a low cliff, the continuation of a canyon wall, and the beach came to an end a few yards below camp, against the cliff and at the head of a riffle. I made a long, double-log fire halfway between the water and the cliff, and on it I sat several pots—tea water, washing water, prunes and rice, and the mulligan pot with the last of the moose soup in it and a couple of partridges in the soup. Then I threw my bedroll down by a big spruce at the foot of the cliff, took off a soaking wet shirt and hung it on a tree to dry, and went to bail the canoe, which had shipped water on the last crossing of the river.

As I bailed I heard a grunting noise from upstream: a cow moose and her calf were swimming the river; the calf was having a tough time of it in the fast water, and the cow was talking to it and encouraging it. She probably intended to land where I had beached the canoe, but she saw me and headed straight for the bank, landing about a hundred yards upstream. The calf, however, had been doing its utmost and had nothing in reserve: it was swept down river and into the eddy, from which it splashed ashore about fifteen yards below camp.

I was in the classic situation—in between mother and child; and mother weighed about eight hundred pounds, and a decidedly querulous note was creeping into her grunts. The calf let out a feeble bleat and the cow came a little closer, grunting angrily: I waded ashore and gently took down the rifle from a tree close to the canoe where it was hanging. Then I waded into the river to see if I could get around the calf and chase it back upstream to its mother: out of the corner of one eye I could see that the soup was boiling over; the tea pail also had a fine head of steam up, and no doubt the rice was burning—and I silently cursed the whole tribe of moose right back to its remote beginnings. Anything but a prehistoric-looking beast like that would have had sense enough to stay out of camp!

I was in the water now as deep as I could get, the rifle held high in one hand and the other busily engaged in unknotting the red silk scarf that was round my neck. The calf was watching me: heaven send the little fool wouldn’t lose his head and take off down the canyon and get himself drowned; if he did the cow would blame it all on me and come charging through camp and wreck everything—and stop a bullet, when all I wanted was peace. But the calf never moved, and I came dripping out of the river below him and walked up the bank. He seemed to be petrified: not so the cow, however. She was working herself into a fine frenzy and pawing at the sand—a bad sign, that. It was high time to get that calf on the move.

I came right up behind him, flapped the red scarf suddenly and let out one devil of a yell. I had intended to fire a shot over him as well, just to speed him on his way, but there was no need for that—he was already going faster than any mortal moose calf had ever gone before. And how perfectly it was all working out! He would pass between my bedroll and the fire; no damage would be done and there would still be time for me to salvage something of my supper from the ruins of what might have been …

But how completely the picture changed, all in a fraction of a second! Just as the calf drew level with it a little breeze from the west flapped the shirt that was drying on the tree: he gave a blat of terror and shied sideways, stumbling over the long logs of the fire. Over went everything, but particularly the mulligan pot, which he sent flying ahead with his front feet. He then bucked over the fire and landed with one hind foot through the stout bail handle of the mulligan pot, which somehow stayed with him for about three jumps and then, as he freed himself from it with a vicious kick, sailed into the river, from which I rescued it. That was the end of the party, and, judging by the row that came up from the beach, the guests were leaving in a hurry. Supper was a wreck, the partridge mulligan had gone down the river and the calf had pretty nearly squared the pot for me; I spent half the night hammering it round again with the back of an axe.

From that camp I could hear the muffled thunder of the falls, but just how near they were it was impossible to tell. That night was cold and clear, and the next day was cloudless and blazing hot, which was just as well as I was in the water more often than on it. It was the toughest stretch of river that I had struck: the water was very fast and
it was rock strewn, and there were no good tracking beaches, only piled-up talus slopes and great, misshapen blocks of stone, tumbled from the canyon walls and wet from the waves. Over these one clambered, trackline in hand, tearing trousers, bashing shins, while the canoe, riding upstream on the borderline between the eddies and the stream, did its best to throw one off balance or to whirl end for end as it raced up in an eddy on a slack line and then sheered out into the current.

Another endearing feature of these rock-strewn canyons by the falls is that there is practically no good poling bottom: either the iron-shod pole hits a rock just below the surface, usually on the slant and so giving no purchase, or else it drops down into a chasm between two huge rocks and does its best to jam there: and on that heaving, racing water one cannot afford to lose time between strokes.

I tracked on round the point, only to find yet another canyon with its red and yellow walls and curious battlements and pinnacles, and the water wilder than ever. I pushed on up to the head of the reach and there at last I was stuck at a point where two fast riffles sprang out, one from each side of the canyon, and met in a boiling chaudière of wild white water.

So that was that: I had come about a hundred and thirty miles from Nahanni Butte in a couple of weeks travelling time, with two portages, and here was the “insuperable obstacle”: I couldn’t tackle this with a loaded canoe, and it looked like a poor risk even with an empty one. And there was no portaging this time—the far side of the canyon was sheer wall with no beach, while just above this point of rocks where I was standing there was a tremendous cape of sandstone, sheer and forbidding. Just below the cape a powerful eddy raced upstream, and past the foot of it surged the big waves of the nearside riffle. Beyond the cape the canyon swung to the right and disappeared from view. The vibration of the falls could be felt in the rock, but all sound of them was deadened and lost in the uproar of the clashing riffles and the rough water of this reach.

A worse place to camp it would have been difficult to find. The point caught the full blaze of the sun all day long: it consisted simply of a tumbled slope of jagged rock, and there was no landing beach and no shade. The few miserable spruce that poked up out of the stones were thin, stunted and curiously grey looking. However, I had no intention of going back without seeing the falls, so this wretched spot was going to be home for a day or two; and the first thing to do was to get the canoe out of the water before the canvas was worn through, fretting against the rocks. I unloaded and piled the outfit back from the water; then I lifted the canoe out and turned it upside down to drain and dry.

I changed into dry socks and moccasins, and then I looked at my watch: it was four o’clock by Nahanni (estimated) time; the day was still young enough for a little climbing, and supper could wait till the cool shadow of the sandstone point fell on this blistering rock pile of mine. I took a good swig of water and a bite of chocolate, gathered up the field glass and the aneroid and started towards the foot of the cliff. On an afterthought I came back and added the Luger to the load, running my belt through the holster strap: there might be partridges in the bush.

I went up a rockslide in a coulee between the pinnacles of the canyon wall, raising the warm dust and eating raspberries and the ripe fruit of the wild roses. The coulee was like an oven with the afternoon sun blazing into it: there were sheep tracks and sheep droppings in it and the tracks of a grizzly bear. Here and there one could see a very faint game trail, but mostly it was rock slide, and one had to tread delicately and surely to avoid starting an avalanche of loose stones. The coulee led out on to a great hill, covered with birch, jackpine and silver spruce and floored with low-bush cranberries. I went up that till the forest gave place to grass and kini-kinik, and I saw in front of me a round, bare hill. And on the top of the hill, just showing, was a bronze-coloured thing—it looked like the end of a large log that had been squared off with a saw, but it couldn’t be that up here where, more than likely, no man had even been. Yet there seemed to be rings and a grain in it…

By God’s truth it was no log! It was a most noble set of horns, and presumably the horns were attached to a ram of the Dall sheep—for of the animal nothing was visible except a very little of the head. I drew the pistol from its holster and snapped the safety catch forward … But it was too far, so I swung round the hill a little and went up silently, like a cat, the moccasins making no sound on the gravelly slope. I came on him suddenly at about fifty yards range, and he sprang up and faced me, white and magnificent against the deep blue sky. There was no time to waste, so I aimed between his eyes and fired. The ram stood still for at least a second: I was afraid I had missed him, and I fired twice, quickly, at his body this time, and saw each bullet strike. He gave a plunge and disappeared over the far side of the hill, leaving a light puff of yellow dust floating against the blue of the sky. I sobbed and sweated up and over the top after him, praying to all the gods to keep him out of canyons and let me get in a finishing shot. But there was no need: he was lying dead in a grassy hollow, against the trunk of a little
birch tree.

Author's ram later mounted
Author’s ram later mounted

He was a beautiful ram. Later on, when Faille and I put a steel tape on the head, we found that one horn measured forty inches on the outside curve, and the other thirty-nine: they were both thirteen inches in circumference at the base. The first bullet was probably the one that killed him: it had struck close to the right eye, about an inch from where I had aimed, and must have gone into the brain.

I let the blood out of the ram and then walked back up to the top of the hill and sat down to cool off and consider the next move. I took a look around; and the first thing that caught my eye was the sight of three magnificent rams standing downstream from me, each one on a bare, green knoll similar to the one that I was on. They were not looking at me: each one was standing motionless, as if carved out of pure white marble, gazing across the canyon towards some distant mountains. The nearest ram was about four hundred yards away, and the glass showed me that each one had a head as good or better than the one I had shot. Across the river there were two more splendid rams standing like statues, snow white in the dazzling glare of the westering sun.

I looked at the aneroid: seven hundred feet above the camp, it said. Down below there I could see most of that last rough reach of the Na-han-ni, olive green and flecked with white. It looked almost peaceful from this height, and the sound of it was only a faint murmur that came up through the hot scent of the pines. From behind the mountains in the west there came a faint drift of smoke from some far-off forest fire, perhaps in the Yukon Territory. To the southeast were the mountains through which I had come from the Liard: to the northeast, and close by, were great stone-capped mountains, pearl grey in the smoke haze: and over all this, constant so that one hardly noticed it, was the deep booming note of the falls.

Upriver and right into the eye of the sun a cloud seemed to be hang-ing over the bush. Smoke, I thought, and then—My God, not a bush fire in this lovely place! But it was not acting like smoke, there was no blue in it and it stayed in one place; there was only one thing it could be—the spray from a great waterfall.

Now, even if I got benighted up here with the ram, I had to go and make sure. I started right away and cut across the hollow where the ram was and then through the bush, keeping about the same level and crossing a number of small coulees, sweating through the trees in the hot stillness of the August evening and hoping that some hill or the canyon rim would not get in the way of a speedy view. The booming was becoming louder, and I could see occasionally, through the trees, more and more of the cloud of spray. I turned towards the river after half a mile or so of this up and down travel, and came out onto an open spur that stood out from the bush. And there all doubts and questionings were ended: a quarter of a mile to the west and perhaps three hundred feet below me a wild cataract flashed against the sun, and the cataract ended in a sudden drop where the Nahanni plunged over the rim of the falls: I could see a curtain of falling water, split into two by a great tower of rock, but the bottom was hidden from me by the edge of the canyon—only a thunderous din and clouds of golden spray glittering in the yellow light of the evening sun told me that I was seeing the upper half of the Falls of the Nahanni.

Well, the other half would have to wait till tomorrow: there was still the ram to deal with—and I made my way back to him, turning over in my head various plans for getting to the foot of the falls. Soon the meat was cut up and laid on a little platform of dry poles set across two fallen trees. I spread it out so that the air would pass through it easily, and then I covered it with green boughs: it was the best I could do for it. The head I slung on to my shoulders with a long leather latigo lace: the thing weighed like a load of lead at this end of the day, and the forward curl of the great horns seemed bent on knocking a hole in the base of my skull. Down through the woods I went with it, and then down the stony chute of the coulee—sliding and cascading down-hill in the gravel and the sharp rocks and the dust. At the end of about forty minutes or so a filthy-looking object, grimy and blood-stained, staggered out on to the rockpile that was camp, dumped the sheep head with a groan of relief and lay down and stuck its own head in the river.

It was twilight now and the air was chill. Luckily I had tarped up the outfit before leaving camp, for everything seemed to be most unusually damp—a remarkably heavy dew, I thought. But it was not dew: a fine mist was drifting down the canyon, and it was the spray from the falls, which were round the point of sandstone and perhaps three quarters of a mile away: in the heat of the day these particles of spray evaporated, but by night they drifted down the canyon in a gentle rain.

I ate supper by the fire, and then, by the firelight I levelled off a hol-l-ow in the rocks and filled it with spruce branches: the greyness on them must have been due to the drift of silt laden spray from the falls, I thought. On to the branches I threw my eiderdown, and over it I laid a light ground sheet to shelter my bed from the softly falling rain. I looked around: camp was all snugged down for the night and everything was in its place.


Hunters Library - January 2015 - Post ImageWritten with R. M. Patterson’s characteristic sharp wit and observation, this classic tale chronicles the year he spent battling frigid temperatures and wild waters along the Nahanni River in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Patterson originally travelled to the North with hopes of finding gold, and clues to the mysterious disappearance of earlier prospectors. Instead, he fell in love with the landscape, and through his meticulously recorded journals and hauntingly beautiful photographs he introduced the now-famous Nahanni River to the world. Patterson’s bestselling first book is now back in print and ready to take readers down the treacherous and challenging waters of the Nahanni River once again.

Posted by JOMH Editor