The Dangerous River Book Review

The Dangerous River was written by one of the most well known adventurers of the Nahanni, Raymond M. Patterson. Originally published in 1954, Dangerous River is Patterson’s account of the time he spent in the South Nahanni River area. It is a phenomenal tale of exploration, comradery, and survival which has gone down in history as one of the most outstanding pieces of Nahanni literature.

Left: Gordon Matthews

Right: R.M. Patterson

Before Patterson first ascended the Nahanni River in July of 1927, there were only a handful of settlers who had explored the region. The book begins by sharing the intriguing case of the McLeod brothers who after setting out in 1908, were infamously found headless, next to their burned out cabin in Deadmen Valley. The legend of the McLeod brothers helps the reader understand the dangerous realities of exploring the Nahanni during this era. It was an abundant, yet isolated landscape. Patterson would face incredible challenges and there was little information or support to help him prepare.

Prior to his first paddle stroke on the Nahanni River, Patterson traveled for months from Alberta before reaching his launch point on the Liard River. From there, he moved upstream to see Nahanni river with his own eyes. His writing recalls the vivid colours of the canyons and detailed geological observations of his surroundings. They paint an endearing perspective of an arctic utopia little known to the outside world. Wildlife encounters are abundant and charged with energy; from celebrated creatures like Dall’s sheep, wolverine, and lynx; to the more common animals like moose, bears, wolves, eagles, hummingbirds, and butterflies. There are times in The Dangerous River where Patterson rejoices in a simple life on the Nahanni. There were some mornings when he could hunt game in the midst of his morning shave, or without leaving his bed.

Faille at his cabin (Flat River)

Patterson was often alone in the vastness of the Nahanni wilderness, however some of his best memories are of comradery. One of Nahanni’s most mythic figures, Albert Faille, has many run-ins with Patterson in The Dangerous River. Their stories are among the most intimate and meaningful recollections of Faille that are publicly available. Patterson travels with and meets several others in the Nahanni and these characters highlight the determined spirit of prospectors and trappers.

Patterson’s cabin.

An existence on the Nahanni was hard won and hewn by hand. Patterson had to become proficient in trapping, hunting, building, cooking, and navigation to survive the rigours of northern winters. Travelling the Nahanni River was always difficult and was fraught with consequences. During the winter, driving winds would penetrate his Mackinaw jackets and northern furs. During the summer, the work of nine days poling and paddling upstream could be undone in just two hours of floating with the current. He was the hostage of canyons, rapids, and grizzlies. Sometimes his demise almost seemed inevitable and that he survived is a testament to his determined efforts and perhaps the occasional stroke of luck.

If you have ever visited Nahanni National Park you know how The Dangerous River delivers dramatic memories of the tangible Nahanni to your senses. If you have long dreamed of exploring the region you can be sure to find a copy of Patterson’s tales found in our expedition libraries. This book bridges a century and reminds me how quickly the world is changing but how little the Nahanni has. As I sit in front of the glow of my computer screen a century later, it is comforting to know that chinook winds howl and the wolverine still roam, the same they did for Patterson.