A 10-year passion for the perilous waters of an endangered tributary in Nahanni National Park Reserve recently prompted father and son river outfitters from Alberta to attempt the first recorded on-water descent through the wild waters of Prairie Creek, NWT.
With a highly anticipated week off last summer, 18-year old Joel Hibbard - a Bachelor of Commerce Major - stepped out on the wild side with his father, David - owner/outfitter of their family-owned business, Nahanni Wilderness Adventures of Canmore, Alberta. The venture - a descent of Prairie Creek to its confluence with the South Nahanni River in Deadmen's Valley in Nahanni National Park in Canada's Northwest Territories - was conceived more than a decade ago when the Hibbard's were flying in a small plane over the Park. While Joel, then 7, slept in the back seat, his father became intrigued with the deep gorge and raging river far below. Nahanni National Park-Reserve is known the world over for its deep river canyons and awesome centre- piece, the 316-foot high Virginia Falls, that is close to twice the height of Niagara Falls. In 1978, Nahanni National Park Reserve was Canada's first natural World Heritage Site to be designated in the first year of the UNESCO program. (Parks Canada) Prairie Creek has created the greatest tributary canyon that enters the Nahanni. Like the Nahanni its canyons denote a rare antecedent river that managed to maintain its original river bed by entrenching its way into the rising limestone that has formed the many ranges and plateaus that typify the Nahanni landscape. The more than six slot canyons on Prairie Creek are a prime example of this. The extending gorge consumes the thirty-five miles between the mine and the Nahanni to a depth of over half a mile with a width of the same distance at the rim.
"In all the years since, I have not been able to get those images out of my mind," said David, who has more than 15 years of guiding and outfitting experience on the Nahanni River.
In the months that followed, topographical maps for Prairie Creek were ordered and a file of information began to compile for their dream of someday making an attempt on the creek. It was thus, with great anticipation and excitement, that the Hibbards found themselves in a position to attempt the trip this past August . . .
BACKCOUNTRY BACKGROUND: In the winter of 2002, the motivation to paddle and explore the Prairie Creek watershed moved far beyond the thrill of completing the first recorded descent on the beautiful whitewater river. It became personal when potential plans to shrink the wilderness area in the name of progress rose to the surface. Rumblings about the reopening of a mine and the rebuilding of a road have concerned the Hibbards for nearly as long as they have been guiding on the Nahanni.
According to David, the only viable access to Prairie Creek was via a small, gravel airstrip built more than 20 years previous by developers of the, then, Cadillac Mine. As history goes, shortly before the mine came into production it was closed due to falling mineral prices. Since then, a camp for more than 200 workers, equipment and its processing mill has sat in mothballs. Due to speculation, the mine has changed owners various times in the past 20 years. Its current owners - Canadian Zinc Corporation - recently invested in further exploration to substantiate the value of the mineral deposit. Plans then followed to pressure the government of the Northwest Territories for permission to build a 100 mile road access to the mine and refineries to the south.
By the fall of 2002, an impending clash caused by two opposing forces over the future of the Nahanni country rekindled the outfitters' dream of exploring Prairie Creek. Canadian Zinc Corporation had been able to show with core samples that the mineral deposit asset was larger than previously documented. With this, they were raising capital with plans to reopen the mine site and road to the outside world. In contrast, Deh Cho First Nations, the Aboriginal people with traditional land rights to the Nahanni country, stepped forward at an assembly with the news that their vision for the Nahanni included the expansion of the Park to the point of including the whole watershed. This was quickly supported by Parks Canada who have long stressed that the limited park boundary - which borders the river - does not provide enough habitat for Parks Canada's mandate of ecological integrity.
In the meantime, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, (CPAWS), stated on their website that an April 17, 2003 signing of a joint agreement between Deh Cho First Nations and the Canadian Government would provide interim protection for the 70,000-square kilometers around Nahanni National Park for the next five years. The report goes on to say that Prairie Creek Mine and other pre-existing industrial projects are exempt from this ruling. The road Canada Zinc Corporation plans to build falls within this area. The intention of the ruling is to allow time for Deh Cho First Nations, Parks Canada and other stakeholders to secure the protection of the lands beyond the mine with the expansion of the Nahanni National Park boundaries. The Hibbard men support the Deh Cho First Nations' plan to see the park expanded, along with the removal of mine developments. According to David, wilderness areas are constantly shrinking in Canada, it is time that the federal government made a bold move to protect large tracks of land like the greater eco-systems of the South Nahanni River. He adds that very few opportunities for this still exist in Canada. Parks Canada is the first to admit the current boundaries, which follow the river corridor for Nahanni National Park-Reserve, are not large enough to fulfill their mandate of maintaining ecological integrity of the region. In short, it became apparent to the Hibbards that they needed to better acquaint themselves with the issues by gathering information onsite.
Hours analyzing 1:50,000-scale topographic maps revealed little of the detail regarding what the creek was doing at ground level. Aerial photographs were not better, having been shot from more than 30,000 feet above, says David. Long-term staff from federal agencies such as Water Surveys and the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs could not comment. The only people with knowledge of Prairie Creek were staff from Nahanni National Park-Reserve in Fort Simpson. For years, park wardens had been making routine helicopter flights into the gorge to take water samples. They were concerned with the disastrous consequences a fuel spill, toxic chemical spill or a flood at the mine could have on fish, wildlife and human communities who take their drinking water from the rivers.
Paddling whitewater rivers had long been one of the Hibbards' passions and, admittedly, Prairie Creek was more than a few notches up the scale from what either the guides had experienced. After due consideration, they were confident in the decision to attempt the odyssey, and in their most important decision - their mode of travel. They opted for inflatable kayaks, which they knew other paddlers were had using for tough multi-day mountain river trips.
With their personal fitness at peak levels following an already busy summer of guiding, the Hibbards decided to pack for the trip and charter a plane to make a low-level surveillance over the gorge. If they did not like what they saw, they would abort the trip. What lingered most in the back of their minds were the words of the Nahanni National Park-Reserve superintendent who had made a helicopter flight through the gorge enroute to the mine years previous: "Prairie Creek could not be done!"
A personal diary by David Hibbard, Nahanni Wilderness Adventures Outfitter and Guide:
The flight from Fort Simpson in a small, fixed-wing aircraft took us west over the Mackenzie lowlands then straight for the Second Gap in the grey limestone Nahanni Range. This land, wild in its own right, is spotted with lakes, muskeg and groves of black spruce, aspen and white birch. From the south, the old winter road to the Cadillac Mine could be seen running north from its crossing of the Liard River. It stood out as an unnatural feature, first as a straight line and then winding over the pass to more muskeg before rising through the rocky country and disappearing south of the Ram Plateau, deep into the mountains beyond.
With the Superintendent's words still resounding in our ears, we instructed our pilot to fly to the confluence of Prairie Creek and the Nahanni in Deadmen's Valley. From there, we would fly as low as the gorge would allow to scout the river's course which was about 25 miles "as the crow flies" to the mine. As we flew along between 600-700 feet above the water trying to determine if there were hazardous features not shown on our maps, it was difficult to accurately assess exactly what lay below. Fortunately, there was always a broad flood plain for portaging if necessary.
With our adrenaline pumping, we gave a thumbs-up to land when the mine came into view. A feat in its own right, landing required tight circles over the strip to lose altitude and scatter the three-dozen Dall's sheep that were grazing close to the runway!
After unloading and inflating the kayaks, a short carry brought everything down to the water's edge. Before leaving, our pilot gave us a short lesson on the history of the mine. Looking about, we explored a shack standing at the edge of the strip. A humorous sign nearby read, "Cadillac International Airport." The one on the shack read, "Pilot's Lounge." With the plane empty, the pilot then quickly took off and was lost from view as he rose about the adjacent ridges.
A quick drift from the airstrip brought us to the edge of the mine's tailing pond. A burm had been pushed up to separate a two-hectare tailing pond from the creek. A black polyethylene barrier lined the pond with pieces missing in various places. A few gulls circled overhead voicing loud cries to make us paddlers feel like intruders. Next to the pond stood row upon row of metal-sided trailers. A truck driver from Fort Simpson, who had worked on the mine set-up, had told me that the camp was designed to house and feed 200 workers. Vast amounts of mine supplies sat in the open to one side of the trailers. Heavy equipment and drums full of toxic processing chemical filled the area. Further down, a large dining hall sat across from a small railway that leads to a gated opening in the cliff that apparently penetrates the mountain for several kilometers.
A processing mill sat beyond, with four two-story fuel tanks out back. The sludge in the moat, which surrounded the tanks, suggested to us a leak. As we walked back to the river, I wondered what the future would be for this ghost mine-site and what its eventual impact would be on the Nahanni country. "The toxic chemicals and fuels were not going anywhere on their own! What happens to mines in the middle of the wilderness when they get shut down and the owners walk away?"
Thoughts like these revolved around in my head as we loaded our kayaks however the beauty of the Prairie Creek gorge helped clear my mind. Each time we saw a pipe or a piece of lumber from the mine that had been washed downstream, however, I was again reminded of my concern.
Through the course of our trip we would find debris from the mine all along. Insulted piping was even found 70 miles down stream from the mine in a drift pile of logs in the Splits of the Nahanni. It had been a long couple of days packing for our trip. Feeling somewhat drained, we parked on the first level ground we could find and set up camp. Back in Fort Simpson, it had taken a considerable amount of discretion when choosing our gear for the trip. We had to balance between the gear we wished we could bring, the gear we could get by with, and what we could strap into the kayaks without hindering their performance. In the end, we each had a 20-liter Baja bag of food, a second for clothes, sleeping bags, and a small backpack each for further camping/cooking equipment, tent and miscellaneous items. A pelican case with camera equipment sat handy between my legs. Apart from the waterproof bags and paddling equipment/clothing, we were able to keep the load down to what one would expect on a multi-day hiking trip.
After a restful night, we slipped out into the cool morning air and hiked up into the alpine meadow above the river to meet the cascading rays of the sun. At the ridge-top of stunted trees, bushes and moss, we could get a view of the area about us: to the north, the outskirts of the mine were still visible. The slopes and ridge-tops about them had all been carved up with Cat roads used by the miners to tow their heavy core drilling equipment. Claim tags were nailed to trees slashed off at waist height above the ground.
Back at the river, we broke camp quickly, eager to see what country awaited us down-river. The further we went, the faster the river flowed. Soon rocks and boulders started to dot the river, adding to the fun of paddling through the waves. Before long, steep sections challenged us with car-size boulders strewn throughout! We stopped for lunch at what became known as the 'Key Hole,' a ridge of hard limestone descending across the valley and narrowing to about 10-feet where it crosses the river. At the lowest point, the river had worked a narrow passage of only a couple of boat lengths wide and created a sweet standing wave - great for surfing our kayaks back and forth. It was here we stopped for lunch amidst wolf tracks in the sand where we ate.
The play intensified as we progressed down the river. At one corner we scouted, Joel found a well-washed oil filter lying among the rocks, which had belonged to a heavy machine back at the mine. We named the drop after the oil filter and later both agreed that the two-mile long Class-4 boulder garden we ran afterwards should be called the 'Oil Change.' It was through sections like this that our Aire Lynx 2 Inflatables came into their own. Often fully submerged in waves and holes, the high buoyancy kayaks quickly surfaced and regained their composure for the next move. Their flexible hull and a self-bailing inflated floor were indispensable! Our common strategy when running between tight boulders was to touch the back end of the kayak as we passed a rock and pivot into position for the next tight run and so on. Their carrying capacity was ideal, though we both agreed that large hard-shell kayaks would be the ultimate challenge for a future trip. The seemingly non-existent space between boulders put using a raft for this river out of the question! Years ago, it had been my first consideration.
In the late afternoon, we set up our tent in a patch of dryas before an impending storm hit. We double-stacked the kayaks and staked them down to provide wind protection, which proved to be a wise decision considering the gusts that attempted to blow them and our tent away throughout the night! Morning was again cool. Joel slept while I brewed coffee and strolled through the rocky meadow of dryas while the sun's rays made their way into camp. We shoved off later that morning with an extra layer under our paddling suits, knowing we were about to face our toughest day yet! The river we started on at the mine - with its average drop of 50-feet per mile - was now dropping at 75-feet per mile. If our maps were correct, we would face a few miles late this day that reached 100-feet per mile! Understandably, the steeper the grade, the bigger the boulders were in the river. Scouting became a strenuous task scrambling up the smooth sides of rocks, some the size of small houses! From the top, we were afforded a better view though the sight of the gorge closing in around us caused a tightening in my stomach. The sight of driftwood atop these boulders some 20-feet off the current water level was both awesome and a relief. Had we been facing the flood conditions that left this driftwood behind, we would have been playing a different game!
In the early afternoon, we moved into the steepest reach of the creek. A tight Class-5 run was managed with the kayaks on lines as we worked around and over boulders. It was here that I cautioned Joel's interest in running this section, pointing out the risks he faced and the simple power the river had cascading between a rock wall on river left and a maze of elephant-size boulders. The point came home to both of us when we chose to run the lower section of the rapids we called the 'Elephant's Tail' - the only route affording us a passage just wide enough for a boat to pass before plunging down a meter. With the plunge, the power of the river buckled our inflatables and sucked us deep below the surface in the pool below. We surfaced like a floating yard sale with Joel quickly swimming for my paddle that had been wrenched from my grip seconds before. We kept on . . . wiser, and thankful to have been released by the flow unscathed.
As the gorge closed in, we encountered a number of additional gate or slot canyon features. These became our rest stops, as predictably the water was found to be deep and calm between the walls. An exception came about the time we should have been looking for a campsite. Rounding a left-hand bend, we saw how the treed slope from high on river left had slid down the gorge and was now partially blocking our way. Climbing the ridge on the other side provided a sight not unfamiliar to us with our experience on the Nahanni. It was as if the whole slope had slid as one, leaving the forest still intact, though the trees were left tilted in a drunken fashion. Just a bit further, the entrance to the gate revealed a more serious matter. The lower sidewall to the slot canyon had come loose, falling into and blocking the whole river with large flakes of sharp limestone creating a non-runable cascade below. It was a tough go of it, lifting our loaded boats over this freshly created pile of debris to a point where we could refloat them and continue.
The exit to the slot canyon was also encroached upon by a mudslide. The combination of mud and a separate rock fracture was cause to consider whether the valley had recently experienced a small earthquake. There were enough other mountainsides collapsed by earthquakes in the Nahanni region to not rule out this idea. One had to consider the possibility that an earthquake closer to the mine could result in toxic chemicals being released from the tailing pond into the adjacent creek we were now paddling.
Ashore again, we found ourselves looking for a passage between another straight wall and huge boulders . . . something like a notch at the very bottom of the gorge. We walked from high point to high point hopefully discovering a break in the maze, a line to paddle or even work again with our ropes. After an hour and with darkness looming, we had to satisfy ourselves with just finding a place to camp. The only option was a patch of sand back where our boats were tied to the bank. The tent went on the sand patch, we hung our wet gear on trees and huddled around a small fire Joel built nearby. It had been our toughest - yet, best - day of the trip!
We woke to stiff limbs and numb hands caused by the tight grip we'd held on our paddles with every stroke the day previous. Somehow the sun found its way down into the bowels of the gorge that morning. Using the portage as a warm-up, we went on to an exhilarating morning with steep drops through boulders of fascinating shapes! Our map told us we only had about seven miles to the Nahanni and when we saw the Tlogotsho Plateau - on the far side of Deadmen's Valley - we knew we were not far off.
Our second last gate gave way to the familiar country I had looked over when hiking up Prairie Creek with groups from the Nahanni. For more than 15 years we had gazed up and down upon this river, wondering what it was really like. Now we knew! Elated, we drifted the last gate and like cavers exiting a passage, we were spat out into the sunlight of the Prairie Creek alluvial fan. The Nahanni was now in view though the braided sections through the fan meant we had to stay with the deepest course if we wanted to float all the way. At the mouth of the Prairie Creek we dipped our paddles in the grey-green waters of the Nahanni and felt its power beneath our kayaks.
In Deadmen's Valley, we stopped to leave our names in the registration book and hang a miniature paddle along with the thousands of others in the old Department of Forests Cabin. There, we chanced upon Nahanni Park Warden Barry Troke who was fixing a ladder at the cabin. In his water quality survey work for Prairie Creek, Barry had flown through the gorge a number of times and as a keen whitewater rafter, he could appreciate the feat we had just accomplished. We had to cut our celebration with a fellow river-runner short as we had many miles to go on the Nahanni before reaching the road head at Blackstone Landing and our ride back into Fort Simpson. In just a few more days, trip participants would soon be arriving from the south and it would mean back to work . . . But for now, our dream had been fulfilled . . . Prairie Creek had graced us with a safe passage.
To learn more about the threats to the Nahanni watershed and how you can help protect it visit www.cpaws.org/nahanni
Canadian Zinc Corporation's plans for the Prairie Creek Mine can be seen on the company website: www.canadianzinc.com.
Further details on Nahanni Wilderness Adventures can be discovered at: www.nahanniwild.com.