If you drink from northern rivers, you will never be happy away from them.
– Dick Turner
Three years ago I had never been north of Sudbury, Ontario.
Killarney, Muskoka, Parry Sound…anything within a 4-5 hour drive of Toronto was what I considered the Great White. And anything above that was just the Great White Beyond…a place far surpassing the scope of my imagination. It was big, it was wide, and I had no idea how the heck to get up there. I mean, it was definitely on the bucket list, albeit perhaps further down the road. Although it’s funny to think of it now. As I write this, I am sitting in Fort Simpson, a town of just over 1,200 in the Northwest Territories, watching float planes landing on the mighty McKenzie River outside my window. My how things have changed in three years.
There is nothing that can prepare you for what it feels like to be here. The feeling of smallness as you drift past the cliff faces higher than the tallest building you can imagine; riding the crest of a wave as you hit that perfect line in a set of rapids; or finding yourself in a float plane jammed full of canoes rushing across the waters of the Mackenzie, preparing to soar into those same skies that will come alive in the evening, exploding with lights dancing peacefully across the horizon.
This was my summer season this year, running the infamous Nahanni River, through the waves, around Virginia Falls, and into the canyons. And what an incredible season it was. These rivers, like the land, are wild, untameable, unbreakable. There is something so real, so honest about that; that men cannot rule here, we can merely pass through and breathe it in as we go. The Nahanni was before the mountains even existed here, and it will continue to be, carving its way steadily on.
For those of us raised in this country, we’ve all at one point or another been lucky enough to study the “Cremation of Sam McGee” in school, or had it read to us at bedtime to bring forth dreams of flowered fields and warm sunshine. The story, written in very Canadian prose (by the very prosy Robert W. Service), tells of an old prospector who freezes to death in the Yukon Territory in the early 1900’s, and is sub sequentially cremated by another prospector on the shores of Lake Lebarge. Graphic maybe, but I remember being enthralled with the story; with the whole concept of grizzled old men obsessed with gold, unwelcoming lands, spectacular adventures and tragic endings. The story itself is true in a way…this landscape is positively littered with the ghosts of those who came to try their luck at conquering the north, and instead found themselves conquered. Deadman’s Valley, the Headless Range…each name as shrouded in mystery as the stories they embody. But something about this place has always called them, beckoned them to their core, bewitched them past the hope of turning back. It’s pure magic, drifting down this river, enveloped in the history and majesty of the land.
This country is incredible, and the more I see the more I want to see, the more I need to see. And although the area from Toronto to Sudbury is remarkable, there is definitely something to be said for strapping in, filling the gas tank, and continuing on. Past Sudbury, past Thunder Bay, and past the borders of the world as I knew it once upon a time. And the further you go, the further you’ll want to. I promise. You’ll be hooked, you’ll crave more, and one day you’ll find yourself working in a remote little town in the north of Canada, meeting some incredibly awesome and interesting people, and paddling again and again down one of the most breathtakingly beautiful rivers in the world.
This place, this magnetic place, is indescribable. It’s big and wild, harboring both the power to take your breath away and take your last breath. It doesn’t demand respect, but one moment here will earn it from you forever. I have never before felt so small, and yet a part of something so enormous.
I have drunk of northern rivers, and I will never be the same again.