Packrafting

Packrafting is an increasingly popular activity in Nááts’įhch’oh and Nahanni National Park Reserves. While there are many opportunities for skilled intermediate to advanced level paddlers, the hazards and risks of any whitewater travel and remote wilderness trekking are great. The risk goes up exponentially for those people linking multiple creeks away from the standard corridors of travel. You are responsible for understanding the risks and acquiring the skills and experience to be self-reliant.

Packrafting is inherently more dangerous than a backpacking adventure.

Keep the following in mind:
    Prepare for the worst.

    All creeks and rivers in Nááts’įhch’oh and Nahanni are extremely remote, and some will require days of arduous cross country travel to reach the put-in. In these circumstances, even a minor injury or punctured boat can have serious consequences. On the river, simple mistakes, such as failing to properly secure a backpack to a packraft, can lead to lost gear and wet, miserable nights in the backcountry. The rivers and creeks are continuous, often with small and/or few eddies. There is no “pool and drop” here, mistakes can have severe consequences. Prepare for the worst case scenario and have a plan on how to deal with it. We recommend carrying the following items in a small dry bag on your person in case you become separated from you boat: fire starter, compass, mirror, water purification, emergency blanket and some form of communication device such as a satellite phone.

    It’s just you out there.

    This isn’t a place for rookies. You are responsible for your own safety. Prepare to handle an emergency on your own. Bring good first aid, repair and pin kits and the skills to use them. If you do need emergency help, call our Duty Officer at 1-867-695-3732  (landline) or 1-867-695-6572 (cell), 24 hours a day, June 1 – September 30. Keep in mind, our technical mountain and river rescuers are dispatched from Jasper, Alberta. It might be days before rescue is possible due to many factors such as: weather, distance, availability of aircraft and the ability to access your location, among other factors.

    Expect the unexpected.

    Packrafters should expect to deal with unforeseen hazards such as fallen trees and hidden rocks. Fallen trees are particularly dangerous because they form strainers, where water passes through the branches of the tree but solid objects, like people and packrafts, do not. Strainers can trap a packrafter underwater, even with a PFD. Knowing how to recognize strainers or other hazards in the water and avoid them are some of the essential skills that should be learned by every packrafter before they hit the water.

unforeseen hazards

Be prepared to navigate around obstacles you may not have foreseen © Paul Burbidge

 

Rain or shine, rivers can rise.

Rivers in the South Nahanni watershed can rise rapidly from rainfall. Flash floods and landslides are frequent hazards and can be life threatening when travelling narrow canyons. A Class II stream may quickly turn into raging Class IV+ whitewater at higher water levels. There are few gauges on rivers in this region to accurately determine current water levels and predict when high water events will occur. You can contact local guides or the Nahanni or Nááts’įhch’oh offices to inquire about current river conditions throughout the area, but be aware that information received from second-hand sources should not be considered definitive. There is no substitute for continuously assessing the river, terrain, and weather conditions in person and practicing safe boating/hiking techniques. At a minimum, try and anticipate river/terrain conditions based on weather and seasonal flows, and be prepared to change your itinerary if conditions are, or suddenly become, unsafe.

Dress for the swim.

The water in Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh is cold. As a result, even relatively calm water poses significant risks. The cold will limit your ability to swim away from hazards such as strainers, or can lead to hypothermia if you are submerged for a prolonged period of time. The shock of hitting cold water also causes involuntary inhalation, which can result in drowning if you are underwater. Improve your chances at survival, wear a drysuit. 

Always wear a PFD and a helmet.

The shallow nature of some of the creeks and rivers means that there is always the threat of foot entrapment and colliding with rocks. Wear a personal floatation device (PFD) and helmet to lessen the risk of drowning and potential head and spine injuries.

Water attracts wildlife.

Rivers and creeks are often the easiest paths of travel for animals. Because of this, wildlife activity is generally more concentrated around these corridors than other areas in the parks. However, thick brush along stream banks and tight bends on narrow creeks may make it difficult to spot animals from a safe distance while on the river. Rapids or constricted sections of water may even make some wildlife encounters on the river unavoidable. Packrafters should anticipate sudden, close encounters with large animals such as moose or grizzly bears and be prepared to quickly eddy out or ferry across the river to avoid these animals. As a precaution, always carry bear spray within reach while on the water and on land and know how to use it.

Dı́ga Dezene Deé

Go where no paddler has gone before. First descent of Dı́ga Dezene Deé (Black Wolf Creek), June 2017, second descent July 2017. © Dan Hoffmann

 

Pre-Trip Questions

Before you go, ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the trip match your group’s experience and skill level?
  • Can you read whitewater and quickly recognize hazards such as strainers, holes, and undercuts? Do you have the skills to avoid these hazards or safely eddy out and scout unknown water?

  • A PFD, drysuit, helmet and river knife are critical gear for running rocky creeks and rivers in Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh. © Colin Field/NWTT
  • What are the known hazards of the river you are running (e.g., named rapids or portages)? More importantly, what are the unknown hazards (e.g., unforeseen rapids at higher water levels or newly fallen trees on the river)?
  • Do you have a plan in case you lose your paddle or a member of your group is injured?
  • Have you run this river before or know someone who has? Is the water level at a safe level to run?
Recommended Gear for Packrafting

In addition to your overnight backpacking gear, we recommend the following equipment:

  • Drysuit
  • PFD, helmet, and river knife to cut rope and escape entanglements
  • Five essentials (fire starter, compass, mirror, water purification, emergency blanket) and communication device carried in a small dry bag on your person
  • Repair kit for your packraft
  • Paddle, and a spare
  • Throw bag and pin kit
  • Gloves and appropriate footwear
  • Accessible bear spray 

Routes

Packrafters access the waterways in Nááts’įhch’oh and Nahanni by licenced air charters, via Flat Lakes near the Nahanni Range Road, or on foot from MacMillan Pass. There is also an overland route used on occasion via the Ross River to Nááts’įhch’oh Tué (Moose Ponds).

Depending on your skill level, there are many possible routes. You can choose from steep unnamed creeks to the standard rivers: Tehjeh Deé/Nahɂą Deh (South Nahanni), Tu Naka Dé (Flat), Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni), and Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull), or link a bunch of waterways together. “Standard” doesn’t mean they are easy, just more travelled.

The parks are located in the traditional homelands of the Sahtu Dene and Métis and Dehcho First Nations. They used these lands extensively, and for some groups, such as the Shúhtaot’ine, they travelled in large seasonal rounds from the Dehcho (Mackenzie River) to Mount Nááts’įhch’oh and beyond. The return trip to the Dehcho would often involve the construction of mooseskin boats for navigating larger rivers such as the South Nahanni and Begaadeé (Keele).

The places you choose to travel have likely been travelled before by the Dene mountain people. Travel by foot was common. Some of the smaller creeks and streams may never have been travelled by watercraft; you may be able to find an interesting first descent.

    Dı́ga Dezene Deé

    Dı́ga Dezene Deé (Black Wolf Creek) is only for advanced paddlers. Dı́ga Dezene Deé (Black Wolf Creek) starts near Nı́onep'eneɂ Tué (Grizzly Bear Lake), and can be accessed from a creek flowing from the lake. The first and second packraft descents were done in 2017. The first group from Wyoming started their journey on June 6th, and were ahead of the freshet. They started from MacMillan Pass, paddled the Upper Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River) and hiked into Nı́onep'eneɂ Tué (Grizzly Bear Lake). The second group, from Whitehorse, had lower water levels and started their trip on the Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni River). If you search the web, you can find trip reports from both groups. If Dı́ga Dezene Deé (Black Wolf Creek) is on your itinerary, know there is at  least one unrunnable canyon, some challenging III+ to IV+ whitewater, terrain prone to landslides, narrow boxed canyons that can flash flood, and one sneaky boof rock that slices packrafts.

    Upper Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé

    Upper Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River). This stretch of river, above the confluence with Ǫtaa Tu Fehto Deé (Divide Lake Creek), has been paddled by two groups of packrafters, the first was a couple from Alaska in 2016, and the second was a group from Wyoming in 2017; both groups posted blogs about their trips. Start at MacMillan Pass and use Túoch'ee Deé (the Natla River) to reach the Upper Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ Deé (Broken Skull River). The Upper starts at a small lake outside of Nááts’įhch’oh, and soon heads into the park. It starts as a small trickle, and builds. Before it reaches the confluence with Ǫtaa Tu Fehto Deé (Divide Lake Creek) there is an unrunnable narrow canyon with a nasty looking entrance. Be on your toes. We don’t have much information on the Upper, if you paddle it, please send us your trip report.

    The Standards

    The Standards. Nahɂą Dehé: South Nahanni River Touring Guide is available to order from Nahanni National Park Reserve ($5). For information on the Łáhtanįlį (Little Nahanni) and Pı̨́ı̨́p'enéh łéetǫ́ǫ́ (Broken Skull) rivers, please see the river specific trip planners. While the Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni) may provide the easiest access, be warned that there are sharp rocks and difficult sections, including Crooked Canyon and The Step that have surprised more than one paddler with their difficulty. The water is continuous, so rescues are difficult. The river is also known for its wood hazards, which can be river-wide. This river, as with others in the watershed, rises quickly with rainfall, if you didn’t secure your boats or camp items you may find they floated away overnight.

    Take outs

    Take outs – one group of packrafters ended their journey in Tulita, after starting on the Łáhtanįlį Deé (Little Nahanni). Ten rivers later, they were talking to a Parks family member at the dock in town. If you chose to end your journey in Tulita, make sure you stop by the Nááts’įhch’oh office to say hi! Some groups choose to paddle the length of the Tehjeh Deé/Nahɂą Deh (South Nahanni) and end their journey at Blackstone Landing. While others, exit from one of the designated landing sites in Nahanni, or a landing area on river outside of the parks – such as the Redstone or Begaadeé (Keele). Both these rivers are culturally important to the Sahtu Dene and Métis, for more information on protocols you can contact the Tulita Dene Band or Tulita Land Corporation.

hiking

If linking rivers, you may need to do lots of hiking with awkward packs © Paul Burbidge

 

    Topographic Maps

    Check out our easy map reference to see what 1:50,000 maps you may want to get.

Share your story.

Please share your pictures and information about your trip with us. While many of our staff are avid paddlers, we can’t paddle everything. We’re always learning and adding new information to our trip planning material.

Some packrafting trips involve hiking to the headwaters of various rivers. Snow stays around in the high country long after it has melted lower in the valleys. Terrain and brush can make for challenging portages. While a route looks good on a map you’ll likely find thick brush unless you are above the treeline.
    Reserve Your Spot

    All overnight trips in Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh require a trip reservation, registration and deregistration. There is limited camping available at Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls), Gahnįhthah Mįe (Rabbitkettle Lake) and Fairy Meadows, dates will be booked for you during the reservation process. Campsites at these locations fill quickly in the peak season. Overnight stays at Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls) and Gahnįhthah Mįe (Rabbitkettle Lake) are limited to two nights. Dates are booked on a first come first serve basis.

    Reservations should be done well in advance so you can prepare for your trip and confirm your dates. A backcountry excursion permit will be issued when your reservation is confirmed. During the reservation process, staff will share information to assist in your trip planning.

    Registration happens just before you start your trip, and de-registration is required when you depart from the parks. The registration process helps us confirm who is in the park (and where) and also lets us share information about any recent area closures which may be in place due to wildlife or wildfires

    Leave No Trace

    Leave no trace principles apply to packrafters. Even though you’re travelling light, make sure you pack a trowel so that you can burry solid human waste in catholes dug 15 to 20cm deep, at least 60m away from water bodies and trails. Burn or pack out your toilet paper and hygiene products.

    All campfires in Nahanni and Nááts’įhch’oh need to be contained in a firebox or on a firepan. Do not build fires on the ground. Use only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Burn all your wood and coals to ash, put out campfires completely, and then scatter cool ashes. On big rivers you may scatter cool ashes in the river. In Nááts’įhch’oh firewood collection is not allowed at any of the lakes to preserve the few trees and deadfall at those locations.

    If you packed it in, you should pack it out. Pack out all your trash, leftover food and litter.

    When washing yourself, your dishes or clothes, do it away from bodies of water. Your strained grey water can be scattered on the ground, 60m away from water bodies and camping areas or deposited in large rivers. At Náįlįcho (Virginia Falls), please deposit grey water in the river.

    Preserve the past

    Preserve the past: examine, but do not touch cultural or historic structures or artifacts. Leave rocks, plants and other natural objects where you find them.

Protect your food by storing food and trash in mouse and bear-proof containers.

If you move rocks at your campsite to help secure a tarp or fly, ensure that you put them back where you found them before you leave.

During your trip you may notice motion sensitive cameras installed along wildlife trails and at the hot springs. We use the images to learn more about wildlife and snow levels. Photos of visitors are deleted to protect your privacy. Don’t be afraid to strike a pose! We also have temperature loggers installed at some hot springs, if you notice a device, please leave it where you found it.

Fishing is not allowed in Nááts’įhch’oh, but you can fish (and eat your catch) in Nahanni if you have a Nahanni fishing licence. Please follow all size and catch limits that accompany your licence.

For more information on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and commercial photography, including the sharing your images with your trip sponsors check out our photography guidelines page.

Have fun and boat safe!

Packrafting is a growing sport that provides a new and exciting way to explore Nááts’įhch’oh and Nahanni. Understanding the risks involved with packrafting and developing the skills and knowledge to mitigate these risks is essential before embarking on any trip in the wilderness.