As we soar over the sea of muskeg separating Fort Simpson from the Northwest Territories’ Nahanni National Park Reserve, a passenger jokingly asks our float-plane guide if he’ll perform any aerobatics.
Little does she know that Simpson Air’s Neil Mitchell is an experienced stunt pilot. “Yeah, we’ll see about that,” Mitchell replies, turning his gaze toward the peaks rising out of the lake-strewn bog below.
Mitchell’s caginess is soon forgotten as we reach the easternmost edge of the Mackenzie Mountains and work our way up the stunning quartet of canyons that lines the South Nahanni River. First Canyon, its walls topping out at more than a kilometre, runs for about 30 clicks from Kraus Hotsprings to Deadman Valley. Here Mitchell becomes especially evocative, telling our party of a prospector who is said to have robbed and beheaded his two companions after they struck gold in the early 1900s.
It’s just one incredible view after another — no wonder Nahanni was among the first four natural World Heritage Sites in 1978. Take Second Canyon: The 15km-long gorge culminates in The Gate, where the colossal Pulpit Rock juts out into the river. It provides a natural obstacle for daring pilots, but Mitchell holds off — for now — while our group’s second float-plane dives down and hurtles through the 60-metre-wide gap.
From here, it’s just a few minutes until we spot the centrepiece of the park: Virginia Falls. Mitchell overshoots the main attraction and comes in for a landing on the temporarily serene river. We motor over to a set of wooden docks about a kilometre upriver from the cascade, where we meet with the other plane, this one piloted by Simpson Air’s Dean Austin. The affable twentysomething is also our tour guide for the afternoon, and for the next two hours we learn about the park’s native legacy and natural history, and stop to admire a collection of fossilized sea snails as we stroll along a boardwalk that winds through pristine boreal forest.
Like the aerial scenery en route, the viewpoints along the way keep topping themselves. First there’s a set of rapids jammed with logs that were lucky enough to avoid a vertical drop twice that of Niagara Falls. It’s here that the boardwalk ends, and we get our first glimpse of Mason’s Rock, a granite monolith that cleaves the falls in two. Enormous waves wash over granite slabs that provide just enough space for us to (nearly) dip our toes in the whitewater. “Try to step on the dry spots,” Austin advises, turning us all into wide-eyed hopscotch players.
Around a bend in the dirt trail, we come to a cliff skirting a swirling pool carved by the water’s relentless rush. Austin urges us on, turning sideways to scramble down a gravel path hugging the precipice. At the bottom the trail widens, revealing another rocky terrace mere metres from the falls’ final plunge. A finger of rock pokes into the torrent, and like pirate prisoners walking the plank we inch out onto the slippery slab and pose for daredevil snapshots.
With the fall daylight fading, we make our way back to the float-planes. Mitchell fires up the engine, and minutes later our ride rises into the pastel sky.
He circles the falls a couple times, and then, without warning, races directly toward Mason’s Rock. At the last second he veers right, barely clearing the cascade’s lip, and the plane plummets into the canyon beyond. He banks left and right, practically skimming the rock walls with the floats and eliciting dozens of four-letter words from his unsuspecting passengers.
He levels out, turns back to face us, laughs, and hollers, “Pretty good trick, huh?”
Well, we asked for it…
WHERE TO STAY
Adventurous motorists taking the Mackenzie Highway to Fort Simpson will likely pass through the Alberta capital, where the upscale Delta Hotels Edmonton Centre Suites offers both an ideal spot to relax before the epic drive and, with the new Rogers Place across the street, a prime sleepover option for Oilers fans.