Ontario-born pro kayaker Ben Marr’s account of the first descent of NWT’s Scimitar Canyon
words :: Ben Marr
The Nahanni National Park Reserve protects over 30,000 km2 of Dehcho Region, Northwest Territories. The park is home to the South Nahanni, a Canadian Heritage River that flows through some of Canada’s deepest canyons and over the 96-metre Virginia Falls. Commercial outfitters operate canoe adventures here out of Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River. A recent expansion added the Ram River and its Scimitar Canyon to the Park. The Scimitar is known by the locals and pilots who have flown over it, the geologist who named it, and by explorer Mike Fischesser who has made three attempts to gain the ultimate vantage from its floor—once by river, once overland, and once in winter with ice-climbing gear. The Canyon was massively off the radar of the whitewater kayaking world. But photos and info passed hands, and finally in 2017 I was part of a crew of kayakers who would make an attempt to descend.
August 21, 2017: High fives and high stoke on a small loading dock beside a DHC-2 Beaver in Fort Simpson. While we made our plans to depart the next day, Jonathan Tsesto, Superintendent for Nahanni National Park, approached the dock with a warm smile. After a brief introduction he informed us that he has some concerns with our proposal. He wanted to meet with us the next morning to discuss.
Who knew that we needed permission to even get in the park, and that permission would be granted or declined based on a safety assessment from Tsesto with advice from those who would have to perform a rescue? After driving two vehicles over 20 hours from Dease Lake, with the fourth team member en route from Oregon with sponsorship from MEC, our team faced a major planning blunder.
In Tsetso’s office the next morning we exchanged greetings and Tsesto started off with a banger: “Aniol Serrasolses’ Worst Swims of 2015—what was that!?” (It is a YouTube video with 60k-plus views of Aniol’s rowdiest moments that year.) Aniol put up his hands and said with his Spanish-accented English, “I was younger then, I am more careful now, I swear.” Tsesto outlined his concerns and gave us a discouraging 99 percent no-go on the expedition.
We understood his concerns. A potential rescue, injury, or fatality within Park boundaries, on a high-risk trip he endorsed? Not happening. All river trips, whether a day run, a multiweek canoe trip, a trying weeklong expedition, have risks that need to be mitigated. Before the hull hits the water is the most important opportunity to minimize risk. The team needed proper introductions with an emphasis on our professionalism. Tsesto’s first impression may have been that the crew was young(ish), thrill-seeking, Instagramming types willing to go high risk for high experience. Not untrue, but there was a lot more depth to the crew. Chris Korbulic, who halted transit from Oregon in Calgary to wait for approval, is a highly experienced first-descent kayaker who has explored many hard-won canyons. Aniol Serrasolses is competitively decorated with many firsts including world championships, but that doesn’t define him. He is one of the smoothest most intuitive and technically accurate kayakers in the sport, and he does it for the love. Aniol’s older brother Gerd Serrasolses is also a world champion racer and unshakeable in critical situations.
The team began to earn Tsesto’s trust. The next step was to pick apart the canyon and its whitewater piece by piece and provide Tsesto an action and safety plan outlining all possible scenarios and how to deal with each one. A unique cut in the canyon dubbed the Lightning Bolt narrows the Scimitar’s walls and the river character there is “manky”, appearing unrunnable. River-left of the Lightning Bolt showed flat slate rock, easy to move along and possibly a platform to launch the kayaks into the water below to pass the cascade. So we added climbing rope, harnesses, ascenders, and belay devices to the packing list. The option to get out to the rim and portage the whole canyon if necessary—combined with approval from search-and-rescue in Jasper, Alberta, who would answer any call of distress—finally gave the team a green light to board the Beaver. There must have been a kayaker on that Jasper rescue squad.
After The Slot the walls open before closing down into the Lightning Bolt where the river flows into the Scimitar Canyon proper—a nearly five-kilometre hallway, 300 metres tall.
The Ram River flows over the Scimitar’s 60-foot cascading entry and into a narrow pinch. The rock in this area is flat, making scouting easy. After “The Slot” the walls open before closing down into the Lightning Bolt where the river flows into the Scimitar proper—a nearly five-kilometre hallway, 300 metres tall. To stare down that corridor from the seat of a nine-foot whitewater kayak was our objective.
We copied our plan from the first descent attempt: fly into Sun Dog lake, hike to Sun Dog River, paddle or wade to the Ram, paddle to the Canyon and figure it out. The Slot was a gift, the whitewater was a C- for quality but it was runnable and the path was clear. The Lightning Bolt was a different story. At river left, flatrock features had collapsed, and the rapid was ugly and not runnable. We had three options: sketchy entrance low on river left into a nasty boulder garden where the final kayaker would be left alone after helping the others; get up and out and hope for a spot to rappel back in but risk having to portage the whole Canyon; or, a launch on river-right from an eight-metre shelf into a shallow surging boil of water.
Deciding on the launch meant taking on much more risk than we said we would.
Eight metres is more than enough height to cause some damage. While the water in the target landing zone was aerated, it was shallow. Water sporadically surged to river-right from the main chute. The lows revealed the questionable depth and the boulder that created a bit of a channel, the deepest zone. Arriving in this narrow zone while adjusting the boat angle to around 45 degrees with a forward body position controlling gravity centre would be crucial to prevent serious injury. The technique is the same for running waterfalls 30 feet and under where you may have a shallow landing or need to keep momentum moving downstream and away from harm.
No one wanted a different option, no one suggested one, the team was in harmony. This was a dangerous move.
Aniol cleaned the debris away, placed his boat on the shelf and stepped into it, sealing himself in. The rest of us remained silent and waited until he was ready. (There isn’t much to do until it is your turn anyway.) No one wanted a different option, no one suggested one, the team was in harmony. This was a dangerous move. Aniol teetered forward, disconnected from the rock with grace and entered the water audibly connecting with the river bed. No smile, just a nod and a thumbs-up as he caught an eddy to watch the team. A peek over the shoulder and he could see the Canyon, but he watched and waited as we took our turns sliding off the rock, falling, and smashing back into the river.
The Canyon and the gradient locked my gaze downstream—farther downstream than I’ve ever stared in a straight line. The river pulled my gaze on and on as my imagination filled in the blanks.
We had arrived at our destination. The whitewater here was simple with the low, late-summer flows. We spent almost all our attention on our experience, casually riding the river through the Scimitar Canyon and into the calm pool downstream.—ML