by Jet Dowson | September 2, 2015
The Nahanni River at The Gate flows through a mountain ridge that looks as if it has been cleaved in two by a giant axe. Our campsite is just upriver from it. These two massive rocks include outcroppings called The Pulpit and The Preacher and I find myself listening for silent sermons about the ancient mysteries of this valley.
Here on a rest day my wish is to spend my time touching something I can only describe as soul. The sun has been brilliant and warm since our arrival. I would have never guessed that Arctic temperatures could seem so tropical. Arctic daylight is not just warm it is bewilderingly long.
My temperate Southern Ontario internal clock is out of time. My daily rhythm is off and I’m surprised that I find myself missing the intimate tranquility that night time brings to a 24 hour cycle. However, in the “land of the midnight sun”, plants and animals are using every last ray to build resources to sustain them through the winter. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine that six months from now this place will be thrust into frigid white darkness, lit only by the luminous Northern Lights and the moon.
Considering these stark disparities, it’s miraculous that living things find a way to exist on that delicate thin edge between these two extremes. Sighting a bear or mountain goat is exciting, but my plan on our layover day is to look for the small wonders of life in the air and at my feet.
Presumably an adaptation to the harsh environment, I find the butterflies and flowers are miniature: flowers no bigger than a thumbnail; butterflies the size of dollar coins. Bees, wasps and butterflies dance from tiny plant to plant, while brightly coloured dragonflies on the hunt for mosquitoes swoop and dive like flying aces.
Watching these microcosms of vitality is like watching the urban ballet of a city street from high above. Just this morning, as one of our guides was making coffee, a moose ran through our campsite. The moose had chosen its frantic course while chased by two wolves. One was large and white, the other smaller and black. It’s any one’s guess as to where the rest of the wolf pack was hidden. The large white wolf was little more than three meters from the guide when they made eye contact. Startled, they both sprinted in opposite directions while the moose jumped in the river and swam away.
This drama took no more than a minute. In a blink life goes on as it always has. The valley entreats us to remember how vulnerable and surprisingly resilient life is, and how important a role timing and fate play in life. The canyon walls speak in the transcendental language of eons. Tectonic plates heave over millennia while the work of the air and water erode what the earth spent a billion years pushing up. Entropy in action, granite and limestone are eventually turned to silt. That silt speaks to you if you hold the handgrip of your paddle to your ear.
With the paddle’s blade in the river, you can hear the silt abrade its surface. The tiniest particles of silt have tumbled mountains and over a million years carved an entire valley system to create this series of magnificent canyons. Geo-scientists tell us that if we use the universe as our scale of time, a million years is a mere blink. To put things on a human scale, if the changes to these canyons have happened in a blink, does a hiccup look like the Rocky Mountains? What does a sneeze look like? Puzzled and overwhelmed I’m reminded that I’m connected to something vast, divine and powerful.
I feel this place burning away my veneer of civilization, until I am left with only sweet serenity. Exploring ancient mysteries in the safety and company of this collective of Wild Women is a joyful privilege. I’m often touched by the small and unexpected kindnesses that support and draw me to each of them. Early morning coffee, sharing the work and creation of meals, laughter, songs and good-natured teasing, fill the campsite. Together we create a whole that is vital and secure as each woman brings her strengths to propel us to our next adventure. Our cohesiveness creates a group that is much greater than the sum of its parts. Given enough time I imagine that as we channel the flow of our combined power, we too could create a force strong enough to tumble mountains and carve river valleys of our own.
Standing at The Gate helps put things into a wider perspective. In the process of looking, I have become alive to my place in a much bigger scheme that includes the smallest silt and the most distant stars. My heart is so full it aches. The nature of the Nahanni is both terrific and beguiling.
Later…..that day If The Preacher in The Pulpit was to deliver a sermon about the commandments of this river valley I imagine the homily would go like this: • You will be uncomfortable sometimes. This is normal and it will pass. • Stay warm, hydrated and fed, in that order. • Take care of and be kind to the ones you travel with. • Be respectful of your limitations with the understanding that you have unknown reserves if you need them. • The world is a big place. Trust that if you go looking you will find beauty in surprising places. • Always do your best. Good things come from this kind of valor. • Have courage. It will take you in directions that you could never have imagined.
On our departure we ran the rapids through The Gate. As the walls fell away, I whispered thanks to the river that brought me here and I issued a prayer to the universe that I might be granted the gift of another magical day.