Exploring Lonely Lake, Nahanni

 

Editor's note: This past August, the ACC's Yukon Section partnered with Parks Canada to explore a remote area of Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories in order to report back on the hiking and climbing potential in the area over the course of 12 days. Below is a story taken from the Parks Canada employee's trip report.

Top photo: A calm Lonely Lake, with the smaller, yet distinct, Peak Wex in the distance and The Guardsmen and Citadel towering high above the lake. All photos in this article by Marko Marjanovic. 

It was a normal Thursday in my Parks Canada cubicle. Then I got an instant message: Could I join a 12-day Alpine Club of Canada backpacking trip in Nahanni National Park Reserve? No one else could go. It started Monday.

I was two days’ travel away with nothing ready, except an adventure philosophy: “What’s the better story when I’m 80?” I booked a flight, and packed twelve days of gear and food in four hours. Sometimes the price of a good story is eating couscous and Instant Cream of Wheat for twelve days.

 Author Lyn Elliot and Peter Knamiller climbing out of the boulder-filled Valley of Chaos.

Author Lyn Elliot and Peter Knamiller climbing out of the boulder-filled Valley of Chaos.

It struck me that an Alpine Club of Canada trip might be… technical. I had backpacked Pukaskwa National Park’s Coastal Trail a few times, but I was not a mountain climber. I called the Nahanni staff. They assured me it was just hiking. Maybe some scrambling.

Maybe some scrambling.

 Laura Sly gazes down the Hole in the Wall Valley. The sharp Wolf’s Fang towers above everything.

Laura Sly gazes down the Hole in the Wall Valley. The sharp Wolf’s Fang towers above everything.

The ACC Yukon crew from Whitehorse flew into Lonely Lake just ahead of me. As I climbed out of the plane, I was determined to learn their names. But, I got distracted; dangling from their packs were helmets. Climbing helmets.

“Just hiking,” they said. “Maybe some scrambling,” they said.

I have never worn a helmet hiking.

 ACC Yukon members on the summit of Mount Elysian.

ACC Yukon members on the summit of Mount Elysian.

The next ten days were a blur of instant cream of wheat, couscous, and reminding myself that it was going to be a great story when I’m 80. And, (a lot more than) some scrambling.

Day one, we hiked towards Wolf’s Fang. Wolf’s Fang is the highest peak in the area at 2636m. Before this, my experience hiking up mountains was Newfoundland’s Gros Morne (806m) and Yosemite’s Half Dome (2682m). By the time I reached the ridge beside Wolf’s Fang (about 20 minutes after the rest of my mountain goat companions), I had found a new fear: heights. We eventually spread out for the descent, and those with helmets donned them. Helmetless and slow, I started to mentally write the story I’ll tell when I’m 80.

 The ACC Yukon group, climbing high on a ridge below the Wolf’s Fang.

The ACC Yukon group, climbing high on a ridge below the Wolf’s Fang.

It would be a story about some scrambling in a rarely visited corner of Nahanni. A story about spending 11 days exploring the most extraordinary valleys - green with braids of streams, flowers in bloom, and pikas chirping everywhere. Valleys of chaos where thousands of car-sized boulders stood between me and the only patch of green suitable to make camp. A story about looking up to a suggested “shortcut,” and wondering whether human beings were even meant to go there with packs. Then, discovering first hand humans can go almost anywhere with a pack – if you’re willing to do some scrambling.

 Peter Knamiller relaxing in the evening sun at “Milk & Honey” camp. That evening we awoke to a sky full of Northern Lights.

Peter Knamiller relaxing in the evening sun at “Milk & Honey” camp. That evening we awoke to a sky full of Northern Lights.

On day ten, we packed up camp and made our way up the back side of Peak Wex - my first summit. It was, as many have described, an easy ramble up the back side. But I didn’t care. After ten days of scrambling in and out of my comfort zone, it felt good to finally make it to the top. It felt good to look out over the valleys and peaks and think about all the stories I’ll be telling when I’m 80.

 Exploring the beautiful alpine in a place only a handful of people have ever visited.

Exploring the beautiful alpine in a place only a handful of people have ever visited.