This remote Canadian wilderness is home to a spectacular waterfall twice the height of Niagara Falls

A moose skin boat on the banks of the South Nahanni river

In the summer of 2018, twelve Indigenous Dene ventured into the wilds of the Nahanni National Park Reserve in remote Northwest Territories to rediscover traditional knowledge that is at risk of being lost.

A moose skin boat in the grass

The group’s goal was to construct a traditional moose skin boat and pilot it down the South Nahanni River — a 500-kilometre journey towards Fort Simpson. It had been over 100 years since the last moose skin boat had traversed this spectacular river.

The film, Nahanni: River of Forgiveness, follows the Dene as they build the boat and undertake their epic journey, documenting this once-in-a-lifetime experience withinin a landscape of breathtaking beauty.

These photos were taken by photographer John Bingham who accompanied the team during the filming of Nahanni: River of Forgiveness

wide overhead view of the Nahanni river

The Nahanni National Park Reserve is located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, 500 km west of Yellowknife. The reserve spans 30,050 km2  and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, the first natural region in the world to receive the designation.

Closer view of the Nahanni river

Over the last few million years, glaciers shaped much of North America, creating the landscape we see today. But during the most recent Ice Age, most of Nahanni National Park Reserve was not covered by ice, creating unique terrain within the park.

The South Nahanni River, sitting at the core of the Reserve, is an ‘antecedent’ river. While many rivers are created by mountains, the South Nahanni had carved its meandering path hundreds of millions of years before tectonic plates pushed up the mountains around it.

The Ragged Range, highest mountains in the NWT

Toward the northwest boundary of the park, a dramatic expanse of granite peaks is home to the highest mountains in NWT, known as the Ragged Range. Formed 110 million years ago when tectonic activity forced molten rock through the earth’s crust, the jagged peaks revealed themselves after millions of years of erosion.

The Cirque of the Unclimabables, destination for rock climbers

The jagged peaks in the background of the photo above is known as the Cirque of the Unclimbables, a famous bucket-list destination for avid rock climbers. Despite its isolated location, archeological evidence of human campsites among these high peaks date as far back as 2000 years ago.

Rabbitkettle Hot Springs, home to oldest tufa mounds in Canada

Rabbitkettle Hot Springs is home to the largest and oldest “tufa mounds” in Canada. Tufa mounds are formed when heated water rises from deep within the Earth’s crust. As water passes through layers of limestone and silt, minerals are carried to the surface where they harden into intricate and beautiful terraces.

The tufa mound at Rabbitkettle Hot Springs rises 30 metres above the surrounding landscape and is believed to be 10,000 years old.

Tufa mound known as Gahnhthah

To the Dene, the tufa mound is known as Gahnhthah, the sacred birthplace of Yamoria, the hero and protector of Dené mythology. The surface of mounds is extremely fragile, and can only be accessed with a Parks Canada guide.

Virginia Falls

At Virginia Falls, the South Nahanni picks up speed, transforming into a raging torrent that falls as a spectacular curtain over a vertical drop of 92 metres — twice the height Niagara Falls.

The Dene call this place Nailicho or “Big Falling Water”.

base of Virginia Falls

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian, who spearheaded the moose skin boat project, says Virginia Falls hold a special power.  “When you're standing on top of the falls and looking down, you're nothing but a little spec, a grain of sand. You're afraid, but yet you feel free. The way to deal with something like this is to let yourself go. Don't hold back that feeling. Give yourself to the water, give yourself to the falls, and let the falls take care of you.”

looking over the top of Virgina Falls

The falls are split by a giant limestone stack called Mason’s Rock. The rock spire has resisted centuries of erosion as the falls migrated upstream.

Over time, the waterfall has travelled at least six kilometres upstream, carving out the canyon in its wake. This gradual erosion cut the deep walls of Fourth Canyon, one of the four impressive canyons that tower over the South Nahanni River downstream of Virginia Falls.

River against the sheer cliff walls

When viewed from above, the river’s path between the cliff walls appears like any other that meanders with wide curves.But the geological forces that shaped the landscape around it could not hold back the South Nahanni — it continues to cut enormous ribbons through the limestone rock.

Limestone rock lines the Nahanni River

Further downstream, the river calms and widens. Of the four canyons, First Canyon is the most breathtaking. Sheer limestone cliffs rise straight out of the river to dizzying heights above the canyon floor.

boat travels down the Nahanni River

The steep walls display an expansive timeline that charts the landscape’s 500-million-year history, and dwarfs the team as they pass by on their moose skin boat journey.

Moose skin boat in the Nahanni River

To see the full journey, watch Nahanni: River of Forgiveness on documentary Channel. To learn more about the project, visit the Interactive Experience at riverofforgiveness.com

Photos copyright John Bingham

Produced with additional funding from: