The Current

How a dramatic boat rescue led to a career on the Nahanni River

All season long our series, The Disruptors, has shared personal moments of disruption from our listeners. Today, we head north to Whitehorse with a story from Neil Hartling's life that led him to a career connected to the Nahanni River.
Neil Hartling, founder of Canadian River Expeditions and Nahanni River Adventures, credits his career to a fateful day in Sept. 1984 when he rescued a family on the Nahanni River. (Courtesy of Neil Hartling)

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>> This personal story is part of our season-long series, The Disruptors

In 1984 a single encounter changed Neil Hartling's path in life.  

At the time Hartling was a young, underemployed river guide from Alberta. He'd ventured north to live out his dream of paddling the rugged Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories

Near the end of his trip, he was on the shores of the river when he heard cries for help. 

"I looked into the mist and saw this spectre I will never forget," Hartling recalls. 

He saw an old boat that had been drifting all night with a broken motor. On board, the three passengers — a man, woman and young girl — looked scared and cold.

They had no paddles to control the boat and just downstream were the Beaver Dam rapids — a small waterfall that would have capsized the boat, sending the passengers with no life jackets into the frigid water. 

Hartling grabbed another man sleeping in a nearby tent, launched a canoe and headed for the disabled boat.
Neil Hartling has been working for a decade with Indigenous groups to expand the boundary of Nahanni National Park and protect the watershed. (Neil Hartling)

"I paddled harder than I had ever paddled in a canoe race."

The one thing the boat did have was a rope, so they tied it up to the canoe and started the long journey back to shore — Hartling estimates it was more than three km.

Once safely to shore, everyone went their separate ways and Neil didn't think any more of the incident. 

"At the time, I had no idea how important this would be in shaping my life and what a corner this was turning for me."

Later that winter, Hartling applied for an outfitting license on the Nahanni. For approval, he needed the permission of the local Indigenous people. Lucky for him, the family that he rescued put in a good word for him with the regulators and his license was approved — setting him on a long career of guiding rivers in the north.

"Clearly it would not have happened without them so that was a big turning point in my life."

Hartling's work on the river didn't stop at guiding. For more than a decade he worked with Indigenous groups to expand the boundary of Nahanni National Park and protect the watershed. That campaign was successful. The park is now seven times bigger and recognized as one of the largest in the world. 

"I'll never forget that encounter on that misty September morning that disrupted my life and connected me for a lifetime with the Nahanni... the grand river with the beautiful name." 

Listen to the full story at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Liz Hoath.