Painting the Nahanni

The Nahanni is an amazing river, to say the least, and my trip there was like nothing I had experienced before.  But to choose the Nahanni as a first large northern river to explore and paint was really like jumping off the deep end.  I knew I had the experience to undertake such a trip, but the uncertainty of what I would encounter kept me in a state of disquietude weeks and months before leaving.  This was all emphasized by the fact that I was doing this trip solo.

So, earlier in august this summer, after travelling across the country, and finally leaving behind the complexity of airlines and airports, finally, my small bush plane landed softly on the wide and smooth milky green ribbon of the Nahanni River, just a mile above Virginia Falls.  Virginia Falls is somewhat a popular spot within the park where guided groups will stay for two days to enjoy the view of the falls before continuing their trip down river.  Some will even fly in for a couple of hours, just enough time to get a few snapshots.  And yes, with a drop twice the height of Niagara Falls, set in a very remote area, Virginia Falls is impressive.

Well, I wasn’t there to take snapshots. So after setting up my tent, I immediately grabbed my pochade box and went to see the huge and thunderous falls.  I took advantage of the long daylight the North offers, and made three sketches on that very first day.  But after a couple of days around the area, I was eager to move along and explore miles and miles of canyons that lay beyond.  I could speak about the uneasiness feeling that comes by being alone in a remote area, or the disquietude of setting off solo toward potential dangers.  But the fact is, once there, in the middle of a natural and wilderness setting, a calm emotion of content kicks in.  I knew I would encounter, right from the start, important rapids in the canyon, comprising mostly of large regular waves. But I felt quite confident equiped with a spray skirt covering my canoe and wearing a wetsuit.  I am ready for the adventure.

Eventually, I’ll post some videos of the rapids and of the scenery.  But in the meantime, I am glad to share some pictures that I took while paddling 214 km down this river, from Virginia Falls to the small community of Nahanni Butte, where I would shuttle back to Fort Simpson and take the plane back home.  214 km is a short distance to travel in 12 days, but of course,I wanted to give myself enough time to paint along the way, sometimes camping at the same spot for more than one night.  And there are also a lot of opportunities to make side trips hiking along canyons created by tributaries of the Nahanni.

But one other uncertainty running around in my mind before leaving was: Would I be inspired to paint canyons and mountains?  And, as beautiful and gloriously grand the Nahanni landscape is, I wasn’t sure I could fit all that on small 8 by 10 inch wood panels.  It is the composition, not the splendour of a scenery that makes a painting.  I remember reading about some difficulty A.Y. Jackson was having while painting the West Coast Mountains the first time he encountered them at the beginning of his career.

For myself, I managed to complete twelve sketches while on the river, sometimes under difficult conditions like threatening rain storms, gusting winds, blowing sand and blistering sun.  Are the sketches any good?  Well, some came out all right, but I could see that the later paintings generally got better, as if I understood more clearly the language of this particular landscape.  Also, when painting everyday, one usually experiences some kind of breakthrough. The hand and heart goes beyond their usual limits.  At this point, I’m more interested in expressing the landscape, rather than describing it.  It is a lofty goal that has no clear finish line, and I just love it!

It can be difficult to travel and paint at the same time.  Sometimes you wish to paint something but do not want to linger too much.  The business of travelling, unloading the canoe, finding a suitable campsite, setting up the tent is very time consuming.  Although we can pretty much camp where we want to in Nahanni National Park, providing we avoid areas prone to flash floods, we are also asked by park officials to avoid areas where there are fresh signs of bear activity.  Well, it gets difficult to do so.  There are bear tracks everywhere!  I even camped in an area that had been overrunned by wolves a couple of days before my arrival.  I actually only saw one small black bear during the whole trip, but I did see a group of twenty bisons where the river meanders before reaching the Liard River.  I didn’t know there were bisons living in this area, but I learned afterwards that they had been introduced some time ago.

Although there are important rapids in certain spots on the river where you find large irregular waves, the Nahanni is not really a technically difficult river to do.  The course to follow is usually clear within the rapids.  Still, you shouldn’t be fooled by the relative calmness of the river.  The current is remarkably strong and daunting at times.  You feel its awesome power under the canoe, creating disturbing counter currents and twirls, even in relatively flat areas.  It is like sliding down a giant’s back where you are aware of every twich of his muscles, and hope he does not wake up!  The river must be terrifying during spring breakup.

But, no major mishaps or misadventures happened to me.  Everything went smoothly, even with the return airline travelling, which was consequently harder on my camping equipment (but I was more worried about loosing the sketches!).  I met a lot of great people along the way and I shared with them the purpose of my trip.  Most were already seasoned travellers and some were there to check off Nahanni River from their bucket list.   I was asked where would my next adventure bring me.  Well, I don’t know that answer.  At this point I haven’t thought about it much.  I do have some other northern rivers I know I would like to see, but this present adventure is not quite finished and It will most likely last all winter.  I’ve got some paintings to do!




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