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A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers

- Pink Floyd

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Expeditions

Sep 12, 2018

Secrets of the Nahanni: The Valley of Headless Men

A team of river guides and storytellers venture into the "Valley of Headless Men" to uncover secrets of the past.

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

In 1908, brothers Willie and Frank McLeod embarked on a mission into the Nahanni Valley in search of gold. They never returned.

Two years later, the bodies of the McLeod brothers were found on the banks of the Nahanni River. Their heads though, were nowhere to be found. The two men were murdered, decapitated, and left on the side of the river for the next party of explorers to find.

Nine years after the McLeod brothers were found, Martin Jorgenson set off into the Nahanni Valley on a quest for gold. Soon after Jorgenson sent out letters claiming he had struck gold, his cabin was mysteriously burned to the ground. The remains of his body were found among the ashes. Just like the McLeod brothers, Jorgenson’s body was found without a head. In 1945, a miner from Ontario succumbed to the same exact fate. His body was found headless in his sleeping bag.

We may never know the truth behind these “Headless Tales”, but what we do know is that this was only the beginning of many mysterious and haunting stories surrounding the Nahanni Valley.

The Nahanni River flows through Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories in northern Canada. The Nahanni Valley is only accessible by river, plane, or foot. With deep canyons, hot springs, epic whitewater, beautiful hiking and a massive waterfall, the Nahanni is one of the most impressive river trips in North America. It is often considered Canada’s (more remote) version of the Grand Canyon.

For how impressive the Nahanni River Valley is, and how compelling the stories surrounding it are, I am surprised by how little I have heard about this river!

Virginia Falls scenic landscape in Nahanni National Park. Photo: Paul Gierszewski

Enter Marc J McPherson.

Marc is a filmmaker from Calgary, Alberta. He first learned of the Nahanni over 15 years ago while writing a paper for his History of Exploration course at The University of Calgary. He came across an article about the McLeod brothers and Martin Jorgenson, which is originally what piqued his interest. For ten years, Marc used these stories as inspiration for other film scripts he was writing. He eventually decided he wanted to learn more about the “Headless Tales”, as well as the other stories that have sprung from the Valley. Marc was on a mission to learn from the Dene people, the First Nations people who inhabit the northern boreal and Arctic regions of Canada. Marc was able to find written word from European and Colonial Canadian explorers that mentioned centuries of oral history from the Dene people, but he was never able to find written history by the Dene people on the subject.

Marc’s curiosity about the mysteries surrounding the Nahanni Valley kept increasing, so he decided to take matters into his own hands. Marc’s documentary film, Secrets of the Nahanni, will follow the Nahanni River, while telling the stories and legends that sprung from the Valley. Marc’s goal is to “make a documentary exploring the Nahanni River Valleys to share the experience of its natural wonders to others, while at the same time connecting these areas to the legends and mysteries that add another layer of curiosity and character to the region.”

The Nahanni Valley is such a sacred place that there are many parts of it which are closed off to the general public. Marc went through a six month process to obtain permission and permits to not only film on the Nahanni River, but to access the restricted areas that the general public isn’t allowed to see. He also obtained permission to film and capture, the Dene Oral Histories, which has never been recorded.

The actual trip down the Nahanni to film will be taking place in summer 2019. Until then, Marc and his crew will be working hard to promote this project and gain the necessary support to make it happen.

Stop for lunch along the Nahanni River. Photo: Fort Simpson Chamber of Commerce

For more info about the film, and the opportunity to support the expedition visit: http://secretsofnahanni.com/

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Expeditions

Jul 01, 2019

Trans Himalaya 2019: First Contact

In his first contact since embarking on a 2,500 km self-supported journey last month, Peter Van Geit ventures deeper into the most remote corners of the Himalaya.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

Last month, The Outdoor Journal introduced an alpine-style journey for the ages in which wilderness explorer Peter Van Geit, along with filmmaker Neil D’Souza, embarked on a 2,500 km self-supported journey across 100+ Himalayan high passes in Himachal, Ladakh, and Uttarakhand. Now more than one month into their journey, Peter shares the first field notes update from their psychedelic experience amidst the mountains.

After exactly one month since the start, I completed the first section of my journey, the state of Uttarakhand East to West starting from the border of Nepal until entering the neighbouring state of Himachal today. Uttarakhand has been mesmerizing – lush green forests, countless small hamlets, virgin valleys, beautiful paths and trails connecting villages, overwhelming hospitality.

As 3330m we pitched up camp at the last flat space next to a large snow bridge before a steep 600m climb to Balsi Khal.
Peter and Neil’s journey is self-supported, which means they carry all of their own gear and navigate using offline maps.

In total, I crossed 127 hamlets in the state, some very remote hidden deep inside the mountains, climbed across 27 passes touching the snowline near to 4000m, hiked through 27 valleys in between the passes, some with many hamlets and farmlands, some uninhabited virgin jungles, crossed several wild streams, saw various wildlife including a black bear, monkeys and deer.

Read next on TOJ: Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Another steep climb follows above Pana till the path crosses a major ridge at 3100m. To my surprise I find a kind shepherd camping at the same spot inviting me over for tea and night stay.
These routes are rarely used, if at all, by local shepherds.

Aside the stunning natural beauty, what touched me most was the remote hospitality of Uttarakhand. Especially while passing through remote tribal settlements where very few or no travelers would have ever crossed, people were extremely friendly and warm, inviting me in for food and a night’s stay without expectations. In many homes, I was treated as if I was their own son, as they showed concern about my well-being and guiding me to the next pass.

On the way from Joshimath to Mondal, we descended and crossed a side valley on the way to Dumak (2400m) where the village kids playfully welcomed us.

The most memorable night stays were those with the “Bakris” or shepherds who roam the entire summer in remote sections of the high mountains grazing the “bugyals” or meadows with hundreds of their sheep. They are truly your best friends in the remotest corners of the Himalaya. Staying with them around a warm campfire in the cold high altitude nights, sharing yummy rottis (flat breads) with “sabji”, fresh goat milk, lying on your back and watching the night skies lit up with millions of stars, listening to a 20 year old Philips radio playing Hindi songs from All India AM radio. That experience is out of this world.

After a full-day journey traveling in 3 share taxis from Mondal to Sonprayag through madening pilgrim traffic and dusty under construction ghat roads we finally settled down at Trijugi Nārāyan 2200m, a peaceful hamlet above the pilgrim madness at Sonprayag 1700m.
The snow clad peaks above Kedarnath span across the horizon. The other side of the pass follows a long gradual descent along a ridge. At 3300m there is the small hamlet of Panwali Kantha.

The most challenging parts of the journey have been those where we lost the path or where the trail fades out in the jungle. You then have to scramble across steep valley slopes, sometimes dense thorny vegetation, cross wild streams, hang on to trees and roots climbing across landslide sections, rely on contour maps to navigate your way around vertical cliffs, etc. The intensity of the effort and calories burned multiplies manifold once you go “off trail” finding your way through the jungle towards the next hamlet or pass.

On the way from Bhatwari to Hanuman Chatti, we reached the Darwa pass within 1.5 hours. From there it was a quick descend back down to Doti Taal where I gobbled up yummy rottis with spinach veggie. Met a nice Colombian who was doing a 6 month Yatra, or religious pilgrimage in the North.

Towards Western Uttarakhand near to the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh we came across remote fairytale villages built from beautiful natural stone and wood. We discovered ancient wooden temples beautifully handcrafted by previous generations. Homes have several vertical levels with beautifully crafted terraces, animals staying below and people on top.

Beautiful wooden temple in Phari village, at 1500 m elevation.

Most hiking groups usually select 1 pass and take a week to acclimatize and cross the pass over several campsites. Doing 27 passes in one month, or nearly one each day requires a lot of endurance and speed. Going minimalist and lightweight is the key to go faster, with less food and less night stays in between. Proper nutrition and night rest is key to keep up the daily momentum of some 30-40km with an average elevation gain of 3,000 meters. You easily burn 5,000 calories for each pass crossing which needs to be refueled in the villages in between.

I found a nice path leading up Northwest along the ridge leading towards Kedarkanta. After a 30min walk a hidden settlement of Darsaun 2400m revealed itself. Here I lost the path and asking the locals for directions did not help either. At the last home I met an old friendly lady who invited me over for some hot “dude” (milk). Soon after that a sumptuous breakfast followed with thick rottis, curd, cheese, spinach. Best home made food I had in my entire journey.

The entire trip so far went alpine style using offline contour maps, pre-planned trails and some local guidance here and there. 85% was on proper trails and paths between the villages and passes, 15% was “off trail” scrambling through jungles and valley slopes. Most of the night stays are near villages and in people’s homes, a lesser number in the wild and near the passes with the shepherds. We usually cross passes in between valleys in 1-2 days and carry only enough food ration with us. Each day usually starts at 5 am and goes till sunrise targetting the first village out of the forest in the next valley. No rest days so far with approximately 800 km covered and 70 thousand meters elevation gain.

According to Peter, his only objective is to inspire others to explore these beautiful locations. You can read more about Peter’s experiences and motivations in his interview here – Alpine-Style, Ultra-Challenge in the Himalayan High Passes. Stay tuned on The Outdoor Journal for Peter’s next update along his 2,500 km journey.

To follow Peter’s expedition, visit his blog.
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit
Instagram: @petervangeit
Chennai Trekking Club

For more Neil Productions, visit: http://neil.dj/
Facebook: @neilb4me

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