Legends of the Nahanni Valley
Legends of the Nahanni Valley- Northern Canada’s Greatest Mystery
Coming Soon to the Mysteries of Canada Bookstore
We’re very excited to announce that, sometime this autumn, we will publish our second-ever Mysteries of Canada non-fiction book, entitled “Legends of the Nahanni Valley.” This book will be the first of its kind, focusing exclusively on the various stories and legends surrounding the watershed of the mysterious South Nahanni River, located in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories.
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The following is a summary of the legends into which our book delves.
“The Legend of the Headless Valley. It is… one of the few pieces of bona fide folklore that we have in Canada. I think you will agree that it is a pretty good legend, too, for it has something of almost everything in it.” – Pierre Berton, circa 1947.
Deep in the heart of the Canadian North, in the southernmost reaches of the Mackenzie Mountains, lies the valley of the South Nahanni River, a mysterious area shrouded in legend. Long before the first white explorers paddled their canoes into the country in search of fur, local Dene Indians gave the place a wide berth. These natives believed that the valley was an evil area pervaded by bad medicine- a malevolent, supernatural presence which hung over the place perpetually like its ever-present fog.
The Evil Spirit, Nakani, the Mongol Caves, and White Queen
Over the years, a number native hunters, spurred by bravery, foolishness, or desperation, wandered into the valley in search of game. The few who returned regaled their fellows with all manner of hair-raising tales. At night, while their compatriots crouched around the campfire, these survivors told of encounters with an evil spirit who haunted the valley, whose unearthly shrieks echoed throughout the canyons on windy nights. Others described a race of fearsome, hairy giants who dwelled in caves carved from the canyon walls. Led by a beautiful, pale-skinned chieftess, these primitive mountain men killed and ate anyone who trespassed on their territory.
The Naha Tribe
According to Dene tradition, in ancient times, the Nahanni Valley was inhabited by a nomadic, warlike tribe known as the Naha. The Naha were ferocious warriors who frequently descended from their mountain homes to raid Dene settlements in the lowlands surrounding the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers. After suffering a number of devastating incursions, a party of Dene braves took to the warpath, travelling into Nahanni country with the intention of pillaging a Naha camp. In time, the warriors came upon a scattering of teepees and prepared to attack. Upon rushing into the camp with their weapons at hand, however, the Dene discovered that their enemies were nowhere to be found. It was as if they had vanished into thin air. With all the campfire tales of evil spirits and giant cannibals swiftly recalled to mind, the Dene warriors fled the country, beating a fearful retreat back to the lowlands. They never saw the Naha again.
The Tropical Valley
In the early 1800’s, fur traders of the North West Company established Fort Liard and Fort of the Forks (the latter later renamed Fort Simpson), two trading posts situated on the Liard River upriver and downriver of the mouth of the South Nahanni, respectively. In the trading room and on the trail, these tough frontiersmen learned of the horrors of the Nahanni from their Dene clients. In 1823, two years after the North West Company amalgamated into the Hudson’s Bay Company, a valiant voyageur named John McLeod attempted to explore the remote valley, but did not make it far upriver on account of the rapids. He embarked upon a similar expedition the following year and met with similar results.
In the summer of 1897, word spread of a fabulous gold strike in the Klondike. In no time, men and women from all over the world were on their way to the northern diggings. These so-called ‘Stampeders’ approached the Yukon by a number of different trails. One of them was a gruelling ‘all-Canadian’ overland route which began in Edmonton, Alberta. Of the 766 Stampeders who attempted this treacherous trail, a handful opted to take an even more hazardous shortcut by way of the South Nahanni River. Although at least two of these men successfully reached their destination, many more disappeared in the misty valley long shunned by the natives.
In the aftermath of the Klondike Gold Rush, sourdoughs (as veterans of the Northland are sometimes referred to) who failed to strike it rich in the Yukon began to look elsewhere for gold. A number of these restless prospectors wandered into the Nahanni country and began to pan the myriad creeks which fed the South Nahanni and the Flat Rivers (the Flat being the South Nahanni’s primary tributary). Some who returned from these diggings filled northern trading posts and saloons with strange tales of a paradisiacal valley hidden away somewhere in the mountains of the Mackenzie. This valley, they maintained, was snow-free all year round, its tropical climate attributable to the hundreds of bubbling hot springs which ran through it. Cloaked by heavy fog, the valley’s soil was black and fertile, supporting a spectacular variety of lush and exotic greenery. This subarctic Eden was purportedly a hunter’s paradise; due to the excellent grazing conditions, it teemed with wild game. One prospector said that the moose, caribou, and mountain sheep that lived in this lost world were so well-fed as to appear “almost square from fat.”
Hand in hand with tales of a tropical valley were stories of mammoths, mastodons, and other prehistoric monsters said to still roam the most desolate recesses of the Nahanni. Indian trappers and white prospectors alike claimed to have observed fresh tracks of these Pleistocene relicts in the snow or the soft clay of creek beds, and many frontiersmen returned from the wilderness bearing priceless ivory tusks with hair and flesh still adhered to the bone. Rumour had it that some hunters had even encountered the antediluvian beasts deep within Mackenzie country and lived to tell the tale.
The Lost McLeod Mine
In spite of all the dreadful stories of bad medicine, evil spirits, hairy giants, and prehistoric monsters, a handful of enterprising prospectors continued to try their luck in the Nahanni Valley in the hopes of discovering gold. Two such men were Willie and Frank McLeod, Metis brothers whose father Murdoch once served as Chief Factor at Fort Liard. Sometime in 1904 or 1905, the McLeod brothers, equipped with mining gear, disappeared up the South Nahanni and, according to some, further up the Flat River. They were never seen alive again.
Three years after the McLeod brothers’ departure, Willie and Frank’s younger brother Charlie, fearing the worst, mounted a search party. The ragtag band of trappers, aboriginals, and ex-Mounties he recruited headed up the South Nahanni, warily scanning the wooded shore for anything out of the ordinary. After several days of tracking, paddling, and poling their canoes upriver, Charlie and his crew made a grisly discovery. On a flat stretch of riverbank, known thereafter as Deadmen Valley, sprawled the decapitated remains of Willy and Frank McLeod. Their heads were nowhere to be found.
Word of the macabre find spread like wildfire throughout the Canadian North. Over steaming mugs of sweetened tea- a staple of the northern frontier- trappers and traders speculated as to the nature of the McLeod brothers’ gruesome fate. Had they been killed by one of the hairy, cave-dwelling giants of native lore? Had they been murdered by the Nahanni Indians- an elusive, mysterious tribe said to be fiercely protective of their hunting grounds? Perhaps they had been beheaded by a rival prospector or a trapper gone mad, his mind shattered by years of isolation in the bush.
Growing in conjunction with these conjectures were rumours that the Nahanni country was rich in gold, and that the McLeod brothers had made a massive strike on one of its creeks sometime prior to their untimely deaths. In no time, whispers of the Lost McLeod Mine- a subarctic El Dorado where gold nuggets the size of goose eggs littered the creek beds- rippled up and down the Mackenzie. One by one, veterans of the Fortymile, Klondike, Nome, and Fairbanks goldfields trickled into the Nahanni Valley, pans, picks, and whipsaws strapped to their dog sleds and canoes.
One of these prospectors lured by tales of lost gold was Martin Jorgenson, a Norwegian woodsman who entered Nahanni country in 1910. Five years later, his headless corpse was discovered about a mile above the mouth of the Flat River. Nearby stood the charred remains of his log cabin, which had mysteriously burned to the ground. Like the McLeod brothers, Jorgenson’s head was never found.
The Curse of the Nahanni Valley
In the wake of Jorgenson’s death, dozens of prospectors similarly met with bizarre ends in various reaches of the Nahanni Valley. In the winter of 1922, for example, the body of a WWI veteran named John O’Brien was discovered on a mountainside not far from Deadmen Valley, hunched over a pile of tinder with a matchbook in his hand as if he had frozen to death while trying to light a fire. Legend has it that another man, an Ontario prospector named Ernest Savard, was found dead in his sleeping bag in 1945, his head severed from his shoulders. Other men who entered the country, like trappers Bill Epler and Joe Mulholland, simply vanished without a trace. Some sourdoughs saw these bizarre deaths and disappearances as affirmations of what they had long believed- that the Nahanni Valley is cursed, and that those who dare to search for its gold, or come close to finding it, invariably suffer some sort of ghastly fate.
As the year drew on, the remote wilds of the Nahanni began to appeal to geologists, naturalists, and other representatives of the scientific community. With the northern frontier ever shrinking under the onslaught of industrial exploration, these academics jumped at the opportunity to study this vast tract of virgin wilderness virtually unspoiled by man. Throughout the 1960’s, some of the scholarly professionals who entered the Nahanni returned from their expeditions with experiences they could not explain. The accounts of these academics, coupled with local anecdotes, gave rise to a new Nahanni legend.
According to these witnesses, the Nahanni Valley is home to an enormous, solitary, wolf-like creature eerily reminiscent of a monster of Inuit myth. Dubbed the “waheela,” this mysterious caniform is believed by some to be a relict Amphicyon– an ancient, carnivorous, bone-crushing mammal colloquially referred to as a “bear dog,” supposed to have gone extinct about eight million years ago. Others maintain the waheela’s physical description corresponds more closely with that of the dire wolf, a prehistoric relative of the modern day timber wolf. Whatever the case, some considered the waheela to be a likely suspect in the Nahanni’s many mysterious deaths and disappearances.
Around the same time as the waheela encounters, various sightings of a short, hairy, half-naked “sub-human” were reported in the vicinities of Fort Liard, Nahanni Butte, and Fort Simpson, respectively. Clad in a moose skin loincloth, carrying a stone club, and sporting a long, dark beard, this creature was given the name “Nuk-luk” by the local Dene. Its diminutive stature notwithstanding, this creature sharply evoked the old tales of the hairy, cave-dwelling cannibals first told around Dene campfires so long ago.