Can man and nature live in harmony? Can they even co-exist? These are issues Gordon Nelson addresses in The Magnificent Nahanni: The Struggle to Protect a Wild Place.
Nahanni National Park Reserve, located in Canada’s Northwest Territories, is indeed impressive. Nelson describes a magical place with cliffs, canyons, caves, and a waterfall even higher than Niagara Falls. This is a place where wildlife predominates – bright flowers, butterflies and birds, caribou and wolf. The Nahanni River itself “stands out among northern rivers, not because of its size but because of its unique grandeur and rich natural diversity,” he says.
All these attributes have been described in other books, but what sets Nelson’s apart is his detailed description of the enormous efforts required to preserve this lush landscape, focusing on the long struggle to conserve the river and its watershed as a national park reserve.
The name of the Nahanni River likely evolved from the mysterious Indigenous people who inhabited the area. Nelson notes that the name has a “vague mystical flavour” suggesting the inhabitants could be evil, hostile, or possibly even giants.
Early explorers were awestruck by the flora and fauna. Later explorers visited places with names like “Murder Creek,” Wheat Sheaf Creek in Deadmen Valley, and Headless Creek, the latter reflecting the 1908 discovery of the headless corpses of two post-Klondike prospectors, Frank and Willie McLeod.
Raymond Patterson, an adventurous traveller who trapped and prospected in the lower Nahanni valley in the 1920s, described seeing timber wolves “about the size of calves.” Wildlife was abundant and apparently unafraid of man; one day Patterson was awakened by a squirrel running across his face.
In 1976 the federal government approved a small Nahanni National Park Reserve. When Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, himself a wild river enthusiast, viewed the plans for the first phase, he questioned why the proposed area was so small. Nelson also wonders why Parks Canada didn’t propose a much larger reserve.
In 2009, federal legislation expanded the size of the park six-fold and incorporated First Nations’ hunting rights. Nelson argues that more needs to be done, such as curtailing the mining industry in the reserve.
The Magnificent Nahanni: The Struggle to Protect a Wild Place includes an index, bibliography, endnotes, a note on sources, numerous maps, and two appendices. One appendix provides a timeline for the protection of the Nahanni and the other is a list of traditional place names in the Dene language.
Nelson believes that conservation, recreation, tourism, and Indigenous ways of life are all intertwined and interdependent. If the powers-that-be listen to and follow his advice, man and nature may indeed not only co-exist but live together harmoniously now and into the future.
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