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Heads and Tales on the River of Gold

The mysterious and remote Nahanni, not only escaped the last glaciers, but also much of recorded human history. R.M. Patterson's Dangerous River is where modern history began on the river for many. But there were a few years before Patterson that firmed up the river's nasty reputation.

The Nahanni, like the Coppermine River, was to be opened in the great expectation of mineral wealth. The cry of "Gold" in the 1890's saw the opening of the Yukon and the phenomenal growth of an odd assortment of individuals to the North. It was logical to expect that once the bonanza of the Yukon had petered prospectors would look to tributaries to find their golden nest egg. It was in large measure the plight of these gold diggers that has created and sustained the "Dangerous River."

It was believed that somewhere on Bennett Creek, a tributary of the Flat River which runs into the Nahanni was to be found the great McHenry mine. It was from here that a man named McHenry brought out 40 pounds of ore. Despite this, no gold was ever discovered in great amounts and gradually interest in the area started to disappear.

In 1898 a native guide accompanied Jack Stanier and Joe Bird into the maze of the Splits up the lower canyons around Virginia Falls and to a point beyond Rabbitkettle Mounds. However following a horrifying dream the guide insisted on turning back. These were the first known white men to reach the headwaters of the South Nahanni. At the Moose Ponds they found an Indian trail leading across the divide to the Ross River. They descended this stream to the Pelly River and thence to the Yukon gold fields.

Although it may have been an interest to canoeists this did little for the gold seekers until around 1900 when an Indian called Little Nahanni brought nuggets out of the area and gave them to Bishop Brenner at Fort Simpson. There was enough gold to make a watch chain and ring he displayed for the rest of his life.

Then in 1905 Willie McLeod swaggered out of the Nahanni with an Eno Fruit Saltx bottle jammed full of coarse gold nuggets. Of course, McLeod was mum as to where the gold had come from. The following year he ventured back to the Nahanni Valley this time joined by his brother Frank and another person. They left in the early spring of 1906 never to be seen alive again. Two years later the remains of the McLeods were found near the head of what is is now Deadman's Valley in the spruce on the left bank of the Nahanni, a couple of miles below the entrance to the Second Canyon. So the rumour goes, the bodies were tied to trees and headless and a note saying that the McLeods had found gold. The mysterious other person was never seen again. Even the discovery of the bodies were shrouded in mystery.

It is not clear who were the first to discover the gruesome sight. It may have been a party of wandering prospectors including Poole Field an ex-Northwest Mounted Police officer, or another McLeod brother Charles who was accompanied by the first patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police into the Nahanni Country. In any event, the bodies were buried near their cabin in the Headless Valley, long since washed away by the flood waters and ice. The police concluded that there had been no foul play, despite the rumour that swirled throughout the North of head hunters, cannibals and Mountain men in the region. This was the beginning of the Nahanni legends.

Five years later more fuel was added to the litany of mysteries of the Nahanni. Attracted to the lure of gold was a Norwegian Martin Jorgenson. Poole Field, the same person who had come upon the McLeod bodies, received a letter saying that he had struck gold in the Flat River area, and that he should rush to the Nahanni. Jorgenson had set up his cabin on the Nahanni opposite the Flat River. Field came across the remnants of the cabin."About fifty yards from the cabin... I found an axe in the trail. I picked it up and just around behind the trees I found Martin's bones or what was left of them. His gun lay close by loaded and cocked. We never found his skull."

Poole Field remained in the Nahanni area prospecting and later establishing a trading post at Nahanni Butte were he became good friends with the Laffertys. They often headed up the South Nahanni in search of gold and furs travelling overland in the fall with their pack dogs and returning by canoe in the late spring. On one of these trips Jonas Lafferty tipped in his overloaded canoe, throwing his winter gatherings and his brother Frank into the icy cold silty waters. Field never let them live down the incident, and the relatively small rapid has been tagged "Laffertys Riffle."

Shortly afterwards, during the winter of 1922 John O'Brien, a World War I vet was trapping in the vicinity of the Twisted Mountain. Jonas Lafferty stopped by O'Brien's cabin and, not finding him started searching. Atop the mountain at the end of his trap-line Lafferty found O'Brien frozen solid as a rock, kneeling by the remains of his fire. The man's arms must have been so cold that he couldn't even strike the matches that he clutched in his hands.

These were not the end of the rumours and it is not surprising that they should continue to swirl. These were not topographers, scientists, botanists; these were fortune hunters. The region in the 1920's was one of the few areas in Canada with blank spots. The maps of the area showed two straight lines to indicate the Nahanni and Flat Rivers, in fact one of which was in the wrong place, along with the lone word Falls.

There were persistent rumours of prehistoric animals that ravaged the region. Bones and tusks of mastodons were found. In addition, the native people of the region were able to accurately draw pictures of mastodons on their raw hide. Combined with rumours of cliff dwelling mountain cannibals and weird uncontrolled noises in the Valley it was only the brave who would venture forth.

Such was the Nahanni's lurid recent history, that Raymond Patterson paddled into during that summer of 1927.

This article first appeared in Che-Mun Outfit 102


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