The river of dead men
Adventurer returns after 35 years to challenge the Nahanni
FORT SIMPSON (July 30/99) - Thirty-five years ago, four men did what none had done before when they set out on a unique, but perilous, trip down the South Nahanni River.
On June 30, 1964, Claude Bernardin, Jean Poirel, Roger Rochat and Bertrand Bordet travelled the Nahanni from its source to where it meets the Liard.
Now, 35 years later, one of these men has returned to challenge the Nahanni again.
Claude Bernardin has come back to take another crack at the river that was nearly too much for him and his fellow explorers.
Bernardin says this trip promises to be a lot easier than the first one. The four had attracted a lot of attention on the first trip, he recalled.
"In Watson Lake, people came to have their photo taken with us -- the last photo...the last one," he chuckled.
"Everyone said, ŒYou will die.'" Bernardin recalled.
"They would bet. Put money on the table between them and say, ŒThey will die in Azgate,' or ŒThey will die in Gatt, or Double X Rapids...'"
If that wasn't enough to deter the thrill-seekers, the local missionary also warned them.
"The Oblate priest in Fort Simpson told us about 41 people who died on the Nahanni River," he said.
Everyone who'd tried to travel up the river to the source had either died or turned back, he said. They needed a new approach.
"My friend (Jean Poirel) thought about it and said, ŒWe will do the river another way.'"
Short on funds and time, the team set to work on plotting the course and acquiring equipment for the trip.
"The first plan was to parachute into the headwaters of the river and go down with the current. We got rubber dinghies from the Canadian government and asked for four parachutes.
"We got the dinghies, but they didn't give us the parachutes."
Two of the four had parachutes and the plan was altered. Two would jump in and two would fly in on floats to establish camp 16 miles downriver with the rubber boats, food and most of the heavy gear.
Jean Poirel and Bertrand Bordet bailed out of the plane over Mount Christie, and built a cairn where the big river begins as a trickle. They would take an inflatable canoe and enough food to reach Bernardin and Roger Rochat, who were to establish a base camp 16 miles downriver.
Both Poirel and Bordet landed safely and hiked until the trickle became a stream they could float the canoe in.
The four met downriver and made their way east on the now fast-moving Nahanni. At one point the two teams became separated and Bernardin said they were being shot at from someone along the canyon walls.
"We did not hear the shots, only the plunk of the bullets hitting the river," he explained. "Our friend in the canoe was about three-quarters of a mile down the river and he heard the shots.
"He thought it was us shooting a moose or something," he said. "We concluded that someone was shooting at us."
He speculated the shots could have come from a prospector protecting his claim. Other danger was found just beneath the surface of the fast river.
"We had the two dinghies and the canoe tied together and we must have gone over a tree that was sticking up in the water, because we started taking on water," he said. "We lost half the food and one gun."
The four became two groups of two about a quarter the way down the river, Bernardin recalled.
"We split into two teams when one dinghy went around one side of this island and ours went around the island," he recalled. "When we passed the island, we waited for them."
The other two men did not come. The two teams remained separated for 10 days, until they reached Virginia Falls.
Food rations became slim and the men fished and hunted when they could, but knew nothing about preserving meat and much was lost to spoilage.
"We only had one beaver, but in preparing it, the flies had already laid eggs in the meat," he said. "We were able to salvage the meat from the front and back legs."
That night the team had left some of the cooked beaver meat in the pot when they went to sleep that night, but when they awoke, they found the pot empty, with claw marks in the bottom of the pot.
They found bear tracks at the river's edge and the hungry black bear came back later that day, but this time he became dinner. The explorers shot him, but once again they lost most of the cache to the flies.
"Someone told us we could eat boiled willow leaves, but we tried it and it was awful," he said. "Maybe it's just enough to keep you alive."
Further downriver the two met up with Albert Faille, who was prospecting the river at the time. They stayed with Faille for a couple days, before continuing downriver.
About half way through the trip, the four men met above Virginia Falls.
The four portaged and continued on down the Nahanni. Through canyons and treacherous rapids, the flimsy dinghies was barely staying afloat, he said. Two of the three inflated rings were deflated, but they remained afloat.
The dinghies were designed for the RCAF to pick up pilots lost at sea and were not easy to navigate on the river. Round in shape, the rafts would spin through rapids and it was nearly impossible to steer, Bernardin said. They were patched and re-patched over the patches.
While camped along the river, he recalled how one of the men met up with a float plane and the pilot who gave him a few fresh oranges and chocolate bars.
He went back to camp with his treasure and a tall tale.
"He went to the tent and said, ŒI found a tropical valley,' and he rolled the oranges across the floor," Bernardin recalled with a laugh. "Then he said, ŒI also found a chocolate tree,' and he tossed him a chocolate bar."
Further down the river, the men did encounter a bit of a tropical valley at the hot springs.
"We continued on until we reached the tropical valley, where we met Gus Krause, his wife Mary and their young son, Mickey," he said. "They had a radio there and we heard the RCMP saying to ŒWatch the river and maybe you'll see the bodies of the crazy Frenchmen'."
"That's what they called us, they called us the "crazy Frenchmen," he recalled through a smile.
Now nearly home-free, the men were starting to enjoy the trip, he said. They met an RCMP in Nahanni Butte who offered a ride south.
"We took a ride on a police canoe to Fort Liard and spent a week there in the jail," he smiled. "From there, we went up the Liard to Fort Simpson and took a barge up the Mackenzie to Hay River," he said. "Then caught a ride to Dawson Creek and we drove back to Montreal."
He recalls the trip with reverence and still maintains great respect for the river.
"It's a very special place," he said.
"It is the river of dead men and headless bodies," he said. "We were the first to get out alive and with our heads."
The trip was only the beginning of a lifetime of adventure for Bernardin. He went around the world, seeking different, wild places -- mostly warm places, he admits.
"I went on to explore on Martinique Island, French Guyana to live with the Indian tribes there, Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula to study the Mayan culture, Africa and went back to France for 18 years," he said.
"I'm retired now, but I did many types of jobs," he said. "Waiter, airplane mechanic and a judo teacher."
Now, 35 years after he made his first trip down the Nahanni, this "crazy Frenchman" has returned to once again challenge the river.
He's taking a two-week trip with a local outfitter into the park on a bit of a search for his own fountain of youth.
"I'm going because I want to become younger," he said. "Thirty-five years younger."
In truth, he goes now for the same reasons he went then, he said -- the same reason Mt. Everest was climbed.
"As Hillary said, 'Because it's there,'" he exclaimed. "That's why I want to do it -- it's there."