Ted Grant is a bush pilot who has been flying the remote western edge of Canada’s Northwest Territories for over forty years. He has a place on the shores of an hourglass shaped lake just outside the boundaries of a vast national park. It’s an old trapper’s cabin only reachable by float plane.
I had originally made plans to visit his cabin and Nahanni National Park in the fall to shoot a short film about the region, but it had been an unusually cold fall. By the time I had sorted out the details of the trip and was ready to head north with fellow filmmaker Andrew Thompson, it was too late. A thin layer of ice covered the lake, making it impossible to land with floats. It was a frustrating delay, and the soonest we could resume our plans would be in the depth of winter, when temperatures plunge to -50 C° and the ice grows thick enough to land a ski plane.
We landed in the small town of Fort Simpson in March. Located on a sliver of an island at the intersection of the Liard and Mackenz ie rivers, it would be our jump off point into the wilderness. But as we arrived, a snow storm moved in and grounded us for a number of days. The airlines informed us that during this time of year, planes can be stuck for weeks at a time.
A few days later, a break in the clouds gave us a chance to head out and meet Ted at his cabin. Flying west, civilization disappeared and roads vanished. Squeezed into the tight compartment of a Cessna 185 with five days of food and supplies, we buzzed over a vast carpet of trees toward the jagged outline of the Nahanni.
Shortly after our plane touched down on the ice, Ted prepped it to take us over the park. We passed over massive granite spires, deep river gorges and canyons, a tiny speck compared to the landscape. The region is so large, it could swallow the Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks two times over. We approached Virginia Falls, the centerpiece of the park. A granite monolith dramatically splits the falls in two, and Ted informed me that he had been the one to name it years ago. We spent the night around a campfire on the shores of the frozen lake watching the northern lights.
The next day the weather turned sour. Ted had to head back to take care of business in town. It had been almost a week since he had left.
“If you get stuck here for a few days and run out of food, there’s some canned beans and condensed milk in the drawers by the stove,” he told us. “And if you go outside into the woods at night, make sure to go together. There’s been some big wolves around lately.”
Ted’s plane took off into the whiteout. It wasn’t long before the clouds settled and snow was falling again.
Hours after Ted had left Andrew and me in the cabin, the conditions still looked terrible. The snow was falling thick and visibility plummeted. We wondered how long we would be out here. Then through the fog we heard a buzz overhead and saw the unmistakable yellow shape of the Cessna. Ted landed and we rushed to load the plane. The forecast indicated the storm would stick around for the rest of the week, he said. We had only a small window to return before the wings got iced over.
“Life out here teaches you to relax a little bit,” he said as we flew back. “I used to get frustrated, but I’ve learned to go with the flow.”