The following is an excerpt from my 2018 book Legends of the Nahanni Valley– a non-fiction which explores the history and folklore surrounding Nahanni National Park, one of the most mysterious regions in all of Canada. I’ll include a link to this book at the end of the article.
The Legend of Canada’s Tropical Valley
Part 1: An Oasis in the Arctic
“There are more . . . stories about the Nahanni River than any other place in Canada. The most famous of them is the story of the tropical valley, where 10,000 hot springs bubble out of the ground, ferns grow 30 feet high, and the temperature never goes below 50 degrees in midwinter.”
– Colonel Harry Snyder; Toronto Daily Star; October 9, 1937.
ONE OF THE MOST ENDURING legends of the Nahanni Valley– one which transcends its sinister reputation as a land of murder, madness, Indian curses, and lost gold- has it that somewhere in that wild domain, perhaps surrounding one of the many tributaries of the South Nahanni River, lies a tropical valley free of snow and ice. This legend is but a piece of a much larger puzzle spanning the entire North Country- a puzzle which has its origins in a historic event that changed the face of the Canadian North forever.
On July 14, 1897, a steamship called the Excelsior slipped into the San Francisco harbour. To the stevedores working on the docks that day, this rusty little ship with two blackened smokestacks appeared to be nothing out of the ordinary. A few heads might have turned, however, when its passengers walked down the gangplank. The people who poured off the steamer were a gaunt, ragtag bunch clad in ragged work clothes and broad-brimmed hats. The men bore rough, unkempt beards, the women wore wild, tangled hair, and all had the sun-burned, wind-whipped faces of frontiersmen well accustomed to long days in the bush.
What really captured the attention of the men on the docks that day, however, was the mysterious cargo the passengers hauled from the ship. Some wrestled with extraordinarily heavy suitcases. Others lugged bulging buckskin sacks. Others still hauled heavy tin canisters with both hands, their cracked lips drawn back over tobacco-stained teeth in grimaces of exertion. The strange site piqued the curiosity and imaginations of nearby locals. Soon, a growing throng of city residents began to gather around the newcomers.
Some of the Excelsior’s passengers immediately made their way to the Selby Smelting Works on Montgomery Street. There, on the establishment’s counters, they revealed their identities and the contents of their cargo to the curious onlookers; they were prospectors from the north, and they had brought with them several metric tons of raw northern gold.
The news spread like wildfire throughout the streets of San Francisco: a spectacular gold strike had been made in an obscure region of northwestern Canada known as the Klondike. Immediately, gold fever swept throughout the Pacific Northwest like an epidemic, infecting men and women from all walks of life with a restless furor which some newspaper men dubbed “Klondicitis”. Rallying to the cry of “Klondike or bust,” so-called Stampeders deserted their day jobs en masse and headed for the Yukon in search of fortune and adventure.
The Stampeders of 1898- men and women of all nationalities and occupations- approached Dawson City, the heart of the Klondike, by a number of different routes. Some purchased steamboat tickets in San Francisco or Seattle and travelled north up the Pacific Coast to the Lynn Canal, an Alaskan inlet. From there, they packed their gear over the Coast Mountains by way of the Chilkoot Trail or White Pass, hand-crafted their own canoes on the other side of the divide, and paddled up a series of lakes and rivers to the Klondike. Wealthier Stampeders travelled by steamer the whole way, heading to the old Russian fur trading settlement of St. Michael, Alaska, on the coast of the Bering Sea, before travelling up the Yukon River to Dawson. Some patriotic Americans, in an effort to circumvent Canadian customs, opted to take the “all-American route” to the Yukon- a suicidal trek over the crevasse-ridden Valdez and Malaspina Glaciers. Some poor prospectors attempted to reach the Klondike on horseback via the Ashcroft Trail, slogging through the sunny grasslands of the Cariboo Plateau, the misty jungles of the Great Bear Rainforest, and the dismal, mosquito-infested swamps of northern British Columbia. Others, prompted by encouraging articles in the Edmonton Journal, toiled over the “all-Canadian route”, a long, arduous, overland journey starting in Edmonton, Alberta. A handful of those who took this latter route disappeared into the Nahanni Valley, hoping that the South Nahanni River might serve as a shortcut to the Klondike.
Throughout the course of the Klondike Gold Rush, more than 100,000 Stampeders from all over the world set out for the northern diggings. About 30-40 thousand of them actually reached their destination, and of those, only about 20,000 bothered to look for gold.
These 20,000 enterprising prospectors, throughout the last few years of the 19th Century and the first few of the 20th, panned the creeks just south of Dawson City. Those who found promising colours- trace amounts of gold dust, flakes, or nuggets- in their pans staked claims on the sites of their discoveries.
In the winter, those who staked claims exchanged the gold pan of the prospector for the pickaxe of the miner and set about sinking shafts to bedrock. In order to carve through the nigh-impermeable permafrost, they lit huge fires on top of their shafts and fed them constantly so that they burned throughout the night. In the mornings, with picks and shovels, they dug their way through the smoky ashes and the softened earth beneath. The gold-flecked rubble which they removed from their shafts was set aside in a massive ‘dump’ pile.
In the spring, when the ice began to melt, the Klondikers shoveled their gold-bearing pay dirt into sluice boxes- long, ribbed troughs oriented at a decline. That accomplished, they poured water into the top of the sluices and let gravity do its work; as gold is considerably heavier than sediment, it floated downwards during this process to collect in the sluice box’s ribs, where it could be easily extracted, while the lighter gravel and sand simply washed away.
Of the 20,000 Stampeders who toiled for gold in this manner, only 4,000 found anything of significance. Of those 4,000, only a few hundred struck it rich. Dejected, many of the thousands of prospectors who failed to find their fortunes in the creek beds of the Klondike set out for home. Others, held in thrall of what British-Canadian poet Robert Service termed “The Spell of the Yukon”, began to look elsewhere for the elusive yellow metal that had lured them into the North Country. Some made the long westward journey to the newly-established Nome mining district in Alaska, where another gold rush was underway. Others, travelling by dogsled or canoe, explored more remote reaches of the subarctic, only to return from these far-flung gold-seeking expeditions with tales that defied belief.
AN OASIS IN THE ARCTIC
Throughout the early 1900’s, some of the prospectors who wandered throughout the boreal wilderness in the wake of the last great gold rush returned to civilization telling all manner of strange tales. Northern saloons, HBC trading rooms, Mountie outposts, and Mission rectories resounded with their stories of phantom lights, lost mines, woolly mammoths, and hairy wildmen. One of the tales told by these travelling prospectors spoke of a tropical valley hidden away somewhere in the northern wilds. This lost valley, the stories went, was a steamy paradise filled with luxuriant vegetation and an abundance of wild game, its peculiar climate owing to hot springs, volcanoes, or some other variety of subterranean thermal activity.
Russell and Lee’s Account
The tale of the tropical valley circulated rapidly throughout the North Country by word of mouth. By the 1920’s, it was finding its way into print. One of the first papers to run the story was the Valdez Miner, a weekly periodical based out of Valdez, Alaska. On Remembrance Day, 1922, it published an article entitled “An Oasis in the Arctic,” describing a strange find made by prospectors Hank Russell and Jack Lee.
According to the article, one morning, while climbing a snow-covered “high arctic mountain pass,” Russell and Lee spied a green valley far below, partially obscured by the mist. Determined to investigate this geological anomaly, they descended into the area.
Dressed as they were in heavy, fur-lined parkas, Russell and Lee found the valley uncomfortably warm. In some spots, the heat was so intense that it penetrated the thick moose hide soles of their moccasins. The two prospectors reasoned that the unusual temperature- along with the presence of powerful geysers and steamy fumaroles, the latter over which they allegedly cooked their food- was an indication that the valley was actually the crater of an enormous, ancient volcano.
Naturally, the valley attracted huge populations of wildlife. Herds of fat caribou grazed in fields of succulent, shoulder-high grass, eying the newcomers with lazy indifference. Thousands of birds, chiefly warblers and robins, flitted about in the canopies of the valley’s thick-trunked trees. Huge flocks of geese and ducks congregated on a small lake in the middle of the valley, and enormous grizzlies and black bears prowled about the valley’s edge, where many varieties of colourful flowers grew in abundance.
In addition to these faunal fixtures of the North, Russell and Lee observed signs of a more mysterious valley denizen; around the lake were strange, perfectly round tracks eighteen inches in diameter, which bore three toe-like depressions in the front. “Had they been living in a prehistoric age,” the article went, “the prospectors would have sworn the tracks to be those of a mastodon or mammoth.”
Captain Scotte’s Account
Although Russell and Lee’s account of the tropical valley was not particularly specific as to location, other stories placed the hidden paradise in a precise geographic region. One such story appeared in the July 25, 1924 issue of the Alaska Weekly, a newspaper based out of Seattle, Washington. Under the headline “Winter in Paradise,” this story detailed the testimony of an American military man named Captain Samuel C. Scotte.
According to the article, Scotte alleged to have spent two winters in a tropical vale tucked away somewhere in the Cassiar Mountain Range of northern British Columbia. Accessible by both the Stikine River and Telegraph Creek- two waterways which cut across northern BC- this valley was purportedly 20 miles (32 km) long and 3-4 miles (5-6 km) wide. “The valley is swampy,” said Scotte, “with many small lakes and timbered flats. The soil is a rich, black loam” well-suited to growing vegetables.
Captain Scotte believed that the valley owed its balmy climate to hot springs situated in the nearby foothills. These springs were warm in the winter, yet curiously ice cold in the summer. Following the captain’s description of the hot springs, the author offered his own theory regarding the valley’s tropical condition, suggesting that its unusual temperatures might have something to do with the fact “that it is 3,000 feet lower than the general contour of the surrounding country.”
The article ended with a vague reference to various strange animals which Scotte observed in the valley, including a mysterious “white deer.”
The following year, on June 26, 1925, the Alaska Weekly published another, far more dramatic article on a tropical valley, entitled “The Valley of Eden.” This narrative is, in many ways, eerily consistent with that of Russell and Lee. The source for this piece was Frank Perry, a mining engineer from Vancouver who, “for seventeen years, with only two pack dogs to carry his equipment… explored the unknown subarctic regions until, by chance… he came upon a vast paradise in the midst of the snow-covered mountains.”
The article opens with a description of how Perry, while mushing over a remote mountain pass located somewhere between the Fort Nelson and Liard Rivers, on the eastern slopes of the Cassiar Mountains, stumbled upon a strange valley filled with heavy mist. Rivers of hot water “fed by hundreds of hot springs” ran directly through it, their steamy vapours colliding with the frigid subarctic air to condense into a thick layer of fog.
The tropical temperatures generated by the hot springs, in addition to keeping the valley free of snow and ice all year round, supported marvellously robust vegetation. This spectacular plant life included sixty-foot vines, nettles and ferns “higher than a man’s head,” trees three feet in diameter, and impenetrable patches of wild rosebushes with “stems as thick as a man’s forearm.” The lush flora, in turn, attracted “hundreds of mountain sheep, goats, caribou, and moose, with bears and other fur-bearing animals.” Perry maintained that, “due to the exceptionally good grazing in the valley… the moose and caribou looked like the pictures of the old Norman horse- almost square from fat.”
Perry learned that neighbouring Indians, in spite of its surfeit of game, gave the place a wide berth. This was on account of “imprints of huge three-toed prehistoric animals found in the sandstones and shales” – imprints strikingly evocative of the mysterious tracks reported by Russell and Lee. The natives believed that the monsters which made those tracks still roamed the area.
The piece ended with a brief description of the valley’s abundant mineral formations, which included healthy veins of gold, silver, and copper; huge seams of coal; and large concentrates of iron ore.
Colonel Williams’ Account
Three months after Perry’s account was published in the Alaska Weekly, an Alaskan newspaper ran with a story that seemed to corroborate the engineer’s claims. According to the article “Where the Waters Run Warm,” published in the September 24, 1925 issue of the Wrangell Sentinel, a Montreal-based Royal Canadian Air Force colonel named J. Scott Williams stumbled upon a tropical valley while conducting British Columbia’s first aerial prospecting expedition. This valley contained “numerous hot springs, grass, and verdure of amazing growth due, it is thought, to the warmth generated by the springs.” Other floral marvels included giant tulips and a fantastic profusion of currents and raspberries.
Colonel Williams claimed that he and his crew had prospected in the valley for three months, feasting on moose meat, mountain mutton, and vegetables which he and another prospector, whom he identified as “Smith,” had planted. During their three-month stay, Williams and his crew observed a number of interesting animals, including an albino moose somewhat reminiscent of Captain Scotte’s white deer and a “white bear similar to the Beacon Hill Park animal in Victoria.” The “Beacon Hill Park animal” Williams was referring to was a Kermode or ‘spirit’ bear- a rare, often cream-coloured subspecies of the American black bear- which resided at that time in Victoria’s Beacon Hill Park zoo.
Perhaps most interestingly, Colonel Williams placed his tropical valley in the Liard River country “beyond the Liard Trading Post,” in the same general vicinity as Frank Perry’s northern paradise. It seemed as if a tropical valley might indeed lie somewhere among the eastern slopes of the Cassiars…
Want to Learn More?
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article and would like to read more about the tropical valley and other forgotten mysteries of the Canadian North, please check out my book Legends of the Nahanni Valley.