Mysteries and Memories of the Headless Valley Expedition
“British Explorer Group Unravels Yukon's Mysteries.”
That was the headline of a short article in The New York Times back in 1972. To Sir Ranulph Fiennes, however, this expedition was about much more than solving mysteries and staking claim to a vast, first of its kind, border-to-border river navigation. This was a trip revolving around the spirit of adventure, the joy of leading an expedition, and risking life and limb for a taste of raw adventure.
The expedition was undertaken in June of 1971 - across the mammoth territory of Northwest British Columbia. Travelling by river, from one side to the other, Ranulph and his team set out to traverse the wildest route imaginable. Their daring feat would mean they’d have to cross the remote forests of the Yukon, travel through a strange and mysterious valley, and then push on to the United States border.
The Nahanni Valley in the Dehcho Region was set to be one of the most thrilling parts of this expedition. Ranulph and his team (three corporals from his former Royal Scot Greys regiment, a newspaper photographer, and three BBC staff) sought answers to the mysteries which has plagued this slice of Canada for centuries. Countless travellers had fallen foul of the dangerous, unforgiving rapids of the fast-flowing rivers throughout the valley. Legends persisted about what kind of dark and destructive monsters could possibly lurk in those waters - even still to this day.
To the eyes of the uninitiated, Nahanni Valley would very well look like a world unto itself. Hot springs, vicious whirlpools, lush and tropical plants, giant sequoia trees looming over all that pass through, and much more, make the area - sometimes known as The Headless Valley - quite an intimidating experience. The plentiful lakes and rivers which decorate this part of the planet are unforgiving and powerful in size. This was a largely uninhabited region, and it still is, and the absence of human activity left plenty of room for aboriginal legends to grow and mysteries to take root.
For Ranulph and his team, though, all of this danger and uncertainty wasn’t something to worry about or fret over, it was a chance for true adventure. It was a chance to experience a journey unlike any other. They set off, equipped with grey berets of their famous Scottish regiment, boats, and rubber suits to combat the waves and whirlpools they would encounter during their extensive journey.
Stationed at Fort Nelson, within the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality (NRRM), Fiennes’ late wife - Ginny - found herself on duty with an old school friend whose name was Sarah Salt. Ginny's surname Pepper. So the two in their land rover was called the condiment convoy. The two of them kept in contact with the team whenever possible, via radio. They would check progress, help with logistics, and even provide valuable information if the team found themselves in trouble.
Just three boats were used to traverse the wild waters of Canada. Although they were outfitted with outboard motors and expertly sailed, they were still little more than rubber dinghies. Yet, the team managed to travel across the vast distance, for the most part, safely. They ran into their fair share of dangerous situations and near-disasters in the many miles it took to reach the heart of the Nahanni river- otherwise known as the Headless Valley - but make it they did.
Two blissful days were spent resting and recuperating in The Headless Valley; a name the area was given because of a series of dreadful incidents over a century before the expedition. One of these involved two brothers, gold prospectors on the hunt for riches, were found with their heads missing. The valley had long been subject to such cruel and bizarre tales. Some people would even question how the team could stand to spend two days in that place, but any real explorer knows that you should take any chance you can to rest, especially when you know rapid lie ahead.
From there, the team continued their journey through towering canyons, violent rapids and raging whirlpools. Words alone can’t sum up the endurance required to devote weeks of your life to such a tough yet rewarding exploration. Eventually, they reached eventually their goal, the virginia falls, far bigger than the Niagra.
After reconvening and quickly planning the second stretch, they travelled by land via the Alaskan Highway, the rubber boats and collapsible canoes safely stowed and ready to be plunged back into rapids. Once they reached the Yukon border, they set off south by boat and headed to the Hyland and Laird Rivers. They would travel over 100 miles to the Cranberry Rapids. Despite the placid-sounding name, this section of the river was tough and unlike anything else. Locals said that nobody had ever successfully navigated its treacherous surface. Of course, Ran and his team made short work of it.
But not all of the team would survive the expedition without injury. Once they reached the wild Kechika River, they found the rubber boats too flimsy and insecure for the insane rapids and had to switch to their collapsible canoes. Even then, however, they found themselves in trouble, and two of Ran’s team became the first real casualties of the expedition. The soldiers injured themselves while battling white water rapids and whirlpools. The team had to carry the canoes through an obscure trail to a remote ranch, where the injured members could recover.
The rest of the expedition was a blur of chaos and adventure. Ran and his remaining team members lost the trail several times over, came close to running short of rations, traversed even more exotic terrain, and raced down many more rapids. Par for the course, though, Ran and his team eventually succeeded in their goals and made history by completing their extraordinary journey. They even arrived in Vancouver just in time for the centenary celebrations, which marked British Columbia’s confederation 100 years earlier.
Many glasses were raised that night and dozens of toasts were made in honour of the brave and fearless group of British explorers - a group who managed to conquer the harsh and unpredictable waters once thought to be entirely untameable.
To continue honouring them and the beautiful journey they made, Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ Great British Rum has been infused with the flavours of the giant sequoia trees of Northwest British Columbia. We can think of no better way to pay tribute to the daring exploits of Ran and his team than distilling and flavouring our rum with the wood from the same trees they had to carve their way through on that momentous Canadian expedition.