Canada is a land full of vast natural beauty and thriving, unspoiled wilderness. Much of the wild landscape here is a world full of natural wonders that have managed to remain pristine and nearly untouched by human beings, with mountains, valleys, forests, whole swaths of land that have remained for the most part unexplored. It is from these unconquered northern lands that have long sprung various stories of mystery and strange phenomena. Surely one of the more bizarre mysteries from the Canadian wilderness comes from Nahanni National Park, a place also known ominously as “The Valley of Headless Men.” The name is not merely a spooky nickname for a remote, mysterious land, for the area is long known for having people disappear only to turn up without their heads.
Nahanni National Park is part of the Mackenzie Mountain region located in the Dehcho Region of the Northwest Territories, Canada, approximately 500 km (311 mi) west of Yellowknife. Nahanni is from the language of the indigenous Dene people that have inhabited the region for millennia, and means “The People Over There,” in reference to tribe of mountain dwelling people known as the Naha, who were once known to raid lowland settlements before mysteriously vanishing. The roughly 11,000 square mile park is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is undeniably full of breathtaking natural wonder and beauty. The park is surrounded by majestic peaks and dotted with geysers, sinkholes, deep canyons, caves, gorges, and pristine forests. Within these stunning vistas lies Virginia Falls, a magnificent giant of a waterfall that crashes down 96 meters (315 feet) into the roiling water below, twice as high as the more well-known Niagara Falls.
Meandering through the center of the valley is the South Nahanni River, which carves a scenic path through the park and has formed four dizzyingly high canyons that line its turbulent waters. The South Nahanni River’s course takes it over waterfalls, through deep gorges, and across natural hot springs, including an area of boiling whirlpools known as Hell’s Gate, before ending its journey in a thunderous crescendo down Virginia Falls. The South Nahanni River is a very rare example of what is called an antecedent river, meaning that it was powerful enough to maintain the same course it had before the mountains around it formed, which it carved as they slowly sprung up across the landscape. This results in the rather remarkable sight of mountains that seem to follow the flow of the river rather than the other way around.
Along the river’s path through hot spring areas are places permeated with warm air that never freeze and are home to lush topical worlds full of atypical plants for the region such as ferns, wild cherries, and roses, which form oases of green surrounded by frigid snow and ice in the winter. The river is the centerpiece of the valley, and is the destination of most tourists who come to Nahanni National Park, where they canoe or do white water rafting along its challenging, treacherous rapids while surrounded by awe inspiring scenery and rugged wilderness. The Nahanni National Park has managed to remain relatively pristine, untouched, and unexplored due to a lack of any tourist accommodations, and no roads leading in. The remote park is only accessible by boat or plane.
The Nahanni Valley has been steeped in folklore and mystery since it was first inhabited around 9 to 10 thousand years ago. Many tribes were afraid to settle within the region as they believed it to be an evil, haunted place inhabited by various spirits, specters, and devils. Those who did come here, such as the native Dene people, told of mysterious creatures lurking in the vast forests, and were plagued by the enigmatic, aggressive, and violent Naha tribe of the mountains. This tribe was said to consist of fierce warriors who wore masks and armor adorned with frightening imagery and were known to brutally decapitate their victims. Warriors of the Naha tribe were said to be larger than normal men and to wield strange and powerful weapons that no one had ever seen before. The fearsome Naha tribe itself has become one of the area’s many mysteries, as the whole tribe is said to have suddenly and inexplicably disappeared from the face of the earth, and it has never been ascertained just what happened to them. They have seemingly just vanished without a trace.
When European fur traders first came to the valley in the 18th century, they were impressed by the legends and beauty of the valley, and word quickly spread about this far flung wilderness. As more European settlers found their way to the valley, it was soon seen to be a potential path to riches, as many explorers believed it to possess vast reserves of untapped gold. Subsequently, the region saw an influx of miners looking to either find gold in the South Nahanni River basin or attempting to pass through on the way to the gold fields of the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Although Nahanni Valley actually produced little actual gold, legends nevertheless quickly formed of the valley holding large stores of lost gold waiting to be found. Some stories told of miners spotting large nuggets of gold as big as grapes, and huge veins of untapped gold were said to be hidden away in the wilderness here. The stories fueled gold fever, and miners, undeterred at the lack of success up to that point, continued to clamor to this remote and rugged land to try their hand at finding it.
It was during this era of miners seeking their fortunes among the rugged terrain of Nahanni that the valley’s more insidious and macabre legend began to emerge, particularly in a part of the park called the 200 Mile Gorge. In 1908, brothers Willie and Frank McLeod came prospecting in the valley just as many others had done before them. The two packed up their gear, headed out into the wilderness, and never returned. After a year had passed, it was presumed that the brothers must have succumbed to the elements or any of the countless perils the area had to offer, such as sinkholes, jagged gorges, and wild animals. Some rumors suggested that the two had succeeded in finding one of the mythical veins of gold thought to dot the valley and had made off with their fortune without telling anyone. Then, as suddenly as they had vanished, the two men were found dead along the river. Their bodies had been decapitated and the heads were nowhere to be found.
A spooky story to be sure, but it would not be an isolated case, nor the last victims the valley would claim. In 1917, a Swiss prospector by the name of Martin Jorgenson made his way to Nahanni to try his hand at finding gold. At first, Jorgenson seemed to have settled well in the valley. He built a cabin, ran a small mining operation, and was generally well-known by settlers in the area. When Jorgenson’s cabin mysteriously burned down to the ground, the prospector’s skeleton was found among the ashes without its head, and a search of the charred remains of the cabin found no trace of the skull. In 1945, a miner from Ontario was found dead in his sleeping bag without his head. Around the same time, a trapper named John O’Brien was found frozen to death in the nearby wilderness with his hands clutching a pack of matches in a death grip right next to a campfire pit that showed evidence of having had a fire going. Those who had stumbled across the corpse described having the feeling that the unfortunate trapper had been flash frozen within seconds.
These mysterious deaths are not the only oddities the valley holds. In addition to the mysterious beheadings, a good many others simply went missing without a trace. It is thought that around 44 people had vanished under mysterious circumstances in the valley by 1969. Other phenomena have been reported from here as well. Mysterious lights and UFOs have long been sighted in the valley, as well as other unusual aerial phenomena. The area is also known for its cryptids, as it is a hotspot for Bigfoot activity and is believed by some to hold a remnant population of a type of bear-like carnivore called the bear dog, or Amphicyonidae, which was thought to have gone extinct in the Pleistocene epoch. In addition to this strangeness, a bizarre find was made in an ice cave called Grotte Valerie, where the ancient skeletons of over 100 sheep were found, apparently having starved to death in around 2,500 BC. The grim find has earned the cave the nickname of “The Gallery of Lost Sheep.”
To this day, it is not known who or what is responsible for the beheadings and disappearances in the Nahanni Valley, but their legacy certainly remains in the menacing place names throughout the valley, such as Deadmen Valley, Headless Creek, Headless Range and the Funeral Range. Theories abound on what could be the culprit behind the killings, encompassing everything from the rational to the outlandish. Some say that the valley is cursed, just as the native people of the region had always believed, and that some evil, supernatural force is to be blamed. Others think that the deaths were the result of the ghosts of the mountain Naha warriors, risen from the dead to drive away the white man and with their penchant for beheadings firmly intact. Some of these fringe theories include mention of a secret entrance to the Hollow Earth somewhere in the valley or the idea that the area lies along a “thin spot” in the veil that separates different dimensions. More rational theories point to the attacks being carried out by hostile native tribes or rivalries between miners scrambling to find the mythical stores of unfound gold. The disappearances could be the result of any number of perils to be found in the wilderness here. After all, this is an inhospitable place of extreme cold, filled with unexplored caves, gullies, jagged rocks, and ravenous beasts such as grizzly bears. For all of the ideas offered, in the end no one really knows what decapitated these bodies or why, and it is still unknown as to what happened to the people who disappeared.
It is hard to say what lies behind these mysteries. The area is so forbidding and remote that very few people other than adventurous rafters ever set foot here. Despite its status as a National Park, Nahanni Valley remains for the most part unexplored, and there are very large portions that have never been properly surveyed. The only geological surveys ever done here were done from the air, and the vast majority of the wilderness here remains an enigma. The few efforts to explore the area in any kind of depth have turned up vast, unknown cavern systems, caves, and huge warrens of underground hot springs and vents previously not known to exist. Some believe that a lost world full of new species lies here. What other mysteries and oddities does the Nahanni Valley hold? Is there something malevolent hiding out there in this rugged wilderness that could have something to do with its violent and sinister past? Until more investigation is done, it will continue to remain a perplexing and very creepy mystery.
Text written by Brent Swancer and originally published on the fantastic website and podcast Mysterious Universe. Be sure to check them out by clicking their logo (opens in a new window)