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From Virginia Falls to NAIG, dodging bears and fire

Ava Erasmus at the end of her journey to Yellowknife Airport. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
Ava Erasmus at the end of her journey to Yellowknife Airport. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio

For Ava Erasmus, arriving at the North American Indigenous Games might be the boring part. Getting there was a real adventure.

The 18-year-old from Fort Simpson scrambled from a remote cabin inside the Northwest Territories’ Nahanni National Park Reserve to make Saturday’s flight from Yellowknife to Halifax, which is hosting the Games until July 23.

She is set to compete in track and field over the 400m, 800m and 1,500m distances.

But the journey so far has already involved a marathon, with occasional sprints.

Erasmus is working inside the park reserve this summer, a job that involved a short trip to the staff cabin at Virginia Falls – the park’s standout feature and a top NWT attraction – at the end of June.



But the threat of a flash flood held up the trip into the park, already tightening the timeline between finishing up at the falls and making the plane to Halifax.

“We eventually get in, we set up, and everything’s great for the first two days,” Erasmus recalled. But then continual storms rolling across the Nahanni delayed her team’s departure from the falls.

A file photo of Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park Reserve. Pancaketom/Dreamstime
Virginia Falls in Nahanni National Park Reserve. Pancaketom/Dreamstime

By day six, Erasmus said, food supplies were being rationed. While at the cabin, the group also had to wait out a prolonged visit from a passing grizzly bear. Then a growing wildfire further complicated efforts to extract them.

“Finally, three days later, we see a break in the smoke. They send out a Twin Otter, and it flies over top of us. Doesn’t land, turns right back around,” she said. “Next day, same thing happens.”



After another three days, Erasmus said, group members were “debating how far we can make it down the river before we outrun this forest fire and either someone can pick us up or we make it to Nahanni Butte,” a small community at the park reserve’s edge.

“At that point, I was like, I’m done,” she added, referring to her chances of making the flight to the North American Indigenous Games.

“I’m not making it. It’s July 13. It’s not happening.”

At last, a smaller aircraft – a de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver – made it in, Erasmus said.

“It comes out, it lands and we’re jumping and screaming on the dock. We get halfway there and they’re like, ‘We might have to turn around.’ And we’re like, ‘No. Come on.'”

The Beaver made it back to Fort Simpson, where Erasmus’ family had already packed a bag for Erasmus, who grabbed it en route from the floatplane base at the Mackenzie River to Fort Simpson’s airport.

“As I’m pulling up,” she said, “I watch the plane leave.”

Erasmus had one option: the seven-hour drive to Yellowknife. She made it just before midnight on Friday, in time for a 6:30am rendezvous with her athletics team-mates on Saturday morning.



“I’m just excited to be here,” said Erasmus, wide awake, on arrival at airport departures.

“I’m excited that this is real and this is actually happening. It still feels like a fever dream but we’re going to get through it.

“I’m hoping to make everyone who helped to get me here proud, and put up some good numbers this week.”

Erasmus is one of a 23-strong track and field team representing the Northwest Territories at the Games, featuring athletes from Fort Simpson, Fort Resolution, Fort Smith, Hay River, Inuvik and Yellowknife.

Team NT is also competing in archery, badminton, basketball, golf, soccer, swimming, volleyball and wrestling in Halifax.

Including coaches, mission staff and cultural performers, the team heading to Nova Scotia on Saturday comprises just over 200 people.

Most sports at the Games begin on Monday. Sunday’s opening ceremony will be streamed live from 4:30pm MT.