Valley of Headless Men: Mysterious Decapitations in Canada’s Nahanni Valley
The Northwestern Territories of Canada are truly one of Earth’s last true wild places. One of its special National Park Reserves, called the Nahanni Valley, is however a little bit wilder than most. It is home to some strange myths and mysteries and boasts a fearsome reputation for being a haunted and deadly place. This remote wild valley is not just inhospitable due to its rugged terrain, extreme weather, and predators, but is also deadly due to some unexplained circumstances. Over the decades, many unfortunate travelers and explorers have gone missing, or they turned up dead and beheaded. The number of decapitated bodies found within Nahanni Valley have earned it the nickname “Valley of Headless Men”. What is the explanation to this mystery?
The Valley of Headless Men and The World’s Last Unexplored Places
Many have said that the Nahanni Valley is one of the last truly unexplored places in the world. Situated within the rugged Northwest Territories of Canada, well over 500 kilometers (311 miles) from the nearest city Yellowknife, it is one of those nature’s nooks that persevered in spite of mankind’s busy expansion. Reaching Nahanni can be a challenge - if ever you find a reason to journey inside it. It is hard to reach, and the best routes into it are via air, water, or a long overland journey from the abandoned village of Tungsten. The valley is situated above the 60th Parallel North, which puts it in line with the rest of Canada’s “wild territories”. Cities and civilization “up north” are few and far between and surviving the wilderness can be challenging - or even fatal for the inexperienced traveler.
Thanks to its remarkable natural beauty, its unique geography, its features and wealth of flora and fauna, Nahanni Valley has been proclaimed an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. In fact, it was one of the first four natural heritage locations to be given this status. But this lofty proclamation has not given it a flurry of visitors.
Due to its remoteness, Nahanni Valley has remained largely untouched over the centuries. It is home to many diverse animal species, many of which are predatorial. Large grizzly bears and timber wolves are the chief carnivores here, and people are seldom seen in this nature. Historically, the lands around the Nahanni Valley were home to the peoples of the Dene indigenous tribes who dwelt here for many centuries. However, it seems that they never lived exactly along the Nahanni River and its tributaries, from which the Nahanni Valley gets its name. Their oral histories, passed down through generations, speak of another tribe living there, the one called Naha.
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The rugged mountains of Nahanni National Park are home to many legends. Source: vadimgouida / Adobe Stock
A Cannibalistic Warrior Tribe that Mysteriously Vanished
The Dene tell that the Naha were a warlike tribe, living in the high mountains and descending into the lowlands to raid and kill. They became the main foes of the Dene peoples and were greatly feared by them. The name Nahanni itself is of Dene origin and means “ the river of the land of the Naha people”.
These oral histories and the name itself are very important, as they are certain proof that a different indigenous tribe once dwelt here. However, the Dene state that the Naha people simply vanished at one time, ceasing their raids and disappearing altogether. Mystery surrounds these so-called Naha, but no trace of them has ever been found. So far, they are only found in stories. Could they have migrated elsewhere, succumbed to a disease, died out, or have they simply stayed in the Nahanni River valley to this very day, hiding in plain sight? Some speculate that it might be so.
The Dene are descendants of the Yellowknife Indians (pictured). Source: Public Domain
This mystery would likely have died out quickly, being dubbed just another legendary story of an indigenous tribe. But several eerie deaths and disappearances within Nahanni Valley achieved the opposite result - the mysteries surrounding this place were only fueled further, and Nahanni became the focus of many mystery-hunters. And most of this focus was on a special place within the valley - one called the “200 Mile Gorge”. The Dene natives speak of an unknown evil dwelling there, and few ever enter it. Especially because of the events that transpired there. For its the 200 Mile Gorge that gained the grizzly epithet of the “Valley of the Headless Men”.
The origins of this eerie nickname can be traced to the early 20th century, at the time of the famous “Klondike Gold Rush”. At this time, many would-be prospectors wanted to test their fortunes and head out to the remote Canadian wilderness, especially Yukon. It was known to contain gold in its rivers and soils, and a treasure could be quickly made by those lucky enough to “strike gold”. Two of these prospectors decided to forgo the traditional routes and locations leading to Yukon, and to instead try their luck in the Nahanni Valley. They were two brothers of Métis ancestry, Willie and Frank McLeod. In 1906, they canoed upriver to reach the Nahanni Valley, and that was the last time anyone saw them alive. In 1908, two years later, a search party discovered their skeletons at the remains of a camp. Both were headless. Seemingly, they were asleep when they were attacked: the body of one of the brothers lay reaching out towards a gun, indicating a need for defense. A third man, their companion surnamed Weir, was missing.
Headless Bodies and Burned Down Cabins: Who’s to Blame?
From here on, the mysteries deepened. Who would decapitate - so ruthlessly - two peaceful prospectors? And what happened to their heads? Rumors began spreading, and many wild theories were put forward. Some spoke of feuding prospectors killing one-another, others attributed the deaths to wild animals, while some spoke of inhospitable warlike natives leaving the headless corpses as a warning to other trespassers. Theories floated about until another corpse was discovered in 1917. It was that of a Swiss prospector, named Martin Jorgenson. His body was discovered, decapitated, next to the remains of his cabin. It was burned to the ground. It is supposed that he struck gold in the vicinity, as he wrote of it back home, before ending up beheaded.
An article from the February 15th, 1947 issue of the “Deseret News” newspaper, titled “ Headless Valley Myths Dispelled”, goes in depth while trying to bash all the mystery and find logic for the murders. Much of the article’s contents are unsubstantiated and mere guesswork. There, it is said that Jorgenson and the McLeod brothers were all murdered for the gold that they had discovered. No evidence for this was ever found.
In 1927, another body was discovered in Nahanni, belonging to a man nicknamed “Yukon” Fisher. Variously dubbed an outlaw and a prospector, this man was sought by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for several years before his death. The officials found his skeleton on the banks of Bennett Creek, quite close to the place where the bodies of McLeod brothers were found in 1908. His death was never fully explained, nor was the fact that he was known to possess a solid number of gold nuggets with which he purchased goods on the frontier.
Why were gold diggers murdered and decapitated in the Nahanni Valley? Source: dmitry_zubarev / Adobe Stock
People Vanished Without a Trace
Then, in 1931, another body was found. This time, it was that of Phil Powers. His charred remains were discovered in the ashes of what was his cabin. The RCMP were quick to attribute his death to a “faulty stovepipe”, but their explanation was repeatedly debunked by various sources. Phil Powers, for what it’s worth, was likely murdered and his cabin set ablaze. Many others simply disappeared without a trace in the remote wilderness of the Nahanni Valley. In 1928, one prospector named Angus Hall, ventured ahead of his party and was never again seen. Another pair of prospectors, Joe Mullholland and Bill Epier, disappeared in 1936. For many years they were searched for, but never found. The only thing discovered was their cabin - burned down to the ground.
A woman, named Annie Laferte, also went missing in Nahanni. In 1926, with her hunting part, she was present in the valley near Flat River, but got lost in the wilderness and disappeared. Many months later, an Indian by the name of Big Charley claimed to have seen the woman, climbing a hill while totally naked, seemingly having lost her mind. She became just another of the many victims of the wild Nahanni Valley. So inhospitable was the Nahanni Valley, that even in the 1920’s it was still unexplored. Maps of the region showed almost nothing except two flat lines that indicated the two main rivers - Nahanni and Flat. It would take decades for an accurate map to be created.
Of course, over the years many sources tried to discredit the mysteries. To that end, some claim that the “original” headless corpses - the McLeod brothers - were not really headless, but in fact were identified by the remnants of the hair on the skulls. However, there is no evidence for either of the theories. Much of this can be attributed to the advanced age of the event - 1908.
But discrediting or not - deaths continued to pile up in Nahanni Valley. In 1945, a miner from Ontario, whose name is now lost, was found dead, still in his sleeping bag. His head, however, was never found. Around that time, another trapper succumbed to the inhospitable wilderness. He was John O’Brien, and was found frozen next to his campfire, his rigid hands still clutching a match. His death was clearly due to freezing.
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A Great and Merciless Expanse of Rugged Wilderness
And it is true - in winter, the Nahanni Valley really is inhospitable. With the freezing cold and the ravaging timber wolves, this nature can claim the lives of the most experienced outdoorsmen. But in the warmer months, this valley transforms into a truly unique environment. So much so that many dubbed it “tropical”. It can turn into a true oasis, being warm and lush with vegetation. One can even bathe in the creeks and streams - fearing no coldness. And that’s all due to the hot sulphur springs that can be found here. Hot springs lie all beneath the valley and give it an additional dose of mystery. The sulphur can often fill the air with an odd smell. And more than that, the combination of the hot sulphury air and the cooler Arctic air above it, created thick and mysterious mists that often cover the entire Nahanni Valley, obscuring it from view and creating an eerie, otherworldly ambience.
This gave rise to tales of a mysterious “tropical valley” that exists somewhere within the (huge) Nahanni Valley. While there is a chance that the clash of the hot sulphuric air and the cold Arctic climate can create a unique environment, a tropical valley still seems far-fetched. Nevertheless, legends just kept mounting up. Scientists - those few that ever set foot in the valley - discovered numerous remains of prehistoric animals, chiefly bones of Mastodons (mammoths) and ancient “bear dogs”. To that end, many have said that these animals still live within the deepest, most remote nooks of the Nahanni. Tales exist of trappers seeing fresh tracks of prehistoric mammals and bringing back huge ivory tusks with flesh and hair still visible. Other tales state that many of the Dene tribe elders living in the area were able to accurately draw pictures of Mastodons, as if from memory. Another prevalent story tells of the prehistoric “bear dogs” (Amphicyonidae) still roaming the valley.
In Summer, the Nahanni National Park is warm and lush. Source: vadimgouida / Adobe Stock
A Lost Valley Where Mastodons Still Roam Free
In the end, no one can accurately say what is transpiring within the mysterious Nahanni Valley. Up to 44 persons have either died or disappeared within it starting from 1908 - and that is an eerily high number for just one - albeit enormous - valley. Plenty of odd facts contribute to the prevalent sense of enigma here: the indigenous Dene locals have avoided the valley for centuries, claiming that it is haunted by evil.
Others state that Nahanni Valley is the entrance to the so-called “Hollow Earth”. True, the valley is dotted with subterranean caverns - some 250 of them - and many remain unexplored. However, we are quite sure that the Earth’s belly is rather hot, more than hollow.
Nevertheless, Nahanni remains veiled in enigma. Perhaps it was the territorial Naha tribesmen - who have not disappeared - who have claimed all those lives, seeking to protect their last natural refuge? Or it was simply the harsh and inhospitable wilderness of remote Canada that claimed those lives? Still, harsh nature cannot behead bodies and burn down cabins. And for that, the mystery remains.
Top image: The Nahanni National Park is full of mystery. Source: Thorin Wolfheart / Adobe Stock
By Aleksa Vučković
Berton, P. 1947. Valley of Mystery. MacLean’s. [Online] Available at: https://archive.macleans.ca/article/1947/3/15/valley-of-mystery
Braun, D. and Warren, J. 2000. The Arctic Fox: Bush Pilot of the North Country. iUniverse.
Hess, B. 2018. Secrets of the Nahanni: The Valley of Headless Men. The Outdoor Journal. [Online] Available at: https://www.outdoorjournal.com/news/secrets-nahanni-valley-headless-men/bbi
Wren, C. 1986. The Talk of Nahanni Butte; Canadian North; Rabbit for Supper, Bear in the Yard. The New York Times. [Online] Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/1986/07/16/world/the-talk-of-nahanni-butte-canadian-north-rabbit-for-supper-bears-in-yard.html