Chapter 8 CANOL, the Forgotten Trail Trekking the U.S. Military’s bungled northern Pipeline Project 2000
THIS IS NO PICNIC Working and living conditions on this job are as difficult as those encountered on any construction job ever done in the United States or foreign territory. Men hired for this job will be required to work and live under the most extreme conditions imaginable. Temperatures will range from 90 degrees above zero to 70 degrees below zero. Men will have to fight swamps, rivers, ice and cold. Mosquitoes, flies, and gnats will not only be annoying but will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions,
DO NOT APPLY
(This message appeared in hiring office across North America during the spring of 1942, posted by Bechtel-Price-Callahan, the primary civilian contractor supporting the United States War Department’s Canol Pipeline Project. The immense, secretive, and ultimately bungled construction project overwhelmed a vast swath of the Canadian Northwest during the wartime years.)
What had begun as intermittent drizzle was now a continuous downpour. As bone chilling clouds slid over the low foothills of the Yukon’s Mackenzie Mountains, every branch and twig in the barrens seemed to reach up and grasp at the swirling mist, stalling its progress. More and more rain dumped onto the sodden land. It was the wettest northern summer in recent memory, and there was no end in sight. Deep puddles obliterated long sections of the dirt road leading east from Ross River. I held my breath as Chris Ferguson (Ferg) inched his Subaru through coffee coloured water that sloshed against the doors and threatened to flood the engine. Fifteen kilometers short of the North West Territories border, a flooding creek had washed a deep and wide cut in the deteriorating track. This obstacle marked the end of the road, at least for our vehicle. Ferg shut the engine off, and we sat in silence. I watched raindrops splatter opaque patterns across the foggy windshield. Neither of us leapt eagerly from the car. It was not the type of weather that encouraged one to depart for eighteen days in the wilderness.
I generally agree with the great Victorian thinker John Ruskin, who once wrote that ‘there is really no such thing as bad weather, just different kinds of good weather.’ But the moment of embarkation is an exception. While the transition from ‘civilization’ to ‘wilderness’, from ‘comfort’ to ‘hardship’, is normally packed with eager anticipation, a moment symbolic of freedom, inclement weather dulls all idealism, and the sanity of the undertaking comes into question. Whether tearing oneself from a warm sleeping bag on a frigid morning, or unloading canoes from a float plane during a freakish summer snow squall, one feels a reticence to begin. Of course once underway, one easily deals with whatever natures presents, quickly falling into the rhythm of the land, managing clothing, schedules, and expectations appropriately. And you truly enjoy it all; the rain, fog, sun and wind. But starting in foul weather? That just feels wrong.
Eventually it became clear that delaying the inevitable was getting us nowhere, so we jumped from the warm car and hauled our bulging packs from the trunk. Anoraks were retrieved, hoods pulled up, cameras stuffed into garbage bags, and gators tightened over our leather hiking boots. After edging across a slippery beam that spanned the creek before us, we strode off side by side, down a wide gravel track that lead onwards into the misty mountains. Willow scrub stretched out in all directions, covering the gently rolling land like a prickly green blanket. Apart from the soft patter of rain, the wilderness sat under a veil of silence. Even the birds had taken refuge. Within minutes the car had disappeared from sight behind us. Our destination lay three hundred and seventy kilometers (230 miles) away, along an abandoned and long forgotten trail built more than 50 years earlier by the U.S. Army.
During the latter years of the Second World War, this quiet and remote corner of Canada’s northwest played host to what would later be described by a U.S. military historian as ‘the biggest construction job since the Panama Canal.’ Following Japan’s crushing attack on Pearl Harbour, and the ensuing systematic destruction of the remaining American Pacific Fleet, a land invasion of North America via the northern chain of Aleutian Islands became a threat Washington could no longer ignore. American military planners, who previously had been distracted by events on the European fronts, now went into high gear. Continental defense became an almost obsessive focus, and Alaska was of primary concern. With no road or rail connections to the south, and only limited air supply capabilities, the territory of Alaska (not a State at the time) represented a strategic weakness.
Initial priority was placed on completing the North West Staging Route, a series of aerodromes linking Edmonton with Fairbanks. Runways and aprons were expanded to handle heavy transport aircraft, while housing and service facilities were installed. Heavy attention was also placed on the creation of an overland route to Alaska, for without a ground link, the north would remain an Achilles heel. Over ten thousand men were dispatched, and in eight months they bulldozed a one thousand five hundred and twenty mile (2530 km) road through the wilderness. The Alaska Highway, only commissioned for military use, connected Dawson Creek, British Columbia with Fairbanks, Alaska.
The question of how to supply fuel for aircraft and ground troops operating in the northern arena soon became paramount. Coastal shipping was growing increasingly risky due to Japanese naval dominance, and transporting gasoline by truck along the new Alaska Highway could never meet the estimated demands. As the U.S. War Department began to weigh their options, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a veteran Arctic explorer, advised that a viable source of crude lay beneath the isolated Canadian community of Norman Wells, on the banks of the Mackenzie River. Mackenzie himself, the river’s namesake, had reported spotting oil seepages along the banks in 1789, and Imperial Oil had drilled several productive wells in the region, but subsequently capped them due to the anticipated expense of delivering the crude to an outside market.
A hasty plan was developed by the War Department to pipe the Norman Wells crude across a thousand kilometers of Canadian wilderness to Whitehorse, where a new refinery could supply diesel and gasoline to the Alaska Highway and North West Staging Route aerodromes. As word of the pipeline leaked out, opposition to the proposal quickly mounted around Washington. Detractors declared the scheme was both absurdly impractical and prohibitively expensive. Still the project crept forward, cloaked in deception and secrecy, more to shield the venture from Congress than to hide it from the Japanese. Even the name ‘Canol,’ which is today widely accepted to have stood for ‘Canadian American Norman Oil Line’, was misleadingly represented by the Army’s Public Relations department as an acronym for ‘Canadian Oil’, a veiled attempt to guise the project’s location and intent.
When Japanese troops occupied Attu and Kiska (two of the outermost Aleutians) during June 1942, economics and practicality suddenly took a back seat to hysteria. Facing a looming threat of invasion, the War Department unilaterally moved ahead and passed final approval for the Canol Pipeline Project. A quick and simple five month construction period was forecast. Attention quickly turned elsewhere, for there were more pressing concerns facing the nation. Hidden from sight, the Canol took on a life of its own, and even the project’s worst detractors could never have foreseen the bottomless pit that it would eventually become, consuming vast amounts of precious time, money and effort.
Within weeks heavy construction equipment began to arrive at the railhead of Waterways, Alberta. Barges would move the supplies northwards along the Athabasca and Slave Rivers, and after a portage around the rapids of Fort Smith, across Great Slave Lake and up the Mackenzie to Norman Wells. After a late breakup of river ice delayed the beginning of transport, the Army was anxious to make up for lost time. Wharfs, barracks, construction yards, refrigeration buildings and power plants were quickly installed at waypoints along the route. Barges toiled around the clock, and larger vessels were requisitioned. But operating in the remote northern wilderness proved a formidable challenge. Mud, dust, and bloodthirsty hordes of insects plagued progress. Summer storms created choppy waters, and the Army’s inexperience became clear as caterpillars, tractors, and graders routinely slid overboard from heavily laden barges. Several boatloads of pipe sank, and the rest languished at Waterways as project engineers struggled to move critical construction equipment northwards. By early fall, as the rivers iced over, and the project’s five month completion deadline came and went, only a fraction of the required materials had been delivered to Norman Wells. The surveying of a route over the rugged Mackenzie Mountains had not even begun.
Pipeline planners faced a difficult job. No detailed maps of the region existed. An aerial reconnaissance showed that river valleys leading into the plateau lands of the Mackenzie Mountains were narrow and riddled with canyons. Only the Dene First Nations, whose traditional hunting grounds encompassed these high, flat ranges, traveled the area. Their knowledge of ancient trail systems proved to be spectacularly detailed, having been passed down for generations through the oral tradition of storytelling. That winter, three local Dene hunters guided a small survey party across the mountains, traveling by dog team and hunting for sustenance en route. By January news returned to the south that a viable route had been traced through the alpine highlands.
That spring work on a road began, and the pipeline followed closely behind. Because of the urgent nature of the project and the low pour point of the Norman crude (it remained viscous even in extreme cold), the pipe would not be buried but rather laid directly by the roadside. Once again, the project suffered greatly from a lack of experience. After bulldozers carved a right of way through the bush, they would return only hours later to find a muddy quagmire, the result of disturbing and exposing permafrost. The next day a new road would be cut, which in turn would become a sea of mud. Soon a tangled web of muddy tracks spread through the forest, and hundreds of vehicles lay mired in bog, many sinking completely from sight. Eventually the cutting crews learned not to disturb the topsoil. Drainage ditches were dug to draw off melt water and a surfacing team followed quickly behind, laying insulating brush and gravel.
But the difficulties plaguing construction in the rugged northern terrain would not let up. After struggling to deliver seven thousand vehicles to Norman Wells, officers discovered more than seventy five percent were out of commission within a year. Mud devoured many, brutally cold winter temperatures the rest. If fires were not continually kept burning under transmission cases and axles, oil froze solid and equipment was rendered useless. As a second spring arrived, warming brought with it flash floods, landslides, and forest fires. With a traditional response, the Army threw more resources at the stubborn project. Two hundred thousand tons of supplies made the difficult journey north, and fifty three thousand workers toiled as the pipeline slowly crept forward through the mountains. Ten pumping stations were installed to help move the crude along the line. A refinery was purchased in Texas, dismantled, shipped up the Pacific coast, and rebuilt in Whitehorse. As progress on the primary Canol pipeline ground forward, subsidiary lines were laid from Whitehorse to Fairbanks, Watson Lake, Skagway, and Haines, bringing the total network to almost eighteen hundred miles (3000 km). Two thousand miles (3300 km) of road were constructed, a length thirty percent greater than the Alaska Highway, which the project was meant to service. And finally, on February 16th, 1944, almost three years after the Canol’s approval, the last weld was completed. Normal Well’s crude began to flow.
A one hundred and thirty four million dollar bill was presented to Congress, but further inquiries showed that upwards of three hundred million was actually spent, the remainder carefully hidden amongst other wartime costs. Either way the cost was astronomical. And still the fledgling project continued to be beset with difficulties. The pipeline required constant maintenance in the unforgiving terrain. Over one hundred and ninety thousand barrels of oil were lost due to leakages and spills during the first months of operation. Oil which did flow all the way to Whitehorse became some of the most expensive in history, having associated costs as high as three hundred dollars per barrel. (If one accounts for inflation, this reflects a 2004 price of well over three thousand dollars a barrel!) To put this in perspective, during the war the Army had an outstanding contract to purchase domestic crude for $1.43/barrel in the lower forty eight. It quickly became clear that the four inch pipe (a laughable gauge even by 1940 standards) could never meet Alaska’s fuel requirements.
The Canol had become a target of Truman’s Special Investigating Committee long before its completion, and by late 1944 the facts were damning. The Senate threatened to go public with an inquiry unless the controversial project was halted. After three years of excruciating construction efforts and only eleven months of operation, the Canol was scrapped.
In a rush to wash its hands of the entire affair, the U.S. War Department quickly sold salvage rights to the Canol for a paltry seventy thousand dollars. The pipeline was pulled, the sixty thousand residual barrels sitting inside it dumped across the land, and pumphouse machinery picked over. Engines and tires were stripped from vehicles, but the vast majority of what the Army had installed was left behind, remaining to languish in the remote wilderness of the Canadian northwest. While the Yukon government chose to maintain a portion of road for civilian traffic, the remaining three hundred and fifty five kilometers (210 miles), a rugged and mountainous stretch cutting through the Northwest Territories, were abandoned. Within a year landslides and shifting mud had rendered this section impassable. Floods and ice soon tore out all of the sixty five bridges. Today, apart from a dotted line winding across Canadian topographical maps, the massive project has been all but forgotten.
With heads buried under our anorak hoods, and a steady drizzle of rain hammering the thin plastic, Ferg and I did not hear the mountain biker until he was upon us. At first I thought the fast approaching sound was a flock of birds about to pass inches above my head. Spinning around in surprise, I found myself face to face with a tall, poncho clad man astride a rusty mountain bike. Ferg and I stared in surprised silence.
‘Do not be scared,’ he said with an unmistakably German accent, extending a hand. ‘I’m Michael. The Mounties in Ross River1 told me that two hikers had set for the Canol today. I drove up as fast as I could, hoping to catch you. I have wanted to hike this route for many years, but the bears,… you know,… it can be a problem alone. So, I come with you?’
Ferg and I stared at the tall man in shocked silence, our minds struggling to digest his request. ‘Are you planning to ride your bike?’ I finally asked hesitantly.
‘No, no. My pack is in my car, I will go back for it. I just wanted to ask first.’ Michael appeared strong and sturdy, but adding a new companion at the start of a long and difficult journey is not something to be taken lightly. I was at a loss for words, and an uncomfortable silence hung heavy between us. ‘Well…, O.K., sure,’ I stammered, hospitality taking the better of prudence. ‘We are only going as far as Milepost two-twenty-two2 tonight, just beyond Macmillan pass, we can meet you there.’ After a few smiles and handshakes, Michael turned around, and pedaled off into the mist.
‘What are you thinking?’ Ferg looked livid. ‘I know you are easygoing, but we don’t know anything about Michael. How strong is he? Does he have the right supplies? In the end we may need to sacrifice our trip, or even endanger ourselves to save him.’ The same thoughts were rushing through my head. We had planned this challenging backcountry trek for months, going through every possible scenario and emergency. For our team of two to suddenly become three in the first hour felt uncannily strange. I knew that it had not been wise to rush in and spontaneously say ‘yes.’ Ludicrously I had done so because I hated to disappoint anyone, even a stranger.
Two disheartened hikers from the eastern U.S. greeted us by the dilapidated buildings that surround Milepost two-twenty-two. They had taken refuge from the weather in the musty hut after flooding rivers had thwarted their third attempt on the Canol. (Sore backs and low rations turned them back in previous years.) They had traveled only fifty kilometers, and both advised us that there was little chance of completing the hike. Small creeks were over their banks, and the big rivers that cut the trail, the Carcajou, the Little Keele, and the infamous Twitya, would be impassable torrents. Rather than feeling deflated, Ferg and I found our determination heightened by the grim outlook. We set up our tiny tent outside the huts, and after eating dinner, jammed ourselves inside, lying in meditative silence, listening to the rain pound against the fly. Michael arrived long after we had drifted off.
By morning the deluge had broken, the land awakening to a sense of renewal. Noisy ground squirrels darted to and fro outside our open tent door, chirping ecstatically. Ferg and I lay awake, discussing our thoughts about Michael. We were in an awkward position. We couldn’t prevent Michael from hiking the trail, and if he did decide to tag along, no matter how independent we had declared ourselves to be, once in the wilderness our small group would be totally committed to each other. Our fortunes would be tied to this stranger’s fitness, skills, and level of preparedness. It felt condescending when, after breakfast, we approached Michael with our concerns. For all we knew he was stronger and more experienced than either of us. Appearing slightly uncomfortable with the serious line of questioning, Michael assured us he would be fine. What more could we say? It felt awkward, but when he didn’t back down, the issue was decided. Michael was coming.
There was a sense of momentousness as we hoisted our heavy packs and set off from Milepost two-twenty-two, the official trailhead of what the Northwest Territories designate the Canol Heritage Trail. No maintenance or services are provided along the deteriorating road, and the government strictly warns that they will accept no responsibility for anyone attempting to traverse the route. Their brief trail description ends with a stern warning, similar to that posted for prospective Canol workers fifty years earlier; ‘You enter and operate in this region at your own risk!’ But the first steps were easy, the flat and wide gravel trail offering ideal hiking. A large number of hunters use the Canol to access the front ranges of the Mackenzie Mountains, and their ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) traffic help keep the track clear of growth. We knew conditions would deteriorate as we traversed further into the wilderness.
The road ahead of us stretched to the horizon, a distinctly manmade intrusion that ran across the gently rolling tundra. Menacing grey clouds raced across the horizon, and occasional downpours passed nearby. When sporadic streaks of sunlight broke through, they highlighted splashes of early autumn yellow that graced the land. As we began the long gradual climb up towards the Mackenzie Barren highlands, a lone caribou approached, edging closer inquisitively, holding its head high. After gaining our scent, it noisily clambered away over moss covered rocks.
The backpacks were oppressively heavy, and soon our shoulders, hips, and feet all ached. Ferg and I had made painstaking efforts to reduce the weight we carried, packing only ultra-light gear, leaving anything extraneous behind. Despite carefully planning every part of our menu to maximize calories and minimize weight, food still made up the bulk of our load. Ten days is generally accepted as the upper limit for self supported travel. (Sleds and pulks can of course extend this by taking the load off the back.) Beyond this length of time, loads grow prohibitively heavy, and physical strain and suffering increase exponentially. On longer expeditions, pack animals, food caches, helicopter drops, or some other form of resupply are normally employed. In preparation for an expedition to Tibet I was planning, we had chosen to push our limits, or more correctly find them, and were carrying eighteen days of supplies. Our food bags alone weighed sixty pounds (27 kg).
More than a month before we had begun dehydrating stores and packing individual meals. For each breakfast we carried three packets of instant oatmeal, along with a precious ration of coffee, one teaspoon of milk powder, and one teaspoon of brown sugar. During the day we would snack on granola bars, nuts, beef jerky, and hard candies. We also carried a high energy powdered drink mix, enough to make two litres per person per day, which would provide us with a precious thousand calories. Our dinners alternated between rice and pasta, each cooked with a cup of dehydrated meat and vegetables. A mug of herbal tea would be our dessert. A day’s rations looked meager, weighing just a few pounds and hardly filling two cupped hands. But when multiplied by eighteen, the estimated length of the journey, it was all we could manage. Unfortunately the three thousand five hundred calories it provided us with were a far cry from the estimated six to eight thousand that we would burn daily, and neither of us was sure how our bodies would respond to the deficit.
Ignoring the aches and pains of getting under way, Ferg and I chatted absently together as we walked and made quick progress. Michael dropped further and further behind as the day ground on, despite our frequent stops to wait for him. By mid afternoon he grew tired and frustrated, waved us on when he spied us sitting by the trails edge on our packs, insisting that we continue at our own pace. Before Ferg and I set off again, we agreed to stop and set camp by the remains of Pumphouse #6 which lay on the far side of the Mackenzie Barrens.
Two hours later the trail dropped down a small coulee, and we stumbled upon a set of sprawling set of ruined buildings and equipment. A large barn-like building dominated one side of open compound, the pumping station that once housed powerful diesel engines and enormous pumps. Several dilapidated jeeps sat on blocks outside, their windshields cracked, engines removed. A circle of rusting oil drums had been set up as a corral by hunters from a nearby lodge who frequented the region on horseback. To one side lay the collapsed remains of a massive oil storage tank and the relics from an old power generation plant. Spread on the periphery, in varying states of growing disrepair, stood a mess hall, several dormitories, and a repair garage for vehicles. One hut appeared well preserved, and had been recently weather-proofed with plywood. Inside bunk-bed cots filled one corner, and a small wood stove was already primed with kindling. The peeling walls were covered with an array of graffiti, some inscriptions dating from the early 60’s. Ferg and I set our packs down, and wandered out to photograph the buildings in the late afternoon light.
Almost an hour after we arrived, Michael struggled into camp. After sitting quietly by the fire for a few moments, he announced that he had decided not to hike the Canol with us after all. Instead he would do a few short trips in the area and return to his car within a week. Ferg and I worried that we had been too tough on him during our discussion that morning. Maybe he just needed some encouragement and support. But as tins of tomatoes, a bag of fresh onions, a pound of butter, and a heavy rifle emerged from his pack, we knew it was better he stayed behind. There was no way with that weight he could be carrying enough food to sustain himself for eighteen days. Without animosity we said our goodbyes before going to sleep. Michael still slept soundly as Ferg and I tiptoed from the cabin and set off alone the next morning.
As day after day flowed by, Ferg and I fell into a natural rhythm of travel. When we were not walking, there was always work to be done, and we quickly developed an unspoken routine. At the first sound of our morning alarm (a beeping watch strapped to a loop on the tent ceiling), one of us would rise to start a fire, boil water, and prepare coffee. The other packed away the sleeping pads, bags, and tent. After retrieving our food from the previous night’s cache, someone would cook the oatmeal while the other prepared energy drinks for the day. Soon the packs were loaded, and within an hour of rising we were on the trail. Walking nine hours a day, we stopped every hour to snack and take a five minute break. By late afternoon discomfort and exhaustion would slowly begin taking over, and we would start looking for a place to spend the night. Once we had stopped, one of us would set up the tent while the other collected firewood and filtered drinking water. As dinner cooked, our ration of snacks for the next day was gathered from the supply bags, distances and times recorded in journals. After a cup of herbal tea and an hour of reading or photography, we both collapsed to sleep.
Down into the valley of the Intga river we marched, up and over Caribou Pass, and on towards the Ekwi River. Although much of this high land was barren, tall thickets of alder enclosed the road, two parallel lines springing from the ditches. The growth was often so dense that we could not see past it, and when the branches joined overhead and blocked the sun, they created the illusion that we were traveling down an endless tunnel of shrubbery. These luxuriant stands had grown up wherever the permafrost had been disturbed half a century earlier, and the ironic outcome was that amidst the expansive open spaces of the tundra, we often could see no further than the next bend in the road.
Along valley bottoms, the trail would pass through thick forest of pine and poplar. Here birdsong echoed through the still air. Waxwings and juncos darted amdist trailside branches, colourful finches flitted in the sun, and often the lilting calls of hidden thrushes would serenade us as we hiked. Families of ptarmigan would burst on to the road, squawking and beating their wings as our disturbing presence. Instead of turning and diving back into the protection of the underbrush, the entire group would franticly scamper down the road ahead of us in a vain attempt to escape, agitated parents dashing back to peck at young hatchlings who fell behind. Eventually, succumbing to exhaustion, the family would cower to one side as we strode by, no more than a few feet from our heavy boots. As we ascended from one of the many creek crossings, a shadowing figure slid across the road ahead, stopping momentarily, and we were blessed with an extraordinary view of the elusive wolverine3.
Although the route had only been abandoned for fifty years, already landslides obliterated long sections of trail, spilling down from the slopes above and covering kilometers at a time. Some of the slides were recent, a jumble of scarred boulders and debris that had wiped out everything in its way, and we trudged straight up and over these. Others were older, choked with thick stands of poplar and alder. Here progress slowed immeasurably as we hacked and slashed out way across.
Often it difficult to pick up the trail again on the far side, but soon Ferg and I began to understand the thinking and habits of the road’s planners. If we sought flat, well-drained ground, avoided any unnecessary ups and downs, and never crossed a river unless absolutely necessary, we usually found the trail again quickly. This apparent understanding brought an uncanny tie to the men how had toiled her decades earlier. At times it felt as if we were inside their heads, reading the land as they did and understanding their decisions. If the road ever took a turn that did not make sense, we soon discovered the reason for the aberration, such as a swamp not marked on our maps, or a bluff hidden from view on our approach.
Although the weather remained wet and cool, we rarely wore more than nylon shorts and a thin synthetic top, the strain of carrying the heavy loads was enough to keep us warm. River and creek crossings became an almost hourly occurrence. Usually the fast and frigid water was no more than knee deep. After pulling off our boots and getting into rubber ‘Teva’ sandals, we would carefully wade out into the flow, using the ski poles we hiked with to feel our way across. At deeper crossings we protected our cameras by tying them in garbage bags, just in case we went for an unplanned swim. On the far shore we would sit on our packs, cram sore feet back into stiff leather boots, and continue on. Many of the streams held the remains of old bridges; jagged pilings jutting up midstream, sections of collapsed deck washed ashore, bunches of fireweed springing up from between rotting planks. The land was slowly but inexorably erasing the signs of human incursion. With time, nothing would remain.
The Canol runs through prime grizzly habitat, and the trail was laden with bear sign. Every step brought another reminder that we were not alone. The colourful purple wildflower Hedysarum proliferated along the pathway, and it had been turned over in vast quantities. Its root, a rich store of protein and carbohydrates, is a favorite of bears. Tufts of fine, downy hair could be seen snagged on low branches, and fresh claw marks raked the grey bark of trailside poplars. But it was the enormous soapberry scats that were impossible to ignore. They were everywhere! The summer had been a good one for berries, and all along the Canol, bushes were laden with the sour red fruit. Researchers have estimated that an adult bear will eat upwards of two hundred thousand soapberries in a day, and it appeared to us as if the berries came out one end as fast as they went in the other. Long trails of bright red scat stretched beneath nearly every berry bush.
When traveling in such country, there is a constant awareness that around every corner one might come face to face with a bear. In the lower valleys, where the trail cut through thick brush, visibility was limited, and every few minutes one of us would yell ‘HI BEAR! HERE BEAR! HUP, HUP!’ at the top of our lungs. This outburst might disrupt a discussion mid sentence, but both of us would return to the conversation without blinking or missing a beat. The intensity and frequency with which we yelled seemed to correspond directly to our surroundings; the darker and more ominous the thickets, the more hearty the yells. Although we carried a canister of bear spray (pressurized pepper spray ) and ‘bear-bangers’ (hand launched explosive charges), these were only a last resort. We hoped to avoid the need to use these by alerting any bears in the surrounding area that we were on our way, and thus avoiding scaring them. Our efforts appeared to be working. Despite continual signs of their presence, we traveled almost one hundred kilometers (60 miles) without meeting a bear along the trail.
It was late afternoon on our fourth day when Ferg grabbed my arm. He thought he had just caught sight of a bear darting off the trail ahead. We stopped on the rocky slope, clogged with shoulder high alder, and yelled loudly. Nothing. We waited. Suddenly a medium size grizzly emerged from the bushes one hundred meters (330 ft) ahead, and began to approach us. Ferg and I roared out in unison, waving our ski poles high over our heads and clanging them together, but this had no effect. The bear continued to approach, slowly swaying from side to side, sniffing at the air. I groped to find the bear spray clipped to the back of my pack and passed it to Chris, then dug frantically through my backpack lid to retrieve the bear bangers. Ferg yelled deafeningly, and this sent the bear into the bushes, but the retreat was only momentary. Seconds later he emerged again. As I fumbled about trying to attach a cartridge to the on the end of the launcher, the bear continued to approach, faster than before. By the time I finally got the charge loaded, the tawny griz was less than thirty meters (100 feet) away, a distance it could cover in seconds. The banger left a trail of smoke behind as it launched forwards, exploding with a resounding crash directly over the bear’s head. Rearing up onto its hind legs, the young grizzly crashed into the brush, disappearing. We could hear him thundering downhill for several seconds before the sound of snapping branches faded. Then the valley fell eerily silent.
We waited, but could see no sign of the bear returning. Moving cautiously ahead at first, and then faster, we were happy to put distance behind us. Having collectively spent many years in bear country, Ferg and I tend not to be spooked easily, but something about this encounter struck us. The bear seemed unusually bold. We had been yelling at the top of our lungs before the encounter, and the wind had been to our backs. The bear had likely been aware for some time that we were approaching. Perhaps it was an inquisitive young male who had just left his mother. Whatever the case, the encounter made us starkly aware of our constant exposure. Instead of returning the pepper spray to my backpack, Ferg wore it fastened to his waist belt, and I kept the bear banger loaded, clipped to the chest harness that held my camera.
That evening we spent longer than usual mulling over where to set camp and where to stash our food. I found myself constantly scanning the river’s banks for movement. When the squawks of a tiny merlin erupted amongst a thicket of high pines downstream, I wondered what was disturbing it. During the night, I kept the banger, pepper spray, and a knife handy by the tent door.
The next morning dawned gloriously clear. As the first rays of sunlight crept over the high ridge behind us, I felt the tensions of the night before melt away. The wilderness surrounding us was idyllic, the dancing green river, the rolling alpine hills. The forest no longer seemed dark and dangerous. But the relief was short lived. Less than an hour after leaving camp Ferg spotted another bear, an enormous grizzly ambling down the path directly towards us. He was quite a distance away, and I raised my camera in order to take a better look through a telephoto lens. Just as I focused, the bear leapt up and began sprinting directly towards us. My heart raced, but before I could react, he halted again, flopping down squarely in the middle of the trail and beginning to nibble at a soapberry bush. For a brief instant Ferg and I instinctively considered yelling and banging our poles, but we quickly decided it made eminently more sense for us to get out of the bear’s way, rather than try to force him to get out of ours. Crashing through the thick willows that enclosed the path, we entered a spruce bog. Quietly leaping between slippery boulders and hummocks of grass, we stopped every few seconds to listen for any motion on the nearby trail. All I could hear was the pounding of my heart. Eventually we gave up the hope of keeping our boots dry, and waded straight through the knee-deep waters of the swamp, bear banger and pepper spray in hand until well past the point we had seen the bear.
Moving quickly on, we climbed out of the Ekwi River valley, over a low pass on the flanks of Mt. Burrell. Dropping into the Godlin River valley, soon we arrived at the Ram’s Head Outfitting Camp of Stan and Debbie Simpson, the only habited outpost on the trail. Two small bush planes sat beside drums of fuel. A narrow runway had been hewn from the brambly bush, and beyond sparkled the blue waters of Godlin Lake. Two dogs burst from the rough hewn cabins, barking loudly and running forward to nuzzle our legs. Stan Simpson, a broad shouldered man whose rough hands told of a life in the bush, met us by the gate, inviting us to stop for a break. The dogs returned to the porch, exhausted from their outburst, oblivious to the litter of kittens that happily crawled all over them and inquisitively licked their noses. Debbie arrived with steaming mugs of coffee. We turned down an offer of freshly baked chocolate squares, but a hunger in our eyes betrayed us, and at Stan’s insistence we devoured an entire plate.
‘So you guys are hoping to go all the way to the Wells (Normal Wells) without a resupply or flight across a river?’ Stan asked, raising an eyebrow. We looked up from our coffees and nodded. ‘Do you have a satellite phone with you?’ We nodded again. ‘Good,’ Stan laughed. ‘In that case you had better take my number with you! We’ve been up here for twenty summers now, and I think I have met everyone who has come down the trail in that time. I honestly don’t think anyone has done the whole thing without a resupply. That, or they call me up to fly them over one of the rivers, the Twitya or the Carcajou usually. A lot of them think they can make it, but they all end up calling. And the rivers are as high as I’ve ever seen them this summer. I don’t know how you’ll make it over the Twitya.’
‘Can you land your plane beside the Twitya?’ Ferg asked. There aren’t strips there are there?’
‘Oh, With enough looking I can always find a gravel bar to set her down on,’ Stan smiled. ‘It’s got tundra tires, but you have to have a strong stomach,’ he laughed. ‘Now, one more thing. Do you guys have a gun with you?’
‘Nope, but we have a canister of pepper spray and a few bangers,’ I mumbled with a full mouth, glancing up from my chocolate square.
Stan looked at us skeptically. ‘There are a lot of bears in these here valleys,’ he warned. ‘The bear hunt was banned a few years back, and they have come back in hoards. They’re a real nuisance. When a gun goes off they think its the dinner bell. We can’t finish cleaning a goat or moose before several bears are hovering around waiting for the entrails. We had five here last night. They could smell the meat drying in our shed. One big sow with two cubs started to scratch at the buildings, and I had to let the dogs out to chase them away. Be careful out there, they are getting more persistent every year.’
We could have happily enjoyed sitting on the sunny deck all afternoon, but the trail beckoned, and Norman Wells wasn’t getting any closer. We thanked Stan and Deb profusely, and before we left, Debbie filled one of our film canisters with sunscreen, the one supply we had forgotten in the rush of the rainy start.
As the wood buildings faded behind us, the trail began to deteriorate noticeably, and soon we had to pay careful attention to make sure we did not lose our way. Few hunters traveled beyond Stan’s lodge, and without the traffic of horses and ATVs, the old road was now overgrown. Trees had fallen across the path, thick bushes sprang up from the gravel bed, and a maze of branches stretched across the path, snagging our packs and blocking our way. As we crashed through the dark forest, it felt as if we had taken one step deeper into the wilderness.
The Twitya River, undeniably the crux of any journey on the Canol, lay sixty kilometers (38 miles) beyond the Ram’s Head Lodge. Crossing its deep, wide waters had been on our minds from the start of the hike. The few reports we had read from earlier expeditions talked of frustration, narrow escapes, and failure. Some parties had waited days for water levels to drop, often in vain, and others had turned back. Many bushwhacked upstream in search of wider, braided channels, where if lucky they could wade most of the way across. Nearly everyone had to swim at least a short section, and after just a brief submersion in cold northern water, hypothermia was always a serious concern.
Even the Canadian military had experienced problems with the Twitya. Members of ‘Expedition Rickshaw Ramble’, part of an adventure training exercise from CFB Petewawa, had tried to send a rope across the river with a swimmer in a wetsuit. The man was swept downstream, and eventually cutting himself free of his tether and landing on a midstream gravel bar. A second swimmer tried to reach the gravel island, but turned back, unable to fight the strong current. The group then began building a raft, using discarded oil drums and a framework of driftwood logs. When the boat cracked as they prepared to launch, the group gave up and used their radio to summon a helicopter from Norman Wells, which safely deposited the team across the river.
With the rivers so high all across the north, we suspected we might face a long and grueling swim at the Twitya. We carried two inflatable tubes, the colourful type toddlers splash about with around their waists, which we planned to lash to our packs for extra floatation. We were still undecided as to whether we should try to swim furiously and push the packs ahead of us, or drag them behind us on a tether. This would be decided on the banks of the river.
For two days after leaving Stan’s lodge, thoughts of the crossing occupied our minds as we followed the Godlin River north. On the third morning we began to climb towards a low pass in the rounded hills of the Sayunei Range. In the valley beyond lay the Twitya; we would reach it by noon. The winding road led past graveyards of abandoned trucks and immense stockpiles of rusting oil drums. Small ponds dotted the damp land, where mating pairs of bufflehead silently floated on the still black waters. A few of the quagmires obliterating the trail, and after a particularly long, mucky detour, we stopped for a rest.
As Ferg and I laboriously chewed on sinewy chunks of homemade jerky, a repetitive whistling caught our attention. We were craning our necks to search for the source of the strange sound when suddenly a hiker crested a rise on the trail ahead. He carried an ominous looking black shotgun leveled straight ahead, and a whistle clenched between his teeth was tooting with every step. Three more hikers followed behind. The group had flown in from Yellowknife to spend ten days exploring the middle section of the Canol, and they certainly took bear defense seriously. Everyone smiled and shook hands, but what a surprise it was to meet anyone here in the middle of nowhere. We compared notes on what we had seen so far, and then as the Yellowknife crew prepared to continue, they passed on an astounding piece of news. They had found a raft on the banks of the Twitya, used it to cross the river, and left if on this side!
Although we were immensely pleased to learn of the raft, Ferg and I also perversely suffered twinges of regret that we would not have to face the challenge of crossing the river on our own terms. Of course we could still try to swim the Twitya, but we felt it was well advised to take advantage of this unexpected break rather than tempt fate with masochistic and machismo urges. There would be more challenges ahead. After several more hours of hiking the road descended into a wide valley, and eventually we stumbled upon a green canvas bag propped in the middle of the trail. A fading message inscribed with marker on its side read ‘July 26th ’99, Crossed Twitya today, Please feel free to use this raft – Mike, Albert + Bill’ Beyond a thicket of poplar and cottonwood lay the Twitya, it’s green waters rushing silently by. The river was far bigger than anything we had seen, at least fifty meters (160 feet) wide, and deep, well over our heads. One dip of the hand confirmed the water was icy. Swimming to the distant shore would not have been easy.
We dumped the contents of the bag amidst riverside rushes, finding a musty yellow raft (barely large enough for two), an aging foot pump, and two ‘paddles’ fashioned from branches and duct tape. We inflated the boat, which leaked ominously quickly, set it afloat in a small eddy, and delicately loaded our packs on the bottom. Their weight stretched the thin plastic floor downwards like a balloon. We delicately paddled away from shore, and soon the current caught us. Rather than ferrying across as I had expected, the boat spun like a top and we were swept downstream with little control. Our duct tape paddles seemed utterly ineffective against the powerful flow. But we slowly made progress, and after what seemed an eternity, I heard the raft’s distended floor rub against the shallow gravel bars of the opposite shore. We jumped out into knee deep water. The Twitya was behind us.
The warm, sunny banks proved alluring, and we lazed away the afternoon, bathing and doing laundry, spreading out our damp gear to dry on hot, river smoothed rocks. There was an uplifting feel to the open valley, a different world from the enclosed trails we had struggled along to get here. I felt at home by the shores of a northern river, soothed by the familiar gurgle and splash of rushing water. I had spent much of the last six summers in such domains. A wave of nostalgia made me yearn for the carefree days of rafting, but at the same moment I realized how deeply I valued the experience of hiking across these lands. It was allowing me to see a whole new side of the northern ecosystem. On a raft, mountains, hills, and forests rush by quickly, often just a passing backdrop. Hiking was providing a more intimate connection to the land. I could feel it beneath my foot with every step. I lay on it while resting at snack breaks, even crawled across damp earth on hands and knees will traversing dense brush. And the slower pace gave one more time to absorb and ponder the wonder around; the sweet essence of earth warming in the sun, of grass crushed underfoot, of damp peatbog and scraped alder roots. The hike had also given me the opportunity to see many familiar friends - birds, plants and animals - flourishing far from the familiar river environment where I was used to seeing them. It was like discovering a whole world, lying behind the one I had knew before.
After leaving the Twitya, two long days of hiking carried us up the boulder strewn valley of Trout Creek and over Devil’s Pass. Beyond this high ground, tucked in an alpine valley under the flank of Mt. Eduni, lay the abandoned works of Pumphouse #4, the halfway point of our journey. In nine days, we had come over two hundred kilometers (120 miles) from the road head. The same distance lay ahead. Looking down from the pass, we could see two large red roofed buildings surrounded by a small village of dilapidated shacks and Quonset huts. A scattered fleet of graders and jeeps sat rusting outside, CANOL still emblazoned in bright yellow paint on their doors. We noticed a small swastika brazed by hand on a grader’s blade, a stark reminder of the reality facing workers on the project fifty years earlier. Most of the buildings were in shambles. The pumphouse appeared as if it had been abandoned in a mad rush, the offices overturned and papers strewn about the floor. Ferg and I poked through the sodden remains, finding records of equipment requisitions, labour allocation, and daily flow rates for the crude. Tucked amidst an array of collapsed huts, one Quonset was in excellent condition. We were obviously the first visitors in sometime, as the interior was littered with the mess of marauding rodents, but after sweeping, the hut took on a distinctly homey feel. A handmade sign posted above the potbelly stove declared it ‘The Canol Hilton.’
There was a log book, started in 1995, but only thirty entries existed, and many of those were scribed messages had arrived by plane and helicopter. Obviously few people passed this way. As with every shelter we entered, the walls were littered with graffiti, a record of the human visitation since the 60’s. Over the course of our travels we had been able to follow the progress of a snowmobile expedition that traversed the range during winter, and an astounding 1983 expedition that rode the entire length of the trail on three wheelers, carrying rafts to cross the rivers. Standing out starkly from the comments left by fellow hikers were the messages left by hunters, many bragging about the size of their kills, others even disputing earlier claims. The most distasteful of the lot was a faded, brown finger-painted message that read ‘We write our names in the blood of our kill.’ While I have no problem with sustenance hunting, it seemed irreconcilable to me that trophy hunters would travel this far into these remote mountains for the express interest of killing the largest sheep they could find.
Early in the hike Ferg and I had developed the routine of searching every building we passed for abandoned scraps of food. At one we found a dusty tube of honey, which we squeezed straight into our mouths. At another we discovered a pound of lard left behind by hunters, but despite our ravenous hunger we could not bring ourselves to eat much of it. Apart from a few heaping tablespoons mixed with our oatmeal, we left most of it behind. To our delight we now stumbled upon a bucket marked ‘Left Over Food’ tucked in a closet of the ‘Canol Hilton’. We tore it open, finding a dehydrated meal-in-a-bag from Germany, ‘Karrot Stew mit Tofu.’ Although it looked more than a decade old, we prepared and ate it immediately. There were also small bags of coffee whitener and hardened brown sugar. We spent the evening reading news from a pile of ten year old magazines, drinking cup after cup of sweet, milky water.
We had now traveled for nine days without a rest, and our bodies were showing the strain. Day after day of hard work was slowly breaking us down, and a veil of exhaustion had descended on us. Hunger and pain were our constant companions. Even as I put my fork down following dinner, our biggest meal of the day, I would realize I still felt utterly famished. If even a single sunflower seed or peanut husk slipped from our hands during a snack break, we would search the ground in hopes of retrieving the morsel. I chewed everything fastidiously, remembering that thoroughly mixing food with saliva was the start of the digestive process. It seemed nothing could satiate our appetites, and the supplies we carried became immeasurably precious. Although we still carried a heavy reserve, neither of us once considered raiding our stores, knowing that if we did, we could never make it all the way to Norman Wells.
The weight of the packs was taking its toll on our bodies. Shoulders were red and raw. Purple bruises spread across our bony hips where the waist belts cinched. Ankles, knees, back, and core grew weak in the constant fight to stabilize the heavy loads as we crossed uneven terrain. Worst of all were our feet, flattened like pancakes. With every step I could imagine a painful blister forming underneath the thick callous of my footpad, running from toe to heel. Although none ever appeared, my soles remained sore to the touch. While discomfort was to be expected, it was my Achilles tendons that began to give me serious concern. For days they had been painfully sore. Every night I would stand ankle deep in frigid streams in an effort to reduce their swelling, but I continued to feel them grating within their sheath. I worried that if they got much worse I would have to consider abandoning the journey. I thought of our satellite phone, and Stan Simpson’s claim that he could land almost anywhere along the trail. As disappointing as it would be to quit, it was far preferable to doing permanent damage.
Ferg was also in rough shape. One of his feet had developed a throbbing soreness in the ball, and swollen to almost double its normal thickness. Despite large, daily doses of anti-inflammatories, swaths of duct tape covering his heels, and a habit of generally ignoring pain, I could tell he was suffering too. We had made good progress so far, and were ahead of schedule, so I raised the possibility of taking a days rest. Although initially leery, but after more discussion agreed it would do us both good.
Ferg and I had known relatively little of each other before starting our hike on the Canol. Although we climbed together on Mt. McKinley, and had spent many fine days exploring the peaks and ice fields of the Canadian Rockies, our friendship had been largely an expeditionary one. We were drastically different in character; my extroverted, gregarious nature in stark contrast to Ferg, the quiet, reserved, purist. Our partnership in the mountains had grown because we enjoyed similar type of trips, typically long, grinding affairs that often involved copious amounts of suffering. We both liked to cover a lot of ground, and our physical abilities were well matched. From the beginning we had operated as a quick and efficient team.
There had always been others along on our previous adventures, so on the Canol we were alone for the first time. Before starting the journey I had wondered if our days together would be nothing more than long, silent marches. Ferg, I suspect, harbored similar fears. But the trip had been a wonderful opportunity to grow closer as friends, coming to understand and respect each other more with every passing day. We often found ourselves engaged in long and spirited conversations from sun up to sun down. And as each afternoon wore on we often broke into song, Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ dominating the play list. Now, as a cool, grey sky settled in during our day of rest, we sat together by the roaring stove, trading tales. As Ferg launched into long and often hilarious accounts of his experiences as an military college cadet, and his seven years as navigator aboard Hercules aircraft, I felt as if I was discovering a new friend.
Howling winds woke me the next morning. The Quonset groaned as rain buffeted against the thin walls. Tucked deep in cozy sleeping bags, neither of us felt inclined to jump up when the six o’clock alarm went off. A chill had settled across the mountains that even a raging fire in the potbelly stove could not dispel. Stiff fingers fumbled with stiff boots as we prepared to stagger out into the gale. Minutes after our departure the drizzle turned to snow, and began to accumulate in sodden patches across the barren land. The thought of turning back to the cabin must have passed through both our minds, but without discussion we bowed our heads and pressed on into the wind. Soon large flakes of wet snow were falling in sheets, soaking everything. I dug gloves out from my pack, but my fingers were already frigid and fumbled frustratingly, unable to do up my anorak zipper.
As mist and snow swirled around us, we lost all sense of progress. I had no idea how far we had traveled down the valley. We were stumbling along when Ferg suddenly held up. ‘I could swear I just saw a bear on the trail,’ he murmured. He cursed our luck. I cursed the fact he always saw things first. Was it my fate to spend the entire trip looking at my feet? We groped at frozen holsters to ready the bear spray and bangers while peering into the whiteness. As we stood, snow silently piling on our toques and shoulders, three wolf cubs appeared from the mist. Barely large enough to scramble over the gravel embankment of the road, they dropped to their haunches and edged their way forward like excited puppies. The grey and black cubs were as interested in us as we were in them, and for a few timeless moments we stood face to face, eyes locked, snow swirling around us. Then without a sound, a much larger wolf appeared from the bushes behind, and it was clear that the pups knew it was time to leave. Seconds later all four wolves had melted away.
The magic broken, we took stock of our situation. Finding shelter was quickly becoming a priority. We were both cold, and bashing through the snow-laden alders that dotted the road had left us soaked to the bone. The map showed the ruins somewhere ahead, and the trail notes indicated we would find ‘a large red roofed building that looks inviting, but isn’t.’ Half an hour later we spied the red roofed building, and it did look inviting from the trail, but as we drew closer we could see that it was utterly dilapidated. The frame still stood, but most of the walls had been torn down. One corner remained partially sheltered, covering a few rusty cots and a massive cast iron stove. Labeled the ‘Grand Niagara,’ the antique wood burner was the size of a household freezer, and likely weighed close to a ton. The stove featured two large burning chambers, four cooking elements, a baking chamber, and a large log drying bin. After the effort of transporting it here all the way from the Spencer Forgery Co. in Ontario, it seemed a tragedy that it had been left behind to slowly rust. At one time it would have cooked for fifty men. Today it would become our own personal heater and clothes dryer.
We dumped our packs, and after starting a fire in the Grand Niagara, set to work salvaging plywood and planks strewn about the ruins. There were no shortage of nails, the stove’s ash box was full of them. (A sad legacy of recent travel on the Canol is the cannibalization and vandalizing of the historical buildings along the route. Although the Canol has been declared a Heritage Trial and Park Reserve, there seems to be no comprehensive plan for the fate of the remaining structures, and timbers are frequently stripped from the structures and stuffed in stoves to provide heat.) Using a large rock as a hammer, we set to work repairing our corner of the building, replacing missing panels, filling in gaps in the roofing, patching a dividing wall. Within hours we had created a comfortable and weatherproof shelter. As the snow piled outside, we sipped on leek soup and hung our clothes out to dry.
The storm passed by morning, our twelfth of the trip, leaving the high mountains frosted with snow. During the whiteout we had descended into the wide valley of the Carcajou, and the road now followed the river’s course, winding over broad alluvial fans that spilled down from high alpine streams. By late afternoon we were climbing again, ascending a winding series of switchbacks that rose two thousand four hundred feet (730 m) up to the Plains of Abraham. The high tableland was a cold and treeless world. Soon after we arrived snow began to fall, and winter-like conditions set in. We set up our tent amidst the crumbling frame of an old ‘caboose,’ one of a hundred and fifty rolling barracks that had been hauled behind bulldozers, following pipeline construction teams as them moved across the land. As snow continued to accumulate our plans to spend the night faded. With only light summer sleeping bags, our sleep would be cold and fitful at best. Instead we decided to continue on. One beauty of summer travel in the north is the fact that the sun never sets. So off into the snow and mist we set, heading towards a cabin which lay on the far side of the plateau. Occasional breaks in the clouds revealed sheer cliffs dropping away from the roadside, and offered glorious views of the valley below. Hours later we arrived at the ruins, broke away a barrier of icicles that had formed around the door, and settled in.
A twisting, rocky drainage descended from the high Plains of Abraham towards the valley of the Little Keele. A scattering of graders, caterpillars, jeeps, and oil drums marked the confluence. The pumphouse and Quonsets had been set deeper in the woods, as the Little Keele was prone to flooding. Army engineers once observed its waters rise by thirteen feet in the space of three hours following a heavy rain, and similar events had erased nearly ever trace of road from the gravel plains downstream. Sections of rusty pipeline could occasionally be seen poking out from rubble wash, twisted and bent. Several of these had been commandeered by families of noisy ground squirrels, and their piping calls echoed from within. A few listing telephone poles poked up from behind scraggily bushes, remnants of a line that once paralleled the road. Long strands of copper wire hung from clear glass insulators on the cross bars.
It was not until hours later that we picked up any signs of the road once again. Easily visible from a distance, ascending the flanks of a bordering mountain we found the trail clogged by horrendously thick alder. The saplings tore at our bare arms, and snapped up as we passed, smacking our faces and chest. Often we were unable to see more than a few feet ahead. Sweating, dusty, and tired, we pressed through, hoping not to bump into a bear coming down this graded path in the other direction. Eventually the bush thinned, and rounding the final high ridge crest, we stumbled upon a staggering view. Before us stretched the eastern peaks and canyon lands of the Mackenzie Mountains, and in the distance, we caught our first glimpse of the interminable Mackenzie River Flats. Somewhere out there lay the great river, and our destination, Norman Wells. Fields of ripe blueberries surrounded the trail, and a handful of caribou grazed nearby in the tundra uplands. There was even a trickle of spring water seeping from the rocks. The spot was idyllic. Without a second’s hesitation, we dropped our packs and set camp.
The rivers and creeks that drain the eastern fringes of the Mackenzie Mountains have cut a maze of deep and rugged canyons, and there is no easy way through. Planners for the Canol road faced a serious problem when trying to establish a passage through these badlands. Winding Dodo Canyon4 was eventually chosen as the conduit, but engineers were forced to accept that miles of road and pipeline would be submerged, and likely torn out, during the annual spring floods.
Fifteen days after setting out from our car, Ferg and I crossed our final pass, and began the long descent into Dodo Canyon. In a narrow creek bed leading down, we passed the remains of a caboose, buried to its roof in rubble, a testament to the powerful floods that continue to shape the land. As we dropped into the confined canyon, the world around us disappeared from view. Cliffs of grey and black rose sheer from a flat bed of gravel, hardly a hundred feet (30m) wide. The air was cool, every footstep echoed. After several kilometers the walls began to squeeze in tighter and tighter. A billowing waterfall thundered in from above, and joined the creek at our feet. Rounding a tight, water-smoothed corner, the canyon abruptly opened up majestically.
Before us golden walls leaned back, thousands of feet high, dotted with hoodoos and jagged spires. The canyon floor was wide, and barren. No shadows touched the floor of the wide expanse, and the midday sun baked down mercilessly. A lone hawk circled in thermals overhead. In a few steps, it felt as if we had stepped from the sub arctic northlands straight into a scene from the American Southwest.
Halfway down the baking canyon lay Pumpstation #2, tucked amidst a grove of poplars on the outside of a wide bend. We almost trudged straight past, our shirts soaked with sweat, bandanas draped over our heads, having lost all sense of our position in the vast, snaking gorge. Only a family of Dall’s sheep, scrabbling across the talus slopes above, caused us to pause and notice the concealed buildings. Our maps showed a small slot canyon joining the Dodo just downstream from the barracks, and after setting a kettle on to boil in the embers of a fire, we ambled off to explore.
As the last golden rays of sun shot over the canyon rims, we approached a portal in the high walls. Echo Creek had carved a precipitously sheer slot leading straight back into Dodo’s shale walls. Shadows obscured the entrance, and a cool wind blew from the darkness beyond. With wide-eyed wonder, we entered. Echo creek meandered back and forth across the boulder strewn floor, emerald green, whispering with ripples. Pushing deeper and deeper into the silent and dark real, we waded through its shallow waters time and again. The walls pressed closer together, until the sky was but a tiny strip of blue silver high above. Waterfalls cascaded down, kissing us with spray. Each corner brought a new surprise. Although others has surely been here before, there was no sign of their passing, and there was great joy in stumbling upon such a spectacle unexpectedly. After almost an hour we turned and reluctantly retreated from the magic slot, the call of supper too strong for our hungry stomachs to ignore.
Beyond Pumpstation #2, the scale of the Dodo Canyon continued to grow. The walls, still perfectly parallel, ran almost a kilometer apart. Huge fans of scree and talus had washed down from gullies leading upwards. It was clear that huge floods regularly scoured this land, and hardly a single trace of the road remained. Travel slow and tedious, the canyon floor filled with loose boulders that regularly twisted ankles and made hiking tough. The river snaked back and forth across the canyon floor, rebounding off the walls. Dropping the packs, taking our boots off, putting our sandals on, wading across, and preparing to continue was a tedious process, and soon we gave up any hope of keeping our feet dry. First jumping from stone to stone, and eventually wading straight through the knee deep water. This was a wise decision, as we were forced to cross the river more than sixty times as we worked our way onwards.
After several hours of plodding along, a resounding rumble caused us to jump and spin around. Just as we did, a large chunk of canyon wall broke away behind us, avalanching down and obliterating the ground we had crossed minutes earlier. Later, the quiet canyon echoed with the shrill cries of a peregrine falcon. Angered by our presence near its nest, the falcon shadowed us for ten minutes, soaring from outcrop to outcrop, screaming in protest until we had moved on. Waterfalls regularly poured down from the canyon’s rims, and the luxuriant carpets of green moss that grew in their fine mist were a beacon of life amidst the otherwise dry land.
As we neared the end of the canyon, its walls closed in again, a final threshold before spilling out onto the Plains of the Mackenzie. Looking up, I was astounded to see a lone dog wandering through the rubble far ahead. We were still two days walk from Norman Wells. Perhaps a local was out on a hunting or fishing trip? Scanning the rocky ground, I expected to see an owner appear from behind a canyon wall at any moment. But as Ferg and I continued onwards, we suddenly realized that the dog was in fact a wolf, moving quickly up the canyon towards us, unaware yet of our presence. Without a seconds forethought I tipped my head back and howled, overwhelmed by the joy of seeing the majestic animal so close. Ferg howled too, and our calls echoed from wall to wall. Amazingly the wolf sped up its approach, and upon closing to within a few hundred feet, circled inquisitively. Then after staring straight at us with its penetrating eyes, it simply disappeared, melting away amidst the boulders as only wolves can. Minutes later we passed a lone caribou trudging up the canyon, and wondered aloud what fate might await it along the narrowing path.
A massive fan of debris spreads outwards from the mouth of Dodo Canyon, leading towards the Carcajou River, and this obstacle took us almost three wobbly hours to traverse. By the time we were done, neither of us wanted to see another boulder field again. Nearing the Carcajou, our last major crossing, we found a mess of wet mud, sticks and leaves plastered through trees and across boulders. The river had been flooding, and only receded recently. Arriving on the shore, we carefully sealed the contents of our packs in garbage bags, and began to trudge through riverside muck, looking for a place to ford the flow. There was no obvious way across the wide and deep river. The water was silty, making it difficult to judge its depth, and several times we waded out into calm pools only to turn around after a few steps, the water inching up past our armpits. Upstream we found shallower braids, but the current ripped past frighteningly quickly.
It is extraordinarily difficult to wade through fast moving water that is any deeper than ones waist. Up to this point, balance is the primary issue, but beyond three compounding factors arise that make maintaining footing nearly impossible. Firstly, as more of the body is submerged, there is an increase in the buoyant force acting on it, making footsteps lighter. As well, instead of pressing against just the legs, the oncoming water hits a far greater surface area from the waist up. And the force this water exerts acts on a higher point. All of these factors will contrive to topple even the most sure-footed hikers rushing water any deeper than their crotch.
So Ferg and I stuck to the shallows, eventually connecting a route through a maze of gravel bars and beached logs that took us almost to the far side. Only a single, swiftly flowing channel separated us from the opposite shoreline. Unfortunately, that water appeared to be more than waist deep, but we had run out of options. Unclipping our chest and waist straps, we prepared to ditch the packs and swim if suddenly swept away. With each step the water rose higher. We leaned forward onto our poles, but the current was strong, and our feet skittered backwards along the rocky bottom. Only the weight of packs kept us from floating away. Fighting to stay upright, we inched our way sideways. The shore grew closer, but our hold on balance was tenuous at best. With a final splashing scramble I launched myself towards the muddy bank and crawled ashore. Ferg, a few inches shorter than me, was having problems. Dropping my pack, I leaned far out and offered an extended ski pole. Seconds later he was across. Had the water been only an inch or two higher, we both would have been swimming. Shivering and tired, we brewed a cup of tea.
A steady drizzle made it difficult to re-warm. Walking seemed like the best cure, so we began heading inland, across twenty miles of indistinguishable flats that lead towards the Mackenzie River. Initially the trail was hard to pick up, but once we found it, it ran for as far as the eye could see, cut the swampy spruce forest in a perfectly straight line. As the twilight of late evening began to descend, our thoughts turned to rest, but for kilometer after kilometer, not a single appealing camping spot presented itself in the boggy, overgrown land. As tempting as it was, we did not want to camp smack in the middle of the trail, undoubtedly a thoroughfare for bear, moose, and other wildlife. Eventually we were forced to scramble through dense underbrush, searching for a clearing large enough to erect our tiny tent. Clean water was difficult to find, and with no other option, we reluctantly dipped out pots into a tobacco-coloured swamp coated with thick green algae.
The drizzle abated over night, but everything was sodden by morning. Chilly clouds remained low to the ground, swirling past. With a grimace, we pulled on drenched clothes, rung out our socks and crammed our swollen feet back into squelching boots for one last time. As we set out, twin walls of spruce stretched on interminably before us. It was impossible to judge exactly where we were, the tiny variations in elevation we passed were over indiscernible on our map. Both of us began to suffer from ‘its-the-last-day-and-I-can’t-take-another-minute’ syndrome. Each step now felt like horrendous labour, our feet and backs ached, time crawled by. Waist deep bogs obliterated long sections of road, and without even pausing, we hoisted our packs over our shoulders and trudged straight through.
Autumn was in the air. Yellow rushes stood amidst the dark waters of trailside ponds. Swaths of horsetail flamed in brilliant orange. White and yellow birch began to appear, interspersed with the spruce, their leaves fluttering down to cover the bogs in thick mats. The swamplands were still, the cacophony of summer gone, the frogs, crickets and cicadas silent. In a brief respite, the land caught its breath before the harsh northern winter set in.
Somewhere along the way we passed what had once been the bustling city of Camp Canol. During the heyday of pipeline construction these muddy flats had seen avenues of offices, a hospital, garages, boiler houses, and even a landing field with hangers. But in 1977 the final remains of these relics were bulldozed to the ground by Imperial Oil over liability concerns.
And then the tunnel of bush that had held us captive for so long suddenly opened, the sandy beaches of the Mackenzie River stretched ahead. Red and white oil rigs sprang up from mid river islands, tall towers flamed off gas in massive orange plumes, trails of soot stretching across the sky. We dropped our packs by an enormous cottonwood log, and set up a tripod to take one final photo of ourselves, bearded and grubby. Minutes later, a powerboat charter arrived to ferry us across the five kilometer (3 mile) wide Mackenzie River, and back to the clutches of civilization.
For seventeen days, Ferg and I had been the masters of our own destiny. We left the framework of modern society behind, carrying everything we needed on our backs, and wasting little time wanting for that which we did not have. The focus of daily existence returned to the basics: shelter, food, water, and travel. One returns from such a venture imbued with a glorious sense of inner peace, an effect that lingers days, if not weeks. Distractions that often create ire and impatience - honking cars, impatient clerks, late flights - seem to hardly matter, their insignificance obvious on the grander scale. What I had expected to be nothing more than a walk in the woods ended up being a glorious expedition. I returned from the Canol convinced that everyone should take an extended hike through remote wilderness once in their lifetime, if for no other reason than to reestablish a primal connection - a ‘crawling-on-hands-and-knees-through-dirt’ type union - between self and land.
While hiking along the abandoned route, I was continually struck by the fact that despite an all out and concerted attempt by the powerful U.S. Army to tame this land, they had failed. Fifty year after the last battalions pulled out, very few signs of their massive efforts remain. The wooden structures were slowly rotting, the oil drums and vehicles sinking under a carpet of brush. Every single bridge had been washed away. The immense stands of forest that once burned where smudge fires spread out of control had reestablished themselves5. Wildflowers could be seen engulfing fallen telephone poles and poking innocently through the floors of abandoned cabooses. Swaths of land that had once been bulldozed and scarred were already covered in blankets of alder and willow. Given a time of reprieve, the land was healing, reclaiming itself.
While heartening to see, this progress towards a natural state should not be taken lightly. There are exceedingly few examples where access, once granted or created, has been revoked of allowed to dissolve. Development ratchets exclusively in one direction - forwards.
The fact that the Canol was allowed to crumble into disrepair was largely a fluke of timing and circumstances. The road ends at a river, making it a useless connector. And at the time of its abandonment, there were lucrative mineral and resource extraction projects closer to Whitehorse. Why would one bother to go further when riches awaited in the back yard? But with the growing pressures being exerted in the north today, such a byway would never stagnate. And the remains of the Canol road, while fading, remain an Achilles heel to the remote mountains and valleys they traverse. Only a tiny spark of economic interest would be required to rekindle thoughts of pushing a new road along the old route. Such an incursion is far easier for government and public to palate, as the land has already lost its virginity. With lead, zinc, and emerald interests growing in the region, such dangers are not unfeasible.
But even more timely are the matters of a pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley. Whispers of this development have turned to a juggernaut, and it now seems likely that a pipeline of one form or another, following one route or another, will be pushed down this remote valley. What can be learned from the Canol for the planners of today and tommorow? There are, as always, thousands of issues to balance, including First Nation’s involvement, Porcupine Caribou birthing grounds, local industrial interests, snow geese migrations, and so on. Amidst the myriad of environmental concerns surrounding such a project, the issue of access comes to the forefront of my mind when considering untouched wilderness. A frenzy of hydrocarbon exploration, seismic lines, and feeder pipes will no doubt spread out from any main Mackenzie trunk line. The effect of just a single lane dirt road is almost unfathomable. It changes the land forever. To try and express why in any long and rationalized argument would be to lose some of its essential spirit in the first place. Perhaps the only way to really know is to put on a backpack, and walk for four hundred kilometers where no car can take you. After such a journey I am convinced you will appreciate more clearly the need to carefully weigh and plan our actions when intruding on, even if just along the fringes, something as precious as an unspoilt wilderness.