Log of the August 1993 expedition on the Canol Heritage Trail
Norman Wells to Oldsquaw Lodge (mile 212)
34th Dunbar Point Grey Venturer Company--Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
August 2-18,1993 (17 days)
Contact for information: Graham Bustard (email@example.com)
A group of 8 of us from Vancouver, BC, Canada hiked the Canol HeritageTrail from the Mackenzie River to Oldsquaw Lodge in August 1993. We were a Company of Venturers at the time(a senior level of Canadian Scouts) including six members, 16 and 17 years old, and two advisors.
The idea to tackle this trek came to us through one of our advisors who saw the trail written up in Canadian Geographic Magazine. (Larry Pynn, "Hiking the Canol Trail" , Canadian Geographic, July/Aug 1992). We were a very active Venturer Company, focused mainly on grueling backpacking expeditions, and this trail seemed up our alley. One of our members tracked down Larry Pynn, the author of the article, and he gave us a slide show of his trip. From that point on, planning began and we were soon on our way.
We planned for 17 days on the trail. We all drove in a GMC Suburban from Vancouver to MacMillan Pass, where there is a small airstrip. The trip up took 3 days. We had arranged to meet a man named Cal Shannon at "Mac Pass", who would take possession of our truck. The owners of Oldsquaw Lodge had agreed to bring our truck in to the lodge at mile 212.
Our plane arrived to take us and our gear to Norman Wells (Northwright Air out of Norman Wells). The eight of us flew into Norman Wells. With Northwright Air, we left one food drop package, which we'd arranged to have left for us at the Cabin at mile 108 (roughly the half-way point). They made an extra flight into this point with a plane equiped with "tundra tires".
What follows is a highly condensed version of our group log, which, unfortunatlely, was not saved on disk. The daily descriptions have been regrettably stripped of a lot of detail.
Weather: It drizzled often, almost daily. We had a few true rainy days.
Day 1 / August 2
Mackenzie River (mi 4) to Ray Creek (10)
There is NO WATER until Hart Lake. Scorching heat, unbearable mosquitoes, and dehydration made this one of the worst starts to a hike ever. Scenery is mind-numbinngly boring. Tip: fill up on water where you can. Also, the trail is easy to lose at Camp Canol, so get directions (I’m afraid I can't offer them myself). Ray Creek water was a drinkable mud puddle. At this point in the hike we were carrying 150 lbs of food.
Day 2 Aug 3
Ray Creek (10) to Carcajou River (22)
Today we found an innertube hanging from a tree which would become our ticket to crossing all the major rivers on the trail. We named this innertube Lil' Gertrube. (That's Gertrube, not Gertrude!); The innertube was found inflated at a shelter a mile east of the Carcajou. Rather than hike across the Carcajou, we spent time constructing a raft out of Gertrube to ferry our packs across on a line. We crossed the river, walking in pairs, using the line for safety.
Day 3 Aug 4
Carcajou River (22) Unplanned Rest Day
We woke up to discover that we hadn't crossed the entire Carcajou last night, only one banch of it! Dwayne felt ill in the morning and was throwing up. We decided to stay put for the day until he got better. The rest of us spent the day relaxing and setting up a crossing line for the second half of the Carcajou. Using up a rest day made us nervous.
Day 4 Aug 5
Carcajou (22) to Dodo Canyon (36)
Crossed the second Carcajou branch using the method we would continue to use for all large rivers: One swimmer crosses (we brought a PFD and drysuit for large rivers -- not this one). the swimmer kicks across on Gertrube carrying a line. With Gertrube attatched at the centre of the line, hikers are then ferried across on the tube with their packs on. This system worked well. Dodo Canyon was great. Hiked all day and had to make MANY shoe changes at stream crossings.
Day 5 Aug 6
Dodo Canyon (36) to Mile 50 Cabin at Little Keele River
Very heavy rain all day. The mile 50 cabin is quite beat up. We slept in the warm "caboose" nearby as well as in the cabin.
Day 6 Aug 7
Little Keele River
We woke up early and went down to the river to cross. The level of the Little Keele appeared to be much higher than reports from others we'd spoken to. It had risen due to the rain on the previous day. We waded it, hoping to walk across and met water up to our navels within 3 steps. It was also a cold windy day, and our crossing technique was not yet ironed out. We considered several options, and decided to wait a day in the caboose eating close to nothing. During this day, Gertrube was transformed into a boat by stringing a tarp underneath her and around her sides.
Not getting any miles behind us this day killed us. We’d also have to stretch our remaining food further until the food drop at Mile 108.
Day 7 Aug 8
Mile 50 (Little Keele River) to Mile 63 (Blue Mountain)
We lucked out that the weather turned to our advantage. The river had dropped as we’d hoped. Colin jumped into the dry suit and life jacket and used Gertrube as a float to swim to the other side, carrying one end of our rope. He then set up a zip-line so that people and packs could float acros with the current, with the help of those already across.
We’re convinced we’ve got the river crossing drill perfected. The entire crossing took 4 hours. As long as we protect Gertrube like crazy, the Twitya shouldn’t be a problem. The road on the other side was clear, and we made good time. There was some snow this evening.
Hiking hint: We were told by others a few days ago that we should take the high road to the left at the junction at Mile 60. We did, even though the high road started lower and more overgrown.
Day 8 Aug 9
Mile 63 (Blue Mountain) to Mile 75½ (Little Keele River)
The morning temperature was around freezing. The trail crossed steep slopes around mountains this morning. Some trouble spots where the road had completely crumbled made carrying Gertrube a real chore. We spent a while debating where the mile 65 cabin was. We later found that it was near the Little Keele River, nowhere near the high road we’d decided to take. We finally got back to the Little Keele after some bushwacking and after losing the trail once or twice.
The next section of the trail followed the river, and was badly broken up by creeks. The Mile 75 ½ cabin (Pump#3) provided excellent shelter. There were 6 cots and a wood stove.
Day 9 Aug 10
Mile 75 ½ (Little Keele River) to Mile 90 (Andy Creek)
If you’d asked us before we left to find day 9 on our schedule, we’d have pointed two days after our food drop. Alas, we’re behind schedule on rationed food now, and we’ve got two good days to go before Mile 108. One consequence of the new schedule is tiny breakfasts made out of a third of a regular breakfast. The trail was quite wide today, rising to the Plains of Abraham, the trail’s highest point (5500 feet). The plains were an amazing place, a vast barren expanse, level with the surrounding mountains. We pushed on with Mile 90 as our goal, descending from the plains as snow started to fall.
We saw a few caribou on the way down. We crossed Andy Creek, which came up to mid thigh, and camped on the other side of the river.
Day 10 Aug 11
Mile 90 (Andy Creek) to Mile 108 (Pump Station #4)
Huge day today, as we got to our food drop! We ate one last tiny rationed breakfast of oatmeal with a bit of dried pineapple in it.
We covered the 10 miles to the crossing of the Carcajou easily by lunchtime. The Carcajou was easily wadeable today. After the Carcajou crossing the trail stayed easy, relaytively speaking, with only a few wash-outs at creeks. The cabin at Mile 108 was luxurious, with several beds.
We saw 2 caribou in the valley near 108, as well as a porcupine and gophers. We’ve been seeing planes all the time, as they travel along the route.
In our food drop was a surpise box of "Viva Puff" cookies, which we savoured. There was a well stocked emergency kitchen at this cabin. Warning: there is a mirror in the cabin and you may catch a glimpse of your face for the first time in days! Tomorrow our packs will be back up to 50 pounds plus, after having lost 17 pounds over the last ten days. It feels amazing, however, to be back on schedule.
Steven’s pack has turned out to be a heap of junk! Warning: be wary of packs with shock absorbers (or other easy-to-break mechanical features). There haven’t been any major equipment problems, though. It looks like we may hang on to Gertrube for a while past the Twitya River.
Day 11 Aug 12
Mile 108 (Pump Station #4) to Mile 122 (a creek)
Today is our sixth day without any human contact. The road this morning was wide and prety easy, although our pace was slowed by our now enormous packs. There were the usual complaints about the size of our lunch (crackers and peanut butter). In general our cold lunches and breakfasts have been small, for convenience, and our hot dinners have been the largest meals of the day.
After lunch the trail became hard to follow at Trout Creek. There was one crossing we had to wade, and many rock crossings. The trail rose above Trout Creek and got a bit overgrown by the time we reached our campsite at a mountain creek.
Tomorrow’s the Twitya crossing and we’re all pretty confident. Matthew has disgusting advanced-stage blisters on his feet. The rice dinner tonight filled 4 large pots!
Day 12 Friday Aug 13
Mile 122 (a creek) to Mile 133 (Twitya River crossing point)
"Swirling, unpredictable and ocasionally frightening, the Twitya River
is a fitting symbol of theCanol Heritage Trail, a 370 km portal to some
of the most diverse and challenging geography in North America."
From all acounts we’d come across, the Twitya River is the single most difficult obstacle we’ll come across on the trail. Larry Pynn, the author of the Canadian Geographic article nearly drowned on the Twitya, and S.R. Gage, author of A Walk on the Canol Road certainly didn’t have an easy time. Mind youu, they were both solo travelers, and they didn’t have Li’l Gertrube to rely on.
We approached the Twitya nervously, but the river turned out to be a bit of a letdown when we finally got to it. It was certainly swift, and it was the widest we’d yet faced, but it looked no harder than those we’d already crossed.
When we first got to the river we could see the road on the oposite bank, but we did not cross at this point. It had been suggested to us that we cross at least a mile upstream. A group we’d met had suggested we bushwack even further to a point 2 hours upstream of the road crossing point. This turned out to be good advice. Pushing Li’l Gertrube through dense brush was tiresome, but the thought of her popping before her big moment kept us prety careful.
The route to our crossing took us along game trails and over sand bars and with the sun shining brightly, we made it to the site the other group had mentioned. On our side of the river was a long pebble-covered beach, and on the south side was a steep rocky bank that proved to be hard to grab onto. The river was bending here insuch a way that it woyuld help a swimmer going across in our direction. We used the same system we’d perrfected at the Little Keele. The crossing itself took an hour and 45 minutes in late afternoon.
The odds were in our favour today. To face the Twitya on a cold snowy day on a large raft as Larry Pynn had would surely have been unsafe.
Day 13 Aug 14
Mile 133 (Twitya River) to Mile 147 (Godlin River)
A heated debate was held at breakfast over whether to dump Li’l Gertrube or hang on to her for future crossings. We decided to lug her along for the time being.
We hiked today at a furious pace. Lunch was held on a picnic table in the middle of nowhere. After lunch the trail crossed a few miles of wet swamp, where the trail deteriorated for about an hour. The road then improved again until right before our campsite on the Godlin River where the trail ended abruptly an dwe had to side-step across a steep rocky slope, hanging onto grass for support and sendin a rock slide downslope with every step. This, along with dense shrubbery, made carying Li’l Gertrube totally unbearable, and I was tempted to just heave her into the river. We’d later discover that this bushwacking was actually off the trail. The trail stays well above the river near mile 147.
A wet boot print was spotted on a rock near our campsite, meaning someone is merely hours ahead on the trail.
Bugs are still around but there aren’t nearly the problem they were
between Norman Wells and Dodo.
Day 14 Aug 15
Mile 147 (Godlin River) to Mile 163 (Godlin River)
Today, to boost our pace we hiked 45 minutes between rest breaks (rather than 30 minutes). We are still takin turns carying Gertrube in 15 minute shifts.
A fairly uneventful day, in terms of hiking, although the scenery has been cnosistently beautiful. There are nightly arguments around food. At this point every conversation we have inevitably shifts to the subject of food. We’re fantasizing about an all-you-can eat restaurant in Whitehorse after the trail. These conversations are getting us through each day.
There have been a few minor knee and ankle problems, which are worsening as we log more miles.
Day 15 Aug 16
Mile 163(Godlin River) to Mile 180 (Ekwi River)
We passed Ramhead lodge this morning, an outfitters’ cabin. This was our first human encounter in ten days, and here we learned about the other hikers on the trail. A group of 2 Germans had been through and would have finished the trail days ago. Another group of three had been flown out with foot problems at mile 108. The solo German, whose footprints we’d seen, had got on a spare seat on a plane leaving Ramhead Outfitters.
The Ekwi river was wadeable. Gertrube was deflated here, and packed out. It’s amazing to think we carried that huge innertube 150 miles. She also weighs a ton, a fact we appreciated once she was deflated. The terrain has been beautiful with endless rugged mountain ranges.
Day 16 Aug 17
Mile 180 (Ekwi River) to Mile 197 Caribou Pass
Talking about food has mostly been dropped, in favour of not talking at all. We’ve run out of things to discuss, and what we do discuss is generally stupid. We’re a day ahead of schedule now, so we allowed ourselves a double lunch. We also treated ourselves to an extended lunchtime siesta.
Back on the trail our pace was swift. We met two Germans on the trail heading east, claiming to be headed for Norman Wells. We were amazed that anyone would be attempting the whole trip this late in the year. Their trip would take them well into September.
Day 17 Aug 18
Mile 196(Caribou Pass) to Mile 212 (Oldsquaw Lodge)
The day began like most others. Before we knew it, however, we were thrust back into civilization. Oldsquaw was spotted a great distance away at the top of a hill. We were thrilled to see the suburban parked at the lodge. Oldsquaw is a wilderness lodge in the middle of a high plain surrounded by mountains. The family that runs it was very kind to us. Our hearts skipped a beat when they informed us of our many all-you-can-eat options in Whitehorse.
Stan Rogers’ "Canol Road" was played as we drove off. We camped on the roadside, and ate a double dinner. On the way out we stopped to thank Cal Shannon at Mac Pass for his help. He seemed pleased that we’d made it.
Just after we left Oldsquaw, the Conservation Officer at mile 222 stopped us to talked to us and asked us for comments. We told him we’d had an excellent time but felt that the trail had been built up in at least one NWT tourism brochure to be a a pleasant hike with wonderful scenery, not mentioning how difficult it can be.
Seven years later, memories of CANOL are still fresh in my mind. As well as being an eye-opening trip through time, CANOL was for all of us an outdoor experience of a lifetime and a true tesst of our stamina, backpacking skills, and physical limits. We’d all recommend the trip highly, but caution any readers to treat the trail and particularly the rivers with caution.
As for the all-you-can-eat stop in Whitehorse- We hit the Mister Mike’s
steakhouse, where we splurged and ordered good meals including the salad
bar. Graham took the pool of $0.52 for being the first to throw up. Steven
followed. Dwayne threw up later that night at our campsite.
2 large pots
2 med pots
2 MSR Whisperlite Stoves
3 large MSR 975ml fuel bottles
3 medium MSR 625ml fuel bottles
1 small MSR 300ml fuel bottles
9 liters white gas (4 of which was placed in food drop at ½ point)
River crossing supplies:
1 rope 4mm dia., 120 m length
2 ropes 4mm dia. 15 m length ea.
2 3 m lengths of rocklimbing harness webbing
1 rockclimbing carabiner
1 personal floatation device
1 innerrtube (unplanned, found on the trail and proved to be invaluable)
2 cans "Bear Guard" pepper spray
1 package (contains 3) "Skyblazer" flares
1 wilderness first aid kit
1 foot care kit (tape, second skin, friction-free tape, tincture of benzoate)
4 "Eureka Autumn Winds" tents
1 10*12 foot coated nylon tarp with cord