Bruce Kirkby and I traveled from the Yukon border to Norman Wells in 17 days without resupply, starting 4th August, 2000. Two of these were half days and one was a day off. We only passed one other group (of four) on the trail. By my estimate, based on what we heard and saw in log books at some of the shelters, there were fewer than 10 parties on any part of the trail this summer. We may have been the only party to walk the entire trail.
It was a very wet summer and we experienced several days with snow. The water crossings were generally manageable, though apparently at times the Carcajou in particular was not fordable. We lucked in and found an inflatable dingy with pump for the Twitya, though at the time it looked like it would not have been too desperate to swim it at an appropriate point. I believe that this boat is now on the south side as there was a party headed south from Norman Wells when we were there. Hopefully they left it somewhere obvious.
We had two bear encounters, both grizzlies, both in the Ekwi valley. One required a bear banger for encouragement to leave, the other we had to walk around off the trail. There was far more bear sign on this part of the trail than on the second half. We also saw a wolverine, several wolves, some sheep in Dodo Canyon and numerous caribou in the higher areas. There were not a lot of birds to be seen.
As is well known, the trail tends from immaculate at the start to marginal or non-existent towards Dodo Canyon, although there are some excellent stretches here and there on the second half. The long traverse of Blue Mountain has some of the worse bushwacking and trail washouts on the Canol, but also has some great parts with incredible views. In a dry year, water may be scarce, but we found a nice bench of land with some puddles to camp near at about the halfway point of the traverse. I have read several accounts of hardship on the way to and over Devil’s Pass. We took the higher (right) of the two optional routes and I found it to be quite nice hiking with pleasant views. Despite generally wet conditions, our boots did not get too wet until Dodo Creek, where you can count on wet feet or way too many switches over to other footwear. The stretch after the Carcajou had us wading thigh deep through some swamps. Overall, we both feel that going from west to east, as we did, is more enjoyable.
The shelters at several of the old camps are in generally good shape as per the guide that is given out by the NWT government. They are a great comfort when the weather turns nasty, as it did for us between 108 and 80. We did extensive repairs to the room that is habitable at Camp 100 in order to keep the wind and snow out. Please refrain from using structural wood for the stoves in these buildings. There is natural wood out there that can be used, even when wet, if you hunt around a bit. Pump Station #4 (mp 108) has the nicest shelter on the trail and is an interesting place to take a day off. Excellent photo opportunities abound.
Do not camp on the trail. Incredibly, we frequently saw signs that people do this. You are just asking for trouble with animals and the fire rings and burnt wood remains are an eyesore. When we were not at shelters where food could be kept safe, we relied on triple wrapping of the food to keep the scents down somewhat and used whatever means we had to try to bear-proof it. Bridge remains sometimes offer opportunities, otherwise we went high up above the trail into the talus and constructed stone coverings which would at least keep out the smaller beasties. We never had any problems.
We decided to go without resupply mostly so that Bruce could train for an even longer trip to Tibet next year. It is not a tactic we would recommend as it hampered our enjoyment of the trip due to very soar feet from heavy loads, hunger from a light diet and a lack of time to do any side trips. If you can afford the time, I would recommend going with one or two food drops and aim to take 20 -22 days. If you can only do a section of the trail, 222-168 offers the most straight forward hiking, while 108-80 offers some interesting scenery and history, with good side trip options. Dodo and Echo canyons are the most interesting places geologically speaking.
Rather than fly from Norman Wells to the trailhead, we drove there and then had our car driven back to Ross River, in the Yukon. This is a reasonable option if you want to drive to the Yukon anyway.. Some people said that leaving a vehicle at the trailhead might be risky, but we were later told the same might be true of Ross River. In any event, the road to the Yukon border is in generally good shape and does not require high clearance or four wheel drive. It is slow going, however, and you will want to factor in 4-5 hours for the 235km drive. The ferry across the river at the start of the road from Ross River operates between 8am and 5pm.
Another transportation option we learned of while up there was the use of Stan Simpson, of Ramhead Outfitters, as a bush pilot. Based out of MP168, he is very much in tune with the weather and landing strips along the trail and generally provides flights at a significantly cheaper rate than the competition. He can meet you at either end of the trail and also provides cache drop and ‘river hopping’ services if required.
In Norman Wells, expect to pay big money for basic goods and services. Hotels range from $110-140 (CDN). Eating out is also expensive, but the Chinese food at the Mackenzie Valley Hotel is well worth the outlay after many days on the trail. If you wish to camp to save money, you can do so down by the river between the two main docking areas. There are two grocery stores and several cafés at which to while away the time. The museum is definitely worth a visit, and if you wish to catch up on e-mail, the library, which has odd hours of operation, will help you out.
Overall, we felt that the trip was a very worthwhile experience, and I for one wish to go back and do some side trip exploring. In many respects, this is the best use of the trail: a conduit through a vast wilderness. The challenges of the trail are largely in the scale of the undertaking. We were both very fit and experienced going into our trip, but were still surprised by the toll it took on us. Even though we had a satellite phone, the weather showed that a rescue party could easily take days to reach you. If you loose critical gear in a river crossing, you could well find yourself in a life threatening situation. On the other hand, sunny days on good sections of trail will seem far less challenging than hikes in many parks in southern regions. Preparation and contingency planning could make all the difference.
Enjoy the hiking.