Write-Up of the route taken by Peter Ion (and party) on the CANOL, July-August 2000
(The text covers a trek from MP170 to 208 with a group from Europe, 208 to 222 undertaken solo, and an extended stay at camp 222, before a drive out on the Yukon side).
July 21. Whitehorse - The prospect of revisiting the CANOL after a 16 year absence begins to crystallise- I first travelled the road in’84 as a grad student, packed into a 1969 three-quarter ton pickup truck into the Selwyns complete with enough food and scientific equipment to sustain a two-man basecamp during a 10 week study of woodland caribou on the mountain slopes above Macmillan Pass. After weeks of email correspondence I link with Johnny Vigl and his party of Austrians at the Robert Service campground. Essential introductions completed and strategic issues resolved, we set out to Ross River from where we would be float-planed into the Mackenzies. Our first pitch at Jackfish Lake reintroduces us to the unwelcome attention of mosquitoes, more than compensated for by a blazing alpine sunset and midnight twilight.
July 22. A lot of the bush pilots up here are flying "for their hours" before hitting the more lucrative routes with the commercial airlines (!)- real "seat of the pants" stuff - three sorties of three hikers each take the nine of us the 200 miles onto Godlin Lakes. The road on the Yukon side traverses open muskeg and black spruce-dominated flood plains. Sinuous eskers and periglacial geomorphology takes me back to my student days in Edmonton.. Sheldon passes to the left, and the Itsi Ranges generate our first serious turbulence- that passes as soon as it arrives. The food drop completed on the previous flight is pointed out to me by the pilot, "Just so that you know where your food is, in case the other guys get eaten by a bear!" (German humour eh!) Game trails etched into the talus slopes are visible, late-lying snow along the ridges are permanent here- the road winds parallel to the meandering tributaries and ox-bows. Spectacular seems an inadequate adjective. Keele Peak is truncated by low cloud, Macmillan Pass opens ahead of us.. Our GPS-driven route skirts the Selwyns and the immensity of the territory becomes apparent. Across the Divide and into the NWT- directly over my old basecamp site- almost too much déjà vu to handle. A comfortable skate onto Godlin Lake and after the Cessna’s engines fade, the deafening silence of the wilderness- this is where it begins for us. Reunited with the other six, freshly-made bannock and tea for all.
July 23. Six o’clock starts will be the norm - too much daylight and anticipation to sleep beyond. Breaking trail past Ramhead’s outfitting base and into the Ekwi’s verdant envelope. A massive ancient washout obscures the route but not for long. Studebaker’s and skidshacks provide our first photo-opportunities. River crossings and frozen gonads! Pipeline sections confirm the route, telegraph poles suggest an alternative route- we’ll stick with the pipe. Its warm, and the exertion of hauling full packs is felt- taking it easy on the first day is probably the right thing to do- a lengthy break to brew up the tea and the dehydrated food- the tea is reinvigorating, especially with the 50% proof additives, but (sorry Johhny) the dried stuff tasted like sh*t. Another section along the Ekwi, pitched and rested, fresh grayling for supper (hats off to Gebhardt)- apparently there were so many they were fighting to take the lure!.
July 24. First person up starts the fire. Squirrel food for breakfast- fine by me. Packed and mobile again we fan out along the road- a rhythm emerges and good progress is made. More fordings of the Ekwi, but they are generally less challenging than the first one yesterday- not surprising as we near its source. Rain- but never enough to stop the tea ceremony! Along the banks the willow impedes progress- I hate the stuff. Back on the open road we gain elevation and the Ekwi reveals itself- classic braiding and gravel bars with a rainbow backdrop- almost too picturesque for words. Camping on the road tonight- the tarp is strung across from willow bushes (at least they are good for something) and our "mess" takes shape courtesy of a metal bed frame salvaged from one of the huts. Any traffic on the road has to pay a toll to pass through our campsite tonight! Mud everywhere but too tired to really care.
July 25. The open expanse of the tundra, and time to pick up the pace a little. The sun plays on the valley walls, the blockfields and felsenmeer spread out ahead of us. Its easy walking but when its hot you sweat out everything you drink- I am getting through 4 litres a day already. Yet more tea- got any Earl Grey in there Johnny? As we have been on the road for a few days we think we have the right to speculate about what it must have been like for the men back in ’42. "No picnic" is dead right! We finally get a signal and our GPS system tells us we are getting through a respectable 12 mile day- not a spectacular rate but enough for us for the time being. Pressing on until a relatively late 8 pm finish puts us just south of the Intga crossing. Our camp for the night is alongside one of its tributaries. The mosquitoes are particularly virulent- an acquired taste I suppose, I have tried, but there’s just no doing business with them! Another batch of bannock- something of a speciality with our leader it would appear- and some heavily-laced tea. A flaming sunset.
July 26. The Intga is low, and easily forded- that should be it until the Tsichu River. Lengthy open sections of alpine meadow and semi-tundra provide for good walking. At times this is almost like hiking through the Glens back in Scotland, or the fells of Cumbria- on second thought, no it isn’t, it isn’t like that at all- there are no welcoming inns over the brow of the next hill, or a highway from which you can hitch to a restaurant. This is forbidding territory, and make no mistake about it, if you were solo on this road and turned an ankle, you would be in serious trouble. With this thought the seed of an idea had been planted. Caribou Pass rose and fell but my mind was elsewhere.
July 27. It may have been the sheer exhilaration of our location, and the challenge of the unknown, (or mild dementia brought on by lack of sleep!) but I knew this morning that this was to be my last day travelling with the group. I just knew that I had to experience hiking the CANOL solo. As I had also developed some fairly unpromising looking blisters on both feet that were slowing my progress a little, I knew that I needed to rest up for a day. There may have been some (unspoken) resistance to the notion of the group effectively abandoning one of its number, but having convinced them that I knew the area like the back of my hand from a previous visit (a Clinton-level bare-faced lie) I holed up at Pump Station 6 and relished the sheer mind-expanding isolation. Equipped with about 4 days provisions and a solid roof over my head, my map told me that Camp 222 and a driveable road was only 14 miles away. Safe in this less-than-perfect knowledge, installed and dry, fed and watered, I slept like a log (whatever a log sleeps like).
July 28. The sound of shredded polyethylene (in disconcertingly claw-shaped sections) flapping against the window frame roused me from the improvised foam mattress. There followed an entire day chopping wood, building fires and generally indulging my backwoodsman fantasies fuelled by a childhood spent reading too many Jack London and Arthur Ransome stories. Naturally enough, no-one passed by, about which I was not too unhappy.
July 29. The thing about blisters is that the pain often only really peaks some after you take away the source. Rested for 24 hours, they had now become so bad that standing up was barely possible, let alone walking, I reconsidered the wisdom of my decision to leave the group and cast an uneasy eye over the 3-day food supply. As no-one had passed us in either direction on the road so far, I saw no reason to assume anyone would do so before the food ran out. Added to the need to cross the Mackenzie Barrens with nothing more than a stick and a can of mosquito spray repellant for bear protection, I suddenly felt a lot less self-assured.
As is often the case, as soon as you get into a walking rhythm, the pain subsides, which made the section between 208 and Oldsquaw Lodge memorable for the right reasons. The change in landscape elements is quite spectacular, as vistas extending for tens of miles open up and the memory-resident snow-streaked slopes of Macmillan Pass came into view. Alone on the tundra provides the hiker with an adrenaline-fuelled sense of splendid isolation and vulnerabililty. (In ‘84, as a fairly inexperienced field expeditionary, ten weeks on the Selwyns had indelibly burnt images into my psyche that, sixteen years on, triggered a bizarre sense of "homecoming"- don’t ask me to explain it!) The intense curiosity of revisiting my field site dragged me on and past Oldsquaw without even a second thought of calling to possibly reaquaint myself with humanity. The Barrens simply have to be traversed to be believed – above treeline the CANOL takes on a whole new perspective, I defy anyone not to spend time looking out over the grassed and lichen-encrusted plateaux as the sun streaks the surfaces and the horizon grades almost to infinity, and not be moved.
An abandoned scamper van provided shelter from heavy rains that had started to fall- I figured it was less than five miles to Camp 222 and so that section could wait until tomorrow. Only 9 miles covered, but on the Barrens you don’t judge the experience by the distance travelled.
July 30. Dropping down into the Tsichu drainage system, the previous night’s rains had raised the river requiring waist-deep wading for the first time. The regimented precision of the shoe-changing procedure completed for the last time, the short walk to Camp 222 is completed. No-one home, which was slightly disappointing, but the old compressor station has a functional stove and my kit is dried off. Fed and rested, the view south from the abandoned station window looks straight up the throat of the valley of a glacierette and onto its shoulder where I had set up my field base all those years ago- it was almost as if it was yesterday.
July 31. The NWT Renewable Resources officers arrive to open up their check station for the summer. Keith seems appreciative of help setting up the radio mast and hauling fuel drums. In return,the offer of freshly cooked scrambled eggs and bacon finds little resistance from me. With the generator up and running and the signing-in book dusted off, the place is ready for his relief guy Jamie to arrive tomorrow. A supply run by Stan Simpson in his Cessna 185 keeps the action going (thanks for the tinned fruit Stan!)
Jamie and family arrive- like Stan before him, a lot of the names of people are known around here thanks to write-ups of previous treks on this website. The (undocumented) assistance of Stan in helping some of the other hikers in years past is alluded to, but out here there really does seem to be a kinship and sense of kindred spirit centred on the road. Two heavily-equipped US hikers land at the Camp 222 airstrip having just overflown the route from Norman Wells- sorry guys if you are reading this, but the amount of gear you had left us wondering if you had been sponsored by NASA- hope you made it anyway. Hiking couples from Vancouver and Switzerland arrive at Camp. A family from Peace River Alberta on quad bikes include one of the men brought in to salvage the pipeline back in ’48.
August 1. For the third successive day the skies are clear and the warmth generates thermals that distort our viewing through our spotting scopes. At Macmillan Pass we saw grizzly and caribou but neither were close enough to keep us interested for long. The Tsichu has dropped over the past few days, and the quad bikers are onto the Barrens and over the horizon- I’m not sure why this form of transport generates quite so much antagonism amongst road users- they are probably less damaging than some of the 4WD monsters that find their way out here.
August 2. Getting almost domesticated at the shack I have been using for the past 4 days- even considered setting out a ‘welcome’ mat for the steady stream of visitors! The only other structure here is a research station set up by the Kershaws- academics from Edmonton who have been coming here and travelling the road under various forms of motive power since the 1970s- I heard they even dragged their kids along in yaks affixed to their pushbikes. I don’t think it was them who brought rickshaws (!) with them though, judging from local road-based folklore.
August 3. The drive with Jamie to the Yukon border bisects some of the most spectacular sections of the Pass, affording views of palsas and other earth convolutions only found in these marginal periglacial zones. Still above timberline, the views are spectacular- the snow on the slopes reflects the UV down into the Pass and I can feel the burn a little. The tundra here is traditional summer range for woodland caribou and the trails are visible. The two wooden single-lane bridges that I crossed in ’84 are now gone and drivers are forced through the shallow creeks- no problems for most but (almost reassuringly) this arrests the progress of many drivers coming in from the Yukon side. I guess it is easy to start getting righteous about access to territory like this.
August 4. The opportunity to hitch a lift out from Camp 222 with one of Stan Simpson’s hunters is too good to pass up. Tagged and duly recorded with Jamie, his trophies included caribou, Dall sheep and a wolf. The 5-hour drive to Ross River is spectacular and provided a valuable ground-level perspective to the route we flew in last month. We stopped to chat with Johnny and the Austrian party who were now 90km from Ross River and newly-laden with their food cached at Sheldon Lake. There was a slight sense of guilt about leaving them, but they looked as if they were going to make it, even if it crippled them. (Some of them looked a good few kilograms leaner than when I last saw them- I later learnt that I had lost about 7 kg en route myself- and was all the better for it!). The Yukon side of the CANOL is of course maintained, and presents less of a navigational challenge to the trekker, but in the heat of the first week of August this year, is definitely no Sunday afternoon stroll!
August 5. Ross River. Beer and steak and a phone call home (in that order).