In 1996, tired from spending most of my time in studying medical books and attending boring lectures, I took half a year off to hike and canoe through the NWT, Yukon and Alaska. I started canoeing down the (still icy) Liard River in May with a used canoe from Fort Liard and ended after lots of adventures in the first part of June in Tulita (Fort Norman), where I sold the canoe. In Norman Wells I decided to hike the Canol Trail by myself towards MacMillan Pass. I really did not have any money, so flown-in food drops were out of the question. I knew I would have to carry all the food for the hike on my back. In the mid-1990s in Germany, where I tried to prepare for the hike, there was nearly no information about the Canol available, so I was happy to find in Normann Wells nice people to help me with information about the trail. Special thanks to Warren Schmitke from the historical museum and Alasdair and Cheryl Veitch!
On the 10th of June, as I remember, I started my trip at the Mackenzie River trailhead, heavily loaded with a 35 kg backpack. My main food source was a high-quality wholewheat muesli with lots of nuts, dried fruit and milkpowder for morning and noon meals. In the evening I used to cook on the fire: rice, dried-beans (boiled), dried-lentils (boiled), noodles, and polenta (cornflower) in combination with instant soups. I also carried some biscuits and muesli bars, enoughtogether food for 25 days, bought at the Norman Wells supermarket for approximately 250 Canadian Dollars. I did not carry a stove. I carried a 2.5 kg lightweight tent, Gore-Tex-rain clothes, wore simple cotton clothing, polypropylene underwear, alpine leather climbing-shoes, some rubber "sandals" (bought at the Norman Wells supermarket, for river-crossings), a good sleeping bag, a lot of waterproof plastic bags to keep the inside of my backpack dry and a survival kit containing a good knife, matches (waterproof packed!), lighters, candles, a small fishing-rod with equipment, a pepper-spray against bears, some first-aid-signal-rockets, medical equipment, repair kit, various ropes, and bug repellent. Without food my backpack had a weight of 12 - 15 kg. Unluckily I also carried a 3 kg small rubber boat for the river crossings which turned out to be of no real value.
I started hiking on a really hot day and reached the Carcajou River on the first day. The trail went through swampy and extremely bug-infexted land. Sometimes the trail disappeared altogether. My backpack felt too heavy, so I decided to leave nearly 3 kg of food in a tree at Carcajou Camp: carry less and walk more is one of the lessons hiking in the Himalaya taught me a few years before.
The Carcajou River was the first crossing where I was forced to swim across, as ice was still melting in the mountains. I crossed it with my luggage on the rubber boat the next morning. Doing this I learned that the rubber boat was quite difficult to control because you have to hold it with your hands while swimming! Searching for the entrance of Dodo Canyon I already felt tired from cross-country hiking and the heavy backpack. On top of a small hill I slipped and uncontrollably fell a few meters downhill with my heavy backpack. This on the second day!!!!! I hit my chin against a stone and fell unconscious for a while. When I woke up, I directly looked into the face of a big bull moose, 5 meters in front of me and staring into my face! I thought: Wow! It looks as if I have entered another reality. But it was still the same reality. I started moving and controlling my body. The moose slowly went away. Luckily I had not broken any bones but had a few wounds and bruises. I had a deep wound on my chin, which I decided to sew instantly with the help of my compass mirror and my medical equipment. This was not easy to do by myself, but necessary to prevent infection. I felt like I had been in shock and decided to camp and stay until tomorrow at the entrance of Dodo Canyon. I felt very much like going back to Norman Wells on this unlucky day.
The next morning I felt much better and decided to continue hiking. Dodo Canyon was breath-taking, but boulderwalking and water crossing was tiring. There were a lot of sheep in the rocks. The third night I spent in the Dodo Canyon Pump Station which was in good shape.
The next day I discovered that the upper part of Dodo Canyon was still under a thick layer of ice which was much more comfortable to walk on than than the boulders but I had to be careful not to break through the ice or slip! Hiking alone all day isn‘t that easy, usually I need 3-4 days to get used to the situation, the solitude and waiting and watching for emotions and fears to calm down. But after a few days the nature experience becomes very strong for me and belongs to the most impressing states of consciousness I experienced until now.
The next day I hiked the portion of the trail between Blue Mountains and the Little Keele River which was difficult to hike, as the bushes and trees were very thick! I did not directly follow the trail from the Pump Station at Little Keele River up to the Plains of Abraham, but continued to Carcajou Lake (up the valley), where I met a few friends from Norman Wells, who went there by plane to go fishing! And it was definitely worth to stay for 2 days!!!!! To my knowledge, there are only two really good places for fishing: Carcajou Lake and the Godlin Lakes near Ramhead Outfitters camp (there you need the outfitters boat!)
I continued my hike and reached Twitya River. The most challenging river for the Canol hike! I did not knew if a passage was possible that early in the year, because snow was still melting. When I saw the river from the trailhead I thought: Okay Michael, that's it, better go back to Norman Wells! But I knew that the best places for crossing the river were a few miles upstream at the sandbanks where the river is diffused into several smaller streams. After a tough walk through thick bushes I found the right place, but the current was still extremely fast. I had already cross a number of rivers in my life in different parts of the world, but the Twitya was the fastest. When I began analyzing the best ways to cross I decided not to use the boat. With the current it would be very difficult to control the boat with the important luggage and food while swimming!!!! I found a good and wide part to ford the river, packed the content of my backpack in a waterproof bag. I wore it on my back tied with 20 m security-rope. I wore my hiking shoes, my survival kit and my polypropylene underwear. I was able to cross two of three sub-streams without big problems. The third one was the biggest. With a stick as third leg in my hands and my face upstream I started to ford the cold water. The water reached my chest when the current took me away. Interestingly, my backpack was buoyant! I could use it as float on my back. I started actively swimming under my backpack towards the other shore and after a while, maybe 100 meters downstream I reached ground and got out of the water. I lit a warm fire, boiled some tea and drank a small bottle of rum that I carried for this event.
The next days turned out to be very wet, it rained for 5 days, but hiking turned out to become very comfortable now: the trail was in good shape and the weight of my backpack decreased day by day, I could now walk 35-40 km/day.
The Canol between Goodlin Lake and MacMillan Pass is definitely the highlight, breathtaking and worth to spend a few extra days! It is important to know, that at Ramhead Outfitters the staff is moving in end of June/ beginning of July, so do not expect support early in the year.
Very hungry, I reached MacMillan Pass after 18 days. I had not organized any way of transport down to Ross River from there because I simply did not have the money for it. At the trailhead I met the Ramhead Outfitters staff who were starting to move their equipment to Godlin Lakes. I had to wait for two days at MacMillan (nice Pump Station), when I then got a lift down to Ross River with a truck. There is definitely traffic at MacMillan Pass, hitchhiking is just a question of time and..food! In Ross River there are a few restaurants and shops. After hiking the Canol I felt hungry as a bear, and that is a serious state! I seriously impressed the manager of the Chinese restaurant with the amounts of ordered and eaten food!
I did not see a single bear the whole hike although there was a lot of bear scat everywhere. Regarding bears, I used to shout or sing a song before crossing bushes and invisible areas. Regarding food, I used to pack my food, soap and toothpaste 3-fold into waterproof packing-sacks and stored it a few hundred meters away from my tent. Trees are often not strong and high enough for storage, and bear containers are simply too small to contain that much food. The muesli, rice, lentils and cornflower-polenta turned out to be my best food. The noodles did not give enough power. Altogether I felt often hungry and lost a few kilos weight on the Canol.
Hints for the next time I hike the Canol? Instead of carrying a rubberboat, I would use telescope sticks for walking! Instead of wheat-noodles I would carry corn pasta, which gives definitely more power.
About my blessings: my self-sewed chinwound luckily healed without any problems, I took out the stitching after 10 days. The scar still reminds me to be careful while hiking, especially when alone. But one question still remains in my head: was the big moose a kind of animal-ghost, a delusion, or reality? Who knows?