Biking the Canol Trail
Sally Manning, 1991

This story comes to me from Northwest Territories Arctic Tourism. It appears to have originally appeared in a magazine, but no source was given to me.

Working and living conditions on this job are as difficult as those encountered by any construction job ever done...Men 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. Mosquitos, flies and gnats...will cause bodily harm. If you are not prepared to work under these and similar conditions, DO NOT APPLY.

This rather stark notice greeted civilians who wanted to work on the Canol project, a Canadian-American World War II venture. It didn't exaggerate even slightly the hazards workers who came North to the NWT would face. Their job would be to construct the first major Northern pipeline, a colossal undertaking for its day.

The idea for the pipeline was hastily conceived by the U.S. War Department in a two-hour meeting one April morning in 1942. The Japanese had occupied the Aleutian Islands, and the U.S. was becoming increasingly uneasy about the threat of an attack on Alaska. They wanted to ensure a supply of oil for military needs in the North. The best way to do this, they decided, was to run a road, pipeline and telephone line from the Norman Wells oilfields, on the Mackenzie, to a new refinery in Whitehorse- 929 kilometres to the west, in the Yukon.

The major barrier to construction, the Mackenzie Mountains, had not (to anyone's knowledge) been traversed by white men before.

The Canadian government agreed to the plan, slightly after the fact, and construction began in June, 1942. The Golden Weld, which seald the join where pipeline from the east met pipeline from the west, was completed on February 16, 1944 at MacMillan Pass. However, the oil flowed only until March 8, 1945. Then the U.S. Amry terminated operations. It was a brief, costly project (estimates run up to 300 millian war dollars), largely ignored by Canadian historians. But the 372 kilometre section now known as the Canol Heritage Trail, running from Norman Wells to MacMillan Pass, is the haunting epilogue to one of the first mega-projects in Canadian history.

Last Summer, I headed North with Wendy Grater, director of Black Feather Wilderness Adventures, to explore the Canol's legacy on trail bikes. Like the approximately 30,000 people who'd been lured by the challenge of building the pipeline nearly five decades before, we weren't sure what to expect. But the prospects were exciting.

Norman Wells is the usual staging point for Canol Trail biking or hiking. If you'd like to go, remember that the trail is challenging and tough- and it's overgrown in many places. Arm yourself with maps and complete route information; better yet, hire an outfitter.

As our chartered floatplane drifted down to land on the shimmering Godlin Lakes in the heart of the Mackenzie Mountains, we saw for the first time the thin strip of trail that marked our line through the mountains. Our route over the next 10 days would take us westward toward MacMillan Pass atop the Continental Divide at the Yukon-NWT border, and back to our starting point, a total of 212 kilometres.

Once the pilot dropped us ashore, we balanced our gear on the bikes. Each bike carried two rear panniers stuffed with provisions, plus clothing and camping gear in waterproof sacks strapped to the back. We clung tenaciously to our handlebars as our bikes tottered down the path like drunken packhorses under the weight or the rear-heavy loads. But at least we were riding.

At the westernmost end of the Godlin Lakes sits an outfitter's base camp, one of only two commercial ventures established along the Canol Trail. As we passed the front door of the main lodge, we were greeted by the owner's wife. She seemed a bit puzzled by our mode of transportation, although she admitted to having seen cyclists on the trail once before.

She had one warning to deliver: "This is prime grizzly habitat. I saw a mother with her cubs on the mountainside this morning. I'm not saying it's dangerous, but be careful."

We told her about our bear flares and repellant spray, and pedalled on.

Barely a kilometre farther along, having made steady if slow progress over a surprisingly decent roadbed, we came to our first major obstacle- a massive boulder outwash. The road simply vanished under a sea of rocks. There was only one option- to dismount and tug our heavy loads over the melon-sized boulders.

The bikes took a beating over the unyielding, heavy terrain. Occasionally, a wheel would wedge betweeen rocks- bringing everything, tugger included, to a jarring halt. Still we battled on, arms aching, until a semblance of roadbed appeared again.

Following a broad, U-shaped river valley, hemmed in by towering mountain walls, we were mesmerized by the pristine beauty of the wilderness around us. There were a few clues to the past along the way: a piece of pipeline jutting out from the road's edge; stacks of rusty oil drums and bits of machinery buried deep in the willow scrub; solitary telephone poles, their lines still intact, rising out of the spruce forest.

Then, at R.M.P. (Road Mile Post) 170, approximately 8 km from our starting point, we came upon a scene straight from a M.A.S.H. set. Rusted hulks of broken-down vehicles- some with wheels and and engines intact, some without any wheels or engines, some still standing, some one their sides- loomed in the bushes. In their midst was a dilapidated shelter with windows shattered and walls caved in. Several rusted bedsprings covered the floor.

As Wendy and I wandered through the wreckage, there was an eerie silence about the place.

Half a kilometre down the road, we came to the abandoned pump station, one of six strewn along the Trail. It was a ghostly reminder of bygone days, containing wanigans (portable shelters), quonset huts, a pumphouse, cookhouse and large surge tank for storing oil. Once again, we parked our bikes and went exploring, examining the deteriorating remains of the old wooden buildings and imagining the hardships those men must have endured in building the Canol pipeline. Our bike ride along its remnant trail, no matter how challenging, seemed to pale by comparison.

It wasn't long before we encountered another by-product of the decades-old neglect the Canol Trail has suffered. The trail ended abruptly on the bank of the Ekwi River, where we were faced with raging whitewater and no way to cross. In the middle of the river stood an island of wooden pilings; the bridge had buckled years ago, unable to withstand the relentless assault of the water. We'd have to negotiate the crossing on foot.

As soon as I stepped into the river, I knew I was in trouble. The current grabbed my bike like an invisible hand, pulling it downstream. I tried to brace against the pummelling water, but the footing on submerged rocks was treacherous. It was a tug-of-war to the other side and only the occasional eddy with a backflowing current saved me.

Altogether, we completed over 20 crossings of that river. And we devised a strategy for the hairiest water, traversing the bikes in tandem, one on the handlebars, the other holding the seat. It worked much better.

The challenges weren't limited to managing our bikes over difficult obstacles. There were other things to consider. Like bears. They were a nagging concern on the stretch through the river valley. Here, the track was reduced to a thin strip, barely wide enough for two fat mountain bike tires, and squeezed by a thick, impenetrable tangle of birch-willow scrub that formed a canopy overhead. The ground was liberally laced with bear scat, much of it undeniably fresh. With no desire to meet Ursus horribilis unannounced, we sang lustily most of the way, filling the valley with countless refrains of "You Are My Sunshine" and other golden ditties.

The route changed dramatically when we began the long climb to Caribou Pass. We left the closed-in world of the river valley behind and entered the broad, open vistas of alpine tundra. We'd envisioned a gruelling ascent with endless switchbacks, but the men who'd surveyed the Canol's route, on dog sled and packhorse and on foot, had done their job well. They'd been guided by Dene to old trails made by the native people of these regions. We had a gentle climb.

The track widened into what resembled a road for four-wheeled vehicles. Sik siks and the occasional marmot whistled at us as we churned past, making headway at last. That evening, we camped by the Intga River.

On the other side of the river, the Canol's tawny track stretched into the distance, rising steeply toward the plateau of the Mackenize Mountain Barrens. It was a tough climb to the top, but we were amply rewarded with a fascinating ride over a gently undulating, Arctic-alpine plain.

As we rolled along, we were surprised to spot dust being kicked up by a four-wheel drive pickup on the road ahead. The driver pulled up, rolled down his window, and eyed us curiously. "Hi, I'm Sam Miller. I run the Oldsquaw Lodge." He pointed to a distant hilltop. Nestled on the highest swell of tundra, we spotted several cabins silhouetted against the sky.

Obviously intrigued, Sam peppered us with questions. "You girls been out on the trail long? Where'd you start? Seen anybody yet?" He told us it was an off week for guests at his naturalist's lodge, and invited us to spend the night.

We stayed for two. It was a delightful interlude in our ride along the trail. Over the years Sam, a wildlife biologist, has acquired an encyclopedic knowledge of the flora and fauna in the area. We spent long evenings on the upper floor of the main lodge (which Sam built from remnants of the Canol project), glassing the tundra for caribou, wolves, falcons, eagles and whatever else happened past our unique game blind.

Wendy and I had a chance for an unencumbered ride on the 61 km round trip from the lodge to MacMillan Pass, end of the line for the Canol Heritage Trail.

The time had come to retrace our route. Looking out over the Barrens from the living room of Oldsquaw Lodge, I was struck again by the incongruous sight, against the distant mountains where caribou grazed, of the road and telephone line that sliced the rolling tundra.

There was something slightly absurd about the Canol Project. The camps and vehicle yards, the barrel caches and broken machinery, seemed unreal in this pristine setting. But whatever its legacy, the Canol Road had made accessible a spectacular strech of Canadian wilderness- even to mountain bikes.

I could only shake my head and smile.