Adventures on the Canol Trail in Winter
Bruce Thomson, 1998-99

My name is Bruce Thomson and I am from Ross River, Yukon Territory. I was hired as a guide by a group of guys from France. I took them from Ross River to Norman Wells by 7 snowmachines and 1 dogteam. We left Ross River on December 20, 1998 and arrived in Norman Wells on January 6, 1999.

December 17 - December 22, 1999

This is a very long story, with many small adventures in between. To start, these guys left Skagway on the 13th of December and went to Johnsons Crossing by way of Carcross. I was going to meet them at Johnsons Crossing on my own snowmachine, but was unable to due to other commitments.

The morning of the 17th I received a phone call at 7:00 a.m.- two of the guys had come 120 miles on their own, left the rest of the group at 1:00 a.m., and traveled all night to reach Ross River. They were both very cold and tired. One of the machines had a blown engine, which I found strange, as they were brand new, only 200 miles on them. I returned with them to find the group towing the disabled machine. Apparently they had put diesel into the gas tank-not real good for it!

We towed the disable machine to Ross River and ordered parts from Whitehorse-$570.00 later, it was ready to go.(It had a blown piston and cylinder).On the 19th of December, I flew with a couple of the guys to Norman Wells hoping to have a look at the trail- no luck as it was all clouded over. We were due to leave Ross River on the 20th but were weathered in at Norman Wells until Monday. We left Norman Wells at 11:00 a.m. on the 21st and flew direct to Ross River - blue skies all the way until 3 miles from Ross River. The weather was suddenly solid fog, so went to Faro - 35 miles west - which also had solid fog. We finally diverted to Whitehorse- 250 miles(by road) from Ross River. Meanwhile, the rest of group had left late Sunday- trail is easy for the first 140 miles.

I ended up renting a car in Whitehorse, leaving at 2:00 p.m. I arrived in Ross River at 5:30 p.m.( driving like a maniac) had some dinner, a shower, as I knew it would be the last for awhile. I said 'bye to my girlfriend and was on the trail by 7:00 p.m. with a mechanic friend I had coerced into coming. We made 80 miles that night, stopping at the first fuel drop at 11:30 p.m. Thank god there is a cabin at this point. It's about -35 degrees Celsius. The French guys had gone right past the first drop without refueling. The next morning we refueled our snowmachines and loaded the 45 gal. drum onto the mechanic's toboggan and carry on. I went ahead to catch up to the "French connection". They were about 50 miles ahead when I reached them. They were made up of one dog team and musher, along with a camera crew riding 1 snowmachine. They were melting water for the dogs and having lunch when I reached them.

They were not far from the R.C.M.P. patrol cabin I arranged for us to use. As of 5:00 p.m. on the 22nd of December, everyone is back as one group, which makes it easier for me to keep track of things.

December 23 1998

The next morning I left Dewhurst Creek with two of the French guys to go ahead of the rest of the group and break trail. Fairly warm - about -25 c. Very interesting to try to communicate, as Marc and Alain don't speak very good English. Our destination for that day was mile 208 and the relative comfort of the pumphouse. The snow was about 3.5 feet deep north of MacMillan pass, not a real problem if you keep the machine moving. We stopped at mile 222, where our second fuel drop of 90 gallons was. While refueling a wolf started to howl so we stopped to have a listen. I had Marc try his wolf call (first time). Sure enough, one answered, then about three more joined in. I spotted a large black wolf about, 300 meters away, making his way up to a knoll. He was having a look to see what we were up to. This howling and watching went on for 45 minutes until we finally decided to carry on. We'd seen a herd of 30-40 caribou 2 miles earlier, wolves were probably keeping close tabs on them! We found an earlier kill site 8 miles north of wolves. We arrived at Mile 208 at 3:15, still 45 min. of light left to find wood for the night. We ended up going to Intga River by machine to find sufficient supply. It's big shack to heat at these temperatures. The remainder of group would be arriving tomorrow afternoon. We planned to go ahead and break more trail, then return to Mile 208.

December 24 1998

3 of us left in the morning. It was fairly easy going until 10 miles north of Mile 208 where we ran into overflow. I walked out onto it to see if machines could cross. I made it about 15 feet and broke through, only knee deep. It was very cold water. I continued to cross as I was already wet. The area was 75 meters wide and soft all the way across. We ended up having a better look around and saw a route we could follow on the side of the mountain. Alain and Marc were not to crazy about following this new route. I left them there and went alone- they eventually decided to follow. My feet were not too cold as I had them jammed as far ahead on the running boards as possible. The trail was better after this section. We saw 18 moose in a 3 mile stretch- they were fairly curious about these machines, although they didn't stay too near. We carried on through Caribou Pass that day and down to the Ekwi River. We returned to mile 208 that night arriving at 4:30 p.m. The rest of group was there. It was nice to get my boots off and dry my feet. Tomorrow morning we all leave ahead of dog team.......

December 25 1998 Mile 208

Today is December 25th, 1998. It is -28c according to the thermometer. Still not too bad for snowmobiling. Nicolas likes the cold weather, and says that the dogs seem to run better at lower temperatures. The trail north is already broken through Caribou Pass from the day prior. We manage to get a fairly early start- 8:45 a.m.- when it's still dark. The stars and moon are still high in the sky.

I ask the camera man, Thomas, to ride on my machine with me. This will help us to make more miles quicker as Thomas and Emanuel (the sound man) were doubling on VK540 snowmachine. The camera and sound equipment have to be carried in hand at all times, which is not an easy task. They have had many encounters with the snowbanks.

Nicolas leaves at 10:00 a.m. This will put him at the Pass in daylight for the camera crew to do some shots. We all end up doing a little "acting" for the crew.

Norm (the mechanic) had to go back to Mile 222 to pickup the rest of the gas. The camera crew stays at Oldsquaw Lodge's cabin to wait for Nicolas. Alvaros (the photographer from Paris Match) also stays. Four of us carry on to Godlin Lake. We arrived at Godlin Lake at 3:00 p.m. I had arranged a gas drop 7 days earlier with food for us and the dogs. I looked on the airstrip for fresh tracks from the airplane and there were none. I figured out real quick that the drop was not at the airstrip.

I went down to the lake, thinking that they may have dropped it there, but no luck. I was not too worried yet as it may be on the big lake- we plan to check in the morning.

Alvaro, Thomas and Emanuel arrive at 7:15 p.m. I was very surprised as I had told them not to follow until the next day- with Norm!! I was a little uncomfortable with these guys from Paris traveling by themselves, in the cold. Good guys but very inexperienced on snowmachines. This trip was the first time they had been on one. It could have been a long, cold walk had something gone wrong with the machines.

Anyway, Nicolas and Norm are staying at the little cabin, back at the pass, for the night.

The trail from Caribou Pass to Godlin Lake is, for the most part, overgrown. This is my first time this far north on the Canal. I have to stay awake to find the trail. The willows, with the snow on them, lean into the trail. Not sure what it is like in the Summer, but it makes for difficult traveling in the winter. The willows are slapping at your face constantly.

One way that I found the trail was to follow the game trails in the snow. They know where the easy traveling is! That worked most of the time, but there were times when there was no trail visible.

These are the guys that were on the trip:

  • Nicolas Vanier-dog musher
  • Alain Brenichot-support
  • Didier Langou-support
  • Thomas Bounoure-camera
  • Emmanuel Hachette- sound
  • Marc Ocard-support
  • Alvaro Canovas-photographer
  • Norm Winther-mechanic

    All the guys, with the exception of Norm, are from France. I talked Norm into coming on the trip, the day before we left. After some real quick discussions with his wife, he agreed to come. This turned out to be a very good thing......

    December 26 1998 -45c Godlin Airstrip

    Today we will go to the large lake to see if our fuel was left at that point. We planned to leave at 8:00 a.m. but it takes longer to get organized with the camera crew and the rest of the group. We depart at 9:30 to the big lake. The camera crew wanted to come along to take some footage of the trail breaking. We travel on the trail for approximately 4 miles until we can see the lake's east end. It's still fairly dark, but we can see the large white clearing through the willows. I also spot a dark object moving close to the lakeshore. I point this out to Alain, to make sure I am not seeing things. The two of us leave the trail and go down to the lake to search for the fuel drop. I head towards the "moose" with the snowmachine. The headlight does not shine very far ahead, so I go closer. This "moose" is not running away!? It also has a tail- we finally got close enough to see that it is a horse. we continue around the lake but find no drops. It's not a real good situation as we have little fuel, food and dog food left. We returned to the rest of the group, who are now on the lake. We elect to set up the satellite phone and I will call Warren Wright to see what the situation is. I reach his home and talk to his wife, but Warren won't be home until 4:00 p.m. I ask if they are planning on sending our supplies to us. Norman Wells is overcast and they will not fly into the mountains until the weather is better. I explain that visibility here is unlimited. The answer is "no". What now? I will phone warren when he returns. I then call a friend in Whitehorse and ask him to track down Stan Simpson's phone number for me. He ends up phoning Stan and explains our situation, so Debbie Simpson allows us to use the guide shacks and some fuel, as long as it is replaced.

    The phone was originally set up at 10:30 and it was now approaching 2:00 p.m. There were lots of problems with the phone in the cold. The wires are very brittle and break easy, and I had to hook up to one of the snowmobiles for a power source. I made about 5 calls from this location in that period of time.

    Meanwhile we had lit a fire and made some lunch. Soup with bits of bacon. We had this for most of the trip. I should have brought more of my own food. Marc was determined to catch the horse, who was hanging around, but not getting to close. I guess we looked hungry. Marc got on all fours and tried to sneak up to the horse, but was unsuccessful. This carried on for about 30 minutes until Marc got cold. Norm and Nicolas arrived at about 2:30, so I filled them in on what was happening. We then returned to the airstrip and moved into the guide shacks for the night. After talking to Warren that evening, the plan was to call in the morning and let him know what the weather was like at Godlin Lake. Alain, Marc and I would leave in the morning and continue breaking trail north. Dinner--------bacon soup!!

    December 27 1998 -43c Godlin Lake

    The three of us leave at 9:15. The trail is very overgrown and sometimes hard to find in the dark. We're following the rabbit trails at some points. Alain gets a willow in the face and loses a tooth, I get one in the knee and can feel the warm blood on my leg. It stops soon enough so we carry on. We spend 2 hours at one point getting the machines up an embankment. We unhook all the toboggans and pull one up, then use it to pull the other two machines and the 3 toboggans up the hill. Hard work, requiring lots of energy, at these temperatures. A helicopter passes over at about 3:00 p.m. heading south towards Godlin. We guess that it is supplies for the rest of the group.

    Nearing 4:00 p.m., we decide to set camp on the bank of the Godlin River. The tent is up and food is on within 20 minutes. We only made 34 kms today and we are exhausted- lights out at 7:30 p.m.

    December 28 1998- -51c Godlin River

    This morning I had to use a candle to warm up the carbs on the machine to get it running. These things don't like to run at this temperature. We get on the trail at 9:30. Marc wants to lead, on the river, which I don't think it is a good idea. The maps are not accurate and we have no GPS. We try anyway, and only go for 1 mile before the river becomes impassable. Open water and rough ice stop us, so we return to the campsite and find the road. It's up on the side of a hill. This would prove to be the worst day on the trip.

    The machines were stuck every 50 feet and the trail was nonexistent. Alain and I walked ahead, roughly 1 km, to find the trail. We made 600 meters in 3 hours. After making it through this we carried on for another 4-5 kms and decided to stop for the night.

    Nicolas arrived at 3:30 with the dog team and the rest show up before 6:00 p.m.

    I have used 23 liters of gas in a 6 km stretch. Pretty poor mileage. We have 12 gallons of gas to go 30 kms. Each machine is about 1 quarter full. we will stay here an extra day to see if it will warm up any. Dinner-----------bacon soup!

    December 29 1998 -53c Between the Godlin and Twitya Rivers

    Not much to do today but keep the fires going and relax. We decide to call a helicopter in to take some of the excess gear out and drop more fuel at the Twitya. A little acting for the camera crew, then to work cutting a pad for the helicopter. Norm is happy to get rid of the camera crew's 120 pound generator. It will go with the helicopter and be dropped at Mile 80. They need to do this to recharge the batteries.

    An easy day......

    December 30 1998 -46c Between the Godlin and Twitya Rivers

    Up at 7:30 to start getting the machines ready to go. It has been decided that Alain, myself and Nicolas will carry on to the Twitya River, where the new fuel drop will be. The remainder will stay at the heli-pad to load the excess gear and explain to Tim (the helicopter pilot) what they want done with the gear.

    We manage to get away at 11:30 am. I have decided to use a smaller machine to break trail. Lots of pushing and pulling and this machine is about 200 hundred pounds lighter than the one I have been using. The trail is as usual - willows and washouts. Nicolas leaves an hour after we do and catches up to us very quickly. He is very impressed with the performance of the dog team, as we are. We reach the Twitya River at 4:00 p.m. Nicolas is not agreeable on the spot I have picked out to set the camp. It is on the bank of the river, below the army camp. I explain that I want to be close to where the helicopter is going to land.

    Another long day of fighting with stuck snowmachines is over. Tonight we have mushroom soup with bacon in it. almost starting to like this menu - almost!!

    The moon is very bright tonight, with the mountains as a backdrop, it is a sight that makes the trip worthwhile.

    December 31 1998 -30c Twitya River

    We are expecting the helicopter with fuel and extra supplies, which should be here at 2:00 p.m. Alain and I go north on the trail to have a look at the trail conditions. We find more of the same. On the way back to the Twitya we run out of gas - luckily we are on the north bank of the river. Not too far to walk. The helicopter arrives on time with the fuel and supplies. I decide to go for a short flight downriver to have a look at maybe using that instead of following the trail. Too much overflow on the river, in different sections, so I decide to follow the trail.

    Tim and I follow the trail south to look for the rest of the group. They are still at the camp on the Godlin River. One machine has burnt out the coil and it has to be replaced. This part is back at the Twitya in one of the boxes we offloaded, but I was unaware of this. Tim and I return to the Twitya to retrieve the part needed. He flies back to the camp alone and to load the rest of the gear there that has to go with the helicopter.

    We now have fuel, but do not have a hose to transfer it from the 45 gallon drum to the machines. We end up using an action packer. The fuel is dumped into that from the drum and then poured - slowly- through a homemade funnel, into the machine. Not the best way to do it , but it works.

    A lady from Norman wells has sent a pot of chili to us, a nice break from bacon soup. Also a loaf of homemade garlic bread - heaven. This gives us a much needed boost.

    Myself and Alain will leave at 8:00 a.m. to continue on the trail. The rest of the guys will leave in the morning from their camp to try and rejoin us . I have advised them not to travel that section in the dark, due to the willows.

    We are hoping to make mile 108 tomorrow.

    January 1 1999 Twitya River -30c

    The first early start so far. I depart the camp at 8:00 a.m. with Alain. Nicolas will stay back to wait for the remainder of the group, but if they don't show by noon he will continue on. The trail is easy to find for the first 3-4 miles but disappears quickly. It's still dark, which makes it even harder to find the trail. We spend about an hour looking for it on foot. We finally locate a strand of telegraph wire sticking out of the snow, and follow in that direction.

    We encounter a creek that drains into Trout Creek where the trail is very overgrown, and it takes two hours to travel 150 meters. Nicolas arrives at this point -- he has not seen the other guys. Oh well, we will carry on. About 3 miles further on we encounter a slide which is impassable for the machines. Our choices are to backtrack or go down the side of the mountain to Trout Creek. We elect to go down. Me first, of course. I'm glad this is not my machine as there are numerous large boulders in our path. This makes for a very rough ride down, but we make it unscathed. Nicolas wants to follow trout creek, but I don't think this is such a good idea. This turns out to be true. We encounter open water and a ledge that the machines can't get over. We backtrack and follow the road. Further north we are back on the river as the road has totally been washed away. It is now getting dark and we will set camp soon. Looking at odometer on the snowmachine, we have traveled 20 kms in 9.5 hours. Hiking would be quicker. Our camp is at the top of Trout Creek, just before Devil's Pass. We all know what is on the menu for tonight!!!!!!

    January 2 1999 Top of Trout Creek -25c

    We depart camp at 9:30 am. The snow is getting deep. We follow the creek into the pass and then decide to go up to the road. It turns out to be a big task getting up to the road. I take my machine part way up to break a trail for the dogs, but get stuck about half way up. I attempt to do this a few more times, and keep getting stuck. The dogs do the trail breaking for the rest of the way. We have to pull the machines up and then return to the bottom to pull the toboggans up. VERY HARD WORK.

    We follow the road on the south side of the valley, which is difficult due to the deep snow. We can see the road on the other side of the valley, and it looks easier than the one we are on. However, to coin a phrase...the snow is always less on the other side of the valley!!!!

    We arrive at a hut at Mile 108 at 3:15 p.m. and will stay for the night! What a palace....after being in the tent.

    January 3 1999 Mile 108 -25c

    An early start again this morning. Nicolas will leave shortly after Alain and I get on our way. We manage to depart at 8:15. The trail is easy as opposed to what we have come through, the road is relatively easy to find. It's still dark and can't see the whole valley, luckily we were able to see it the day before, when we arrived at Mile 108.

    About 3 miles north, a wolf ran out in front of my machine, very close, about 15 meters. It ran down the road in front of me for 100 meters and then left the road. We continued on, and saw three more wolves at very close range there were four in total. We decided to stop and wait for Nicolas, as wolves and dogs are not the best of friends. We traveled slowly so as not to get to far ahead of the dog team. The wolves were nowhere to be seen, and we figured they had gone in a different direction. This turned out to be untrue. As Nicolas was traveling along the trail, he happened to look back, and there they were, following him down the trail. He wasted no time in getting his dogs up to a full run in order to catch us. Luckily Alain and I were only about 800 meters ahead, stopped and waiting for Nicolas. It would not have been a good situation if the dogs got involved with the wolves. All we had was an axe and I had a small hatchet. It would have been a hell of a fight, with the wolves, probably, coming out victorious.

    Today, so far it has been easy traveling. We reach Andy Creek and decide to follow the valley, as most of the road has been removed by slides. The valley is totally covered over in ice. A spectacular sight, with everything blue. Unfortunately I only have one exposure remaining. I was wanting to save this for the Plains of Abraham, but this is worth it!!!

    A plane from Norman wells flies over and drops us a note, checking to see that all is well. No problems , so far, although we are not so sure about the group behind us. We have not heard from them for a couple of days. Our only comfort is knowing that they have the satellite phone if they run into any major problems.

    We carry on, glad that we are no longer battling willows. I mistake the first plateau for the Plains of Abraham, but quickly realize that I am wrong. We carry on, knowing that Mile 80 is not too far away. We can see the climb, on the north side of the valley, up to the Plains. It looks relatively easy from here, but that's soon to be proved wrong. We start up the road and only make it two miles before we encounter a washout, where a creek has followed the road. This makes it impassable for the machines. I drop my toboggan and do a quick recce, straight up the side. I go for about 3/4 of a mile and do not cross the road, but this must be the right direction....up!! I return to get Nicolas and Alain and we carry on up the hill. It doesn't take long for us to find the road. It is a long and slow trip up for the dogs. Nearing the top a helicopter arrives, more people checking on us. All bets are on in Norman Wells that we won't complete this portion of the trip. Obviously don't know our new found spirit to carry on. A person off the helicopter tells us that we have some very rough country ahead. almost funny, after some of the stuff we've come through. We refuel at Mile 80 at 3:00 pm and carry on; our destination for today is the camp at Mile 74.5. The route from 80 to 74.5 does turn out to be very rough......we arrive at Mile 74.5 at 6:30 pm, after a very slow trip of 5.5 miles. We find a Quonset hut in reasonably good shape and use that for our quarters for the night. We can here water flowing somewhere on the Little Keele and wonder if we should follow the road in the morning. The river looks a lot quicker, on the map. Geez, I wonder what we will have for dinner tonight!!