What follows are reports from the team of Nicolas Vanier, who successfully followed the Canol Heritage Trail by dogsled in Winter. The members of Nicolas' team included Alain Brénichot, Thomas Bounoure, Emmanuel Hachette, Marc Occard, Didier Langou, Rafaël Pelfresne, and Pierre Michaut.
Report from Rafaël December 21, 1998
Number of kilometers: 50 km
Time of departure: 4 pm
Time of arrival: 8 pm
This stage offered perfect snow conditions. Nicolas covered these 50 km in record time. That allowed him an optimal use of the capacities of the sled: good adherence and fluid movement. It's the "Formula 1 Racetrack of Snow" as we enjoy calling it. Since the departure from Skagway, Nicolas hadn't been able to use the dog team and sled because of rough ground.
Number of kilometers: 90 km
Time of departure: 2:30 pm
Time of arrival: 10:30 pm
After having sought, in vain, a track covered with snow, it was necessary to replace the skis on the sled with wheels. Nicolas covered 90 km on Alaska Highway: "What a trip!" exclaimed Nicolas on his arrival in Johnson's Crossing. The sled had to be fixed on the support truck to slow it down and allow Nicolas to direct the pack. Nicolas had had a hard time controlling the sled, but he is a good musher.
In Johnson's Crossing the camp had been assembled on the Canol Road where all the team waited. Is was there that the snowmobile teams were assembled. The Canol Road had been in our dreams during the months preceding our departure. We knew that this road (which is a road in name only) would mark a new beginning of our first challenge to the team, eventually leading to the Canol Heritage Trail and on to Norman Wells.
Johnson's Crossing-Ross River:
At five o'clock in the morning, Nicolas set out again, on the track traced the day before by Didier and Bob: a stage of 90 km. By going ahead, members of the team can clear a path for the dogteam, which makes Nicolas' progress easier. Before his departure, Pierre has strapped the wrist of Nicolas, weakened by the difficult conditions of the preceding stages.
With the course ahead in mind, Marc and Bob left to open more track, but encountered a snowstorm which made their progress excessively difficult. They covered the 140 km to Ross River by sheer force of will. They were arrive in Ross River and then return on their track in order to bring back gasoline to the other snowmobiles. The management of the gasoline will become as significant as food supply management. The gasoline capacity of the snowmobiles is rather reduced and very difficult to determine with precision: it depends on conditions of the ground. About midnight Nicolas arrived at Ross River literally exhausted: fortunately a two days stop is planned!
The temperature fell, the winter really arrived: it reached - 40 C today at Ross River. That reassures us for two reasons: the colds of some members of the team certainly will cease (it is the paradox: the colder the weather the less likely one is to fall sick!). The second reason, this one much more serious: a few days ago, our contact in Norman Wells informed us that one of the rivers of Canol trail which we cross three times was only partially frozen, i.e. impossible to cross in a snowmobile. We endeavored to find various solutions to solve this problem (construction of a raft, bridge of cord...), but it is "Mother Nature" which led us to the simplest solution with the arrival of the cold weather!
Hard blow to the dog pack: Pauni, one of the lead dogs, must leave the pack. The dog apparently has contracted pneumonia. We are forced to leave him in Whitehorse so as to not incur the risk of infecting the other dogs. Pauni's life is not in danger and he should be restored to full health soon. The dog team, though, has been reduced from 14 to 13.
Change of plans:
Pierre and I will leave tomorrow by plane for Ross River to join everyone.
For reasons of assistance on the track, we certainly will have to change the route. Antoine Saint- Exupéry said: "To make a flight plan is necessary, as that reassures. But modify it in the course of flight so that it becomes an adventure."
At the time of the planning last March, Nicolas and Pierre had decided not to travel the road of ice which skirts the MacKenzie River from Norman Wells to Fort Simpson. The speed would be superb but the road is traveled by large trucks. It is manufactured in an artificial way by water projection which freezes instantaneously. The exceptional warm temperatures of late did not make it possible to bring it into service. But now with the cold, this road may allow for quicker travel, which may be necessary with the loss of one dog. We must discuss it tomorrow to make a decision. We will stop two hours in Ross River with Pierre and then continue directly towards Norman Wells where we plan to set out in opposite direction to make a track for Nicolas for the Canol Heritage Trail part of the journey.
Report which arrived in the last few minutes:
Alain has just called us in urgency because one of our snowmobiles has just broken down: a cylinder head has to be changed! We must bring the parts on the spot in order to not lose too much time!
Report from Rafaël December 27, 1998
We've had some difficulties reaching the team.
After a flight of one hour and 30 minutes above the Trail, Pierre, Bob and I arrived in Norman Wells, Saturday 19 December 1998 in the company of Bruce, our guide from Ross River. This flight was designed to allow us to view the Canol Heritage Trail by plane before the departure. Pierre and I stayed in Norman Wells, but the next morning Bob flew with our pilot to join the remainder of the team which waited in Ross River. Unfortunately, the difficult climatic conditions have constrained them to remain one day more with us. Not wanting to lose a moment, the team in Ross River decided to start out on the Canol Road. Bruce would join them later.
When conditions cleared in Norman Wells, the plane could not land in Ross River and had to go to Whitehorse because of bad weather conditions. Bruce just had time to rent a car and rush to Ross River, take his snowmobile and join the team. By that time the team had already gone 20 kms past Macmillan Pass. Late that night, Bruce joined the rest of the group in the middle of an appalling storm.
The team decided to separate the team into two groups, with one group going ahead to Norman Wells to break a trail for the dogsled. This would allow a significant saving of time for mushing. For those of us going to Norman Wells, we would clear a track and then meet the group along the trail. The first thing to be done was to find a guide which would agree to take us along the trail. The many steps we'd taken to arrange this from France had been unsuccessful, but eventually we did find a guide. In fact this kind of travel on the Canol Heritage Trail presents so much danger in winter that most are discouraged from even trying. On our arrival in Norman Wells, it was necessary for us thus to set up the trip in a minimum of time. But where to start? The next morning we were drinking coffee when, by chance, a guide introduced himself, and said he could offer assistance. The only condition was that we pay for any damage to his track vehicle. He placed at our disposal two snowmobiles and a track vehicle equipped with a shovel on the front. We thought that this machine would be very useful for us, in particular for the Plains of Abraham. This part of the trail is the pass which posed the most problems for us (we will learn hereafter about the problems for the group with Nicolas!) located at 3500 meters high and about 30 km long. This high plateau is swept by winds so violent that no form of life can live there. We know that we will need very lenient climatic conditions to cross the Plains.
We wanted to leave as soon as possible. The departure was fixed for Tuesday December 22 in the morning. Delighted, never could we have imagined what was going to follow. Pierre and Bob left ahead with the Argo (our tracked machine) because we knew that its progression would be slower than our snowmobiles. We started on the Canol Heritage Trail, which starts just after having crossed the Mackenzie River, completely frozen at this period of the year. The Mackenzie offers an incredible spectacle, almost lunar. Artificial islands planted in its center draw oil and gas. The Canol Road was used to build the pipeline which conveyed these resources to the other side of the mountains. When the exploitation of the pipeline finished, the Canol Road ceased being maintained, which is why it is now a trail.
After 4 hours of progression with Argo on this trail, Pierre and Bob had covered only 15 miles (that is to say a score of kilometers) trying to cut through a path through the trees. I joined them with my snowmobile in 45 minutes. We thought we would be able to reach Mile 25 easily and only encounter difficulties starting from Mile 50. The delays started earlier than we expected and we thought that the Argo was going to slow us down even more. Tuesday evening we thus assembled our camp to Mile 15 after not managing to find the continuation of the trail. John, our guide, was to join us very early the next morning. He had remained in Norman Wells for the final preparations. Seeing he had not arrived, Bob left the next morning in the direction of Norman Wells. On Wednesday at 3 pm, John arrived. The other major problem with which we were confronted was the number of hours of daylight: the sun rises to 10:30 am only to set at 4 pm. It was thus almost pitch dark when we set out again. It took us 8 hours to reach camp 25. The difficulties of the ground and the deep snow of almost one meter made this way excessively complicated. John had in addition taken along with him a toboggan behind his snowmobile which was much too heavy. He was forced to abandon it on the trail, but we recovered it in the sunlight of the next day.
On Thursday December 24, we take the road in direction of camp 36: pure madness! We were going to stay in Dodo Canyon at night. The Argo did not enable us to advance quickly (an average of 5 km/h!) To find the trail at night was impossible. Our guide tried to avoid the rocks hidden under the thick layer of snow and the places where "the overflow" started to appear. The overflow represents a true hell on the rivers. Water goes up over the film of ice and mixes with snow to form a kind of active layer of up to one meter of depth which one calls the "slush"! It is here that the cursing really began!
John drove into the first overflow, forcing him to give up his toboggan. We managed to extract it from the slush thanks to the Argo. Nearly one hour of effort! It was to be 22 hours later before we set out again. Those of us on snowmobiles decided to go as fast as possible towards camp 36. When we arrived within 2 miles of the camp, it became impossible to continue, so we decided to turn back to join the Argo and return to camp 25. On the return it was my turn to fall into the overflow. While trying to leave my snowmobile, I fell. My feet, completely wet, started to freeze. The Argo had meanwhile struck a rock which had taken it out of commission. One and one-half hours to repair it! After 20 meters of progression, it was the Argo's turn to get caught in the overflow. It took us two hours to get it out. By the time to set out again, the ground had completely changed: we were completely surrounded by water and slush. Impossible to move.
We managed to reach a pretense of island of 20 square meters in the middle of the river. We had to immediately get organized for our survival. It was now 3 am: the temperature had fallen with - 30C° and the wind started to blow violently. Without a tent, we decided to sleep each one against the other in the snow by hoping that the cold would freeze the river sufficiently to release us. All the night the wind blew hard and the morning's alarm clock was all the more tragic since we realized that it was impossible to escape this trap. How many days were we going to have to wait? We have 10 days of food but little wood to make fires and to fight the cold. All day we remained huddled in the Argo: 2 square meters for 5 people. It is incredible how long the hours are. The following night was true martyrdom. The blizzard made fall the temperature towards - 50C°. The cold pierced us like razor blades.
We knew, however, that the great cold was the solution to our problem. What a paradox! With wet feet, I fought all night against frostbite. I did not think that hell could be made of ice. In moments like those there, your systems of values are completely upset. With the alarm clock, refrigerated in our softened sleeping bags, we were surrounded by ice. The landscape had changed. The deep snow of the day before, swept by winds of more than 150 km/h, had disappeared. There remained only ice and rocks at the bottom of Dodo Canyon. What a marvelous spectacle! We passed a "Merry Christmas."
During all this time, we wondered what had become of Nicolas' group. We wondered about their progression. In this canyon, we could not use the satellite telephone. Our state of tiredness did not allow us to continue. We decided to return to Norman Wells before setting out again.
During the first 5 kilometers, we advanced prudently to ensure ourselves of the solidity of the ice. The return was rapid, since we had left a trail for ourselves. Upon our arrival, we quickly received the news of our friends. The gasoline drums could not be carried out because of time. Pierre traveled at once by helicopter to bring food to the dogs, the gasoline, and the food for the men. All of Nicolas' team redoubled their energy to fight the elements. They put their tiredness on hold and think of being of Norman Wells for December 31: it would be a true record! They advance so quickly that Pierre has made the decision not to set out from Norman Wells again to meet them on the trail. The 35 miles of traced trail are small in quantity but will be very useful for their arrival in Norman Wells. We hope that their crossing of the Plains of Abraham will proceed without problems
Report from Pierre December 31, 1998
Since our attempt to open a track from Norman Wells and meet with Nicolas on the trail, our satellite telephone does not function normally any more. The daily telephone appointments for better managing logistics are rarely possible. We nevertheless organized a helicopter last Sunday, to deposit gasoline and food and met with Nicolas' group. The face of each one was worn, but each felt an enormous will to go until the end.
By Tuesday evening, I could establish a telephone contact. Immediately, I felt the emotion in the voice of Nicolas. Marc and Nicolas had just climbed in top of a mountain during several hours to try to use satellite. The temperature was -55C with the wind chill driving it even lower. They had lit a fire to try to be heated while waiting for a possible call from me.
Nicolas explained me that the team was at the edge of rupturing because the extreme climatic conditions in these mountains made life difficult to support. Several problems prevented much progression. For example, the snowmobiles cannot start normally in the morning. Trying to start them expends much energy and time. The mechanical repairs carried out in these so low temperatures are extremely difficult. One must quickly remove the guards on the machines and never touch the metal which freezes one instantaneously, and make the repairs before too much cold gets into the machine itself.
The broken ground also slows progress, and the thickness of snow prevents the snowmobiles from functioning normally. This also leads to gasoline overconsumption. There are also problems of management of food and problems quite simply of health. One of the team members has frostbite..
After extraordinary speeds leading up to the Godlin Lake, Nicolas traversed only 45 km in 48 hours. Nicolas had a meeting with the group to decide if it was necessary or not to give up. A group decision was made. The team will try to go until the end.
A drop in temperature combined with some violent wind can transform a track into a true trap in a moment. For our part, the group which left Norman Wells to meet Nicolas on the trail, our safety came from a significant fall of the thermometer. Two nights and two days stuck in a canyon, surround by the overflow, without a tent, waiting for the water to transform into ice. The last night with -50C with winds of more than 150 km/h enabled us to come out of the trap completely exhausted.
The last words of Nicolas before hanging up again was this: "If you knew the pleasure that one gets to hear the ringing of a telephone." I felt perhaps that this link would enable them to continue a little more.
Wednesday December 30. New telephone contact, but with Marc only. Nicolas is in front and progressed only 20 km. The gasoline is running low, and a snowmobile is broken down. It will be necessary to get an electric part from Yellowknife, and if that part cannot be transported to the snowmobile in record time, it will be necessary to give up a very new snowmobile bought at the beginning of L´Odyssée Blanche. The group is uncertain of its prospects for success.
Here in Norman Wells, the heat in a house lent by the principal of the school, we await anxiously, but trustful all the same, ready to intervene with air if an S.O.S reaches us.
Report from Rafaël January 5, 1999
Since the moment when Pierre saw the team at Mile 170, four days have passed. Our last contact with them ended with the flight in the helicopter that left after two days with them. We had used the helicopter to bring them gasoline and food. We did not understand why they still needed gasoline: it meant that they had used more than 200 liters to progress only 40 miles. Their pace was slowed down considerably. According to statements of the pilot, the team had separated into two: Nicolas, accompanied by Bruce and Alain had decided to progress, while the remainder of the team awaited the parts to repair the damaged snowmobile. Nicolas was by then at mile 120 and the remainder of the team to mile 130.
The pilot made it clear to us that tiredness and nervousness reigned within the group that remained behind. We know that one of team member has suffered frostbite but has decided to continue. Following this news, we tried, for two days, to contact them but without success: total radio silence. We started, Pierre and I, to become really anxious. In the mountains, with the extreme cold of the moment (-55c), that could turn quickly to the catastrophe. Since we are afraid of waiting any longer and fear that something may have happened, we decide to intervene and to travel by plane to meet with them. We knew that it would be impossible for us to be able to land, but it was necessary for us to have news of the situation. We wrote a note in a bag, which we filled with rocks. We had with the previously arranged for signals to be used by the group to answer any messages, as follows:
1. If you want a helicopter for gasoline or food: Two people with outstretched arms.
2. If you want a helicopter because of a serious problem: Two people lie in snow.
3. If all is OK: raise arms towards the sky.
The day had just begun when we took off, Saturday morning, to begin our search. The sun, orange-red, illuminated the summit of the mountains with its first rays. Incredible spectacle: we had the impression of being on the roof of the world. After one hour of flying, we located Nicolas. The pilot dropped our message to him. He read it and raised the arms towards the sky. Nicolas was then with mile 93. We were relieved, but this relief was of short duration. We then returned on Norman Wells, persuaded that all of the team was well.
At the end of the day, after having re-entered at the building that the city placed at our disposal, we received a call of Tim, the helicopter pilot. One of his friends who scopes out possible petroleum locations in the mountains had seen Nicolas in the course of the day. He was then at Mile 80. Nicolas shared his anxiety with the pilot about not having news of the remainder of the team. This anxiety reflected itself on us. When Nicolas had made us sign that all was well we had not imagined that the remainder of the team had joined him yet. Only 10 miles separated them. In a snowmobile, this distance may be covered on a cleared track in less than half an hour. What had occurred? It was necessary for us to intervene. For us, there were problems, inevitably. Pierre then decided to make contact with CENTERED, our company of assistance. They reacted in record time and their professionalism was equal only their speed. The next morning a helicopter was put at our disposal. The stress went up and the telephone did not cease ringing all night to organize the assistance.
We took off Sunday morning in direction of the mountains. Time was not with us: low visibility and snow. Tim was not able to bring us to them. After one hour of flight, we located Nicolas, Alain and Bruce in Dodo Canyon. We met right in the middle of the canyon to mile 68. How to describe the emotions of such a moment? Words cannot express these feelings of joy, relief and pride, mixed with exhaustion. On their faces ran tears of emotions. They had surmounted the insurmountable one, pushing themselves to their limits. Nothing any more could now stop them and they knew that they would achieve soon the goal which they had set: Norman Wells. Alain just had time to say to me: "Never I could have imagined that these mountains were so difficult to cross."
More anxious for the remainder of the team than for themselves, they asked us to set out again quickly after this meeting. It was at Mile 90, just after the Plains of Abraham that we found them. Again the emotion flowed. As tired as the team with Nicolas, worried about their future, they still decided to press on. The mechanical problems associated with the problems of gasoline overconsumption had slowed down their progression. The satellite telephone did not function any more. Only their will kept them going. None of them wanted to die. Their irritation came from their difficulty of not managing to catch up with Nicolas and they did not understand why he had not waited for them. To manage men under conditions such as these is not an easy thing and requires an adapted psychology. In any event, our arrival comforted both them and us. Nicolas decided to wait for them at Mile 50, so they should be able to arrive together in Norman Wells in two days. What they have just carried out is a real adventure. Everyone here knows it. One person in Norman Wells gave us hardly a chance in a hundred. For 21 years nobody had crossed the Mackenzie Mountains in winter. It is to these men, who knew how to show great bravery, that I decided to dedicate this text.
Report from Pierre January 17, 1999
The last contact had relieved us. The whole of the team was not gathered yet, but we were certain, they were going to succeed in their Winter trip along the Canol Héritage Trail. A great joy reigned in this small town of 700 inhabitants at the edge of the Mackenzie River.. For our part, we were so trustful that we had it all so well-organized that we even had a probable date of arrival. Our friends here with Norman Wells did not dare to believe it. At the time of our planning last year, we had Nicolas and me tried to find guides who knew the way. He felt it was essential to clear the track in front of the dog team. During the months of planning, we very tried to convince somebody to be our guide, but the answer was always the same one: impossible in winter.
Today, people telephone themselves, are agitated and all prepared to accomodate Nicolas and his team. Many of our friends decide to go to the meet the L'Odyssée Blanche group, and accompany them on snowmobile for the last 50 miles which separate Nicolas and Norman Wells. What pleasure and happiness, after all the tests of the last days, it is to know that they will be here by this evening. For my part, I think only of only one thing, to organize their arrival as well as possible and to offer them the maximum level of comfortt. To find them showers, a good meal, and a heated place to park our snowmobiles, because it will be necessary to make repairs. I also want to prepare a speech to welcome our heroes of the day.
I am agitated and impatient, so I decide to borrow a snowmobile to find them on the trail. It is approximately 10 pm. The crossing of Mackenzie in the black night is already a test, as it is necessary to slip between the packs of ice and to take care not to pass in open zones. This river is several kilometers broad and the reference marks of night are not immediately obvious. Fortunately I do not have wait too long a time, because soon I make out a gleam and very quickly I guess that it is the the head light of Nicolas. This lamp was especially conceived at our request. I very quickly recognize Voulk one of head dogs of Nicolas. Our reunion is accompanied by the traditional hugs, and I ask him whether the second team could join them with Mile 50. The answer of Nicolas is negative and my pleasure is somewhat diminished.
My concerns of the moment will quickly be replaced with a great joy. Nicolas has just had time to be congratulated when the second team arrives in the city. The environment is euphoric, eveyone talking about his adventures, and once again the very whole team shows a great friendship.
To do what these men did, to follow the Canol Heritage Trail in Winter, we came to write a beautiful page of history here with Norman Wells.
The assessment of the damage done by the trip: Exhausted men, broken snowmobiles including one abandoned in the mountains at mile 75, and a sledge which will require some repairs. In the end, the trip took 4 days longer than our forecasts for the route.
Nothing is lost, but we know it all, we will not have time to put back us it immediately will be necessary to think at the next stage.
What we have just lived is simply exceptional.