The trail is long. It’s remote, un-patrolled and un-maintained. Should you run into trouble, no support crew will find you. You might encounter landslides and washed-out bridges, overturned cabooses and caribou. You might be hungry, but you’ll wait for your helicopter food drop. You can tackle it on horseback, dogsled, skis or snowmobile, but the season for hiking is brief (July to August). The weather can be severe in summer, just when the mosquitoes are maddening and the bears dangerous. And that’s precisely why you’re here.
Not for the faint of heart or weak of limb, the CANOL Heritage Trail is one of Canada’s most epic hikes. Running 355 km from the Yukon-Northwest Territory border to the banks of the Mackenzie River near the outpost of Norman Wells, the 20-day trek crosses mountain ranges, plains and countless streams. Its history is as fascinating as the trail is long.
In 1942, the Canadian government, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and civilian contractors undertook what was then the largest construction job since the Panama Canal. They dubbed the $134 million, three-year mega-project CANOL (Canadian Oil). After Japanese warplanes attacked petroleum stores in the Aleutian islands, the U.S. government had begun to worry about largely undefended Alaska and the health of its steady fuel supply. The solution? A pipeline from Norman Wells, just 120 km from the Arctic Circle, over the Continental Divide to the Yukon’s Whitehorse, where a refinery would turn some 3,000 barrels a day of crude into gasoline. Just a year after it was completed, the Americans abandoned CANOL.
Today, most equipment still lies where it was left back in 1945: pumping stations, rusted vintage trucks with grass sprouting from their flatbeds, ghostly old buildings tilted with time, telegraph lines, potbellied stoves on which hikers can dry their muddy boots. All this is scattered against aspen forests, high plateau and sheer vertical walls, shared by you and a few ptarmigan, moose and Dall sheep–and year by year fading back into the wilderness. www.mountainriver.nt.ca www.north-wrightairways.com www.normanwells.com www.explorenwt.com
The CTC produced a version of this story for its GoMedia website.