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Backpacking the Canol Heritage Trail
A long trail with a little bit of history

©Outdoor Adventure Canada

The Canol Heritage Trail is a interesting area which has the best of everything, wildlife, history, remoteness and adventure.

Concern sets the stage back in December of 1941. Dreadful news was reported after the attack of Pearl Harbor and again in June of 1942 when the Aleutian Islands were attacked by the Japanese. US forces were repeatedly losing battles in the pacific. This made the United States and Canadian government very uneasy as the "islands" are uncomfortably close to Alaska. Fearing that an attack through this relatively unprotected border was becoming a reality a grand plan was conceived to build the Alaskan Canadian highway so supplies and equipment could be sent to Alaska to thwart a possible attack.

You may be wondering what role these events played in the creation of the Canol Heritage Trail. The execution of such an immense project as the construction of the ALCAN Highway and protection of an undefended border consumes an incredible amount of fuel for machinery and war vehicles. The concept of creating a 600 mile pipeline to carry crude oil from an area near the Arctic Circle to a refinery at Whitehorse was born. The pipeline was to run through one of the most difficult, harsh, unforgiving and breathtakingly beautiful areas in the world.

To build the pipeline, the CANOL (Canadian Oil) Road had to be literally chiseled out of the countryside. The road and pipeline were constructed and then decommissioned in approximately 3 years. 300 million dollars was spent and 30,000 people were employed in this engineering feat. The pipeline was used for less than one year and was abandoned when the Japanese lost its grip on the Aleutian Islands.

The Canol Heritage Trail section of the Canol Road which runs from Macmillan Pass to Norman Wells and is over 300 kilometres in length. Don't be fooled, the trail is extremely remote. You will travel across the plains of the Mackenzie River valley, through some mountainous areas and over the Mackenzie mountain barrens to the continental divide. There are several river crossings that you will have to contend with. The bridges have been long washed out and the deep, fast flowing frigid water make them challenging and treacherous.

Expect to see first hand the rich history of this wonderful adventure. See how Mother Nature has taken back what belonged to her so long ago. There are many cabins, military structures, trucks and other interesting memorabilia left from the past but the earth is slowly claiming them. I wouldn't recommend staying in any of the buildings as your safety could be at risk.

The trail itself is not difficult to follow; however, there are some landslide areas that you will have to pass through adding to the difficulty. Bears are prevalent and extreme caution must be exercised. Bear proof food barrels are recommended as well as pepper spray. Weather can also be a concern as extreme fluctuations are not uncommon so expect for the best but pack for the worst.

We cannot stress enough that experience, self-preparedness and planning are key when traveling to this gem. When you are there you will be completely alone in extremely difficult areas to reach. If you have to be rescued you will have to pick up the tab which will run into the thousands of dollars.

For those planning on doing the entire trail, air food drops can be arranged by local outfitters as well as guides and charters.

Special thanks to Northwest Territories, Industry, Tourism and Investment for permitting use of their photos from the Canol Heritage Trail.

Written by Laurie March
Photos courtesy Northwest Territories, Industry, Tourism & Investment

masthead photo courtesy




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