product of US Army thinking and wartime paranoia. The Japanese had already occupied the Aleutian Islands and the Americans believed an invasion of oil-rich Alaska couldn't be far behind.
US army brass hit the panic button. "We need a road, land access to Alaska," they said and built the Alaska Highway through Northern British Columbia and the Yukon. "We need access to Canadian oil for the machinery working on the Alaska Highway," they said and decreed the construction of a pipeline that would take the rest of the war to build.
But the pipeline itself was short on quality welds and was soon leaking like a condo in Vancouver. The pipeline was shut down, and the Canol Road abandoned except for a short section at Johnson's Crossing, near Whitehorse. The Canol Road project was largely forgotten until the 1960's when a surge of interest in wilderness hiking led to the establishment of the Canol Heritage Trail.
In some ways the Heritage Trail is more a state of mind than a visible trail. Fifty-year-old telephone lines are still intact and old army trucks and construction equipment sit like rusty ghosts in the weeds. But for all intents and purposes the trail is unmarked and the non vigilant can lose their way.
Travelers are advised that it is possible to ride a mountain bike only on a short 60-mile section and that even a strong hiker will cover only 15 miles in a day. Crossing the entire length of the trail on foot requires stamina, experience and a commitment of at least 20 days. Because it is unmaintained and crosses through lonely mountain passes and barren plains with no available services, it is one of the most challenging trails Canada has to offer.
Grizzly and black bears roam freely and there are at least three difficult river crossings to be made- one of which requires building a raft. And like all Yukon rivers, they are cold, fast moving and wholly unpredictable. But for anyone with a sense of adventure, and a love for savage, beautiful places the trail is ideal.
Originally, Grenon had planned on tackling the Canol Heritage Trail with a small group because there's strength in numbers and fording rivers is easier when there are others around to help rig ropes or build makeshift floatation devices. But, as the departure time grew near the other riders in the group backed out and Grenon realized if he was going to make the trip, he'd have to do it alone.
The plan had been to begin the journey at Norman Well, crossing the Mackenzie River on a barge and then riding west over the most difficult parts of the trail. On foot, that section of the trail is difficult; for a rider traveling alone, all but impossible.
Grenon decided on Plan B, which meant starting out from Johnson's Crossing. From there, he hoped to get up the trail at least as far as Godlin Lakes - 169 miles west of the Mackenzie River - where an outfitter kept a floatplane camp for hunters and fishers.
Many of the places at which Grenon camped are marked only on small scale maps with banal names that seem entirely significant in the north: Bell II, Willow Lake,and Quiet Lake, where he met a man who owned a domesticated wolf. And Old Squaw where it became clear that the "Barrens" is a misnomer for a land filled with flowers and plants,wolves, foxes, marmots, wolverines and more than 130 species of birds. There, he saw caribou moving on the wide open tundra that spreads out like "an African plain,"
Grenon didn't reach Godlin Lakes: the trail with its flooding rivers and boulder patches had become too difficult. It was getting late in the season, as well, and he knew that if he stayed too long, the snows of early fall would come and trap him. He found a cabin along the trail and settled in for four days of hiking, fishing for Arctic Char, and contemplating "the vastness of it."
This, he says, is what really struck him about the north: its sheer, open spaces where you have an unobstructed 360-degree view and the frequent rain squalls can be seen coming from miles away.
And he recalls the small things which assault the senses. "I connect the north with that incredible smell of fresh bread; everyone up there seems to bake their own,"say Grenon.
|Tourist information on the Canol Heritage Trail area may be obtained from a variety of sources including:- Tourism Yukon - PO Box 2703, Whitehorse, YT. Y1A 2C6 - Phone (403) 667-5340 Fax. (403)667-3546 - www.touryukon.com - Government of the Northwest Territoies - Economic Development and Tourism - PO Box 1320, Yellowknife, NWT, X1A 2L9 - 1-800-661-0788|