Adventure cyclistMountain biking deep in Canada's wet and wild landsAdventure cyclist, a publication of adventure cycling association
Adventure Cyclist is North America’s only magazine dedicated to bicycle travel. It is distributed to members of Adventure Cycling Association, whose mission is to inspire people to travel by bicycle.
Biking the CanolStory by Ryan StuartPhotos by Ryan CrearyIncredibly remote, long-abandoned, wet, steep and full of bears. Should be fun.
Ryan Creary stammered through chattering teeth, a wild look in his eyes. He was standing in front of me dripping like a wet cat, immobile except for the shivering, arms held out to his sides, clothes dripping bitter puddles on the muddy ground. Another one of my trip mates, Paul Christensen, was already gathering wood for a fire, and I could see our fourth man, Anthony DeLorenzo, dragging Creary’s bike and raft out of the river.
A breeze raced out of the mountains pulling cold air with it and warmth out of us. We had no idea where the trail was. There wasn’t a good spot to camp anywhere nearby. And now my teeth were chattering. As Creary started vibrating with intense shivers, I realized, two days into our attempt to mountain bike the Canol Heritage Trail, what we thought was our secret weapon could turn out to be our trip’s downfall.
 
The remains of a U.S. Army-built oil pipeline, the Canol Trail stretches 200 miles through the tungsten-rich Mackenzie Mountains of northern Canada from the Yukon border to the Mackenzie River at Norman Wells in the Northwest Territories. Christensen and DeLorenzo had hatched a plan to mountain bike the Canol, a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in at least 20 years, and Creary and I had signed on despite the trail’s reputation. It’s known as Canada’s hardest backpacking route not just because it is long and remote, requiring most backpackers 22 days with two food drops. Finishing the trail means climbing 10 major alpine passes; surviving a wilderness full of grizzly bears, wolves and caribou; and fording hundreds of small creeks and three major rivers.
“I’m borderline hypothermic”
Few people thought it was a good idea. “In my opinion the idea of the pipeline … is completely cockeyed,” wrote Thomas Riggs, a former territorial governor of Alaska, in a letter to Somervell. For its part, the Canadian government suggested he reexamine the plan, but when pressed gave their approval with the condition that Canada bear no cost in the construction or maintenance. Decisive and stubborn, Somervell carried on, and construction began in January 1943. Burdened by constant delays due to cold, mud, bugs, and permafrost, oil didn’t flow until April 1944. Somervell’s estimated cost of $25 million ballooned to $134 million, although critics pegged it at closer to $300 million. A year later, with a declining need for oil as the U.S. gained control in the Pacific Theater and a congressional inquiry into the project under way, the Canol was scrapped. The service road was then handed over to the territorial governments.
 
In the Yukon, it’s still maintained as a gravel backcountry road, but from the Northwest Territory border to the Mackenzie River, it was abandoned. This is the Canol Heritage Trail. There’s no trailhead. Instead, the first sign that we were on the trail and not on the road is a washed-out bridge. Despite our heavily laden bikes, we managed to ride through the first creek, but as the morning progressed, that got harder. Pretty quickly, we were soaked to our knees. We would stay this way for the rest of the trip.
Anthony DeLorenzo on the incredible high plains as we pushed closer to the Plains of Abraham. This day featured some amazing travel with good sections of trail after a snowy, cold night.
When we told people our plan to ride the trail with 10 days worth of food and no resupply, they told us we didn’t have a chance. We’d run out of food. We’d drown in the rivers. We’d never make it up Trout Creek. But we were determined to prove them all wrong. So, on a beautiful day in late July, we pulled out of Whitehorse, the capital of the Yukon and Paul and Anthony’s home, and drove all day north and then east. At the tiny town of Ross River, we saw our first sign of the Canol’s history, the remains of a bridge that once carried oil across the river. A conception of Canadian Oil, the Canol was built to supply petroleum to Alaska during World War II. Threatened by Japanese dominance of the Pacific in the early 1940s, the U.S. Army wanted a land source of oil to help defend the Frontier State against a potential invasion. This was before black gold was discovered in the state. The closest known reserves were in Norman Wells, more than 700 miles by air from Anchorage through unknown mountainous country. Fresh off the speedily built Alaska Highway through northern British Columbia, a confident Lieutenant General Brehon B. Somervell, head of army logistics, approved the plan to build the 600-mile pipeline and adjacent service road after one day of consultation, no on-the-ground “truthing” and without consulting Congress. The pipeline would carry oil from Norman Wells to a refinery in Whitehorse and then via branch lines to Skagway and Fairbanks.
Canol heritage trail map
CANOL HERITAGE TRAIL
Martha Bostwick​
Day 1 started out wet and finished up with an amazing sunset as we set up our first camp
Day 1 started out wet and finished up with an amazing sunset as we set up our first camp
The next day, the number of bear signs had us nervous. About every 100 feet we saw a fresh dig, scat, or print. We took turns shouting to warn the bruins that we were coming. Stan Simpson only increased our nervousness. His Ram’s Head Outfitters, a fly-in hunting camp, is the last piece of civilization along the trail. He and his wife, Debbie, invited us in for a snack. We chatted about the route, the hunting, and then bears. “Every few years, we get a black bear up here,” he said matter-of-factly. “But they don’t last long. The grizzlies eat them.” He was equally blunt about our chances of making it to Norman Wells. “I think you’ll run out of food,” he said and then proceeded to tell us about our next two obstacles. He said people have waited for days for the Twitya River to drop so they could swim across, and one group had taken five days to scale the notoriously rough Trout Creek section of trail. We rode away slightly depressed but still determined. A few miles later, the road hit the Godlin River, and we pulled out our secret weapon. Knowing we wouldn’t be able to swim across the rivers with bikes, we each carried an Alpacka pack raft. The durable and stable crafts pack down to the size and weight of a three-man tent and inflate in about 10 minutes into a one-man, whitewater-worthy vessel. A half-hour of fiddling later, we had the rafts in the water, our gear packed under the spray deck, and our broken-down bikes tied on top. We could have just crossed the Godlin and started riding again but decided to try shortcutting — skipping six miles of boggy and washed-out road — by floating the river. Letting the current do all the work was far easier. But a few hours later, the road nowhere in sight, we were wet and cold, and the river was now braided and splashy. We kept running aground, and repeatedly getting out and pulling the boats was soaking us to the core. Finally, Creary couldn’t take it anymore.
Canol Heritage
DeLorenzo and Ryan Stuart preparing boats for the Godlin River
DeLorenzo & Ryan Stuart preparing boats for the Godlin River.
“I’m so cold,” he chattered. We pulled over and he stood around shivering, complaining about being hypothermic. I ordered him to get into dry clothes, which seamed to snap him out of his stupor, and I helped Christensen get a fire going. We soon felt better. Major crisis averted. Now we just had to find the road. 20 minutes of bushwhacking later, we were rolling again and found what seemed to be a decent camp. We had the tents set up and another fire drying our soaked clothes when Paul discovered we were camped on a bear highway. A path of individual prints headed off from one corner of our camp into the woods. The trees were covered in fur and there was a barnyard kind of smell in the air. Too exhausted to move camp, we built up the fire, peed all over the bear trail, and collapsed into a nervous sleep. Still alive the next morning, we survived the next day of riding and crossed the Twitya without incident. Then we spent a day struggling up Trout Creek. Here, any sign of the road washed away long ago. Even before the pipeline was complete, sections of road disappeared, washed away by spring floods or swallowed whole by melting permafrost. In places the road split into two or three sections as engineers struggled to find a route that would last. Workers suffered through frigid winters when the thermometer nestled below -40°F for weeks and the sun barely broke the horizon. Summer brought swarms of biting bugs, flooded rivers, and mud. This was the first road and pipeline built on permafrost, permanently frozen ground lying just below the vegetation. When road builders removed the insulating forest, the permafrost melted, swallowing newly laid road and creating vehicle-sucking mud holes. At peak construction, up to 10,000 people worked for the contractors building the pipe and road, but turnover was so high that the total number of employees was more than 50,000 men. We spent several hours lifting and carrying our bikes up Trout Creek’s seven-mile-long boulder garden. Finally the road reappeared, but it kept climbing. As we went up, the clouds came down. Soon it was pouring and windy. Tired, cranky, cold, and wet, frustrations came to a head. We argued about route choice, how long we should break, and whether to stop for a photo op. Creary muttered about quitting and flying home. As the day turned dark, we finally crested Devil’s Pass, traversed beneath looming rock cliffs, and descended into a desolate valley looking for shelter. We found the Canol Hilton. What was once a bunkhouse at a road maintenance camp, the Hilton had remained weatherproof after 70 years and, as its name attested, was a welcome refuge midway along the trail. Despite gopher poo on the floor and asbestos insulation leaking out of the walls, it felt like luxury to us as we listened to the rain pound down outside. The walls were covered in signatures and messages from Canol Trail travelers: hikers, hunters, ATVers, and a dog sled crew waiting out a -50°F blizzard. We added our own names and chowed down on a stash of freeze-dried meals left by previous parties, this being one of the main resupply points on the trail thanks to an airstrip.
Day 4 DeLorenzo hits one of the semi-good sections of trailDay 4 DeLorenzo hits one of the semi-good sections of trail
Nuts and Bolts
LOGISTICS
While we accessed the Canol from the Yukon side, it’s probably easier to stage from Norman Wells...
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GEAR
Pieces of gear that stand out as being essential on this trip. Bikes, satellite phone, alpaca raft and bike bags...
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Click to open
FREEZE DRIED DINNERS
To keep weight down and meals quick and simple we brought boil in a bag, freeze dried dinners...​
The next day, we lazed around, watching our breath condense in the cold air, waiting for the rain to stop. Refueled and rested, the previous day’s arguments were forgotten. Knowing that we were halfway brought us new confidence. By lunchtime, the clouds had lifted and we pedaled away from the Hilton. Soon the sun came out and we were riding through an alpine meadow full of caribou. The bear signs intensified until we stumbled upon a still-steaming pile of partially digested berries.
“Bear in the hood”
Christensen yelled from the front of the pack. By the time I looked up, Creary and Anthony had their bear spray in hand. We scanned the nearby hillside and soon spotted two grizzlies. We yelled, hoping to scare them away, but instead they came closer.​
We walked faster, still yelling. The bears seemed to shadow us. We yelled louder. They got closer. Even though we were walking, my heart raced and adrenaline surged through my body. Stress lines creased everyone’s faces. Then the road took a hard corner and the bears dropped off a ridge and disappeared. That almost made it worse. At the back of the pack, I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see one of the big bears stalking me. I didn’t relax until we were in camp an hour later.
The next day, we pushed our bikes up to the Plains of Abraham, a massive alpine plateau devoid of vegetation, and then we bombed down the other side into the Little Keele River Valley. Before I left for the Canol, I imagined we would spend most of our time in valleys following easy grades. It was the opposite. The U.S. Army hired Guy Blanchet, an experienced Canadian surveyor, to plot the route for the pipeline. Initially he picked a valley route through the Mackenzie Mountains, but it deviated too far from the straight line the army desired. Blanchet turned to the native Dene people for advice. They suggested the “Indian Road,” an informal trail that linked good hunting grounds, but the route goes up and down.
DeLorenzo on Day 3 rides through more swamp and the old relics of vehicles left behind
DeLorenzo on Day 3 rides through more swamp and the old relics of vehicles left behind.
DeLorenzo on Day 3 rides through more swamp and the old relics of vehicles left behind.
Thus, we did lots more climbing and descending over the next two days as we fought our way to the edge of the Mackenzie Mountains. Each pass and summit offered a new perspective on the ragged mountains. Each would have been a world-class hike if it hadn’t been 70 miles from the nearest road. From the top of the last summit we stumbled down a valley full of slumps blocking the road and made camp at the head of Dodo Canyon. We knew there was no road left in the canyon; we expected to push our bikes down the entire 16 miles. We went to bed mentally preparing for a hard day. At first, it looked like the difficulties were exaggerated. We stayed on our bikes more than we walked for the first two hours as we coasted over hard-packed gravel, enjoying the intimate confines of the narrow chasm. But slowly the rocks got bigger and riding became impossible. Pushing and carrying, we made steady progress but the canyon walls didn’t fall. By the third hour, I couldn’t wait for it to be over. By hour four, my calves were a bloody pulp; and my pedals kept slamming into them as the bike bumped over boulders. By hour five, I had a headache from all the jarring. And then we turned a corner and there was no more canyon. We high-fived each other and whooped. A few minutes later, we found the road bed and start pedaling. It was 4:00 PM when we crossed the Carcajou River. We could have made camp and pedaled out the final 30 miles in the morning or we could push through and been done with it. We expected swamp and mud. It could be another 30 miles of pushing. After a siesta and a meal, we decided to get ’er done. With a flippant shout of “swamp party,” we set off into the forest — one last push.
FINALLY
Finally, the Canol was kind to us. The road was dry and in good shape. In a pace line, the miles fell away. At 10:00 PM, we rolled around one last corner and hit the sandy beach on the edge of the mighty Mackenzie River.
As the sun set into the muddy waters, signaling an end to our eighth and final day on the Canol, the lights of Norman Wells twinkled and a triple rainbow lit up dark clouds to the south. We couldn’t have asked for a better welcome to the end of the trail.
Incredibly remote, long-abandoned, wet, steep and full of bears.The Canol Heritage TrailAnthony DeLorenzo on the incredible high plains as we pushed closer to the Plains of Abraham.Day 1 started out wet and finished up with an amazing sunset as we set up our first camp.Day 1 started out wet and finished up with an amazing sunset as we set up our first camp.DeLorenzo & Ryan Stuart preparing boats for the Godlin River.On the boatsFreeze and dried dinnersGearLogisticsGearAlong the Canol
Ryan Stuart’s tastes for mountain biking and writing are similar: the more adventure the better. The full-time freelance writer is based on Vancouver Island, Canada, where he writes for Outside, Men’s Journal, Canadian Cycling, Bike and is the field editor for Explore Magazine.
Calling Revelstoke, British Columbia, home, Ryan Creary’s work has appeared on many covers and been used by such clients as Patagonia, Outdoor Research, Outside, Men’s Journal, Alpinist, and Bike. Always on the hunt for exquisite light, moody scenes, and unique angles, Ryan tries to extend his riding season by heading south in winter. For more about Creary, visit ryancreary.com.
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Adventure Cycling Association
Our first morning was spent riding through steep granite peaks, small glaciers clinging to their sides. The road, between creek crossings, was smooth and fast. We made good time, and soon left the first mountain range in our dust as we pedaled into a panorama of rolling hills.
Signs of bear and caribou became frequent, and by lunchtime we passed our first car graveyard. When the pipeline was abandoned, it was too expensive to bring out all the infrastructure and equipment. Instead, hundreds of vehicles, dozens of buildings, pumping stations, empty barrels of oil, and hundreds of miles of pipe were left where they sat. Two years later, the salvage rights were bought for $700,000, but the salvager only removed the valuable stuff. The trail is lined with sections of pipe and lengths of telephone line. Every day we passed towers of empty oil cans and parking lots full of trucks and graders, slowly rusting into the northern wilderness. Later, we hit our first big climb. Knowing we would push and carry a lot, we pruned our loads as much as possible. I had dry clothes for camp, a tiny tent, and just enough food. Worried about how derailers would fare in rock gardens and bushwhacking we opted for single-speed mountain bikes. So even though the grade was not that steep, we were often walking our 50-pound steeds. By dinnertime, we’d nocked off 40 miles and were in. We found a nice camp in an old gravel quarry and basked in the warmth of a long, slow northern sunset, admiring the gentle mountains surrounding us.
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FIRST MORNING​
Caribou Pass
Devils Path
LogisticsLogistics
While we accessed the Canol from the Yukon side, it’s probably easier to stage from Norman Wells. First get to Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, with various airlines, and then fly to Norman Wells with First Air (firstair.ca). Stay at the B&B-style accommodations at the Canoe North Adventures Outfitting Centre (canoenorth​adventures.com). Charter a flight with North-Wright. Airways (north-wrightairways.com) to one of the landing strips in Macmillian Pass, the start of the trail. Before leaving Norman Wells, talk to Canoe North about organizing a boat pick up from the end of the trail, which is on the other side of the Mackenzie River from town.
Freeze dried dinnersFreeze dried dinners
To keep weight down and meals quick and simple we brought boil in a bag, freeze dried dinners. They taste great!
 
Various meals from Mountain House (mountainhouse.com) and Natural High (katadyn.com).
Gear
Bikes: We all rode single speeds, which we agree was the right choice from a durability stand point. All the bushwhacking, rock gardens, and river crossings would have destroyed a derailer several times over. Paul Christensen rode a fat tire bike, which was probably the best choice for the frequent mud, sand, and rock. He was often still riding while the rest of us were pushing. Satellite phone: This far north, even satellite phones don’t work that well, but having some kind of communication device is essential. Help is a long ways off, even with a phone. Plus you’ll need to be able to call for a boat pick-up from the end of the trail. Alpacka Raft: We never would have made it without Alpacka Rafts, six-pound personal white-water rafts that fold down to the size of a tent. We each carried one and they paid their way in easing river crossings. With a four-piece kayak paddle, rivers were an afterthought, not a worry. alpackaraft.com. Bike bags: After we returned a couple borrowed Porcelain Rocket bike bags to company owner Scott Felter, he said the Canol beat them up more than a typical Alaska-to-Argentina trip. It was news to us. Simple and bomber, these bike bags withstood constant abuse without showing a rip or tear and allowed fairly normal operation of our bikes. We all had the Mission Control Handlebar Setup and the Booster Rocket Seatpack. porcelainrocket.com.​
Plains of Abraham map
Dodo Canyon map
Norman Wells
Incredibly remote, long-abandoned, wet, steep and full of bears.
The Canol Heritage Trail
Anthony DeLorenzo on the incredible high plains as we pushed closer to the Plains of Abraham. This d
Day 1 started out wet and finished up with an amazing sunset as we set up our first camp.
Day 1 started out wet and finished up with an amazing sunset as we set up our first camp.
DeLorenzo & Ryan Stuart preparing boats for the Godlin River.
On the boats
Freeze and dried dinners
Gear
Logistics
Gear
While we accessed the Canol from the Yukon side, it’s probably easier to stage from Norman Wells. First get to Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, with various airlines, and then fly to Norman Wells with First Air (firstair.ca). Stay at the B&B-style accommodations at the Canoe North Adventures Outfitting Centre (canoenorth adventures.com). Charter a flight with North-Wright. Airways (north-wrightair ways.com) to one of the landing strips in Macmillian Pass, the start of the trail. Before leaving Norman Wells, talk to Canoe North about organizing a boat pick up from the end of the trail, which is on the other side of the Mackenzie River from town.
To keep weight down and meals quick and simple we brought boil in a bag, freeze dried dinners. They taste great! Various meals from Mountain House (mountain house.com) and Natural High (katadyn.com).
Bikes: We all rode single speeds, which we agree was the right choice from a durability stand point. All the bushwhacking, rock gardens, and river crossings would have destroyed a derailer several times over. Paul Christensen rode a fat tire bike, which was probably the best choice for the frequent mud, sand, and rock. He was often still riding while the rest of us were pushing. Satellite phone: This far north, even satellite phones don’t work that well, but having some kind of communication device is essential. Help is a long ways off, even with a phone. Plus you’ll need to be able to call for a boat pick-up from the end of the trail. Alpacka Raft: We never would have made it without Alpacka Rafts, six-pound personal white-water rafts that fold down to the size of a tent. We each carried one and they paid their way in easing river crossings. With a four-piece kayak paddle, rivers were an afterthought, not a worry. alpackaraft.com. Bike bags: After we returned a couple borrowed Porcelain Rocket bike bags to company owner Scott Felter, he said the Canol beat them up more than a typical Alaska-to-Argentina trip. It was news to us. Simple and bomber, these bike bags withstood constant abuse without showing a rip or tear and allowed fairly normal operation of our bikes. We all had the Mission Control Handlebar Setup and the Booster Rocket Seatpack. porcelainrocket.com.
Along the Canol
Adventure Cyclist is North America’s only magazine dedicated to bicycle travel. It is distributed to members of Adventure Cycling Association, whose mission is to inspire people to travel by bicycle.
 
While we accessed the Canol from the Yukon side, it’s probably easier to stage from Norman Wells. First get to Yellowknife, capital of the Northwest Territories, with various airlines, and then fly to Norman Wells with First Air (firstair.ca). Stay at the B&B-style accommodations at the Canoe North Adventures Outfitting Centre (canoenorthadventures.com). Charter a flight with North-Wright. Airways (north-wrightairways.com) to one of the landing strips in Macmillian Pass, the start of the trail. Before leaving Norman Wells, talk to Canoe North about organizing a boat pick up from the end of the trail, which is on the other side of the Mackenzie River from town.
To keep weight down and meals quick and simple we brought boil in a bag, freeze dried dinners. They taste great!
 
Various meals from Mountain House (mountainhouse.com) and Natural High (katadyn.com).
Bikes: We all rode single speeds, which we agree was the right choice from a durability stand point. All the bushwhacking, rock gardens, and river crossings would have destroyed a derailer several times over. Paul Christensen rode a fat tire bike, which was probably the best choice for the frequent mud, sand, and rock. He was often still riding while the rest of us were pushing. Satellite phone: This far north, even satellite phones don’t work that well, but having some kind of communication device is essential. Help is a long ways off, even with a phone. Plus you’ll need to be able to call for a boat pick-up from the end of the trail. Alpacka Raft: We never would have made it without Alpacka Rafts, six-pound personal white-water rafts that fold down to the size of a tent. We each carried one and they paid their way in easing river crossings. With a four-piece kayak paddle, rivers were an afterthought, not a worry. alpackaraft.com. Bike bags: After we returned a couple borrowed Porcelain Rocket bike bags to company owner Scott Felter, he said the Canol beat them up more than a typical Alaska-to-Argentina trip. It was news to us. Simple and bomber, these bike bags withstood constant abuse without showing a rip or tear and allowed fairly normal operation of our bikes. We all had the Mission Control Handlebar Setup and the Booster Rocket Seatpack. porcelainrocket.com