Thursday, October 15, 2009

Trail Report: The Canol Road

”We made it further than anyone else has with a 4WD vehicle, that’s what I’m most proud of,” comments Kris Maksyniuk soon after arriving home from the North West Territories. “Exploring the north Canol road was the experience of a lifetime.”

Sixty-seven years ago, the same promise of an “experience of a lifetime” was posted outside a hiring office in Edmonton. It called for workers to travel north to Norman Wells, NWT to build a road and oil pipeline from the oil fields to Whitehorse, YT. Seven months earlier the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, launching the U.S. into World War II. The weakest coastline vulnerable to invasion was the desolate and wild coast of Alaska. Japan had already taken the islands of Attu and Kiska in the Aleutian chain, making for the perfect jumping off points for a full-scale invasion.  Realizing the seriousness of the situation, both the U.S. and Canadian governments agreed to build both the Alaska Highway and the Canol (short for Canadian Oil) Road to supply a defensive force.

In the summer of 1942, the U.S. Corp of Engineers and their equipment were dispatched to rails end in Alberta, 460 km north of Edmonton. From there, they were barged almost 1,770 km to the town of Norman Wells. On the other side of the McKenzie, Camp Canol was set up on an oil field that has some of the world’s finest oil, oil so pure it flowed through pipes in the lowest arctic temperatures.

Along with the Corp of Engineers, 25,000 workers toiled through extreme conditions. Massive cost over runs and missed deadlines came as a result of workers not having heavy winter clothing. Much of the building materials shipped in were burnt just to keep the workers warm. After two years of construction, a 10 cm diameter pipe stretched the entire 925 km from the Canol oil fields to the refinery in Whitehorse.

In April 1944 the taps were opened and 3,000 barrels of fine crude flowed per day. However, poor workmanship meant the pipes were constantly breaking, resulting in several oil spills. Then, one year after the opening of the line, the entire project was abandoned as the Japanese were on the cusp of surrender. A salvage team was sent in to dismantle the pipeline and bridges, closing the north road off to the public. The south Canol road is still in use today as Highway #6 linking Ross River with Johnsons Crossing on the Alaskan Highway. From Ross River to the NWT border the north Canol is still used by mines near the border, but is not well maintained. From the NWT border, the road rises into the MacMillan pass and has been decommissioned since the forties.

This is the bit that Kris Maksyniuk, Dave Fraser and other Land Rover enthusiasts saw as a great challenge; a road that hasn’t been traversed by any 4WD vehicle (not including ATV’s) since its demise over sixty years ago. By February ‘09, preparations were being made to tackle this ambitious endeavor. Sixty plus years of weathering and several river crossings meant the route would be extremely challenging and unpredictable. The biggest hurdle to overcome would be fuel. With the last fuel station in Ross River, the trucks would have to be equipped to drive over 425 km of rough terrain to Camp Canol, then make the return trip.

Another obstacle would be the Twitya River, the deepest and widest river to be crossed. The rivers not suitable for fording at the best of times, so Kris put his engineering skills to good use and fabricated an inflatable raft that could be torn down and loaded into the Land Rovers. And so, August 15th bright and early, Kris and Dave left Vancouver for the MacMillan Pass and a 6,500 km round trip to the Canol road.

The first leg of the trip was rather routine, taking the crew to Prince George, Dawsons Creek then jumping on the Alaska Highway to Watson Lake, Yukon. In Watson Lake they then took Highway 4 north to Ross River.  Watson Lake is also where you will find the famous Sign Post Forest, a collection of street and town signs nailed up by travelers from around the world. Not to be out done, the expedition members erect their own bit of history to the massive forest of signage. Then it was off to Ross River and the beginning of the north Canol Road. Filling fuel tanks and auxiliary jerry cans at the final fuel point before heading for desolation, the team made it’s way to the cable ferry that crosses the Ross River, only to find that the operator had gone home early for the night. So that night was spent camping in the village.

Day six into the journey and the expedition proper could start with the crossing of a now open river ferry. The expedition made its way up the north Canol, witnessing legacies from the build project still waiting at the roadside. They stopped at the sight of dozens of old Ford, GM and Studebaker military work trucks, parked in rows just the way they were left sixty years ago, ravaged of parts, each truck with “Canol Project” painted on the doors. When the road was completed, the resources required to pull out the equipment was not cost effective, so everything was left in the depots where they stood, a testament and vision to the resources exploited in the name of oil.

Moving past the first depot of derelict vehicles, it wasn’t long before the expedition stumbled upon another, just as full of antique equipment, with small tree’s growing through cabs and engine bays. These depots are very common and the expedition would stumble on one or two every day. After a stroll through the bone yards, the trucks were back on the road and had reached roads end at the NWT border. From this point on the road would be completely unpredictable, and all bridges would be out, and it wouldn’t take long before the road became difficult. The true challenges now lay in wait, as the Land Rovers would make their way into the spectacularly mountainous MacMillan pass.

Fifty kilometers in, the group came across the first decommissioned bridge, the broken and twisted timbers laying in ruins in the streambed. Sitting in the middle of the stream next to the bridge sat a Studebaker dump truck, several oil barrels and a couple lengths of oil pipe. Whatever grease or oil that was left in the truck, barrels or pipe had long since washed down stream, the lingering metal hulks withstanding the death grip of rust. A solemn reminder of the economical and environmental damage war places on the earth. Blood may not have been shed here, but carelessness and disregard during the panic of wartime self-preservation has the ground soaked with the pollutants of the war machine.

By day seven, the terrain had slowed the crew down to crawl. It was the tall brush, muskeg, river crossings and swamps that were slowing progress, and not the predicted washout of the road. The brush was so thick that the doors couldn’t be opened at times, requiring the team to dismount and cut their way through the hindrances. Unfortunately, this tactic was eating up precious time. If they were going to make it to Camp Canol they would have to pick up the pace, so the axes and saws were stowed and the ruggedness of the Land Rovers front bumpers were tested as they simply pushed their way through.

Then came the Beaver dam. The dam flooded the lower valley turning it all to swamp, the road included. With the aluminum ramps out, towropes muddied and winches screaming in pain, the expedition took half a day to get through the gooey mess.  It was also decided that a workday schedule be implemented. The team would break camp everyday at 08:00, travel for twelve hours, then set up camp again at 20:00. Time was of the essence.

The next challenge that awaited the expedition was a landslide in a narrow part of the valley. The only way through meant driving down the river. However, the river was quite deep in this section, so with one side up on the bank and the other down in the water with crewmembers hanging off the side of the trucks for balance, the Land Rovers inched around the obstacle one by one.

As the expedition crawled deeper and deeper into the MacMillan pass, they were getting quite a bit of attention from bush pilots and outfitters flying into Norman Wells. On the eleventh day, one helicopter that had circled a couple times before, landed in a clearing next to the expedition. The pilot was concerned about the group, wanting to know if they were all right and knew where they were going. Once all was explained, the pilot confirmed that this was indeed the farthest anyone had made it up the trail with a truck; a small victory for the team.

However, the ultimate goal of reaching Camp Canol was quickly slipping away. The final day of pushing through the bush earned only 3 km in total distance. The slow pace meant that the return trip would take them past the three weeks of vacation time booked. Also, a couple of trucks had now reached the mid-point in the fuel reserves, so even if they did trudge on, they would never make it back to Ross River. So, after the final decision was made, they planted a pole with a sign marking the expedition, and the farthest point a 4WD vehicle has made it up the historical road.

Despite not achieving the ultimate goal of pushing through to Norman Wells, both Kris and Dave are immensely proud of the accomplishments they achieved. Needless to say, a return to the Canol has already been discussed. 


  1. I drove my Subaru Outback up the North Canol Road for about 40 miles in 2008. Hope to return next year and go as far as the NWT border. Enjoyed reading about your adventure!

  2. Had the pleasure of driving up to the Mactung Mine Site in 2007. The mine site is in the Macmillan Pass, and I had to actually cross the NWT border, then turn off and double back to the site which is back in the Yukon.

    It's up a mountain, and has a spectacular view of the valley. I took supplies up, then loaded crew and garbage up the next morning for the trip back to Whitehorse.

    I would love to travel up the Heritage Trail

  3. We have been there in 1992 but obviously nothing had been chanched since that time. It is a strange, but wonderful place.

  4. you have me gettin itchy feet to explore again...found a new adventure, thanks

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