Monday, August 13, 2012

Bikepacking the North Canol Heritage Trail

Bit of a hiatus lately as far as posts go, but its time to make up for that.
Heres an account of a bikepacking trip on the North Canol from Macmillan pass to Norman Wells.

The Canol road was put in during WWII to serve the creation of an oil pipeline from Norman Wells in the NWT, to the Whitehorse refinery.  The oil flowed for only a year or 2 before the war ended, and the need for it ceased.  The road and pipeline were engineering marvels (or boondoggle depending on your point of view).  The complete history of it is well documented elsewhere.
For years I have wanted to make this trip, whether on foot or otherwise.  The trouble has always been finding motivated partners.  For one thing, its a logistical nightmare.
The Canol road extends from Johnsons Crossing, through to Ross River, then north to the NWT/Yukon border, where it degenerates from "road" status, to 4x4 track, to ATV track, then to just plain gone.
One must first get ones ass to the Macmillan pass air strip, or further to the mile 222 air strip, where you leave a vehicle to return to from Norman Wells.  This involves 250 Km of 20-30 Km/H driving on a single lane road, which varies from bumpy and muddy, to REALLY bumpy and muddy, to washed out.
A motivated partner came in the form of Anthony Delorenzo.  I had mentioned this trip to him a few years ago, and he also expressed and keen interest in it.  We through this back and forth for a while, and he came up with another two keener's in the forms of ProPho Ryan Creary and writer Ryan Stewart.
The crew e-mailed back and forth all winter, keeping the motivation alive.
The plan was to ride mountain bike as much as possible, push/grovel/thrash when required, and float in Alpackas when we could.  The rafts were also key for the major river crossings such as the Twitya, which have been the Waterloo of many well intentioned souls.
I chose to ride my Surly Pugsley, while the rest decided on regular mountain bikes with either 26 or 29" wheels.  We all rode single speeds.  I chose a 22x20 gearing, while the others had more conventional 32x20.  While no one rig could have been pegged as the "best" choice, the low gearing on my rig did allow me to spin more, thus conserving energy and enjoying the hills more.  No one suffered flats, so the wheel/tire combos seemed on pare with one another, although the Big Larry's offered a certain degree of suspension which made the whole process less jarring.
We all ran various degrees of frame bags from Revelate and Porcelain Rocket.  Scott at Porcelain Rocket really came though as the MVP, making me a custom frame bag for the Pugs, and sending his own personal kit to the Ryans.  The huge frame bag allowed me to carry all my food down low on the frame, and the thing was an absolute anvil as far as durability. Check him out at Porcelain Rocket.  Large backpacks allowed us to carry the light, bulky stuff on our backs.
We had no idea how long the trip would actually take.  We were going to start at the larger airstrip right at Mac Pass, as opposed to the smaller one at mile 222 (222 miles from Norman Wells, all mileage stated will be trail miles from NW).  This was at mile 235 or so.  Most hikers start at 222, or get a ride to Dechenla lodge which is at mile 210 or so.  We had heard varying accounts of trip lengths from 21 days to longer.  We could find no confirmed accounts of anyone biking the whole thing, so it was a bit of a mystery.  There were plenty of accounts of failed bike attempts.  We decided on 10 days food, and hoped to make it in less, much less if possible.
We had various sources tell us that certain portions of the trip, such as the Trout creek section, would stop bikes dead, and that 3 weeks would be a more realistic time frame.  Being stubborn, we accepted these prognostications of doom as a challenge.
Late July was the proposed start date, and on July 30th, we loaded up at hit the happy trail to Mac Pass.
We rolled into Mac pass after a 12 hour drive around 10 PM.  Mosquito's and Porcupines lulled us into a fitful sleep.
Day one, July 31st.
Ryan Creary, henceforth known as RC slept in the tent last night, while Ryan Stewart, henceforth know as RS, Anthony and I crammed in a ghetto-esque cabin.  None of us slept that well do to the local fauna's nocturnal activities.  Rain was threatening as we packed up.

Pushing up to the border

The rain began in earnest as we spun up to and over the divide, eventually petering out as we approached the airstrip and camps at 222.  The road to this point is quite good, and you could, with care, drive a car to a creek about 5 Km from 222.
We ran into some of the guys from Dechenla lodge heading out to cut firewood.
We spun into 222 under clearing skies, and chatted to a group of Sheep hunters from Alberta who were waiting to fly into Stan Simpsons Rams Head outfitters at Godlin lakes.  Being adventurous souls, they were psyched for us and wished us well.
We kept rolling on, stopping for a late lunch past Dechenla lodge, and then began a long descent from the high point, down to the Intga river. 
Near 222.  Yes, the road does look great.

We crossed it, then began the mellow climb up the Intga on good trail to Caribou pass.  ATVs keep this section relatively brush free.  Very few swampy bits make for great riding.
We hit Caribou pass about 6PM, and camped in an old gravel pit.  Very few bugs and sunny skies made for a very nice camp.
~40 miles.

Day 2, August 1st.
Pretty cold night and light sleeping bags had us up early and on the trail.

Looking down from Caribou pass to the Ekwi

This was to be a big day mileage wise.
We initially had fantastic road bed all the way down to the first crossing of the Ekwi.  It became less fantastic as we went on, with years of spring floods undoing the work of the mighty US Army.
Upper Ekwi

Lower Ekwi

This section of trail is also notable for the profusion of Soap berries, AKA Bear berries.  Where there are ripe Soap berries, one might also expect to find bears of course.  And while we didn't actually see one of the Griz's, we saw much evidence of their feasting, many of the piles were essentially steaming  Making lots of noise is a wise precaution.
After the trail leaves the tight confines of the mi Ekwi, it climbs along the side, and becomes very good all the way to Godlin lakes.
We arrived at Golding lakes and Stan Simpsons main camp about 2 PM.  Friendly Aussie shepherds greeted us, and Stan and Debbie hauled us in to their mess cabin for coffee, tea and cookies.  Great folks, and Stan was a gold mine of trail info.  He didn't give us much chance of making it, but I don't blame him, he see's lots of yahoos with grandiose schemes, and we probably didn't seem much different.  Nevertheless, he was very supportive and wished us well, unlike others.
It was pretty hard to leave the comfy camp, and particularly hard for RC, who inhaled vast quantities of Debbies amazing pastries in a very short period.
We arrived at the Godlin river about 1 1/2 hours later, and proceeded to blow up rafts, and set up for some floating.
Godlin River

We had covered quite a few miles that day, and it felt great to hang out in boats, resting and ogling the vistas.  It was also fun watching Anthony become acquainted with packrafting and rivers in general.

Godlin river late at night.  Water on lens, of course.

We floated on well into the night, revelling in the coolness of it all.  Eventually, RC succumbed to the chill, and we pulled out to warm up.  It was just as well, as it was getting late, and the river was braiding out to unraftable levels.
Drying off and warming up.

We loaded up the bikes and moved off the river channel, and back onto the road bed.  By rafting, we not only saved energy, but the upper Godlin has claimed the Canol in many locations, so we saved time as well by avoiding the thrashing.
We camped at a nice little creek about 10 PM or so, and then discovered the serious bear trail behind camp.  Nothing for it but to build up the fire, and think positive thoughts.......
~ 38 miles.

Day 3, August 2nd.
Another sunny day had us up and at 'em early.  We were expecting the trail to deteriorate today, and were not disappointed.
The trail became quite overgrown and washed out pretty much right away.  There was still lots of evidence of the previous years Yahoos on ATVs expedition sponsored Field and Stream, not to mention the Yahoos in Land Rovers from 2010.  The ATVers seemed to have left lots of garbage strew about from their shit show, while the Land Rover crew just seemed to wreck trail.  Not to others; pack it in, pack it out.  And while its possible to get ATVs over the whole trail, save yourself the bother unless you are prepared to take some serious time to do it, like weeks and weeks.  4x4 trucks need not apply.  Seriously.  A 4x4 truck of any kind will not make it.  Period.  Even if by some miracle you made it to the Twitya (the swampy pass between the Godlin and Twitya would be a SERIOUS obstacle, never mind the re-building of the trail through numerous washouts along the Godlin.  To get a truck through you would need to have a small cat along) the trail up Trout creek would shut you down.
But I digress.
Things rocked and rolled along the picturesque Golding for quite sometime, with the trail climbing and descending as needed to get around high rock walls along the river. 

Buff singletrack, for a little ways

We passed the high point of the Land Rover trip, where the lads had seen fit to bolt a plaque to a tree proclaiming their feat to all.
Eventually, the trail began to climb away from the Godlin to  its rendezvous with muskeg pass.

Trail.  Yes, somewhere....

The old roadbed through this section has sunk away in the permafrost, creating some lovely examples of bog.  We were able to skirt the lakes by some creative bog-hopping.

We were fully expecting more serious boggage, but were more than pleased to leave the muskeg nastiness behind, and spin away on well drained if somewhat overgrown gravel road bed.  There was still the odd bit of bog to be had though.

After a long Alder filled descent we arrived at the mighty Twitya, scene of many debacles, shit-shows and general mayhem.
However, once again the mighty Alpackas saved the day, and pleasant float landed us at our nights camp; Deca creek.
Getting ready to float on the Twitya

Floatin' on down

Dryas camp on Deca creek

A lovely camp on flat Dryas, with a raging bonfire allowed us to relax after a big day.
27 miles.

Day 4, August 3rd
We were afraid this morning.
What was billed as the "make or break" day was staring us down; Trout creek to Devils Pass.
Rumour had it that it was a trailess, boulder and Alder filled schwack fest.
It was, to a certain extent, but was much milder than billed.  In fact, it was pretty causal in the big scheme of things.  of course, being able to shoulder the hogs made things much easier.
Climbing out of the Twitya

A mellow climb over very good road got us up and away from the Twitya.  The road climbed high to avoid muskeg, eventually descending in a long mellow grade to Trout creek.
Dropping down to Trout creek

There was much Alder infested sidehilling, but with a bit of pushing and cussing we were able to make good time down to the creek itself.

There were numerous washouts with major drops to navigate.
We were able to link short bits of road bed with long sections of pushing through cobbles, until finally all traces of roadbed vanished, leaving us with 2-3 km of serious boulder thrashing.
Getting closer

Eventually, after a few years of wading/thrashing/grinding we emerged back onto good roadbed, and made our way quickly up to and over Devil pass.
Getting some

Rain was threatening as we made the descent to mile 108 pump station, and sanctuary!
Good road bed towards 108 pump station

The rain turned heavy as we rolled into 108.  Fortunately, an old Quonset hut is kept in "reasonable" shape, and we were able to get out of the tempest.
De-Hy goodness!

The "Canol Hilton" is a traditional stop over for most Canol explorers, and adding ones name to the walls roster is almost mandatory.
The suspense is killing me

The Hilton is infested with rodent shit, so RC elected to sleep outside rather than risk respiratory infection.  The rest of us however were happy to risk it, and slept dry and warm in one of the less decrepit anterooms, complete with WWII era spring bed frames covered with cardboard.
20 miles.

Day 5 August 4th.
The rain pelted down all night, and the morning was pretty grim, with snowline not much higher than us, and heavy rain.
We made a call to Stan at Godlin lakes to get a forecast, and he told us that it was to clear in the morning, then 4 days of high pressure goodness.  He also was stoked to hear that we had made Devils pass so soon, and he considered the trip "in the bag".  Hearing that from Stan improved our gloomy outlook considerably, and as the sky began to clear around noon, we packed up and cast off.
Sun baby!

Chateau Gopher shit

Devils pass is an incredibly pretty spot, and it would be cool to be able to spend some time exploring the area.
We wound down Bolstead creek on very good road bed, eventually reaching the 1st crossing of the Carcajou.
Primo road bed

Devils pass and 108 mile in the background

Crossing the Carcajou #1

More good road awaited beyond the Carcajou (Wolverine in French), and we spun away under sunny sky's.
Eventually the road climbs away from the Carc for its date with Andy creek and the Plains of Abraham.  Its quite a climb away from the river, but a bit of a drag as you lose all the precious elevation when you drop down to Andy creek.  A couple of berry gorged Grizzlies kept us company on the descent.
Looking down the Carcajou 

Andy creek with the PLains of Abraham looming beyond

Andy creek was a lovely campsite with nice tent sites and no bugs.  A big fire warmed us up, and the warm evening light on the surrounding landscape had us enchanted.  Stray Caribou strolled by on the gravel bars, ignoring us completely.
Andy creek camp

The pros earning their pay

19 miles

Day 6, August 5th.
It was a chilly night, with frost on the tent, and Anthony and I were regretting our ultra light sleeping bags.  We were up and attem' around 5:30, with the fire cranking and the java hot.
Eventually the pros emerged from their comfy tent, and things got rolling.
The climb up to the Plains of Abraham is very pleasant.  The road grade is mellow and well preserved.  The single speed gearing was a bit high to ride it all, but the pushing was just fine, and gave one time to appreciate the views.
Andy creek and the Carcajou below

Cresting the top, one is greeted with an amazing panorama of the Mackenzies.  The road drops away in a long, shallow grade to mile 80 camp.

Just past mile 80, the road drops into a long creek valley, and pretty much disappears.  Creek hopping and pushing through cobble fields is the rule of the day, and it sets one up mentally for the long push down the Little Keele.
At one point we came upon this old bike.

Old tech and new

The damned thing even had an old rim generator, and whoevers bike it was had rigged poles fore and aft in what we took to be some sort of carrying aid.  Desperate.
Where the creek dumps into the Little Keele is a very cool old camp littered with old vehicles and machinery.  A fine place to explore.
The road is initially very good down the Little Keele, but eventually disappears.
Little Keele goodness

What follows is some pretty miserable pushing, as was the low point bikeing wise.  The cobbles were just big enough to be a general pain.  Eventually, the road climbs a bit, giving one the option of either the high route over Blue mountain, or the low.  Trying to find the road was an exercise in Alder schwacking, and future parties would be advised to just stick near the river, as the flats get better just beyond where the high route leaves the river.  Word of warning; DON'T use the high route.
Another hour or so of pushing got us to the mouth of the creek that the low route over Blue mountain turns up.  We camped on the river flats away from the bugs and chilled out.

Blue mountain and the high route visible


24 miles.

Day 7, August 6th.
Another big day in the offing had us up early, brewing up and hitting the road.  We initially followed the old, overgrown road bed up the creek, but as all good things do, it came to an end, and we resorted to varying degrees of pushing, lifting, heaving and thrashing.  After a few years of this, we finally got out of the creek and got on to the once again good road bed.  We followed this for a few Km up and on to Blue pass.
Finding good road bed is like winning the lottery

Blue mountain in the background with the high road visible

A quick snack and a look around, ad we were back on the rigs for the long descent.  The trail down was pretty fair, with a few long sections missing, but we eventually hit good road bed again, following the road as it sidehilled up and around a large mountain.
Fine alpine riding

Around this point, the maps indicate a road heading off to the South West towards the Keele river.  We found the junction, but were in no mood to explore further.
Little Keele river

The original plan was to bypass this entire section by rafting the Little Keele.  Water levels in the river at the previous nights camp were low enough that we rethought our plan, and hit the road route.
An interesting feature fo this route is a large pothole lake with no outlet, a veritable Moose Valhalla.
The long descent from the Blue mountain high point to the crossing of the Little Keele is a high light of the ride.  Many Kms of good road with only a few sections of carrying, through lovely Poplar groves and cool Limestone cliffs.  Great fun.
The little Keele where you cross it is quite a large fast river.  There looks to be some braided sections down from the old bridge abutments, but with Alpackas, the choice was easy.
Anthony grooving on the Alpacka

The crossing is the site of another pumphouse, but we still had a long climb up Whore hill to the Dodo ahead of us, so we didn't explore.
The road bed from this point over to the head of Dodo creek is very good, with lots of old ATV use visible.  Easy spinning had us up to the summit in a couple of hours.  Our only near disaster was on this section, as I was cruising down a fast, smooth hill.  My front tire hit something, and I almost flew off the bike at near warp speed.  Anthony, right behind me, went into serious crash avoidance mode.
Summit of Whore Hill.  Little Keele valley beyond.

A fun long downhill on good road bed soon gave way to more nastiness.  The whole West side of the valley has slumped into the creekbed, making for some muddy, rough going.  Below the slumps, the road bed is gone, but the creek bed is relatively flat, and nice fields of Dryas make for reasonably pleasant pushing.
Dodo creek

We eventually located the road again at the very bottom of the creek (the map is wrong).
Lovely flats just downstream made for a great campsite.  It was a smokin hot night, with the sun beating down on us.  Dips in the small creek provided relief.
25 miles.

Day 8, August 7th.
RC had been having knee issues for the last few days, but had been gamely carrying on, however, Dodo canyon loomed, and his knee was worse in the AM, so we called in the A-Star, and in a surreal moment, the chopper was there, and RC was whisked off to whiskey and the hot women of Norman Wells. 
It was too bad, as we were so close, but in the end we considered it a gimme for him.
We loaded up and headed out, with the sun hidden over the canyons rim.  We initially had very good riding on smooth cobble bars.
Upper Dodo canyon

Cool waterfalls added to the magic of the place.
Approaching Echo canyon

Below Echo canyon, the cobble got larger, and pushing became the norm.  A large fresh rock flow added more irregular stones to the mix, and pushing became more of a chore.
Fresh rock flow

Apparently ATVS used to make somewhat regular forays up Dodo canyon on hunting trips from Norman Wells, this rockfall has curtailed those trips somewhat.
Eventually, after eons of cobble pushing, we reached the section of roadbed that connects Dodo creek to the Carcajou crossing.  We were jazzed to be riding again, and dispensed with it in short order.
The Carc. had us inflating the Alpackas again, as the river is wide and deep.
Main channel of the Carcajou

We packed up again, but another channel had us up to our waists.

Good thing it was a warm day

By this time it was 5PM and we had been on the go since 9AM, covering about 40Km.  We stopped for dinner and coffee, as we had decided to make the push on to the Mackenzie.  After a rest, we loaded up and were riding again by 6PM.
This section of the trail, about 45 Km or so though the plains, had us worried.  Norman Wells locals had told us it was all swamp, and that we wouldn't be riding much of it.  We were mentally prepared for a 8-10 hour all night swamp party, but we found the going to be surprisingly good, with only a few sections of deep muskeg bog to wade through.  By 9PM we had hit Heart lake, which is only a few Kms from the river, and we stillo hadn't hit any bad stuff.  We kept waiting from serious nastiness to appear, but it never did, and we rolled on down to the big Mac, chasing a couple of Black bears ahead of us like cattle.

Site of old camp Canol

We hit the Mac just before 10 PM, and was it a welcome sight.  It had been a long, hot day, and we ran down to the rover, and soaked in its pellucid waters on a bottom of firm sand.  A triple rainbow glowed in the soft evening light.  We lit a huge fire, and sat around it, taking it all in, and reliving the trip.  A six pack of beer would not have gone amiss.
Eventually sleep dragged us to the mids, and to the worst mosquitos of the trip.  Some DEET repellent took care of that though.
40 miles.

The big Mac

Morning found us in smoke from a fire to the North and strong winds.  Al Pace at Canoe North Adventures
had been a contact for us in NW, and we phoned them in the morning on our Satellite phone to try and arrange a ride over.  The Mac is a big river here, and thought of paddling over PFD-less in the large waves and strong current sealed the deal.
Matt, Cedar and Taylor came through in a huge way and got us a boat lined up, and by 3, we were comfortably ensconced at Canoe Norths awesome digs at the float plane base.  They have a great lodge there, with very reasonable rates, and comfy surroundings.  A great spot to chill after the trip, and it gets you out of Norman Wells.  Give them a ring, they are great folks. 
We had tentatively made arrangements to fly back to Mac Pass with North Wright Air.  Bad weather had us shut down until Friday morning, when things looked good enough to give it a whirl.  Travis, whos dad founded NWAir flew us in a 206 back to Mac pass, utilizing some honed mountain flying skills, dodging clouds and rain.  There is just no way of doing this trip cheaply, so get ready to spend some cash.  Its worth it.
We arrived back at Mac pass around noon or so, which was not going to allow us to make it back to Ross River in time for the ferry.  The road was even worse than before due to monsoon like rains, and we arrived in Ross around 8, hungry, tired and ready for bed.
We managed to track down the hotels owner, got a room, and lights out.
We hit the opening ferry, gassed up, and made track.  A quick pit stop in Carmacks for Anthony to satisfy his double cheese burger craving, and we were in The Horse by 12:30.
Mission accomplished.