The Canol Heritage Trail is a legacy of the Second World War. It was pushed through the Mackenzie Mountains to Yukon from Norman Wells in the winter of 1943-44. The project involved building airstrips, winter roads, tractor trails, barges and docking facilities. Some 225,000 tons of equipment was moved north, much of it over the old Athabasca River route from Waterways to Fort Fitzgerald, (there were no roads north at the time) portaged around the Slave rapids and then by the Slave River, Great Slave Lake and Mackenzie River to Norman Wells. In good weather, it was a 14 day trip overland. Some 30,000 civilians and 1300 US servicemen worked on the project.
The road and pipeline were completed in 15 months, but only used for a year, as they were too impractical to maintain. In total some 929 km (577 miles ) of 4 and 6 inch pipe was strung across the rugged route to Whitehorse. Most of the construction machinery and the pipe was salvaged, but rusting truck bodies, rotting pumping stations, wanagans and Nissen huts still evoke the era along the route. The original “road” has vanished in several places due to slides and washouts, but the trail is still passable on foot or horseback.
Aerial tours are offered out of Norman Wells – it’s an amazing sight. Serious hikers also can be dropped off by aircraft at several points long the 355 km Heritage Trail. A good day’s hike for experienced hikers might be 10 to 12 miles or about 16 km per day, sometimes through head high bush, sometimes along a boulder strewn river bed, or up a precarious mountain track.
For geology buffs, the trail presents the story of the early formation of the continents. At various points the trail crosses 300 million year old dolostone, grey limestone with shell coral and fish fossils, granite, magnesium rich limestone, and 900 million year old sandstone, formed in shallow seas long before the creation of the mountains. Deep canyons were carved by meltwater from ice age glaciers just 10,000 years ago.