“There’s TWO places you’ve got to experience before you die”, the old man I met on the Chilkoot Trail told me. Boy, was he right! Two years after that meeting, my friends and I were bike-packing the Canol Heritage Trail through the Mackenzie Mountains, in a remote corner of Canada’s Northwest Territories.
The Canol “Road” was a road built during WWII to connect the Oil Fields at Norman Wells, NWT to Alaska, to supply petroleum to support the war effort and to aid in the construction of the Alaska Highway. The name CANOL derives from Canadian Oil Road, and construction began in 1942. Built at the same time as the Alaska Highway was, the purpose of construction was to get military equipment, machinery and supplies from the lower 48 and other regions to Alaska to fortify the Alaska territory against the Japanese forces. Oil could then be transported to Whitehorse, Yukon, where it would be refined into gasoline. The Canol road had to cross some of the most forbidding, desolate landscapes on the North American continent. Workers who built the road had to endure the harshness of the tundra climate, hordes of insects proportional to biblical plagues, long arduous hours of work; all in the midst of grizzly bear country.
The Canol project was abandoned even before it was completed. After the Americans bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese surrendered, so the project came to a halt. The route is a virtual museum of WWII relics abandoned on the roadside. The road has not been maintained since. Nature is in the process of reclaiming this road, which makes it not usable for automobiles. We knew that taking a bike-packing trip into the wilds along this “road” would truly be a wilderness adventure. But we had no idea how epic this journey would be, or what nature would have in store for us.
We loaded up our bikes in my hometown of Juneau, Alaska and took the ferry north to Skagway, where we rented a mini-van. Two college friends from Atlanta, Georgia, who had done some North country trips with me in the past, accompanied me on this trip. As we drove up the steep road from sea level to the top of White Pass, we joked about where we would have had to stop pedaling and walk the bikes uphill, had we stuck with the original ridiculous plan of biking all the way from Skagway. Once in British Columbia and then in the Yukon, we would have about 300 more miles of mostly dirt and gravel roads to get to the border of the NWT. Thankfully, we came to our senses and decided on starting the bike portion of the trip at the NWT border.
There are so few people in the North country and the climate is so harsh, that there are few bridges over big rivers. It is more feasible to use a ferry for the crossing. On the South Canol Road, near Ross River, we used the ferry below to cross to the other side.
The crossing of the Pelly River marks where the South Canol Road becomes the North Canol Road. Once on the other side, the North Canol heads through increasingly desolate country towards the border of the Northwest Territories. The road narrows and there are no services, so this road is not recommended for tourist travel. It passes through sub-alpine forests of spruce, dwarf birch and willow.
Boreal forests, the ecosystem of forests that ring around the world at higher latitudes in the northern hemisphere, are also prone to fire. After a fire, the charred forests are invaded by pink fireweed, a pioneer species that is the first step in plant succession and re-vegetation of the forest.
MacMillan Pass, the highest elevation point on the Canol Road, marks the boundary between the Yukon and Northwest Territories. The road is not maintained on the other side of the border. Time to park the car and mount the bikes and head into the unknown.
MacMillan Pass is in the Mackenzie Mountain Range. The scenery and solitude were magical. Even though it was still late summer, the higher elevations of the mountains were artfully painted with a veneer of fresh snow.
It wasn’t long until we had to cross a creek. The bridge that was built for army vehicles decades ago, had long since succumbed to the ravages of nature. Time to take off one’s shoes and push the loaded bikes across a frigid stream!
The weather can be very mercurial at this latitude. It wasn’t long before gray clouds moved in. They opened up and pelted us with graupel, which is often referred to as “soft hail”. While the helmets protected the tops of our heads, the wind whipped the graupel horizontally and pelted our faces. This was already intense! A few miles down the road, we found an old abandoned structure from which to hide behind the wind.
The storm dissipated as quickly as it came upon us. There were several other streams we had to cross, which were now swollen with water from the storm.
We continued biking until we came upon an even larger stream to cross. The Intga River was pretty deep. No reason for all of us to get soaked, so we parked the bikes at the bank of the river, while I carried my smaller, lighter companions on my back one by one to the other side. While doing so, I thought back to my high school friends Jay and Al. I think Jay had sprained his ankle badly in gym class. Al ended up carrying Jay home on his back, all the while singing the 1969 hit song by the Hollies…”He Ain’t Heavy…He’s My Brother!” I smiled thinking about that as I carried Bruce and Pat across the Intga River…..
We made camp. Bear dung was everywhere, as well as caribou and wolf sign. When we were in arctic and alpine tundra, you could see a long way. But when traveling though willow and scrub brush, you had the uneasy feeling that a grizzly bear or a moose could surprise you. Snow still clung to the mountains. This is really wild country.
In the first few days, the only sign we saw of modern civilization was a group of cabins to the south of the road, near the border. After that, only signs from construction in the 1940s remained. We made camp near the trail and noticed a spur road heading up into the mountains. We cached most of our gear and took only the food (so no critters would get into it), some rain gear and our ice axes with us. Who else takes an ice axe on a bike packing trip?
We climbed up the road until we hit more snow, then parked the bikes and continued trekking uphill to reach the summit, which was within sight. We all safely made it to the top of a peak with no name at the end of a road to nowhere. We wondered, “Who built this little road, and why did they do it?”
The next day we saw a couple of caribou grazing on the tundra, about 100 yards off of the trail. When we stopped to take pictures of them, the wind shifted. They caught our scent and galloped away.
Continuing our journey, we had several small creeks to negotiate, which required not only carrying the bikes, but stepping very carefully over slippery rocks. A broken ankle is always a bad thing, but out here this far from civilization, even a paper cut becomes a major thing.
On the last day before we reached the furthest point inland before turning around, we met three German bikers in their fifties headed in the opposite direction. They were beginning to have problems with their bikes. Some of the sandy soil was getting stuck on the bike chain, which made shifting almost impossible. I remember one gentleman saying in broken English, “Za geers, Zey are SCREAMING for Oil!”
Europeans, especially Germans, have an affinity for the wild lands of the Canadian Arctic. Further down the road, we saw the ruins of an old cabin and decided to take a rest stop. To our astonishment, a shivering, disheveled young man was laying on the ground inside of the ruined roofless cabin. His wool sweater was dirty and ripped in places. We were concerned for his safety. We immediately offered him food and water.
“I don’t eat JUNK food”, came the reply in a heavy German accent.
“Well then, how do you survive out here?”, we asked.
“I only eat ground squirrels”, came the response. We looked at each other with amazement. Here was another example of a would-be survivalist trying to prove his manhood in the wilds. He was not open to any help from us. After we left, we wondered how long it would be before he either perished or came to his senses. Fall was coming soon to the North country.
At the end of the day we crossed the Ekwi river, which required another ford. On the other side of the river, about 150 yards from the bank, was an old abandoned structure. Since the clouds in the sky appeared to be angry, we decided to make camp in the old shelter, but stored food under some rocks far from where we slept. Grizzly tracks were present in the mud near the river. The doors and windows of the old structure had metal spikes and glass shards around them, ostensibly to keep intruders, such as bear or wolverine, from entering the cabin. I found a large moose antler nearby, but when I picked it up, it reeked of bear urine. We seemed to take only cat naps that night, with regular peeks outside to check on our gear.
The next morning, only minutes into the trip, Bruce found an intact caribou skull with huge antlers attached to it. “Wouldn’t that be nice sitting over your mantle piece?”, I asked.
Bruce agreed, but since we were more than 20 miles from the car, he thought that getting it back out would be too much of a problem.
“You found them”, I said. “Are you telling me you don’t want to claim them as your own?”, I asked.
Bruce replied, “You’d be an idiot to try and haul them out of here on a bicycle.” They were so big that you could only rest them on the handlebars, but would not have enough room to sit in the seat and pedal. You would have to put your left foot on the right pedal and use the bike as a scooter.
“Well, then….I’ll be an idiot for ONE day,” I replied. Then I hoisted the antlers onto the bike.
Since I could not continue to ride with the boys, I said I would start to slowly head back to the car. They could continue riding in the area and would have no problem in catching up to me either at the end of the day or by the next one. I walked the bike up hills and used it as a scooter on flat areas. On downhills, I could stand on one pedal and still handle the hand brakes while slowly cruising downhill.
About 5 miles into my return trip, I saw a few more caribou grazing in the tundra off of the road. This time the wind was in my face, so my scent would not carry. I slowly put the bike down and grabbed the antlers and held them at head height. When a couple of the caribou noticed me, I bent down, seemingly grazing on the tundra myself. They seemed to pay more attention to the rack of antlers than the funny looking body beneath them, so I kept being able to move closer and closer to them. I was just reaching for my camera, when the wind shifted. I could just about hear what they were thinking.
“THAT DOESN’T SMELL LIKE A CARIBOU!” is what they were thinking out loud, as they hastily scampered away. Dang! It would’ve been a great picture!
I continued on, until I came to a long uphill grade. I pushed the bike up the trail toward the top of the grade. I was just getting ready to use the bike as a scooter, when I spotted a group of 14 caribou on the south side of the trail staring at me. I slowly reached for my camera, trying not to make any noise or any sudden movements.
Just then, the group split into two. Seven females stayed back, staring back at me intently. Seven males, with large racks, but smaller than the one I was carrying, walked slowly towards me. Had they ever seen a two footed caribou with round legs before? The females seemed enthralled with the size of my antlers. I could picture them thinking, “OOOHH, LOOK AT THAT RACK!!” I guess size DOES matter, at least if you are a caribou.
The magic of that moment turned quickly to sheer terror! All seven of the males broke into a charging gallop right towards me. There’s too many of them and they are way too big and strong for me to fight them. I scootered the biked as fast as I could, but they closed the gap quickly. As I hit a downhill section of the road, I gained some speed. I yelled, hacked, spit, and farted….ANYTHING that might repel them! Luckily for me, they ran alongside the road and escorted me away until I was far enough away from their women to not be a threat. Needless to say, I didn’t get any photo footage of that encounter!
Several hours later, Pat and Bruce caught up to me. They had seen the large herd of caribou on their way back, but did not have a run-in with them. We were all pretty tired, when we saw those cabins off to the south side of the trail come into view. There was a BIPED walking around one of them. We took the chance that if we went to make a visit, we would not be seen as intruders.
When we arrived at the compound, we met George and Brodie, a married couple who were the owners of the Oldsquaw Lodge, a lodge that catered to wealthy visitors interested in ecotourism. George was a Canadian wildlife biologist, author and photographer, who had written a book on the Caribou and the Barren Lands. He and his wife ran the lodge here in the summer and lived in Botswana during the Northern Hemisphere winters. In Botswana, they worked as wildlife biologists studying African animals. The name Oldsquaw Lodge was named after a species of tundra duck that inhabited this region of the Northwest Territories.
Brodie was nice enough to boil us some tea and treat us as guests. She was very hospitable and we both appreciated stimulating conversation with other humans in a land of such sparse human population. Inside of the lodge, ecotourists relaxed in comfortable chairs, reading and learning about their surroundings, while sipping tea and munching on tasty snacks, while they looked out of full length windows at the barren tundra with the Mackenzie Mountains in the background. Spotting scopes were positioned at the windows for them to spy on caribou, bear, Dall Sheep, wolves, or any other fauna who might be in the area.
When I showed the antlers to George, he examined them and could tell us a lot about the animal. From the size of them and the fact that the skull was still intact, he surmised that it was an old bull who was taken down by a Grizzly the year before. It is amazing to think that caribou grow these antlers every year, and then shed them, only to grow bigger ones the following year.
That was long ago. Today, the Oldsquaw Lodge has changed hands and is now called the Dechenla Lodge. It is now run as a partnership with the Kaska First Nations. The name Dechen la’, translates to “Land at the edge of the sticks” in the language of the Kaska and Sahtu peoples of Canada’s First Nations.
Had I found these antlers in this century, I would have left them where we found them, as they are now protected cultural resources. However, in the tradition of the Native peoples, you should face the head of the animal to the East, so that the spirit of the animal gets to see the rising sun. Native hunters who killed an animal for food and clothing would do this out of respect for the animal. Hunting never had the machismo that Anglo hunters display after a kill. Instead, they showed gratitude to the animal for presenting itself to the hunter and allowing it to be taken.
When we got back to the mini-van, we loaded the bikes in the back and affixed the antlers to the roof rack. We got quite a few stares on the way back to Alaska from cars passing by. Since the antlers were well bleached by sitting outside for at least a full year, none of the border patrol folks on both sides of the international border had any qualms about letting us cross with them. It was clear to them that we had found them and not hunted the animal ourselves.
After we returned the rental vehicle in Skagway, we walked the few blocks to the ferry terminal and walked our bikes onto the ship. Another biker walking his bike onto the ferry had a small set of deer antlers on his handlebars. When he saw the size of the caribou antlers on my bike, he gave his deer antlers a rueful look.
Those antlers stayed in our apartment in Juneau for another few years, then they accompanied us when we moved to Oregon. On that 2,000 mile drive, we would have a line of cars following us into any hotel that we would be staying at for the night. We always had to take them off the truck and bring them inside the motel room with us. We made sure to place the head facing to the East. The further south we drove, the more people asked where we shot that moose. Some thought it was an elk. A horrified child might have thought we killed one of Santa’s reindeer. He might think, “Would there be no Christmas presents under the tree this year because of this?”
For the last 27 years, our caribou has been living in our house in Oregon, perched on a dividing wall between the living room and kitchen. I’ve brought him to school many times to show him to the students. They all marvel at how heavy the antlers are, which gives them a new respect for an animal that has to carry that weight around every day. They are even more surprised to learn that such a large animal subsists on low growing lichens in an ecosystem that looks barren to the untrained eye.
The Arctic seems timeless, but it is changing. The effects of climate change are being felt more in the mid to high latitudes. Treeline is creeping further north into what was once tundra. Icecaps are disappearing and melting permafrost is releasing methane gas, which further exacerbates warming of the planet. Getting to look up at these antlers every day reminds me of what a special place the Arctic is and how fortunate we were to experience it when we did. It also is a reminder to tread as lightly on our planet as possible and to respect the other life forms and indigenous cultures that we share this world with.
I am eternally grateful to the man I met on the Chilkoot Trail years ago who told me I had to see the Mackenzie Mountains before I die. That was some damn good advice!
If you haven’t read the post I made last year about the fellow who told me all about this, here is the link below…The consequences of casual, concise Klondike encounters