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Canol Road, Yukon

In April 1942, the U.S. military embarked on a grand scheme to tap a local source for vitally needed oil to support its northern World War II operation. The war effort included construction of the Alaska Highway, the deployment of thousands of troops in Alaska to guard against a feared Japanese invasion from the captured Aleutian Islands, and a major airlift of supplies to Siberia to aid a beleaguered Russian army’s ultimately successful struggle to turn back a German invasion.

Oil existed along the Mackenzie River in Northwest Territory at Norman Wells––but the oil field was inaccessible. The U.S. military convinced a reluctant Canadian government, worried over the project’s feasibility and its incursion into national sovereignty, to allow the construction of an oil pipeline and supporting road from Whitehorse to Norman Wells. The distance was about 825 kilometres, which seemed an easily managed distance to U.S. army engineers who were already two months into construction of the 2,451-kilometre-long Alaska Highway. The approved budget for the pipeline and road construction was $24 million. A refinery was also to be constructed in Whitehorse. The line was dubbed the Canol Pipeline, an acronym for Canadian oil.

On paper the plan may have looked simple enough. The reality, however, was that the pipeline had to cross through the heart of both the Selwyn Mountains and the huge barrier presented by the Mackenzie Mountains. The entire route cut through one of the most isolated regions of the Yukon, with steep valleys gouged by rushing streams and heavily affected by the presence of discontinuous permafrost.

The construction effort was plagued from the beginning by shoddy work and unforeseen logistical and supply problems, as well as an absence of any financial controls by the military commanders overseeing the project. Costs escalated and the entire project exceeded its original budget by five times.

Nevertheless the American effort persevered and both oil line and accompanying road were completed in almost exactly two years of frenzied construction. By April 1944 the oil line was pumping 3,000 barrels of oil a day to the Whitehorse refinery and the road officially opened to traffic the following September. When the northern war effort wound down in March 1945, however, the refinery was abruptly closed and the oil line shut down. Total months of operation––13; total cost––$134 million.

By this time few were sorry to see the pipeline abandoned. For the American military, the project had become an expensive embarrassment exposed in vivid detail by a U.S. senate inquiry headed in early 1944 by soon-to-be-president Harry Truman. The Canadian government had belatedly decided that the pipeline constituted a threat to its sovereign claim to the north and would have to become Canadian property after the war. This raised the issue of how to fund the hefty maintenance costs required to fix permafrost damage and construction faults.

Shortly after the end of the war, the pipeline, transmission stations, and the entire refinery were dismantled and shipped to Alberta where they were used in the Leduc oilfield. Maintenance shops along the Canol route were abandoned, bridges quickly stopped being repaired, and the road surface was allowed to deteriorate. Soon the northern section from Ross River to Norman Wells became impassable to vehicular traffic and the southern portion could only be travelled by heavy trucks equipped with winches for crossing the river.

The project’s epitaph was probably most succinctly described by one critic as a “junkyard monument to military stupidity.”
Today, however, the Canol Road has found new life with outdoor adventurers. On August 18, 1990 it was officially designated Canol Road National Historic Site and the 372-kilometre stretch from the Yukon-Northwest Territory border to Norman Wells became the Canol Road Heritage Trail. In the Yukon, from kilometre 0 at Johnsons Crossing to Ross River, the road traverses 234 kilometres of spectacular scenery rich in streams and lakes. There are no services on this stretch of road, requiring travellers to carry extra gas, spare tires, and other supplies. This part of the road is becoming an increasingly popular route for cycling expeditions.

From Ross River 231 kilometres remain to the end of the driveable section of Canol Road, with no option but to backtrack the entire distance. No services exist along this section. The highway is maintained, but washouts are common. Motor vehicle traffic is often extremely light; consequently it is becoming a mecca for adventurous cyclists. With the exception of water, which can be collected from the many creeks the road crosses (boiling recommended), all supplies must be carried.

Beyond the Yukon border, Canol Road Heritage Trail can be travelled by cyclists, but the road deteriorates more each year and the feasibility of cycling some sections is questionable and only to be undertaken by the most competent and determined. Hikers and cyclists are urged to travel in groups and to arrange for air drops by small plane or helicopter of resupply caches at intervals along the trail. Many river crossings are extremely dangerous at all times of the year, with some far too deep for wading. Weather in this rugged country can change radically overnight.

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