Hannah Johnston, Sinead Earley, Rohanna Gibson, Caitlin DuBiel and Gabriela Stephens all sit next to their bikes during the first leg of their journey along the Canol Trail. (Contributed photo)

Part 1: Chasing the Canol Trail

This summer Caitlin DuBiel and a group of women took a northern expedition to discover Canada’s past

On a rainy Sunday morning in a cosy Prince Rupert coffee shop July 16, and at a corner table near the shop’s entrance, Caitlin DuBiel and Rohanna Gibson are deep in conversation. The two women were discussing a trip they will soon embark on, an adventure that was nearly two years in the making. With three other like-minded souls, they will take on some of Canada’s toughest natural terrain to rediscover a forgotten part of its history.

DuBiel, a physiotherapist who originally hails from Vancouver Island but currently lives and works in Prince Rupert, explains that the group will be searching out and following the Canol Trail, which was built in the winter of 1943-44 to service the construction of the Canadian Oil pipeline from Norman Wells, North West Territories, to a refinery in Whitehorse Yukon. Significant sums of money were invested to build and develop this infrastructure, but the project was abandoned 15 months after its completion when the war came to an end, leaving all the machinery used in the project’s construction behind.

DuBiel said the group plans to document their trip with photos and video for educational purposes. They want to share the story of the people who were involved in building it, and showing how lessons from that experience are still relevant today.

“You look at a project like that where so much was built into it, and it was completely walked away from 15-months later,” she said. “It brings questions up when we consider what we’re currently doing.”

Joining DuBiel and Gibson on this journey are UNBC lecturer Sinead Earley, University of Pennsylvania graduate student Gabriela Stephens and Queen’s University PhD candidate Hannah Johnston.

Gibson, a geologist who lives in British Columbia, added that in addition to being curious about the country’s history, all of the women share a love of adventure and are driven to overcome challenges, particularly those of the outdoor variety.

“It’s a love of the outdoors and adventure and pushing and hurting,” she said. “Just being in the north and having the history of it. I love stories of people doing things in the north because it’s so much more complicated than people expect.”

DuBiel and Gibson outlined the group’s plan for the journey. They will meet in Whitehorse, July 17, where they will prep their gear and pack for the 12-day, 600 kilometre journey. They will begin the first leg of the trip on July 20, riding approximately 250 kilometres to the border of the Yukon and North West Territories before resupplying and continuing the remaining 350 kilometres on the Canol Heritage trail.

“We’re hoping to average 70 kilometres per day in the beginning where the roads are decent,” said DuBiel. “On slower days where we have to do a river crossing or walk, we’d like to do 40.”

The women explain that the Canol Trail is on some of the most rugged landscape in the country. It is remote, isolated and has multiple elevation changes and river crossings, giving it the reputation as one of the most difficult wilderness routes in Canada. The equipment the group will use is designed to withstand the punishment it will receive from this harsh environment.

Over the past two years, the group was able to get sponsorship support in the form of heavy duty trail bikes, specialized carrying bags for the bikes and camera equipment to document their progress.

“Being in the thick of that history under our own power and dealing with whatever struggles we’re going to deal with on a daily basis will be awesome,” DuBiel said.

The pair left the coffee shop to finish their packing and take their flights to the north. They will both arrived in Whitehorse the next day where they met Earley and Johnston, and began their prep while waiting for Stephens, who was delayed en-route, to join them. On July 18, Stephens arrived despite initial issues with her baggage.

They prepped for the rest of the day, enjoyed a final meal with their hosts and one more night’s rest before morning.

On July 19, the adventure began.

Stay tune for part two next week

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