In part 1: Caitlin Dubiel and four other women completed preparations to find and follow the Canol Trail. The trail, which was built to service the construction of a pipeline from Norman Wells in the Northwest Territory to refineries in the Yukon. The travellers would be documenting their journey along trail to shed light on a part of Canada’s history and test themselves against some of the country’s most rough and rugged terrain.
The group began the first leg of their journey on the afternoon of July 19, unaware of how difficult their journey would eventually become over the next few days. After a ride to Ross River, a small town approximately six hours north of Whitehorse, the women took a short ferry ride across the Pelly River. Upon their arrival on the other side, the group rode for two hours, covering 16 kilometres before stopping to setup their first campsite of the trip.
In her travel journal, DuBiel wrote that the road were good, but that there was a lot of mud. The group set up their tents on the side of the road, in a spot that was “a little tippy, a little rooty,” with lots of wet moss and bugs. The group was excited, and looking forward to begin their first full day of riding.
Over the next two days, they made good progress, covering 84 kilometres total on the first day and 70 kilometres the second day. The roads at this stage were still reasonably well maintained so loggers, hunters and researchers could have access. DuBiel described the terrain as having variable climbs with fast descents.
“Long days, but manageable riding for sure,” she said. “We just rode and rode and put some miles behind us.”
By the end of July 21, the group had biked approximately 170 kilometres, about on track with where they had hoped they would be at this stage of their journey. The group’s gear was a little damp and it was cooler than it had been on previous nights, but they were still in good spirits and encouraging each other. After enjoying dinner by some old culvert pipes on the side of the road, they settled into camp for their third night.
“Everyone worked well together,” DuBiel wrote in her journal. “Overall in good form.”
They broke camp at 9:30 a.m., July 22, and made a push for the border of the Northwest Territories. The morning’s riding was relatively uneventful and the group enjoyed the region’s beautiful natural landscape, replete with its mountain and glacier views.
At around noon, DuBiel noticed something strange with her bike after completing a moderate hill climb. In her journal, she wrote that she was unable to generate power on her descent. After inspecting her bike, DuBiel discovered that her freewheel had failed, meaning that she had no pedalling power similar to when the bike’s chain slips from the cog.
“It’s something that almost never happens,” she said. “You could go your whole life as an avid cyclist and that would never happen.”
The issue forced the group to stop, and they ate lunch while DuBiel and Hannah Johnston, one of the riders who is a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, tried to fix the issue. They soon realized that it was not a problem that could be repaired in the field, and decided to settle for a makeshift fix, tying the cogs tightly to the spokes of the wheel using a thin cord DuBiel had brought on the trip for emergencies. She would have to ride another 100 kilometres with the bike in that condition.
“It was so MacGyver,” DuBiel said.
The improvised solution was not perfect, but it allowed DuBiel to continue riding, even though she had to do so carefully.
“It was really hard and funny,” she said. “I had to ride it a little gingerly, but I still had my bottom five gears which meant I could still climb hills.”
The problem would eventually become worse, however, as DuBiel’s rear derailleur — a mechanism that controls gear changes on a bike — failed completely, meaning she could only ride in one gear and her bike was completely fixed wheel. To make matters worse, Gabriela Stephens, a graduate student from the University of Pennsylvania also on the trip, had taken a hard fall, sustaining a concussion and a sprained thumb in addition getting scratched and bruised.
The group decided to set up camp at 8:00 p.m., approximately 11.5 hours after setting off. DuBiel doesn’t recall how much distance had been covered, but said it was less due to the mechanical issues. Together with Johnston, she tried to make additional adjustments to the bike to make it more rideable.
“The group displayed an awesome ability to manage sub-optimal circumstances,” she wrote in her journal.
On July 23, the group made it to Mile 222, the official beginning of the Canol Trail enroute to Caribou Pass.
DuBiel’s journal says the terrain continued to be beautiful, and they began to see historical artifacts of the pipeline. She also says that this is where the conditions of the road really began to decline — and the damage to her bike made it unrideable.
“Fun came to a screaming halt when Caitlin lost function of her derailleur and proceed to break three chains in quick succession placing the team on foot with approximately 10 kilometres left to cover,” her journal says. “The pass felt as if it would never end, and we ended up trailing two small grizzly cubs for longer than was comfortable.”
On July 24, the group made it to Godlin Lake after another 11 hours of hard riding and hiking. At this point, Caitlin was unable to ride anything beyond flat descending terrain because of her damaged chain. She described the camp as mostly broken down with a geography that was foreign.
“It felt like being on the moon, and didn’t seem to make geological sense!” she wrote.
The team settled into a hunting camp there called Canol Outfitters, where they waited for the arrival of a new wheel for DuBiel which they had arranged to have shipped to them at the camp by other travellers they met on the trail. It was also Johnston’s 30th birthday, which they celebrated with date cake, whisky and a huge pasta dinner that boosted morale.
“Team spirits were raised by bed time with hopes of a new wheel and a fresh start toward the Twitya River,” DuBiel wrote in her journal.
It had been five hard days of trail biking, and the group endured physical, mechanical and emotional setbacks to make it this far. Despite the difficulties, they had a plan and were optimistic about upcoming days in the journey. But the challenges of the Canol Trail had only just begun.
Stay tuned for part three next week.