The riders accelerated through a relatively clear patch of road on their journey. (Contributed photo)

Part 4: Chasing the Canol Trail

Five women went to find a piece of Canada’s history in the north

In Part 3: The team split up at the Canol Outfitters hunting camp after they discovered the replacement wheel for Caitlin DuBiel’s bike would not arrive as soon as they had hoped. Sinead Earley, Rohanna Gibson and Gabriela Stephens went ahead, while DuBiel and Hannah Johnston waited at the camp. The replacement wheel eventually arrived after two days, and DuBiel and Johnston were helicoptered out to Trout Creek where there teammates were waiting after an exhausting three days of travel in cold rainy conditions.

part 3

On July 28, Sinead Earley, Rohanna Gibson and Gabriela Stephens were running on fumes. The three riders had been punished physically, mentally and emotionally since the group split up. The women faced the prospect of crossing Trout Creek, which at this point was flowing so high — the highest it had risen in 30 years — that a crossing attempt would be dangerous.

In her journal, Gibson wrote that the arrival of Caitlin DuBiel and Hannah Johnston lifted their spirits immensely.

“Big day!” she wrote. “Woke up cold and wet but with the rain stopped. Sad sacks of s*** eating breakfast, total mood switch when the helicopter arrived with Caitlin and Hannah.”

The reunion provided just enough of a push to begin what would be — after all the group had endured so far — what DuBiel described as one of the hardest sections of terrain.

As Earley, Gibson and Stephens had already discovered, Trout Creek was flowing too high to cross where they camped, so the group had bushwhacked upstream to find a safer place to make an attempt at the other side.

“It was still pretty scary,” DuBiel said.

The group spent the next several hours pushing their way through thick, shin deep moss. Most of this terrain was unrideable so progress was made on foot. On especially steep sections of the trail, they formed bike chains where they would hand bikes up to each other to get past cliff faces and sheer drops in terrain. DuBiel said it took them six hours to cover five kilometres and find their way back to the road where they could ride once again.

They eventually made camp along the road to the Carcajou River, which is approximately 150 kilometres from their end point of Norman Wells. There, they enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner prepared by DuBiel.

At this point in the journey, the group was approximately 45 kilometres behind schedule, and it had become clear that they would have to push if they were going to make it to Norman Wells before running out of time. DuBiel said that managing the balance between pushing and resting was becoming more complicated. She and Johnston were relatively fresh after having spent three days resting at the hunting camp, but the other riders were reaching their limit after being out in the rain for so long.

“The other girls were maxed out, at their wits end,” she said. “So we were trying to be as respectful of that as possible while trying to push forward.”

The team set off again on July 29, with the hope of covering approximately 30 – 40 kilometres per day. At this point, the sections of road were even shorter, and the riders had to navigate their way around an increasing amount of washed out road. Despite the difficulty, they were able to cross the Carcajou River and made steady progress, encountering more and more remnants of the original pipeline project work camps that had been the inspiration for the trip. DuBiel said they passed delapitated buildings with beds still inside them.

“There were all kinds of crazy broken down buildings, cabooses that would be pulled behind the work teams where they would live,” DuBiel said. “You could envision what happened there.”

Next came a big 800 metre climb up to the Plains of Abraham, a large barren area that DuBiel described as a moonscape.

“Just kilometres of barren rock,” she said. “Wide valley systems and huge terrain. It was awe inspiring and just beautiful, and unlike any other terrain I’ve ever seen.”

It was at this time that the group had a frank discussion about how much of the journey they had left to do, and what it would take to complete it. They were still 40 kilometres behind schedule at this point, and still had over 100 left to go. The group agreed that the only way to make it to Norman Wells was to go as hard as possible, taking minimal breaks along the way.

“We all committed to minimal sleep, minimal camp and just a full on push,” DuBiel said. “Everyone agreed it was full tilt from now on, minimal anything but moving forward.”

The group continued moving for 20 hours that day, pushing forward another 20 kilometres. They eventually reached a junction in the road approximately 80 kilometres away from the endpoint where they were faced with a choice of following either high road that still somewhat maintained, or follow the low path that would take them through more bush. The group decided to take the high road, and followed it for another two hours before they ran out of daylight.

It was approximately 2:30 a.m. and they were in the bush without the ability to pick out the trail. The group decided it would be best to get a few, chilly hours of sleep until daylight returned.

“Single tent set up on a pile of caribou poop, and we all squeezed in,” Gibson wrote in her journal.

They woke up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning, ate, packed up their camp for the last time, found the road and made their final push for Norman Wells. The group carried their bikes as they hacked their way through thick bush, hoping that the trail would eventually relent. However, after two hours, they encountered a section of impenetrable bush surrounded by steep scree.

It was at this point when they realized that they were not going to make it. The group was over a day and 40 kilometres behind with at least 80 kilometres remaining. To continue on would mean placing more unnecessary punishment on their already bruised bodies.

“We were already 40 kilometres behind, we met this terrain that’s totally impassible, and I think that’s where everyone’s hearts broke for the final time,” DuBiel said. “When we realized we’re not catching up. We’re done.”

Gibson called for a helicopter to come and pick them up, and they began their descent from the high road back to the junction. DuBiel said that the group ran out of energy after deciding not to press forward anymore.

“All of a sudden, none of us could go another step because there was no goal anymore,” she said. “All of us had thrown in the towel, the adrenaline was gone, the point was gone and we were all just spent.”

Every bump the group went over felt impossible, their bodies ached, knee deep swamps felt like they were hip deep. They had pushed themselves well beyond their limits.

The group made arrangements for the helicopter to pick them up at a nearby beach. Soon after they made the call, a helicopter began circling them and eventually landed. This caused concern because the helicopter had arrived too soon, and the group wasworried that they had accidentally called in an emergency evacuation. Fortunately, this was not the case, as the men in the helicopter were simply members of a federally funded project to clean up the remnants of the work camps along the trail. They had heard that the five women were out there, and wanted to check in on them to make sure that everything was ok.

Roger, one of the reclamation team members, congratulated the group on what they had been able to accomplish, telling them that the remaining 80 kilometres were barely rideable and that water levels were at a 30-year high. He explained that it would have been torture for them to carry on, and that they should be proud of what they had done. DuBiel described this as a beautiful and human moment that gave them the closure they needed.

“We still wanted to finish,” she said. “But I think this guy, who knew that trail, knew that terrain, who was so personally acquainted with it, was saying to us, ‘You’ve done it, you’ve done an incredible thing,’ that gave us all some closure and we felt a little bit better about the fact that we weren’t going to finish.”

Eventually, the group was picked up by the helicopter they had called, and as they flew out over what would have been their remaining terrain, they saw sections that appeared to be covered by high water and swamp that would have been difficult to cross.

“It would have taken at least another three days to cover the last 80 kilometres,” DuBiel said.

The helicopter dropped the group off at Norman Wells where they made their final camp of the trip at McKinnon Park, the town’s campsite. That night, they drank Coronas and ate their last meal of camp rations.

Their chase of the Canol Trail had come to an end.

The Northern View will publish the story’s epilogue next week.

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