The ‘Epic of Canol’

Maintenance camp near Mile 222. Photo Credit: Caitlin Dubiel

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In July 2017, five women set out on a twelve-day bikepacking trip to document the historic significance and environmental impact of the Canol Road and Pipeline, gathering video footage and photographs as they travelled. The intention of the project was, in part, to document the dynamic ‘afterlife’ of the Canol pipeline: its ruins and wreckage may seem static (aside from gradual corrosion and collapse), but they have constantly been changing, and continue to do so today. A twenty-minute documentary based on the trip, “Traversing the Canol: Explorations by Wheel in the Canadian North“, will screen at various locations in Canada and the US throughout 2019. This visual essay provides snapshots from two paralleled ‘epics’. I credit my fearless travelling companions for sharing their reflections and imagery: Caitlin DuBiel, Rohanna Gibson, Hannah Johnston, and Gabriela Stephens. 

The ‘Epic of Canol’ is a reference to Richard Finnie’s 1947 article in the Canadian Geographical Journal where he describes the pipeline project as one of the “most stupendous construction feats of its kind ever undertaken.” [1] Canol, short for Canadian Oil, was a pipeline and service road built to carry crude oil 800 kilometers through the Mackenzie Mountains. The four inch steel pipe connected the oilfields of Norman Wells (Northwest Territories) to a newly constructed refinery in Whitehorse (Yukon), supplying fuel for the Alaska Highway and the Northwest Staging Route during World War II. Construction began in the spring of 1942. By April 1944, oil flowed into Whitehorse.

The Canol Project. Canadian Geographical Journal, March 1947.

Despite enormous investment of both capital and labour, involving the mobilization of 30,000 US Army Corps Engineers and civilian contractors, the pipeline was abandoned after only fifteen months in operation. Permafrost damage, construction faults, unforeseen logistical and supply problems, and fluctuating oil prices as the war ended, all combined to reduce Canol’s feasibility. A few sections of the pipeline were salvaged, and the Whitehorse refinery was sold, dismantled, and relocated to Leduc, Alberta in 1948. The residual material history – pipeline segments, truck graveyards, heaps of oil barrels, telegraph wire, pump stations, and contaminated soils – still litter the subarctic landscape.

Seventy-three years after abandonment, five women set out on a twelve-day bike and packraft ‘epic’ of their own, traversing 600 kilometers of the North Canol Road. [2] Much has changed. Surface conditions of the former road vary from smooth to barely discernible, obscured by thick brush, rocky scree, and fields of boulders. Weather and erosion in the Selwyn and Mackenzie Mountains and the hydrological powers of the Twitya and Carcajou Rivers have reshaped the landscape. The political scene has also been renegotiated. In the Northwest Territories, Sahtu Dene and Métis assertions of self-government are now protected by the Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, and current environmental remediation efforts are transforming the old road into a recreational trail as part of the Doi T’oh Territorial Park initiative. Trail crews consist of Sahtu elders and youth from Tulita, Deline, and Norman Wells. The aim of remediation is not only environmental cleanup, but also the transfer of Indigenous knowledge from one generation to the next, while spending time on the land.

Pipeline Infrastructure

While pieces of pipeline are few, and the road unrecognizable in many places, their route can be traced across the landscape by the chain of ruins and detritus that had been essential to their construction and operation. The access road that ran parallel to the pipeline (generally) had required 65 pile-driven bridges and 820 culverts.

Photo Credit: Rohanna Gibson

The Standard Oil Company of California was employed as consultant on the design and construction of the project, and Imperial Oil – proprietors of drilling operations in Norman Wells as early as 1933 – were responsible for oil production.

Wanigans (steel-bottomed sledges) were used as worker barracks during construction, built on runners that would slide on the snow and ice. Winter temperatures in 1943 and 1944 reached as low as -50 degrees Celsius.

There were twelve maintenance camps along the length of the road.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Dubiel

There were also six pump stations along the route, needed to keep the oil flowing. Each station consisted of a pump house, above-ground storage tanks, a generator building, mess hall, and dormitory.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Dubiel

The pipeline was a 100mm (4-inch) steel pipe. It ran above ground the entire route, and channeled unrefined ‘light’ crude oil (for direct use in diesel pumps and motors). The oil had a paraffin base that gave it a low pour point, meaning it could flow in temperatures of -70 degrees and even lower. Geological surveys projected that the oilfields would produce 3000 barrels of oil per day.

Photo Credit: Rohanna Gibson

A telegraph line was needed along the extent of the road in order to connect the pump stations and terminals of the pipeline; repeater stations were built at Pump Stations 1, 4, and 6. Entwined antlers led to numerous moose and mountain caribou deaths, so that removal of the telegraph line became of primary concern for Sahtu Dene and Métis communities on their hunting grounds. The Canol was added to the federal Contaminated Sites Program in 2007, and soon after the Canol Trail Remediation Working Group was formed. Its first step in remediation was the removal of telegraph wire from over 322 kilometers of the route, filling 75 helicopter-ready bags that were flown out for disposal.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Dubiel
Photo Credit: Caitlin Dubiel

Pedal-Powered Research Methods

The five women all had different motivations for signing up for an ambitious and challenging cycling trip. Yet, there was a shared interest in documenting the leftover pieces of history along the Canol Road, and more fully understanding the ongoing Sahtu stewardship on the land. The historian-geographers in the group (Sinead and Hannah) were also thinking about cycling as a novel research method, and about communicating the benefits of unique, off-the-charts, experiential learning strategies.

Photo Credit: Caitlin Dubiel

The story of the Canol is complex, with key elements including massive wartime industrialization, state-led resource extraction, and the deep and far reach of hydrocarbon corridors in the Canadian North. Yet it ultimately proved to be a major failure, and its history as an industrial ruin and ecological hazard has until now been largely overlooked. [3]  Much of the Canol literature upholds a celebratory narrative of technological prowess and engineering ingenuity (so commonly found in post-WWII era reflections) and depictions, also, of Canada’s sovereign right to claim and manage northern lands in the name of economic progress and development. There is certainly room for more work to be done.

Sahtu trail crews remain active within Doi T’oh Territorial Park and remediation activities will continue until completion in 2020. There have been significant changes since 2017, adding to the timeliness of the cycling trip: oil drums have been consolidated, asbestos and batteries removed, contaminated soils excavated, precarious structures refurbished, and the trail cleared of brush.[4] Ongoing research on the Canol follows the lead of other environmental justice inflected scholarship, such as the work of Arn Keeling and John Sandlos,[5] critically examining the extraction industries that have dominated economic activity in the area since European colonization, and even more profoundly since the Second World War. This is perhaps even more important as neocolonial patterns of land and resource dispossession persist in the twenty-first century.


[1] Richard Sterling Finnie (1906-1987) was hired as northern advisor and documentary filmmaker by Bechtel-Price-Callahan, the consortium of construction and welding companies that managed the Canol Project. The article was an adaptation of a presentation given to the Canadian Geographical Society in 1946, alongside a screening of “CANOL”, the 16mm colour and sound film that Finnie produced for the U.S. War Department. Clips from the original film are included in the 2017 documentary.

[2] The North Canol is the 600 km portion of the road running northeast from Ross River (Yukon) to Norman Wells (Northwest Territories). The South Canol is part highway, part dirt road, running from Whitehorse to Ross River.

[3] It is necessary to acknowledge that current remediation efforts are built upon earlier studies from the 1970’s; ecosystem ecologists Linda and Peter Kershaw surveyed types of disturbance ecology and rates of vegetation recovery along the Canol (primarily noting that recovery is very slow in northern and alpine ecosystems). See Kershaw, Peter and Linda Kershaw. 2016. A Guide to the Canol Heritage Trail and Doi T’oh Territorial Park Reserves. Norman Wells: Norman Wells Historical Society.

[4] I would like to convey that the journey was extremely challenging, and we frequently felt that bikes were the wrong choice of transport. Please contact the remediation Project Team for updates before planning any travel along the trail.

[5] Keeling, Arn and John Sandlos, eds. 2015. Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, and Memory. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

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Sinead Earley is an independent researcher currently based in Sorrento, British Columbia. Her approach to environmental studies starts with self-acknowledgement as a settler-ally on Secwépemc territory. She is a critical resource geographer whose primary focus has been forest history, management, and policy. Current projects engage her growing interest in energy-related and environmental justice issues.

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