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Ten years of hiking the Canol Trail
Youth spend a week charting the path of Second World War suppliers

Meagan Leonard
Northern News Services
Monday, June 22, 2015

As a young boy growing up in the Sahtu, MLA Norman Yakeleya said his grandmother would tell him stories about his ancestors and their adventures in the Mackenzie mountains.

NNSL photo/graphic

William Horassi climbs along a canyon wall on the Canol Trail to cross a body of water while Tyrell Kochon of Colville Lake watches. - photo courtesy of Norman Yakeleya

It inspired him to go out and experience it himself.

"It's nice to hear stories of the mountains, but it's another thing to actually walk and live and sleep and be with other people in the mountains," he told News/North.

Today Yakeleya is part of an initiative that takes youth from Sahtu communities on a seven-day hike down the Canol Heritage Trail - an annual excursion celebrating its 10th anniversary this July as a new group make the 80-km journey.

Constructed during the Second World War, the trail weaves its way through the Mackenzie Mountains from Norman Wells to the Yukon.

The extensive project took 15 months to complete and included construction of airstrips, winter roads, tractor trails, barges and docking facilities but was only in use for a year. Around 929 kilometres of pipeline was stretched along the treacherous route to carry crude oil to Whitehorse.

Today the trail is washed out in several places but most of it is still accessible on foot or horseback and debris from its heyday such as trucks, pumping stations and huts still dot the route.

It is an important piece of Sahtu history says Yakeleya.

"The youth have walked through the old remnants of the past and saw and felt what it was like in the olden days," he explained.

"Part of their leadership training is to get some history of the land ... mountains, creeks, bends and special places people have indicted."

He described a typical day on the hike.

It starts at 6 a.m., with participants packing up and getting ready to set out by 8 a.m.

Youth are responsible for bringing everything they need to survive with them - this helps them determine what is absolutely necessary for survival.

"They carry 55-to-65-pound packs. It's heavy and they're walking for about 10 miles a day," he said. "It's about helping each other - it's about getting the water and getting the wood."

A number of adults come along as guides for the week and Yakeleya says it is a great opportunity for youth to ask questions about future career possibilities or simply have an ear to listen if they have problems in their lives.

"Sometimes they pair up with an adult hiker and have a chance to talk about issues in the family, school, college, politics or their community," Yakeleya said.

He said the trail's history is also a lesson in environmental preservation, in preparing for future generations.

"When the pipeline closed in 1945, about 60,000 barrels of oil were left in (it)," he said.

"In this day and age this would never have happened ... without proper monitoring and regulations, the youth experience how government did not care about our land."

For those interested in participating in the future but not quite ready for the full hike an elder's camp is set up at the halfway point where younger youth can learn from community members about surviving in the mountains.

"Sometimes you've got to make a fire when it's pouring rain so you've got to learn how to do that - how to read the weather and work around the camp," he said.

"The elder's camp is a staging ground for future hikers."

Since the first annual hike in 2006, around 142 people have made the journey, including 48 youth. Ultimately Yakeleya says it is a test of personal will and strength, a way to get in touch with the land and one's ancestors.

"Those who have walked the Canol know the true meaning of teamwork, co-operation, encouragement and determination. They've been tested in every facet of their entire being," says Yakeleya.

"It's about working together as a team and learning different types of leadership."

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