We could have happily enjoyed sitting on the sunny deck all afternoon, but the trail beckoned, and Norman Wells wasn’t getting any closer. We thanked Stan and Deb profusely, and before we left, Debbie filled one of our film canisters with sunscreen, the one supply we had forgotten in the rush of the rainy start.
As the wood buildings faded behind us, the trail began to deteriorate noticeably, and soon we had to pay careful attention to make sure we did not lose our way. Few hunters traveled beyond Stan’s lodge, and without the traffic of horses and ATVs, the old road was now overgrown. Trees had fallen across the path, thick bushes sprang up from the gravel bed, and a maze of branches stretched across the path, snagging our packs and blocking our way. As we crashed through the dark forest, it felt as if we had taken one step deeper into the wilderness.
The Twitya River, undeniably the crux of any journey on the Canol, lay sixty kilometers (38 miles) beyond the Ram’s Head Lodge. Crossing its deep, wide waters had been on our minds from the start of the hike. The few reports we had read from earlier expeditions talked of frustration, narrow escapes, and failure. Some parties had waited days for water levels to drop, often in vain, and others had turned back. Many bushwhacked upstream in search of wider, braided channels, where if lucky they could wade most of the way across. Nearly everyone had to swim at least a short section, and after just a brief submersion in cold northern water, hypothermia was always a serious concern.
Even the Canadian military had experienced problems with the Twitya. Members of ‘Expedition Rickshaw Ramble’, part of an adventure training exercise from CFB Petewawa, had tried to send a rope across the river with a swimmer in a wetsuit. The man was swept downstream, and eventually cutting himself free of his tether and landing on a midstream gravel bar. A second swimmer tried to reach the gravel island, but turned back, unable to fight the strong current. The group then began building a raft, using discarded oil drums and a framework of driftwood logs. When the boat cracked as they prepared to launch, the group gave up and used their radio to summon a helicopter from Norman Wells, which safely deposited the team across the river.