By morning the deluge had broken, the land awakening to a sense of renewal. Noisy ground squirrels darted to and fro outside our open tent door, chirping ecstatically. Ferg and I lay awake, discussing our thoughts about Michael. We were in an awkward position. We couldn’t prevent Michael from hiking the trail, and if he did decide to tag along, no matter how independent we had declared ourselves to be, once in the wilderness our small group would be totally committed to each other. Our fortunes would be tied to this stranger’s fitness, skills, and level of preparedness. It felt condescending when, after breakfast, we approached Michael with our concerns. For all we knew he was stronger and more experienced than either of us. Appearing slightly uncomfortable with the serious line of questioning, Michael assured us he would be fine. What more could we say? It felt awkward, but when he didn’t back down, the issue was decided. Michael was coming.
There was a sense of momentousness as we hoisted our heavy packs and set off from Milepost two-twenty-two, the official trailhead of what the Northwest Territories designate the Canol Heritage Trail. No maintenance or services are provided along the deteriorating road, and the government strictly warns that they will accept no responsibility for anyone attempting to traverse the route. Their brief trail description ends with a stern warning, similar to that posted for prospective Canol workers fifty years earlier; ‘You enter and operate in this region at your own risk!’ But the first steps were easy, the flat and wide gravel trail offering ideal hiking. A large number of hunters use the Canol to access the front ranges of the Mackenzie Mountains, and their ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles) traffic help keep the track clear of growth. We knew conditions would deteriorate as we traversed further into the wilderness.
The road ahead of us stretched to the horizon, a distinctly manmade intrusion that ran across the gently rolling tundra. Menacing grey clouds raced across the horizon, and occasional downpours passed nearby. When sporadic streaks of sunlight broke through, they highlighted splashes of early autumn yellow that graced the land. As we began the long gradual climb up towards the Mackenzie Barren highlands, a lone caribou approached, edging closer inquisitively, holding its head high. After gaining our scent, it noisily clambered away over moss covered rocks.