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WWII-era telephone lines snag N.W.T. moose, caribou

A federal government cleanup of the Canol pipeline, designed to move oil from Norman Wells, N.W.T. to Alaska, has yet to tackle hundreds of kilometres of abandoned telephone wire, and that’s causing problems for hikers and animals.

Abandoned 1940s Canol pipeline cleanup still a work in progress

A set of moose antlers tangled in telephone wires found at Mile 170 on the Canol Trail. The 1,600 kilometre Canol pipeline was built in the 1940s to move oil from Norman Wells, N.W.T. to Alaska. Part of the Cold War relic is now a hiking trail, but many hazards remain along the path. (Courtesy Norman Yakeleya)

For Norman Yakeleya, the ninth annual Canol Youth Hike along the route first blazed by a WWIIr-era oil pipeline wasn’t all fun.

The MLA for the Northwest Territories’ Sahtu region was disturbed by several unexpected sites along the route: moose and caribou antlers, tangled up in old telephone wires that in some cases hang only inches off the ground.

“It really breaks your heart when you see those antlers all tangled up in those wires,” says the MLA for Sahtu. “The poor animals suffocated in that state there.”

Yakeleya says the wires are a danger to hikers as well as animals.

The Canol pipeline — short for Canadian Oil — has been described by military historians as the biggest construction project since the Panama Canal.

The 1,600 kilometre pipeline, road and telephone line was a joint effort by the U.S. and Canada to bring oil from the newly discovered Norman Wells oil strike to a refinery in Whitehorse, in case of a possible attack from Japan on Alaska. 

Completed in 1943, it was abandoned just one year later. 

Today, the abandoned pipeline forms the basis of a rugged, 355 kilometre hiking trail from Norman Wells through the Mackenzie Mountains to the Yukon border.  

The federal government includes the pipeline on its list of contaminated sites. In 2009, it paid for some wire to be cleaned up along the first 80 kilometres of trail.

Yakeleya wants to see that project extended. 

“We can do it from the Sahtu. We have our people ready to go out and start cleaning up the 1,600 kilometres of wire there,” he says. “Hopefully the federal government can find it in their heart to give some extra dollars.”

Yakeleya says in general, he’s pleased with work towards a bigger cleanup, which aims to develop the Canol Heritage Trail as part of the planned Doi T’oh Territorial Park.

But he still has questions about how the mess came to be left behind in the first place.

“After the war was completed, they sort of just left the hot coffee on the table," he says. "There’s no responsibility."

Yakeleya says only 80 per cent of the fuel from Norman Wells ever arrived in Whitehorse. 

"We're still trying to figure out where the other 20 per cent went." 

Corrections

  • The original version of this story incorrectly linked the Canol pipeline to the Cold War. In fact, construction started during WWII.
    Jul 09, 2014 6:39 AM CT

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