History: Canol Trail Canol Trail finally marked
TULITA (OCT 21/96) - Paul Wright, a Dene elder, remembers leading more than 500 American soldiers into the bush for the construction of the Canol Trail during the Second World War.

Wright is one of several Tulita residents who guided soldiers through the bush to link the Norman Wells oil field to military bases in Canada's northwest and Alaska.

More than 50 years later, the Dene's role in the construction of the 825-kilometre trail is finally receiving national recognition. A plaque-unveiling ceremony Wednesday in Tulita marked the NWT portion of the Canol Trail as a historic site. It's name derived from "Canadian oil," the Canol Heritage Trail opens a chapter in war-time history previously unknown to most Canadians.

A plaque has already been erected at Johnson's Crossing in the Yukon to commemorate that portion of the trail.

The plaque will be placed on the banks of the Mackenzie River opposite Norman Wells. The area, known as Canol Camp, will become part of a territorial park.

Without the plaque, Wright said, people will forget the Dene connection. "People need the plaque to remember the work the Dene did," he said.

He fondly remembers meeting the Americans in June 1942.

"We worked hard for 10 hours a day, bringing the soldiers 17 miles (27 kilometres) through the woods," he said.

"They treated us good and paid us four dollars a day. It was the first time I saw a truck and the first time I saw a bulldozer."

George Blondin, who also worked as a guide, said he found out about the war when the Americans came.

"Most elders in the area didn't know there was a war until the Americans came in 1942," he said.

Blondin was just 18 when he guided the soldiers' way through the bush. He heard the Americans were getting lost, so they hired three or four people from the community.

"I was more than happy to help them," he said.

Like Wright, Blondin sees the plaque as an important reminder of the Dene contribution to transportation development in the NWT.

"It's important for people to remember that it changed peoples' lifestyle," he said.

More than 5,000 American soldiers, many of them black, worked on the road from 1942 to 1944. With the assistance of the Dene, they used dog teams and two Hudson Bay steamboats that travelled down the Mackenzie River.

Rosie Norwegian of Tulita washed and mended the soldiers' clothing in the summer of 1942. She said it was the first time she saw black people.

The only woman in the camp, Norwegian spent a lot of time alone and was, at times, frightened of being in the bush. She did, however enjoy working for the Americans.

"They were good to work for," she said. "They had their own cooks so they brought breakfast to me in my tent. When I was doing my work during the day, I could hear them singing in the woods."

Trekking through unmapped territory, the Dene provided valuable guidance for the Americans. They worked in harsh conditions with temperatures ranging from 30 C to -50. The swamps, rivers, ice and mosquitoes made the two-year project particularly difficult.

Their perseverance resulted in the construction of more than 2,500 kilometres of pipeline, a system of trails, telephone lines, airstrips, camps and an all-weather road from the Norman Wells oil fields on the Mackenzie River to a refinery in Whitehorse.

Although the Canol Road closed in 1945, the infrastructure affected development of transportation routes across northwestern Canada.

Many of the ice roads, highways, and airstrips are placed strategically along the trail.

In recent years, the trail has attracted hikers from around the world. The scenic route is peppered with abandoned equipment and buildings left by the Americans during the war.

Not for the faint of heart, the trail has many braided rivers, treacherous hills, unpredictable weather conditions, grizzly bears and other wild animals.

Many who have tried it have had to be rescued on one of the trail's abandoned airstrips.