The Canol Project

by Sam W. Bell

As the United States and Russia were allies against Germany and Japan during the second world war, it was necessary for the United States to supply Russia with some strategic materials. A good many of these materials were transported over Alaska by air and it was necessary to refuel these planes at bases in Alaska thus necessitating a supply of oil in Alaska. This supply was being maintained by tankers operating along the coast from the United States. German submarines were threatening to cut off this supply so the United States were looking for a way to get oil to Alaska without transporting it from the United States.

About one hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle on the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories there was a small oil field which the United States decided to develop and transport the oil by pipe line, a distance of about 500 miles, to a refinery at Whitehorse which is located in the Yukon Territory on the Alaska Highway.

It did not appear to be a very big job to build 500 miles of pipe line over a mountain range for all that was required was to distribute the pipe along the route, weld the pipe and build the required pumping stations along the route, with the pipe left uncovered. A road had to be constructed to distribute the pipe and haul the material for the pumping stations.

About the middle of June 1942 I was sent along with a survey party to Norman Wells to locate a road from Norman Wells to Whitehorse and we were promised a free steak dinner if we finished the survey by Thanksgiving. We did not get our steak for we had quit for the winter and had only progressed about ten miles from Camp Canol which was directly across the river from Norman Wells.

It was very difficult to get men, food and equipment to the site as there were only two ways available namely small 4 to 6 passenger airplanes equipped with pontoons for landing on the river, or by boat and barges operated by the Hudson Bay Company. The company had about enough boats and barges to take care of the ordinary demands of that part of the country and could not handle a great deal extra. On one trip while crossing Great Slave Lake the weight on one of the Barges shifted and several Caterpillar tractors were lost in the Lake.

Near the end of the hauling season, it was imperative that the boats make one more trip down the river to Norman Wells. The Hudson Bay Company objected for the reason that the river would freeze over before they could get back and they were afraid they would lose their boats and barges. When the United States agreed to assume liability for all damage they made the trip and they left their boats at Norman Wells to be frozen in ice 5 feet thick. In the spring the ice was cut around the boats and barges so they would float and they were maneuvered into a ravine when the river was rising and back out again as the water fell. A camp was built just across the river from Norman Wells and was called Camp Canol. During the winter they were able to drive two ton Caterpillar tractors on the ice between Norman Wells and Camp Canol.

From Norman Wells the river was about four miles wide with 1 1/2 miles of the distance taken up by an island when the river was normal. In order to get the pipeline across the river, the pipeline was welded together at Norman Wells and then pulled across the river with large cranes.

For about twenty miles from Camp Canol the country was flat with a thick growth of small timber. The surface of the ground was covered with a growth of moss about two or three inches thick known as musheg and under the musheg a layer of ice about 75 to 90 feet thick. Very often when crossing this country the tractors would run into a soft spot, get stuck and have to be pulled out. These spots would then be filled up with timbers and the equipment was able to cross. After this stretch had been crossed, they started up the mountain and not too much difficulties were encountered.

At this location they have 24 hours of daylight during the summer and about four hours of daylight in the winter. During the winter I was there, they took a picture of a can of frozen Prestone.