Up and Across: Safe Passage for the Twitya

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Of all the long distance hiking trails in North America, few can compete with the challenges and rewards of the Canol Trail.

The remote route lies in the Sahtu, traversing the dizzying expanse of the Mackenzie Mountains from Norman Wells, Northwest Territories to the Yukon border. Far removed from traditional vehicle travel, much of the 222 mile (357 km) trek is only accessible by helicopter.

This doesn’t stop a hardy few from taking on the challenge each year. But while some revel in its difficulty, many more potential hikers are discouraged by one of its most formidable obstacles.

That is, according to Richard Zieba, Director of Tourism and Parks for the territorial government’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI), the Twitya River, which crosses the trail near the trail’s mid-point at mile 131. The powerful river has even encouraged wary travellers to hire outfitters to provide air passage.

But now — in an unassuming collection of plastic barrels, tripods, cable, and a pontoon boat stored on the river’s muddy shores — safe passage has been provided to cross the mighty Twitya.

Twitya River, Canol Trail, Northwest Territories
The cable crossing set-up at the Twitya River

These elements were used by the Department of ITI to build a cable crossing — the first of its kind for small-scale crossings in the NWT — with the capacity to carry two people (or one with gear) across the river on a retrievable pontoon boat during the hiking season. 

The cable-pulley system — anchored by thirteen water-filled barrels on either side of the river — will provide user-operated, safe crossing of the Twitya from early-July through late-August each year.  A vigorous testing program was completed over the same time period thispast summer.

“We believe removing this known barrier will encourage more people to use the trail,” Zieba says. “We’re glad we were able to find a cost-effective solution to the hikers’ concerns.”

The design process, begun by a contractor in 2015, had to account for unique variables. The river current, inaccessibility, and need for self-sufficiency necessitated a finished product which was at once sturdy and storable; simple enough for any hiker to operate, and sufficient to withstand storms and avoid debris swept down the river.

Twitya Crew
The Twitya River crossing installation crew

“We’re not aware of any design like it,” says Douglas Dillon — member of the project team and Aboriginal Tourism Development Officer with the Department of ITI.  “It’s something we feel could be applied in other circumstances in the future.”

The Department of ITI hired individuals from Yellowknife and Tulita to help with the installation and testing this summer, and used local helicopter services to assist with logistics. In addition to more than 100 test runs, the team installed cameras to monitor the unit remotely for resilience against wildlife and weather.

“As all the observations collected were ultimately positive, we determined the cable-crossing was viable for public use,” Zieba says. “We expect the first independent travellers to use it in the 2017 season.”

Twitya Pontoon Boat on Canol Trail
A member of the crew testing the boat

The effort is part of the Department’s larger Canol Trail improvement initiative, which will see clearing of industrial waste, wire lines, and dilapidated relics of this World War II-effort-(the trail was originally a road built to support a pipeline running from the Mackenzie River to Pacific coast) – as well as additional work to expand accessibility in the same vein as the Twitya project. 

Selected pieces of infrastructure and equipment will be left in place, and in some cases preserved, to commemorate the extraordinary human effort required to build the pipeline, and contributions from the local Dene, who were instrumental in carving out a route through the mountains.

It’s a project representative of the GNWT’s commitment to growing the NWT’s tourism industry as outlined in Tourism 2020 — a new investment plan designed to push the value of the NWT’s tourism industry beyond $207 million.

“There’s no doubt it’s a big project, but there are a ton of upsides” Zieba says. “This is a stunning piece of history that can, and does attract an international audience, driving economic activity in the NWT, and the Sahtu specifically.

“Ultimately,” he adds, “as we continue to improve accessibility like we have at the Twitya, there’s nowhere to go but up — and across!”