As of this Wednesday, a handful of youth from communities throughout the Sahtu will be embarking on a challenging and life-changing adventure in the footsteps of their ancestors.
For the ninth year running, the Canol Youth Leadership Hike is sending a group of about 15 youth, guides, leaders and community members on a grueling 25-mile trek through the Mackenzie Mountains along the 358-km Canol Heritage Trail, considered one of the most challenging backpacking routes in the country.
But for organizer Norman Yakeleya, MLA for the Sahtu, the purpose of the week-long journey is less about the physical challenge than the opportunity for learning about the land and its history.
“It totally brings you into a different world: the smallness of us in this world and the beauty of the land, the contrasting colours of the mountains, the clear, cold water, and being on a historical road such as the Canol, which was built in ‘43-‘44 – people actually came out in this country and the Aboriginal people guided them through here. There’s a significant piece of history here,” he said.
Carrying 55-lb packs on their backs, the hikers will make their way 10-12 miles per day, stopping to learn about the Canol Trail, traditional sites, the plants and wildlife, or just to rest and reflect before setting camp for the night along the river. At Mile 25, the hikers will meet up with another group at the traditional Carcajou River camp.
While it’s a difficult journey, Yakeleya said the challenge can also be a teacher.
“We encourage them; we know every one of us is aching – sore shoulders, sore legs or our feet are cramping up and sore. It’s raining sometimes for hours; sometimes it’s really, really hot; sometimes it’s six hours up a mountain,” he said. “So we learn about working together as a team and co-operation. And also at the same time, because we have to be aware of wildlife, we learn to watch out for each other and about respect for the land. It’s not a walk in the park.”
Yakeleya helped get the hike off the ground in 2006 on the advice of his grandmother, who would share stories of her life in the mountains and encouraged him to one day go there.
“Knowing about it is great, but actually doing it is priceless. So when I got out the first year in 2006 with former premier Joe Handley, then it clicked: ah, this is what my grandmother was talking about.”
Work is currently underway to have the Canol Heritage Trail, which is protected by the Sahtu land claim, designated as a territorial park.