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The Canol Heritage Trail was a family affair

When he makes his presentations in the Yukon later this month, geographer Peter Kershaw plans to lead his audiences through the marvels and sorrows along the Canol Heritage Trail.

When he makes his presentations in the Yukon later this month, geographer Peter Kershaw plans to lead his audiences through the marvels and sorrows along the Canol Heritage Trail, which runs from Norman Wells through the Mackenzie Mountains to the Yukon border.

Kershaw, retired from the University of Alberta’s department of earth and atmospheric sciences, has been undertaking research in the alpine reaches along the beautiful, damaged, 372-kilometre trail for more than 40 years.

“So what I’d like to do for the Yukon presentation is sort of move people along the route as if they were hiking from south to north, toward Mile Zero and talk about what they see as they move along, and then try to incorporate some of the science we’ve done over the years,” he says.

That “we” includes his wife Linda Kershaw. The renowned botanist and prolific author of such popular wilderness guides as Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies has shared her plant knowledge, and the joys and rigours of the trail, with her husband from 1974 on. The Kershaw boys grew up along the trail and learned many of the skills they now employ in their adult lives in outdoors-oriented professions and recreation.

The Kershaws have written a guide book that will be the basis for the presentation, tentatively titled Environment and Change Along the Canol Heritage Trail. Peter realized just what a family affair the guide book has been. “The authors could be listed as Kershaw, Kershaw, Kershaw, Kershaw and Kershaw - Kershaw to the fifth power,” he marvels.

“It’s a spectacular area with all sorts of challenges, logistically and intellectually - a very special area we went back to work in, year after year,” he adds.

The original Canol Pipeline Project began shortly after the Japanese ravaged the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Japanese Imperial forces subsequently occupied four islands in the Aleutian chain and looked poised to invade mainland Alaska and move south into Canada and the lower U.S.

Those charged with North America’s defence turned to celebrity Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson for advice. What resources would be available to support an effort against the Japanese war machine in the Canadian North? Stefansson suggested the refinery at Norman Wells and the vast pool of oil that lay beneath it.

The U.S. and Canada moved quickly on the explorer’s suggestion. Haste led to waste. Inadequate pipe led to spills. The landscape was marred by helter-skelter gravel pits and abandoned industrial gear.

The overall Canol Project financial cost - including the main pipeline, spur lines, landing strips and the refinery in Whitehorse - was greater than the cost of the Alaska Highway, says Kershaw. The debate continues as to whether the project was in fact worth it. The U.S. government even launched an official investigation of the by-then dubious project shortly before the end of the war, he adds.

While Kershaw’s speciality is disturbance ecology and permafrost landforms, the research and his upcoming presentations cover a broader area intellectually, he says. Along with his wife’s botanical work, and his own geographical observations, Kershaw has explored the Canol-related archives of many other fields, including history, archeology and hard-rock geology.

“And a student of mine a few years back did detailed work on tree rings, so was able to expand the period that we’re discussing back into the 1700s,” he adds.

“I’m looking at soils. I’m looking at microclimates. I’m looking at glacial history….”

How did Kershaw end up devoting so much of his professional life to the Canol Project?

When he finished his bachelor’s degree work at the University of Waterloo in 1973, he encountered a scientist who planned to map the North with the help of early satellite imagery.

The scientist was constructing a surficial geomorphological map on a scale of 1 to 1 million, which included all the Yukon, a couple of degrees of Alaska and an eastern line up to the Beaufort Sea and the Mackenzie Delta.

Kershaw laughs when considering the scope of those ambitions and how far satellite technology has come since then.

“He drove all of the roads that he could access that summer and I sat in the back seat and helped with logistics,” he says.

Eventually, the two researchers arrived on the MacTung mining property near Macmillan Pass and the Yukon/N.W.T. border and Kershaw had a life-changing chat with the mine manager. “He was very encouraging and said, ‘If you want to come back here and study permafrost and landforms and vegetation, we’d love to see you.’”

Kershaw returned to Waterloo in the fall of ‘73 and registered as a graduate student. The next summer found him (with Linda this time) back in the Canol wilderness. “We both really fell in love with the area. There were caribou, moose, grizzly bears… all sorts of wildlife.

“And the landscape is just magical: rock glaciers, ice glaciers, patterns on the ground caused by permafrost. And very interesting plants, plants that aren’t common in southern Ontario.”

After completing his thesis on local wonders - and the landscape’s susceptibility to anthropomorphic disturbance - Kershaw received a call from a senior professor who was intrigued by what he’d heard of Kershaw’s maps. One thing led to another and Kershaw found himself working on his PhD under the direction of Professor Don Gill of the University of Alberta.

For years, winters and summers, through blizzards and bugs, the Kershaws explored the alpine sections of the Canol Heritage Trail. Their last field season there was 2013.

Is the region recovering from its wartime traumas?

Kershaw takes a long pause. “The observations are, well, educational,” he says. “Recovery rates aren’t linear, and you are dealing with different sorts of disturbances.” Certain species are again prospering on features with no toxic substrates, like gravel pits. Regions contaminated by the all-too-frequent oil spills are another and longer story.

Kershaw will describe his research methods, recount his discoveries and present his travel tales from the Canol Heritage Trail at 7:30 p.m. at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse on Feb. 21 and again on Feb. 22 at 7:30 in Watson Lake at the Northern Lights Centre.

This column is co-ordinated by the Yukon Research Centre at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at