Canol Trail Youth Leadership Hike turns 15

"When we go out ... we develop another level of friendship and family," says Norman Yakeleya

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For a dozen hikers this week, history and connection to the land took the form of a trek through one of the most rugged trails in the country.

The program they participated in is the Canol Trail Youth Leadership Hike. Since it began in 2005, there have been roughly 60 youth hikers who’ve participated in the program, Dene Nation Chief Norman Yakeleya told News/North. Geared toward Sahtu youth between the ages of 13 and 25, the vast majority go onto post-secondary education and trade programs, he said.

After a Wednesday orientation, four helicopter trips carried the hikers to the trail, where they’ll stay until July 9.

On Wednesday, the hikers board a helicopter that will carry them to the Canol Trail.
Photo Courtesy of Norman Yakeleya

The Canol Trail stretches across 355 kilometres of remote Sahtu Wilderness, cutting through four major river crossings and alongside the Mackenzie Mountains. The trail rests on the path of a World War II oil pipeline running from Norman Wells to Whitehorse. The rugged landscape is a backdrop for the initiative’s personal development.

“We need the youth in the future to be strong leaders (and) at the same time, have a good, solid understanding of Indigenous people and the lands of their people,” Yakeleya said.

“It’s walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. It gives them a taste of what kind of people are in the Sahtu,” he said. “When we go out … we develop another level of friendship and family.”

The hike has also contributed to the federal government’s decision to clean the trail. An assessment found two NHL-sized hockey rinks worth of litter on the trail, he said.

Chase Yakeleya, his son, will hike the trail for his fourth year. After the long hikes of previous years, the current group will hang closer to base camp this year, with excursions and day hikes in addition to clean-up of the area, he said, though there is one overnight trip.

The trail will assist them in “learning how to be their selves, and learning to be youth leaders for future generations,” he said.

Whitney Menicoche is another one of the hikers, and Yakeleya’s step-daughter. “I’m hoping to have the experience everyone has: to take a step further in life, or just experience being out on the land away from the city,” she said. This will be Menicoche’s first time.

“For anything, I just ask questions, and follow what they want us to do,” she said. Normally, there is one long hike, but this year will focus more on information and day hikes.

As the hikers become a team, studying safety and wildlife awareness, she hopes they’ll “learn from each other,” she said.

To help learn, “we’ll be cooking with each other and talking with each other,” she said.

Also among the hikers is is Kynyn Doughty, who will be writing a manual to help pass the program on. While the hikers travelled to the site by helicopter, she thought about the realities of travel by water and foot.

“Breathtaking is kind of a cliche word, but it really is.” The water reflecting the Mackenzie Mountains is so calm, it looks like glass, she said. “It’s stunning in a very literal sense of the word. The magnitude of everything, but also it’s so peaceful.”

Donny Lalonde, a former boxing champ who fought Sugar Ray Leonard in 1988, will also join the group He said trips like this build self-knowledge, and allow the hikers to help others when they’re vulnerable.

“Know thyself,” Lalonde said. “It’s such an important thing in life. Where do you learn life skills? Survival skills? Where do you learn about yourself? People live with so much fear because they never experienced things like what would I do if I was stuck in the middle of nowhere.”

“You’re never going to get to the end unless you put one foot in front of the other,” he said.