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A Rugged Place for a Picnic
Duncan Barnes
May 02, 1966
Hunters in the desolate Northwest Territories can expect mosquitoes, daily squalls and frigid nights, but for the stout of heart a feast of game awaits
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May 02, 1966

A Rugged Place For A Picnic

Hunters in the desolate Northwest Territories can expect mosquitoes, daily squalls and frigid nights, but for the stout of heart a feast of game awaits

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Rising out of the boggy, barren tundra on the east bank of the great Mackenzie River in Canada's Northwest Territories, the little oil town of Norman Wells is as bleak an outpost of civilization as one is likely to find on the North American continent. Owned by Imperial Oil Limited (Esso of Canada), Norman Wells enjoyed a brief boom during World War II, when crude oil from its wells was piped to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, some 400 miles to the west. After the war the town and its 250 residents—mostly oil workers, miners and a few weather-beaten prospectors and trappers—settled back into the lonely stillness of the tundra. For a long time the only visitors passing through this dismal oasis were sport fishermen and an occasional tourist on his way to or from Inuvik, an Eskimo village 200 miles to the north, above the Arctic Circle.

But last fall Norman Wells, remote as it is, began to attract new visitors—big-game hunters who used the town as a jumping-off place for the rugged Mackenzie Mountains to the west. From August until mid-October some 75 hunters, most of them from the U.S., lugging duffel bags, expensive rifles and cameras, flew into Norman Wells from Edmonton. Landing on the dirt runway in a swirl of dust, they paused just long enough to buy cigarettes and whiskey before heading out to a nearby lake, where floatplanes waited to take them into the Mackenzies.

The snowcapped peaks of the Mackenzies, the northernmost cordillera of the Rocky Mountains, thrust up more than 9,000 feet above the tundra and serve as the boundary between the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. The range covers 75,000 square miles of uninhabited and largely unexplored wilderness—the last frontier for big-game hunting in North America. The hunter who takes his sport lightly can forget about the Mackenzies, for they encompass an area that has remained for centuries in what wildlife biologists refer to as the total wild state. Put another way, it is the kind of wilderness that fights back.

Up to 4,000 feet above sea level there is nothing but miserable bush—rolling tundra covered with a thick carpet of spongy caribou moss out of which grow tangles of buck-brush willows that slap, pull and tear at man and beast. There are great, oozing muskeg bogs into which men sink up to their knees and horses to their bellies. Walking in the bogs is like trying to walk on a sea of marshmallows. Put your weight on a springy tussock and it gives way under you, sending you crashing into the muck. Only an occasional patch of black spruce, arctic fir and alder, together with a few sparkling lakes and rushing streams, interrupt the endless expanse of tundra that marches monotonously through the valleys and up the mountain slopes.

From June into early September the bush is aswarm with a buzzing scourge of flies—bulldog flies, black flies, sand flies—mosquitoes as big as hornets and several varieties of gnats and no-see-ums. Not surprisingly, few men have penetrated very far into the Mackenzies. For several years fishermen have been flying into the N.W.T. to catch trout, grayling and arctic char, but until last fall the only nonresident big-game hunting was for buffalo on the southern prairies near Fort Smith on the Alberta border. Those hunts were canceled after only three years when an epidemic of anthrax infected the herd in 1961.

But the buffalo hunts, though short-lived, proved that controlled big-game hunting was an industry that would help to bring money to the north country. In 1963 the Department of Northern Affairs authorized Donald Flook, a research supervisor for the Canadian Wildlife Service, to make a flying survey of the Mackenzies with a team of wildlife biologists and outfitters. The group found Dall sheep, grizzly and black bear, moose and caribou throughout the mountains and mountain goats in the southern tier of the range. Even though they learned almost nothing about the available game supply or its movements in the Mackenzies, Flook and his staff recommended that a nonresident season be held during the fall of 1965. "The only way you can tell how much game there is in an area," says Flook, "is after it has been hunted for several years and a record kept on the size, age and sex of the animals shot." Six outfitters were licensed to take hunters into the new area, and each chose a loosely defined section to operate in. The fee per outfitter was $50, plus a $10 license for every guide he employed. At the time it seemed to the outfitters like the greatest real-estate bargain since Thomas Jefferson talked Napoleon out of the Louisiana Territory.

But at least one outfitter, Stan Burrell of Sundre, Alberta, found that the cost and the physical labor involved in setting up and servicing hunting camps deep in the bush, 150 miles from the nearest outpost—Norman Wells—was far more than he had counted on. A stocky, balding man of 38 who left school after the eighth grade to work on his father's ranch, Burrell runs the Hungry Horse Ranch in Sundre and has been outfitting in the Alberta Rockies for the past 15 years. In 1959 he invested $20,000 in the buffalo-outfitting business and almost broke even before the hunting was outlawed. Hungry for a new hunting franchise, Burrell wangled his way onto the first survey of the Mackenzies and in August of 1964 got permission to take four friends into the mountains for an exploratory hunt. The party hunted for 10 days and bagged four good Dall rams, a highly prized blond grizzly and a bull caribou.

"That was all I needed," Burrell recalls. "A famous outfitter once said that he would lead a packtrain to hell if the trophy hunter had that particular horned head in mind. I knew I had to gamble on outfitting in the Mackenzies, even if it meant mortgaging my life away."

And Burrell came close to doing just that. On April 6, 1965 he wrote prophetically in his diary: "Outfitting account way overdrawn again." A month later, with only one $400 deposit on hand, Burrell decided to put on a crash program to raise more capital. He bought a mailing list from a large U.S. taxidermy firm and sent out 6,000 form letters extolling the area's untapped hunting-and-fishing opportunities. His direct-mail campaign worked, and eventually he booked 28 hunters and collected $10,000 in deposits. It was not quite enough to make the down payment on a floatplane. Undaunted, Burrell mortgaged his 1,600-acre cattle ranch for $25,000, put $11,000 down on a $21,000 floatplane, rented a wheel plane for $900 a month and bought 34 pack and saddle horses for $5,000. On June 23 Burrell and a six-man crew began loading trucks in Sundre for the 1,500-mile trip by highway to Ross River in the Yukon. Into the trucks went horses, 26 riding saddles and 36 pack saddles, horse blankets, ropes and harnesses, pack boxes, tin stoves and telescoping stovepipes, A-frame wall tents, dishes, axes and saws, two-way radios, two outboard motors and an inflatable rubber boat, a dismantled wagon with rubber tires, tarpaulins, 300 pounds of horseshoes and 2,000 pounds of food.

From Ross River, Rex Logan, a neighbor of Burrell's and a licensed Mackenzie outfitter who had agreed to act as guide, plus three wranglers, convoyed the horses and equipment nearly 250 miles through the bush, following the abandoned Canol Road most of the way to Burrell's campsites. On Canadian road maps the stretch of Canol Road between Ross River and Norman Wells is indicated as a dirt road and marked CLOSED TO TRAFFIC.

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