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The sub-Arctic oil strike

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Norman Wells oil strike

In July 1919, a cable tool drilling rig with ancillary supplies and equip­ment, eight men, and an ox, set out from Edmonton 300 miles by rail to Peace River and from there 1,450 miles by winding rivers to Norman Wells, the country that brought summer mosquitoes "big enough to shoot with a rifle," and winter temperatures of -60°F. Under the direction of a young geologist, Ted Link (later Imperial's chief geologist), their mission was to set up drilling operations and conduct further geological study. The route lay down the Peace River by scow to the Slave River at Lake Athabasca, down the Slave to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, 100 miles across the lake, and 1,000 miles down the mighty Mackenzie River. There was a four-mile portage on the Peace River and a 16-mile portage that took 15 days to accomplish at Smith Rapids on the Slave River.

Alexander Mackenzie first led the canoes of the Northwest Company down the river to the shores of the Arctic Ocean in 1789. Ever since, the Mackenzie River system has been the highway of the North, first for the birch-bark canoes of the fur traders, then the wood-burning paddle-wheel­ers of the Hudson's Bay Company, finally the diesel tugs with the shallow-­draft barges. Second largest river in North America, the Mackenzie is from one to four miles wide, a placid stream of clear, cold water that lumbers on at six miles an hour and dumps half a million cubic feet of water per sec­ond into the Arctic Ocean.

This was the first drilling equipment to travel down the Mackenzie River system. Two decades later, thousands of tons of equipment---pipe, graders, tractors, drilling rigs, camp facilities---were moved along much of the same waterway to Norman Wells for the Canol project. Today, transportation for drilling in the far North is augmented by helicopters, cargo aircraft, tractor trains, and muskeg vehicles with 40-ton loads that tread over the treach­erous bogs with a footstep lighter than a man's. But the Mackenzie is still the highway of the North.

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