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Alaska Highway washed out: Canada cut off!

A famous and possibly apocryphal London tabloid headline once blared: "Fog in English Channel - Europe Cut Off!" The same thing has just happened here, with washouts on the Alaska Highway

A famous and possibly apocryphal London tabloid headline once blared: “Fog in English Channel - Europe Cut Off!”

The same thing has just happened here, with washouts on the Alaska Highway cutting off the Chinese, American and southern Canadian economies from the Yukon. If I can find the charger for my satellite phone, I intend to call someone Outside and see if they’re OK.

In the meantime, it is amazing how quickly the supermarket shelves in Whitehorse emptied. As a fourth-generation Yukoner, it gave me great satisfaction to go down in the basement and confirm that we still had a case of 10-year-old evaporated milk in backup.

It underlines the magical nature of modern capitalism. Over 30,000 people live in a place that produces hardly any food. Not only that, neither the stores nor many families keep more than a few days of food in storage. Even more remarkably, no one ever remarks on how amazing this is.

Except when the highway washes out.

Back in the day, of course, you needed a root cellar and Yukoners were wise to keep a long-term supply of food handy. If you visit Fort Selkirk, every building has a big root cellar. These were full of potatoes, sacks of flour, lard, beans, evaporated milk and all the other things that make Yukon cuisine such a delight.

If you go even farther back in history and read Robert Campbell’s diary of his early years in the Yukon, you see that he spent most of his time worrying about food.

He was at the end of a ridiculously long supply chain going back from Fort Selkirk up the Pelly to Pelly Banks, then over the continental divide to the Liard system, and then wandering a long way somewhere southeast, probably to one of the big forts on Hudson Bay, which itself felt isolated from headquarters in London.

A lot of Campbell’s effort went into trading with Yukon aboriginal traders, not for fur, but for food. And even if you had enough food, there was always the risk of losing it to squirrels, bears or other mishaps. After Campbell’s root cellar flooded, you can tell from his diary that a prolonged diet of rotten fish really started to get to Campbell and his men.

Even as late as the 1930s, it was not easy to get supplies to Yukon communities. The sternwheeler Thistle, owned by Taylor and Drury, sank with a season’s worth of supplies in Lake Laberge. I recall one of my grandfather’s stories about travelling from Whitehorse to the Teslin River by dog team to pick up supplies frozen in a company barge, and taking them overland to Teslin since the store there was running out of food.

It was also supply chain considerations that led the Americans to build the Alaska Highway. One of the reasons they were able to beat the Japanese army so soundly in the Pacific War was because of their amazing supply chain capabilities. Had the Japanese ever tried to go beyond capturing Attu and Kiska and made a serious attempt to invade mainland Alaska, there is no way they could have got as many men, guns and supplies to Alaska as the Americans.

The world’s biggest corporations have spent the last few decades perfecting their own supply chains. Your dinner, television and clothes are assembled from products originally produced in dozens of countries. These are apparently effortlessly brought together and appear on shelves in Whitehorse.

These big corporations are amazingly good at this. They constantly minimize the amount of inventory tied up in the supply chain, since it costs billions of dollars to keep hundreds of billions of dollars of inventory tied up.

Supply-chain prowess is one largely unremarked reason why successful retailers like Walmart have such low prices.

But recent events have underlined how fragile this system can be. Even before the global economy was rocked by the recent washout near Swift River, the Fukashima nuclear disaster and the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull disrupted global supply networks. Japanese auto factories ground to a halt as just-in-time inventory systems ran short of parts. Eyjafjallajokull disrupted global air travel, and therefore a surprising number of industries, from consumer electronics to fresh-cut flowers.

These global supply chains also cost money and produce a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions. Sometimes this can be overstated, however. Apparently it costs less than a penny to ship a bottle of beer from Europe to North America, where people are willing to pay an extra dollar for an “import.”

And while the diesel burned by the big container ships is significant, I once spoke to a logistics expert who told me that the most carbon-intensive part of your dinner’s voyage from the faraway country where it was grown to your table is actually the last eight kilometres in the back of your badly tuned SUV with the under-inflated tires.

Soon the folks who perform the rather amazing task of keeping our highways open (almost) 100 per cent of the time will fix the Alaska Highway and Yukon stores will be full of Cheezies and organic mangoes again. Then we can all get back to normal.

But before you do, it would probably be a good idea to find a nice cool spot in the basement to store some oatmeal and evaporated milk. And, given what’s happening in Greece, maybe some gold in case the banks go down next.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.