Subterranean Power Station Blues: A underground tour of Aishihik

The undisturbed wilderness surrounding Aishihik Lake is an illusion. Buffalo graze at a leisurely pace, the mountain peaks are hidden behind a…

The undisturbed wilderness surrounding Aishihik Lake is an illusion.

Buffalo graze at a leisurely pace, the mountain peaks are hidden behind a shroud of clouds and the first heavy snow of the year blankets an endless forest of dark pines.

But all is not pristine wilds.

Beneath nature’s calm, a man-made ruckus roars through tunnels, turbines and canals at an unforgiving speed. Aishihik’s two-turbine power station thunders relentlessly at 115 metre’s underground.

There’s no rumble on the earth’s surface, just a two-storey home, a small warehouse and an electrical switch yard to mark the site. It looks more like a gated hunting cabin with exceptionally high electrical maintenance needs than an underground dam.

Jim Petelski is the maintenance engineer currently living in the two-story home. He’s nearly done his eight-day stint here.

This isn’t his regular job with Yukon energy, he said, but sometimes he needs to fill in. One of the engineers who usually monitors the station hurt himself while playing on his ATV, he said.

Does it get lonely or boring?

“A bit of both.”

What do you when you’re not working?

“Work.”

Looks like someone’s got a case of the Subterranean Power Station Blues.

It’s too bad Yukon Energy won’t let engineers bring their families when it dispatchs employees to this outpost. A tiresome whine coming from the basement isn’t the best company.

And besides, Aishihik is a great place for kids. The hydro facility evokes thoughts of an underground lair and secret missile silo in one — a mix of James Bond and Doctor Evil. It’s buckets of fun — just remember to bring your steel-toe Uggs, kiddies.

And be prepared for two things – earplug dispensers and safety posters. They’re everywhere.

In fact today, Petelski gets to share his infinite knowledge of hydro station safety precautions with a gaggle of clumsy reporters. The goal is to keep their camera straps, tripods and loose clothing from accidentally plunging the Southern Yukon into a blackout.

Even kids would be easier to guide on a tour of Aishihik. At least they know how to pack light.

There are three ways to descend into the bowels of the power station. You can take the basement-only elevator down 36 floors. You can take the stairs with its rest landings at every six metres. Or you can throw yourself 115 metres down a giant vertical shaft used to lower new parts into the power station.

We took the elevator.

After taking our crowded elevator to the station’s second-lowest floor, we arrived at the surge chamber. It’s sealed by air-tight doors in case of an emergency.

The walls are not covered, so condensation drips from the jagged walls of rock and puddles on the floor. It’s an underground equivalent to a panic room with food and life jackets to sustain its terrified inhabitants.

In the event of an emergency — and if you’ve got a thing about being buried alive in a wet closet — there’s another way to escape this claustrophobic nightmare.

In front of the main turbine room, the water being used to generate electricity jets out into in an underground cave.

This gigantic rush of water flows down a 1.5 kilometer-long canal. It’s called a tailrace in hydro station jargon, and it’s basically a watery tunnel which takes you into broad daylight at the West Aishihik River.

In the giant cave a small white dingy hangs from a platform. If the panic room is getting crowded, or you missed the fire alarm because of those infernal earplugs, you can lower the boat, fall into the river, follow the light and end up more than a kilometer away.

It’s one smooth exit.

And if you’re a parent who’s said no to a McDonald’s request one too many times, a trip down the tailrace would make everything up. Your kids would love you forever.

Just when you think you’re actually in a safety precaution museum and not a power station, Petelski brings the reporters to the “power house.”

It is dominated by the two giant green generators, creatively named Aishihik One and Aishihik Two.

Each generator can produce 15 megawatts for the grid which spans from Haines Junction to Whitehorse.

Only Aishihik One is running today. Haines Junction is using 1.3 megawatts while Whitehorse is receiving 10 megawatts.

Both generators are controlled in Whitehorse, but someone always needs to be at Aishihik in case the communications shut down.

That scenario actually happened the night before, said Petelski, but he assured one of the reporters from Porter Creek that it had nothing to do with the outage that interrupted his TSN sports center.

Petelski also needs to be there to do manual inspections. Some of the information goes to Whitehorse, but some of the monitoring needs to be done with a human eye.

“We’ve got 2000 technology and we also got 1950s technology. And the 1950s technology is sometimes more reliable,” he said.

Next, we go to the lowest room in the station, the turbine room. Just beneath the generators, water flows through the turbines. A giant gold shaft spins at 720 rotations per minute just below the water intake into the turbine.

Aishihik Two’s gold shaft is completely still, but Petelski warns us to keep clear. All it takes is one more toaster on the grid and, bam! A reporter could be dragged in by the pant leg and spun like a human gyroscope.

Aishihik was built by carving a canal from Aishihik Lake to a manmade underground waterfall.

The water drops 174 meters, building up speed over almost a kilometer before it reaches the turbine.

The power station harnesses the power of that water.

The rock encasing the Aishihik plant is ideally suited to withstand the pressure of all that water.

And the pressure is immense.

When the water enters the turbine, the pressure is 286 psi. Aishihik is about mastering the uncontrollable, and it’s a wonder every screw stays in place.

Canadians are pretty good at building these plants.

The Robert-Bourassa underground generating station in north-western Quebec, named “La Grande”, is the biggest generating site in North America and can produce 5,619 megawatts.

And Aishihik is more than 90 per cent Canadian made.

Once outside, Petelski checks the water levels at the lake. The extra snow means the water levels are high and the current going into the run-off river needs to be increased.

Near the control latch there’s a campsite where visitors can go fishing and hiking.

But how can you enjoy the outside world when there’s a hydro station nearby?

“In the summer, I come right back out here with my kids to the campground after work,” he said. The fishing in the rivers isn’t bad either.

In the wilderness above Aishihik’s power station, humanity’s work is hidden. A secret.

Unless you put your ear to the ground.

Just Posted

Lorraine Kuhn is seen with one of the many volleyball teams she coached. (Photo submitted by Sport Yukon)
The Yukon Sports Hall of Fame inducts the late Lorraine Kuhn

Lorraine Kuhn became the newest member of the Yukon Sports Hall of Fame for her work in growing volleyball amongst other sports

File Photo
A Yukon judge approved dangerous offender status for a man guilty of a string of assaults in 2020.
Yukon judge sentences dangerous offender to indefinite prison term

Herman Peter Thorn, 51, was given the sentence for 2020 assaults, history of violence

Crystal Schick/ Yukon News A former residential school in the Kaska Dena community of Lower Post will be demolished on June 21. Crystal Schick/ Yukon News
Lower Post residential school demolition postponed

On June 21, the old residential school in Lower Post will be demolished and new ground on a multi-cultural centre will be broken

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley announced 29 new COVID-19 cases on June 19 and community transmission among unvaccinated individuals. (Yukon News file)
Yukon logs record-high 29 new COVID-19 cases

F.H. Collins prom attendees and some Porter Creek Grade 9 students are instructed to self-isolate as community transmission sweeps through unvaccinated populations

Willow Brewster, a paramedic helping in the COVID-19 drive-thru testing centre, holds a swab used for the COVID-19 test moments before using it on Nov. 24. The Yukon government is reopening the drive-thru option on June 18. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Drive-up COVID-19 testing opening June 18 in Whitehorse

The drive-up testing will be open from 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. everyday and increase testing capacity by 33 spots

Whitehorse City Hall (Yukon News file)
City news, briefly

A look at decisions made by Whitehorse city council at its June 14 meeting

Murray Arsenault sits in the drivers seat of his 1975 Bricklin SV1 in Whitehorse on June 16. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
Bringing the 1975 Bricklin north

Murray Arsenault remembers his dad’s Bricklin, while now driving his own

A presumptive COVID case was found at Seabridge Gold’s 3 Aces project. (file photo)
Presumptive COVID-19 case reported at mine in southeast Yukon

A rapid antigen rest found a presumptive COVID case on an incoming individual arriving at the 3Aces project

Jonathan Antoine/Cabin Radio
Flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8.
Fort Simpson asked for military help. Two people showed up.

FORT SIMPSON—Residents of a flooded Northwest Territories village expected a helping hand… Continue reading

A woman was rescued from the Pioneer Ridge Trail in Alaska on June 16. (Photo courtesy/AllTrails)
Alaska hiker chased off trail by bears flags down help

ANCHORAGE (AP)—An Alaska hiker who reported needing help following bear encounters on… Continue reading

Two participants cross the finish line at the City of Whitehorse Kids Triathlon on June 12 with Mayor Dan Curtis on hand to present medals. (Stephanie Waddell/Yukon News)
2021 Kids’ Triathlon draws 76 young athletes

Youth ages five to 14 swim, run and bike their way to finish line

NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq rises in the House of Commons, in Ottawa on May 13, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
‘Unacceptable’ that Inuk MP felt unsafe in House of Commons, Miller says

OTTAWA—It’s a “sad reflection” on Canada that an Inuk MP feels she’s… Continue reading

Lily Witten performs her Canadian Nationals beam routine on June 14. John Tonin/Yukon News
Three Yukon gymnasts break 20-year Nationals absence

Bianca Berko-Malvasio, Maude Molgat and Lily Witten competed at the Canadian Nationals – the first time in 20 years the Yukon’s been represented at the meet

Most Read