Alaska Highway motorists have more to fear than snowstorms, black ice, potholes and moose.
The newest hazards are “Closed” signs in lodge windows along the loneliest stretches of road.
This winter, Toad River Lodge locked its doors for the first time in more than a decade.
Liard Hotsprings Lodge closed just a few months later, in January.
“Highway lodges are struggling, and there’s no help for them,” said Swift River Lodge owner Sharon Johnson.
“And (Premier) Dennis Fentie should be concerned—he drives this highway.”
For almost 16 years, the Johnsons have been running Swift River, the only 24-hour stop on the highway between Fort Nelson and Whitehorse.
“It’s a long, hard trail—just the distance is what’s dangerous,” she said.
“There’s not a week that goes by without breakdowns.
“This winter already we’ve had three or four transport trucks sitting in our yard with frozen reefers (refrigeration units) and they’ve needed help thawing things out.”
Drivers end up at her lodge for days awaiting parts or repairs. All Johnson can offer them is coffee.
“We’re not supposed to feed them—we can’t give anyone a room,” she said.
The lodge’s restaurant and hotel have sat empty for four years following a dustup with the government over the lodge’s old septic system.
Swift River isn’t the only lodge to face this problem, and, as you’ll see, the solutions are not easy, cheap or, in some cases, even achievable.
“They wanted us to dig up the old holding tanks, put in new ones at a greater distance from the well, and attach a whole new field,” said Johnson.
An engineer designed a new system for $2,500. But the Johnsons’ half-hectare lot wasn’t big enough for it.
The couple, who planned to rebuild anyway, applied for property through the lands branch.
“We had already talked to a little financing consortium in Alberta, because we knew the system had to be replaced, and the buildings are old,” said Johnson.
The land application process dragged on and, eventually, was denied, she said.
“They’d give us licence of application only to dig the field, but they wouldn’t give any property to build on,” said Johnson.
“The financers said it was absolutely ridiculous—they couldn’t believe the difficulty we were having trying to go ahead with rebuilding.”
Scared off by the bureaucracy, the funders walked away.
By this time, the Johnsons had dealt with six different Health inspectors and supervisors.
“Every time it’s a new person, you have to wait for them to come out and they have to review the situation—it’s just one thing after another, but nothing that was within our power to speed up the process,” she said.
Closed for months, they were losing money daily.
“It just got to be such a nightmare.”
Potable water was the biggest concern, so they dealt with the well first.
The couple hired Aquatech, a water treatment company, which submitted a proposal to Health officials.
It wasn’t good enough. Health demanded a new proposal.
“This went on for a year,” said Johnson.
Eventually, they installed an $11,000 UV system through Hurlbert Enterprises Inc.
“We did that in good faith to protect our wonderful water,” she said.
Though they’d run the plan past an inspector, Health rejected it.
The inspectors had changed again, and so had the requirements, she said.
“To this day they say we need a chlorination system as well, another $20,000.”
And, without a new septic system, they faced a total shutdown.
In the spring of 2007, the government took the lodge owners to court, charging Johnson with noncompliance.
She was forced to drive to Whitehorse—a six-hour roundtrip—to appear in court 10 times that summer.
Johnson couldn’t afford a lawyer. And “legal aid won’t touch me because I own a business,” she said.
Johnson was found guilty of noncompliance.
“I tried to show the court why it wasn’t done but that didn’t matter,” he said.
The deadline for a new septic system was set for June 2008.
“We paid $10,000 to buy the holding tanks,” she said.
The government chose the site. And in late fall, 2007, a contractor started digging, only to discover it overlapped the original leach pit.
Health officials shut the project down until the spring.
By spring, the inspector had left.
“They sent out a nice young girl, new to Yukon and the department,” said Johnson.
“We explained the situation and she put her hands in the air, ‘I don’t know what to tell you people, I have to go back and talk to my boss, I’ll get back to you.’
“But nobody got back to us.”
Lynn Richards, the manager of environmental health services, who started the process, had also left the department.
Later that summer, a new manager got involved.
The septic work should have been done, he said.
“But we were dealing with new people, ongoing problems and no money, so come June it was not finished,” she said.
The government took the lodge owner back to court.
Johnson was sentenced to a day in jail.
“To get a jail sentence for the conditions that led up to where we are, when there are criminals on the street who are doing horrendous things—what does it prove?” she said.
“It doesn’t change the situation for me. It’s cost me a lot of money, so I’ve got that much less money to do what needs to be done here.
“So now we’re out of time, we’re out of money and we don’t know what to do. We don’t have many choices, and they’re still hounding me to get the system in the ground.”
Whitehorse contractors now estimate the septic project at $130,000, said Johnson.
The septic problem isn’t unique to Swift River.
In November 2006, Bear Creek Lodge, outside Haines Junction, went bankrupt following a government order to complete a $20,000 septic system upgrade.
The elderly owners, who now live with their daughter in BC, couldn’t afford it.
Kluane Wilderness Lodge, Koidern lodge, and Liard all had sewage and water issues, said Johnson.
“Koidern lodge was taken to court as well,” she said.
“It’s just not profitable to have a little place on the highway anymore, unfortunately.”
But old infrastructure isn’t the only problem these facilities face.
When the Fort Nelson First Nation purchased the Liard Hotsprings Lodge, it had a lot of dreams, said Chief Kathi Dickie.
“But we had difficulty finding managers,” she said.
And the price of fuel took its toll.
Now, the lodge is for sale.
Most highway lodges run off generators, said Johnson.
“Continental Divide, Contact Creek, Toad River, Liard all have to run generators, and with fuel and oil changes, most average $200 to $250 a day.
“So you’re talking $6,000 to $10,000 every month, plus $50,000 to $70,000 for a generator system. And you need a back-up generator.”
Swift River, which is on the grid, only pays $1,200 to $1,500 a month for power.
“The overall traffic is not enough to stay open in the winter anymore,” said Toad River owner Matthew Roy, whose lodge is off the grid.
Roy approached government for help with power costs at his lodge, but didn’t get any money.
“It’s funny because these huge companies are bailed out, but they can’t throw any money to remote highway lodges,” he said.
It’s up to business owners to upgrade and maintain their lodges,” said Eric Bergsma, Yukon environmental health manager.
“When you buy a house you don’t go to your neighbour to upgrade your septic system,” he said.
“Sewage restrictions are what they are.”
With a 15-year mortgage and upgrades, “we have half a million invested—half a million and 16 years and basically our property is useless right now,” said Johnson.
Swift River used to be a busy place, she said.
“One night we counted 18 trucks in our yard at one time—they fueled here, they parked here, they ate here, they spent a lot of money.
“We had 11 staff the first few years, now we have one.”
Still open 24 hours, Swift River sells fuel and gifts.
“But the regular traffic that relied on us for restaurant stops, or stay-over stops is gone,” she said.
“The sad part is we may have to close our doors and walk away—we shouldn’t have to.
“But we are out of time, we’re out of money—what are our prospects?”
Contact Genesee Keevil at