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Debate surrounds Yukon River intake

Cord Hamilton stands on the banks of the Yukon River, his blue windbreaker pushing up against his chest, rippling in a cool afternoon breeze.

Cord Hamilton stands on the banks of the Yukon River, his blue windbreaker pushing up against his chest, rippling in a cool afternoon breeze.

The water churns downstream in front of him, passing over an intake pipe first laid in the river in the 1950s.

It was the original source for drinking water in Whitehorse. Since then, its purpose, if any, has been up for debate.

It’s a popular recreation area for paddlers, but it’s also a dangerous stretch of water. Three deaths in the last 10 years have occurred in this section of the river.

“Why is it just here that we’re getting deaths?” he asks, his arm waving out toward the intake. “What is it about this particular place that is so hazardous?”

There isn’t a clear answer, at least not yet.

The latest death occurred last summer when 19-year-old Nicholas Close-Silverfox jumped into the water to save his dog.

With his friends on the riverbank, trying to reach him, Close-Silverfox was pulled into the current.

Since that death, no action has been taken by the city to improve the safety of the area, nor have any studies been completed determining what effect the intake has on the hydrology of the river.

There are a few signs scattered along the shoreline, warning of a strong undertow. A popular section of the Millennium Trail winds along the river, just a few metres from the sweeping current.

Above the intake, the water level rises, appearing to cause backflow in the eddy currents. That much is noticeable to anyone who observes the area, but the hydrology of the area is a source of debate.

In 2001, the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club began working on the intake, removing concrete and rebar with the goal of making that section safer and more aesthetically pleasing.

In 2004, things changed.

Erosion along the east bank of the Yukon River began to accelerate. Approximately two metres of river bank, adjacent to the Millennium Trail and immediately upstream of the intake, was undercut and sloughed into the river.

An ice jam had occurred that winter, which some argue was the cause of the erosion, and prompted an on-site meeting between staff from Yukon Water Resources, City of Whitehorse Engineering, Department of Fisheries, Yukon Energy Corporation and the Canoe and Kayak Club.

Hamilton, an engineer, was at the meeting, then as an employee of Yukon Energy.

“I remember the first question they asked was, ‘What is Yukon Energy doing different?’ And the answer was nothing. But we looked at that structure (the intake) and said, ‘Well, that’s different.”

Boulders had been placed above the intake, creating a water park for paddlers.

In July 2004, an inspection report was issued by the city’s water and resources division.

The reports findings stated that a February inspection “indicated that the rapid erosion was produced by a back eddy of significant velocity, which appeared to be created by the spur dyke, but appreciably aggravated by ice conditions in the vicinity of the spur dyke.”

Water resources also issued a letter to the Canoe and Kayak Club, stating that the erosion was “of concern,” and complaints from the public had been received.

The letter went on to state that “recent modifications to the spur dyke, as part of the ‘Rock the River’ project conducted on behalf of the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club, may be responsible for the accelerated erosion.”

Rock the River is a project to construct a white-water sport and recreation park in the east channel of the Yukon River.

John Quinsey, president of the Yukon Canoe and Kayak Club, disputes that the added boulders have made the river more dangerous. Water levels remained unchanged from the work they did, he said.

He says the Rock the River project could improve the safety of the river, as well as fish and bird habitat.

In the meantime, Quinsey says what needs to happen is further public awareness of the dangers posed by the river.

“You can’t make the river a safer place in general,” he says, “but you can create awareness. People need to wear PFDs. They need to be aware of the risks. We have a powerful river running through town. It’s beautiful asset to the city but it’s also dangerous.”

Graham Wilson, a local resident and author who has been paddling in the river since the 1980s, says more awareness isn’t going to fix the problem.

“We have something that is very dangerous and I don’t think more signage and public education is going to change anything,” he says.

“We don’t need this intake. The city doesn’t get its water from there anymore. I don’t see any reasons to have it.”

Quinsey is open to modifications to the intake but says removing the entire structure might have severe consequences.

“Some people are saying it should be ripped out and that it serves no benefit, but that’s a naive take in my opinion,” he says.

“If you pull out the intake you’re going to change the current, there will be massive erosion downstream and maybe more danger. We need careful study and analysis.”

Wilson is adamant, though.

“The river has changed,” he says, “and that section doesn’t seem like the same place it used to be. I see the recreational benefit, but it’s not of huge value. I think we could build something that would be much more suitable for paddlers and fishers. Why wait? Recreation shouldn’t come at such a high cost.”

The City of Whitehorse, meanwhile, is waiting for a report back from the coroner’s office before they take further action in the area.

“When the coroner comes out with the report we’ll see if it identifies anything directly related to the death and particular aspects of that area of the river,” says city manager Christine Smith.

“There’s quite a bit off debate over the hydrology of the area, so you’d want to be able to say definitively, ‘This is what the problem is.’ We will look for guidance from the coroner.”

A draft of that report is now in the works, but no timetable is scheduled. The coroner’s office said a report might be issued by the end of June.

Hamilton also wants to see a comprehensive study done on the area; the sooner, the better.

“Whatever strategy the city has for delaying the issue, I think it’s shortsighted if they are going to say, ‘We don’t have enough evidence to take some action,’ he says.

“What more evidence do you need? Three people have died here. To deny that this thing doesn’t have any influence on what’s happening upstream of it really isn’t credible.”

Contact Sam Riches at