West Dawson residents are going to have to travel even farther if they want to make it into town following a collapse in the ice Feb. 25.
The community of about 100 residents has been without a government-approved ice bridge across the Yukon River this season.
An ice jam well upriver slowed the river’s freezing and left it with too much open water.
The community has managed to find a route on its own, in part using a path that is sometimes used by dogsleds and snowmobiles.
But now that route is impassable. Around 7 p.m. on Feb. 25 part of the make-shift road gave way, exposing open water.
“It’s amazing that the timing was such that nobody was actually on it,” said West Dawsonite Sebastian Jones. “Because people were on it no more than 10 minutes before it moved and people approached it no more than 10 minutes afterwards as well.”
Most winters, after the river freezes over, the Yukon government pays for an ice bridge to go directly across the water between two ferry docks used in warmer weather.
But this year, because of the open water, that hasn’t happened.
The winding route that the community had been using is more narrow than a government-built road when it goes over the water, Jones said.
“It’s certainly been a lot more hit and miss getting across. With the length of this road and it being much narrower than the government ice bridge, if there’s a snow storm it’s much more likely to blow in.”
Fire Chief Jim Regimbal estimates the unofficial route took about eight minutes to travel compared to less than one minute on the government road.
The broken ice on the west side of the river means that route is impassable now. The town has put up barriers to keep people from heading that way.
There is a fork in the road ahead of the break so crossing to the Sunnydale neighbourhood is still possible, the chief said.
Going that way, the trip into West Dawson now takes about 30 minutes he said.
Government vehicles, including firetrucks, don’t travel on the road because it hasn’t been approved.
Regimbal said it’s “disconcerting” to not be able to take emergency vehicles across the river.
“Unless it’s a sanctioned road we can’t go across, nor would I jeopardize the lives of our first responders.”
For the most part, West Dawsonites have been managing, Jones said.
One of the biggest differences is that the government hasn’t been plowing the Top Of The World Highway, he said. The snow on the road has been packed down by vehicles driving over it.
“The whole winter’s worth of snow has been just driven over. You can still drive on it but it’s getting pretty deep and I would imagine come spring time it’s going to get very, very sloppy if we can’t get a plow over here.”
There may be some silver lining. According to Jones, the cracking has caused other ice on the river to shift and fill in parts of the open water that was preventing a direct route across the river.
He suggests that if it got cold enough, the ice could seal and cars could drive directly between ferry landings.
“It’s supposed to cool down to under (minus) 30 at night by the end of this week so that should settle things down. Of course, who knows, this has been such a funky winter, something else weird could happen.”
Regimbal is skeptical. He thinks the ice is too unpredictable for the government to approve an official ice road.
“Because the ice build up was up river we didn’t have a chance of that ice building up and making a solid foundation so that they could have the ice depth to put in an official ice road.”
The Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works hasn’t given up on the idea of a road between the two ferry landings this season. Spokesperson Alicia Debreceni said staff check the ice daily.
“But we can only build a bridge if there is ice to build upon and the river in that location is currently still open.”
The ice bridge is made by pumping water out of the Yukon River and flooding the ice surface so that the area gets thick enough for vehicles to drive on.
The road is built between the two ferry landings so that it can connect to the existing roads, she said. Changing the route would make things more complex and could require permits.
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org