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Old Crow winter road open for business

On Wednesday afternoon Lisa Marino, an owner and operator with Mercer Contracting, was busy in the company’s yard organizing trucks headed for Old Crow.

On Wednesday afternoon Lisa Marino, an owner and operator with Mercer Contracting, was busy in the company’s yard organizing trucks headed for Old Crow.

A flat-bed tractor trailer was packed high with construction materials ordered by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and a shiny white pick-up truck – a new toy for some lucky Old Crow resident.

Earlier that day Marino had seen off the first three trucks headed for Eagle Plains to spend the night before the long trip over the 260-kilometre winter road to Old Crow.

“It was a really good feeling,” said Marino. “It was really nice to see that all come together, and three trucks off and on their way. It’ll be great to hear Thursday night, or Friday sometime, they’re there and getting unloaded.”

The $1.4 million Old Crow winter road has officially opened. It’s the first time in a decade the community has been connected to the rest of Yukon by road.

But don’t start planning a road trip; the route is not open to the public. Instead, it will be used to haul in equipment and supplies that will generate economic activity in the community for years to come.

The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation is bringing in construction supplies for a new store, new fuel storage tanks and new housing.

Community residents have ordered in big-ticket items like appliances, vehicles and outboard motors – things that would cost a small fortune to ship in by air.

The First Nation even hired a truck on behalf of its citizens to ship personal items, free of charge to the community.

Vuntut Gwitchin had planned to build a road last winter, but it was cancelled a few weeks before construction was scheduled to begin.

“Really it’s good that it didn’t happen last year,” said Randy Shewen, who was hired by the First Nation to manage the project.

“As it turned out, weather conditions weren’t great … and people just weren’t ready to go.”

Getting a winter road built is only part of the battle. You also have to give all the government departments, companies and people who might be interested in bringing stuff in enough time to plan and budget for projects that are potentially years down the road.

Now that all the potential users have had an extra year to get their ducks in a row, it seems the Old Crow winter road project is set for great success.

Shewen estimates that about 50 trucks will travel the road over the three-week period that it is open.

For perhaps the first time ever, a significant amount of material will be coming out, too. About half of those trucks will come back out loaded, said Shewen.

Waste oils, lubricants, and scrap metal will be shipped out of the community for proper disposal.

A couple of trucks have already driven the road as a test run, and arrived in Old Crow Tuesday, said Shewen.

“Apparently they had to add a bit of ice thickness to the first crossing of the Porcupine River, but other than that … all indications are that the road is now ready to drive and it’s in good shape.”

Getting the road into shape is no small feat.

The route is the same as it has been for previous winter roads. It generally follows historic tote roads, survey and seismic lines cut during oil and gas exploration activities in the 1950s through 1980s.

A team of people from Old Crow led the way, using a combination of maps, memory and GPS technology, said Shewen.

“You really rely on those people, because they’re as close as you’ve got to experts.”

The road is a lot like a flat ski run, he said.

“It’s built with grooming equipment from ski hills. It’s actually a lot like a ski hill or a cross country ski trail.”

The first step is to plow most of the snow off the ground. That lets the cold air get into the soil, previously insulated by the snow. Solid, frozen ground is key to a good solid road.

Then snow is moved back onto the road surface and packed down to a depth of at least 10 centimetres.

This helps ensure that vegetation isn’t disturbed by the heavy trucks barrelling along above the surface.

The hardest parts of the road to build are the creek and river crossings.

There, the banks must be built up with snow and water to allow a smooth transition from ground to ice and back.

Still, on some of the steeper grades a Caterpillar tractor will be required to drag each of the trucks up, one by one.

The trucks will travel the one-lane road in convoys of about a dozen vehicles. Everybody must get all the way to Old Crow and back out to Eagle Plains before the next group can go.

A one-way, 260-kilometre trip is expected to take 12-18 hours, if everything goes well.

The full round trip should take four days, including unloading and loading back up in Old Crow.

The truckers must be prepared for anything. A small breakdown could see the convoy stuck for days, and the whole project brought to a stand-still.

“Delays can really impact our success,” said Shewen.

Logistics in Old Crow is another significant challenge, he said.

“If you can imagine eight or 10 trucks showing up – they have to be unloaded. Just that many trucks in Old Crow is a significant amount of traffic.”

There has to be the people and the equipment on the ground ready to unload and receive the goods.

And there has to be somewhere to put everything, said Shewen. Old Crow doesn’t have room to store 50 truckloads of stuff at random.

“You have to do it quickly, because you want to get those trucks back on the road and get them out for another load,” he said.

The road will also have to be maintained between trips.

“No doubt it’s going to be pounded out by these truckloads,” he said.

Maintenance is done with graders, “more or less like any other road,” said Shewen.

Water trucks will be used to shore up creek crossings and embankments.

And once that’s done, it’s time to do it all over again.

Four convoys are scheduled to make the trip before the expected closure date in three weeks.

The road will then return to nature, until next time.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at