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Swift River shutdown leaves owners destitute

After more than 16 years serving Alaska Highway travellers around the clock, Swift River Lodge is boarding up its windows and padlocking the door. "We're broke; we're done; we're out of time and out of money," said lodge co-owner Sharon Johnson on Monday.

After more than 16 years serving Alaska Highway travellers around the clock, Swift River Lodge is boarding up its windows and padlocking the door.

“We’re broke; we’re done; we’re out of time and out of money,” said lodge co-owner Sharon Johnson on Monday.

“There is no chance of us ever complying with the government so we have no choice but to close our doors.”

More than four years ago, the Health Department shut down Swift River’s motel rooms and restaurant.

The lodge needed a new septic system and was barred from offering food or lodging until it’s old tanks were replaced and moved away from its well.

But the Johnsons only owned .5 hectares of land - not enough to accommodate the new system unless they tore down the lodge.

A land application, to allow part of the septic system to be installed on Crown land, was denied.

“The government just imposed restrictions that were impossible for us to comply with,” said Johnson. “Plus they’ve taken away the revenue from our hotel and restaurant for almost five years, so how do you start saving money for improvements when you’re losing money everyday?

“If we had known the land application would be denied; if we’d known we couldn’t get financing; we’d have closed our doors probably that first year they closed us down.

“But we’ve gone backwards for five years trying to find some way to stay here and we should never have done that because we’ve exhausted any funds we had available to us - we just went too long.”

Johnson moved north from Edmonton, and her brother came from Saskatoon, to open the lodge in 1993.

“We wanted to get out of the city and living in the North was the lifestyle we really wanted,” she said. “And we loved it - it was a very successful business, until the Health Department decided we no longer complied.”

The Johnsons were about to pay off a 15-year mortgage, and had funding lined up to rebuild, when Health issued the shutdown order.

“If we’d had one or two more years, before the problems with the Health Department, we’d have been OK, and we’d not be having this conversation at all,” said Johnson.

“But now, there’s nothing to sell, no value here at all - we lost everything.”

The only way to save the business would be to level the buildings, put in a new septic system, and then rebuild - a project that would cost several million dollars, she said.

“But can we convince someone to invest $2 million in a little spot in the middle of nowhere under current times - I don’t think so,” said Johnson.

“We’re just going to board it up and walk away.

“Just like all the other places on this highway, there’ll be one more boarded up place for the current government to be proud of.”

Swift River lodge is the only gas station between Watson Lake, 160 kilometres south, and Teslin, 112 kilometres west. And neither of those communities offer fuel around the clock.

“We’re the only place that’s open 24 hours,” said Johnson. “So this winter, it’s going to be a tough road.”

Long-distance travellers driving through the night have depended on Swift River for gas.

“We’ve been that stop for them all these years and now we’re not going to be here anymore,” she said.

“Many of the truckers are devastated, they don’t know what they’re going to do.”

But Johnson’s even more worried about the people from Dease Lake, Telegraph Creek, Lower Post and Watson Lake.

“They travel back and forth, and always stop here, and now they’re at the mercy of whoever might come along if they have any problems on the highway,” she said.

In the last 10 days, the Johnsons have dealt with five breakdowns. They used Swift River to make arrangements, and stayed inside to wait four or five hours for a tow truck or family to come help.

“And this is the fall,” said Johnson. “This isn’t the middle of winter - in the winter you’re going to have more problems.

“All those people will be sitting on the side of the road waiting for someone to come along.”

The Johnsons aren’t the first lodge owners to call it quits.

Bear Creek Lodge, outside Haines Junction, faced similar septic issues in 2006.

The elderly owners couldn’t afford the $20,000 upgrade Health demanded.

“We may have to declare bankruptcy,” said 74-year-old Gail Jeeves at the time.

The couple ended up moving to Prince George to live in their daughter’s basement.

Kluane Lake Wilderness lodge closed because of similar issues, said Johnson. And the restaurant and motel at Koidern Lodge have been closed even longer than Swift River’s.

“We’re one of many,” said Johnson.

The government claims it’s “going to be addressing all the issues that are out there at all the old lodges, but hasn’t had the manpower or the time,” she said.

“If that’s supposed to make me feel better - that they will eventually hit all the lodges - it hasn’t made me feel any better at all.”

The fewer the lodges, the more dangerous the highway, said Johnson.

“But our government doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of closing these places down,” she said. “I just wish that someone from Health department would take one day out of their busy schedule and talk to the people that travel the Alaska Highway.”

Despite four years of hardship, the Johnsons are not sorry they bought Swift River Lodge.

“We’ve gotten to know so many good friends here on the highway: people who just bend over backwards to show how much they appreciate what you can do for them, people who broke down, people with tire problems, health problems - we’ve seen it all on this highway.

“People show so much gratitude just for the fact that you’re here that it makes you feel like you’re doing something right.”

Johnson’s older brother is moving to Saskatoon, but hopes to spend time up North in the summers.

“This is our home,” said Johnson. “We didn’t just lose a job, we lost an investment, we lost our business and we lost our home, too.”

Johnson’s brother is retired. “And he should have the return on his investment for his retirement,” she said. “But, unfortunately, he’s lost that, as well.”

Johnson is moving to Faro to live with her daughter.

“I can’t afford to move to Whitehorse, or anywhere else,” she said.

“Faro is my only option in terms of a place to live - hopefully I can find some work to cover my costs of sharing that home with my daughter.”

Johnson always planned to retire in the Yukon, near her three children.

“I thought that if my children were not interested in taking over the business, at least I’d have something to sell and then I’d be able to afford to retire and spend time here doing all those things we’ve never had time to do before, like camping, fishing, relaxing and just enjoying the beautiful country that’s up here,” she said.

But those dreams are shattered.

“I’ll probably be working until I absolutely can’t work any longer,” said Johnson.

“It’s really hard because I’m 57 years old and I’m starting from scratch with nothing.”

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