The first convoy of trucks on Yukon’s newly completed 280-kilometre-long winter road from Eagle Plains to Old Crow made it there and back after an unplanned week-long pitstop due to river overflow.
“Overflow is very dangerous. It’s basically like Arctic quicksand,” Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation (VGFN) told the News during a phone interview on March 7.
“They were stopped 10 kilometers from the community at the riverbank — stuck as in they couldn’t move past the river and not physically stuck. So, they were out there for about a week before an alternative pathway was identified and proved viable.”
Tizya-Tramm said the trucks were effectively at an impasse due to approximately three feet of overflow that extended hundreds of metres at the confluence of the Crow and Porcupine rivers.
They have since arrived at their destination in Old Crow by crossing an ice bridge that was built to bypass the overflow.
“We’ve never seen this before, we’ve never seen this kind of overflow and its viscosity,” Tizya-Tramm said.
“Our elders, our knowledge holders, our harvesters have never seen this before.”
There is a future for winter roads and ice bridges to his community — yet Tizya-Tramm wonders how much longer before climate change takes its toll on the possibility.
Old Crow is typically a fly-in community, and the temporary winter road allows authorized vehicles to haul supplies between Eagle Plains and Old Crow.
Tizya-Tramm said his community is relying on the hauled materials to build a centre for aging in the community, a health centre and a 10-plex housing unit. It is also critical for moving waste material and heavy machinery out of the community.
“We can’t afford to miss out on even a single ice road,” Tizya-Tramm said.
In a March 7 text message, Tizya-Tramm said approximately 20 trucks are part of the operation this season in total, with two convoys of six to seven trucks running along the winter road between Eagle Plains and Old Crow. The rest of the vehicles are travelling between Whitehorse and Eagle Plains to feed the bush convoys.
Twenty-five loads are expected to be delivered to Old Crow by March 9 and the target is to get 60 loads to the community by March 24, if the weather holds up, Tizya-Tramm said.
In a release, the Yukon government said the road will stay open until mid-March, depending on the weather.
The territorial government is spending $2.5 million for the construction of the winter road in 2022, and plans are underway for another $2.6-million road in 2023.
Tizya-Tramm said VGFN is putting $200,000 towards this year’s road, with the remainder of the funds covered by Yukon government.
Rocky road to winter road
A report attributed to operations manager Sharon Miller of Porcupine Enterprises Limited Partnership (PELP) that was posted to the Vuntut Gwitchin Government Facebook page on March 7 provides estimated weekly updates on a timeline of the winter road. It describes how weather conditions, Dempster Highway road closures and mechanical issues have impacted construction since building began in January.
In the report, PELP is a civil construction company in Old Crow that is owned by Vuntut Development Corporation, a for-profit enterprise involved in planning and creating business opportunities for VGFN. As part of a deal between the Yukon government and VGFN, the First Nation has agreed to construct, maintain and decommission the winter road. Those services have been contracted to PELP, which has subcontracted Rowe’s Construction.
In the report, extremely cold temperatures and heavy snow accumulation made for a “very trying” first week of building the road in early January. The road was completed on Feb. 23, and the first fleet of transport trucks set off from Whitehorse the next day.
“Mother nature struck again this week with challenging us with outrageous amounts of overflow coming out of the Crow River with very little notice,” reads an update from Feb. 26 to March 5.
The report explains that crews went to work to find alternate routes while the convoy was parked on the riverbank.
But the overflow was “just too aggressive,” the report says.
After four days of monitoring the situation, the overflow had slowed down and froze back enough to allow crews to try some options, according to the report.
On the first attempt to cross the overflow, a truck’s front tires went through approximately eight inches and the vehicle had to be towed out, in the report. No one was hurt, and there was no damage done.
By then, the crew had already started building an ice bridge over the Crow River.
“They worked all night to complete the construction, perform stress tests and profile the ice to ensure safety before the trucks drove over it. The convoy was escorted one truck at a time into Old Crow with no issues,” reads the report.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org