Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse Dec. 21. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News)

Yukon government eyes engineered river crossing for West Dawson

‘Mother Nature is a fickle mistress’

The Yukon Government will attempt to build an artificial ice crossing on the Yukon River in Dawson City because the water at the crossing hasn’t frozen over for the second year in a row.

“Things are changing up here,” said Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn at a news conference Dec. 21. “The climate isn’t what it used to be … and we need to be innovative in our solutions.

“Mother Nature is a fickle mistress.”

In a normal year, the ice crossing is usually ready by mid-December. It was apparent in November that things “were not going well” on the river, Mostyn said.

“We were all hoping Mother Nature would do the work,” he said.

Mostyn said the government has consulted and retained three engineers who are specialists in ice engineering.

The process they will use involves pumping water and snow into the open water in the river to help it freeze, essentially creating an “ice Band-Aid” using special equipment.

In a typical year, the ice crossing costs $80,000 per year to build and maintain. This new proposal will cost $100,000, plus an additional one-time engineering cost of $100,000, Mostyn said, for a total of $200,000.

The crossing will still be at its usual place near the ferry terminal, said Mostyn. Last year, an unofficial, impromptu bridge was built downriver, which was neither sanctioned nor maintained by the government.

“There (have been concerns) about that location…. It’s an ad hoc thing that comes with risk,” he said.

There are currently some foot and snow machine routes across the river, said Dawson City mayor Wayne Potoroka, but it’s not possible to drive a vehicle across, meaning it’s hard to get supplies and services in.

“You couldn’t drive an emergency services vehicle in there, which is the main concern for the municipality,” he said.

West Dawson is not technically part of incorporated Dawson, but shares emergency services with them, he added.

Still, even with all the planning and additional costs, Mostyn notes the success of the ice crossing is not guaranteed. It has been done in other jurisdictions successfully, but never in the Yukon.

“If it works this year, we’ll have learned something about the river,” Mostyn said.

What to do if it doesn’t work, however, is not immediately clear.

“If it doesn’t work, we’ll be in the same situation we had last year in Dawson,” said Mostyn. That would mean his department would have to take a step back and “regroup.”

Even with the changing climate and the increasing unreliability of the ice crossing, a physical, permanent bridge between Dawson and West Dawson isn’t on the table, Mostyn said.

The subject has been broached before, but estimates have put building a bridge there at an “extraordinary” cost, he said.

“People talk about a permanent crossing, but that was proposed (before),” said Potoroka. “The community was promised one and then the engineering occurred and the prices came in and it was clearly far more expensive than the government could afford.”

“I’m hopeful this (new method) will work,” the mayor said.

Approximately 100 residents live in West Dawson, which is cut off from the town proper by the river.

In the summer the subdivision is served by the ferry, which brings people and vehicles back and forth.

In the winter, the ice crossing — which traditionally has formed naturally and been improved and maintained HPW crews — has served as a winter crossing, with brief periods of service interruption at freeze-up and break-up.

Rising annual temperatures, however, seem to be disrupting the pattern.

“Not having a link to the other side of the river is really disruptive for the town and for the folks living over there. This is two years running,” said Potoroka. “Quite frankly I’m pleased (the Yukon government) is trying to come up with an innovative solution to what seems to be our new normal.”

“Those folks (in West Dawson) live and work (in Dawson), participate in community events here. When they can’t get across we feel it too.”

It will take about three weeks to build the bridge, Mostyn said. With the holiday season approaching, however, it doesn’t look like it will get underway until January 2018.

“It’s a learning process for us all,” Mostyn said. “Hopefully, we get better at this stuff.”

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

Dawson CityYukon Department of Highways and Public WorksYukon River

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