Manitoba's mild weather is wreaking havoc on northern ice roads in the province.
Sheila North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, says the ice road season started late and appears to be ending early.
"Community members and leaders are finding that the ice is not as thick, so the loads have to be lighter," she said.
"I don't think people that have never had to rely on winter roads can truly understand what it's like and hope for weather to co-operate."
The 14 First Nations in the MKO region rely on temporary ice roads for supplies, she said.
During most winters, isolated communities that are only accessible by plane in warmer weather can connect with urban areas by car.
Building supplies, new vehicles and food are all brought into isolated communities on winter roads, North Wilson said. Local stores are expensive in the north, so ice roads allow families to buy cheaply in bulk, she said.
"It gives a chance for individual families to go and get what they need," said North Wilson, who added much of the food purchased in the winter is meant to last a full year.
The ice roads also give families the chance to go on a vacation and access recreation areas they'd otherwise be separated from, she said.
"Sometimes families come out on these roads to urban areas as a whole family, because it's simply not affordable to fly," North Wilson said.
When winters are normal and cold, ice roads are perfectly safe, she said. But as temperatures rise — as they did this winter — the roadways become dangerous and unpredictable. It's unfortunate people in northern communities have to traverse thinning ice roads to get essential supplies home, said North Wilson.
"When the thaw starts to happen and people are still needing to get their supplies in, people take a little bit more risk," she said.
This risk could be mitigated if permanent roads were built to service all Manitoba communities, she said.
Airship transportation is the answer, says prof
North Wilson's wish may not be economically sound, according to a University of Manitoba professor.
Building all-season roads to every remote community would take decades and billions of dollars, said supply change management professor, Barry Prentice.
He is working with engineers and Winnipeg pilot Dale George to develop an ultralight airship that would transport goods to northern Manitoba as well as to residents in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories.
"We're convinced that the airships are really the only solution that is practical and economic," said Prentice. He estimates the cost of developing the airship is roughly $50 million.
A test flight of the airship was planned in October but the team ran into an issue fitting the vessel through the storage hangar doors, said Prentice. The ship's first test flight is now scheduled for the spring.