Unusual weather keeps Dawson City waiting for river to freeze

Residents of Dawson City say they've never seen a freeze-up like this one. The Yukon River is still flowing with open water, cutting off West Dawson. Some people have even paid for a helicopter to bring in groceries.

'I've never seen the river freeze where it has this year,' says lifelong resident

Open water flows near Dawson City in a spot where people would usually be driving vehicles this time of year. Lifelong resident and photographer Will Fellers says it's very unusual. (Will Fellers)

A late freeze-up in Dawson City has people living across the Yukon River in West Dawson counting their supplies and seeing how long they can wait it out.

Some years, the river is frozen solid enough to walk across by early November. But this year, it's still flowing at month's end.

Will Fellers, a placer miner who was born and raised in Dawson City, says he's never seen a season like this one. 

"I've never seen the river freeze where it has this year. It stopped so far upstream that it's open in front of town," he said.  

The river separates the main town centre from West Dawson, where more than 100 people live off-grid. In summer, West Dawsonites can cross the river by ferry, and after freeze-up the territory maintains an ice bridge crossing. In between, there's no easy way across.

The territorial government builds an ice road across the Yukon River, once the ice is thick enough to support large vehicles. Last winter, it opened in early January. (Jim Regimbal)

"I think a lot of people [in West Dawson] are running out of water and fuel and stuff now," Fellers said. "Normally this time of year you could get to town with a vehicle to replenish your supplies.  

"It's been really warm and snowing so it's not going to help that water to freeze. It's going to take a long time," he said.

The forecast is calling for more unseasonably mild weather this week, with a high of -2 C expected on Thursday. Historically, the average high temperature for Dawson City on Dec. 1 is -18 C.

Paul Robitaille, who has lived in Dawson City for 11 years, can see the Yukon River from his office at the Klondike Visitors Association. He calls this year an "anomaly." 

"Seeing that open water this late in the year is a little bit bizarre." 

Robitaille says the ice reaches about halfway across now at the site of the ferry crossing and ice road.

While Dawson City keeps meticulous records on the river breakup in spring (this year's was the earliest on record), historic dates for freeze-up are harder to find because it's a gradual process that doesn't happen in a day.   

The Yukon Department of Highways and Public Works has confirmed this year is unusually late for an ice crossing, and officials are looking into whether this year breaks a record.

Possible to cross upstream, or overhead 

Some people are crossing the river by travelling further upstream. This requires a detour of a few kilometres through an old bush trail. 

The new path across the river is iced over, but still not solid enough to support anything other than lighter vehicles like snowmobiles. 

Marina Osmond is living her first year in West Dawson. She says neighbours have been helping each other through the wait. 'The girl up the road brought me an apple one day because I was having a hard time without apples,' she said. (Marina Osmond)

Marina Osmond is living her first year in West Dawson and recently went across in a toboggan pulled by a friend's snowmobile — an experience she says was a little scary. 

She says the detour took more than two hours to travel overall and the river crossing was still slushy due to overflow.

Still, it was worth it she says.

"For me, it was 38 days," she said, of waiting for freeze-up. "After about a month, I had had a little too much [of cabin life]". 

For me it was 38 days. After about a month, I had had a little too much (of cabin life)-Marina Osmond, West Dawson resident

Osmond had been running out fresh food. She says neighbours have been pulling together to help. 

"The girl up the road brought me an apple one day because I was having a hard time without apples," she says. "They've all been really great." 

With new supplies, Osmond says she should be able to hold out another two weeks. 

Some people have chosen a much quicker way across — by going up. 

Arden Meyer, general manager of Trans North Helicopters, says there's been a bit more business than usual this year from West Dawson. 

"I guess it's themselves and groceries, primarily," he said. "It depends on the number of people, but typically it's under 300 bucks per flight. And you can take up to four people," he said.

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