Change in ferry operations, warm weather lead to shipping delays in Mackenzie Delta

Inuvik residents are used to a lack of groceries around December as the Mackenzie River freezes up, but this year delays have been longer than normal, creating challenges for shoppers in the region.

Ferry service on the Peel River and Mackenzie River ended around Nov. 1, about a month earlier than 2016

The Northmart in Inuvik. The grocery store has seen greater demand with the opening of the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway, but has also encountered shipping delays due to a change in ferry operations for the 2017 season. (Inuvik Northmart)

Inuvik residents are used to a lack of groceries around December as the Mackenzie River freezes up — but this year, delays have been longer than normal, creating challenges for shoppers in the region.

For the first time in four years, the territory's Department of Infrastructure decided to halt extended ferry operations.

In past years, ferries would remain in service until early December while ice crossings were being built, allowing freight and cars about an extra month to get to Beaufort Delta communities.

The Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway opened in November, and residents of Tuktoyaktuk have been taking advantage by driving south to the larger community of Inuvik to pick up groceries. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

This year, though, the extended operations were scrapped, as the "cost was prohibitive," according to Merle Carpenter, the regional superintendent for infrastructure for the region.

Carpenter says the plan was tried for a few years to determine the cost-benefit of the extended season, but that cost about $1 million for less than a month to keep the ferries in operation, and the Yukon side of the Dempster Highway was closed 60 per cent of the time.

The Peel River crossing, which connects the Dempster highway to Fort McPherson, and the Mackenzie River Crossing, near Tsiigehtchic and connects the highway to Inuvik, closed in early November.

Crossings opened Thursday

Trucking companies like Manitoulin Transport were not able to bring any freight across the Mackenzie River until late last week. 

On Thursday, the department of infrastructure posted that the Peel River crossing was open with a weight limit of 35,000 kilograms. Access to Tsiigehtchic was open with a limit of 28,000 kilograms, and the Mackenzie River crossing had a 19,000 kilogram limit.

Rob Eskens, vice president of sales for Manitoulin Transport, said that the company's freight normally weighs in at around 40,000 kilograms, typically an upper limit for ice crossings.

"These efforts are transcending the normal business operations," he said. "To make the crossing, we have brought a number of resources to bare lighter vehicles.

Derek Reimer, with the North West Company, says that flying in product has provided its own set of challenges. (Derek Reimer)

"Not only are the groceries and the retail goods required, but especially so at this time of year. So we ramped up our staffing requirements to make sure this is handled at each of the crossings as fast as possible," he said.

Eskens says another factor that has delayed freight has been weather, and that "freeze-up was later than we all would have expected."

Grocery stores in the region have been flying goods up while waiting for the ice crossings to open, which presents a different set of challenges, according to the North West Company's Derek Reimer.

"Because we had some flights that were bumped, some charters, we were unable to ship some product," Reimer said.

He said that the issues have been sorted out, and their grocery stores in the region are starting to return to normal.

Highway increasing demand

Adding to the strain of the season, Inuvik's Northmart has also been experiencing an increase in demand since the opening of the Inuvik Tuktoyaktuk Highway in November. With the highway open, some Tuktoyaktuk residents have been venturing south for grocery shopping, said Reimer.

"I think it's great for residents of Tuktoyaktuk, that they can now use that all-season road," he said. "But we have had to plan [for increased volume] and will continue to do so."

According to Carpenter, on Dec. 14 the Mackenzie River ice crossing still had water on it due to warmer-than-expected weather.

He expects it to be opened to heavier loads by Dec. 19.