Yellowknife stores feel pinch as ferry docked

Yellowknife grocery stores and gas stations are feeling the pinch from low water levels on the Mackenzie River, which has kept the ferry — and many supply trucks — docked for the past six days.

Motorists stockpile fuel with pumps running dry at local gas stations

A motorist puts back an empty gas pump at the Yellowknife Esso station on Tuesday. Staff say they have run out of regular grade gasoline and expect to run out of premium soon. ((Robyn Burns/CBC))
Yellowknife grocery stores and gas stations are feeling the pinch from low water levels on the Mackenzie River, which have kept the ferry — and many supply trucks — idle for the past six days.

River levels at Fort Providence, N.W.T., have been so low that the Northwest Territories Transportation Department has not been able to operate the Merv Hardie ferry since Nov. 17.

"This looks like it'll be out for 10 days or longer, so this is exceptional," Ben Walker, general manager of the Yellowknife Co-op grocery store and gas bar, told CBC News.

"This is technically not supposed to happen."

Walker said the Co-op has started flying in some of its grocery stock — at an added expense — but the shelves at Yellowknife's other stores are starting to thin out.

"Right now, we have some trouble with the frozen department, bakery, meat, stuff like that," said Mark Macusi, assistant supervisor at Extra Foods in the city's downtown.

Meanwhile, pumps at local gas stations have run dry as motorists stockpile gasoline. The Co-op gas bar ran out of regular-grade gasoline on Monday evening.

The Esso station on Forrest Drive has run out of regular gasoline as well, and premium-grade gas is expected to run out in the afternoon, staff told CBC News around midday Tuesday.

Levels dropping again

The Mackenzie River and the Merv Hardie ferry connect Yellowknife and other North Slave communities to southern Canada, making it an important link for motorists and supply trucks.

A shopper peruses the shrinking selection of meat and fish at the Extra Foods store in downtown Yellowknife on Monday. ((CBC))

The ferry crosses the river numerous times a day until the river freezes up for the winter. Motorists then drive on an ice crossing in the winter.

Transportation officials say a drop in temperature last week created an ice jam, blocking water from feeding into the Mackenzie River and forcing river levels to plummet.

River levels had been rising slowly until Tuesday, when they dropped again. As of 12:15 p.m. MT, the raw water level on the river was 149.382 metres above sea level, according to Environment Canada.

Transportation officials say the river has to be at least 149.8 metres before the ferry can operate again.

"At this point, it's just a matter of whether the water can get through the ice dam that has been formed," said Earl Blacklock, a spokesman with the Transportation Department.

As well, any ice that may form on the river in the meantime would have to be cleared, and that could further delay the ferry's launch.

'Nobody should panic'

As of Monday, Walker said the Co-op has put three tractor-trailer loads of groceries onto a plane from Hay River, N.W.T., to Yellowknife to keep the store properly stocked — a task that he said costs $20,000 per load.

The Merv Hardie ferry, left, transports vehicles across the Mackenzie River at Fort Providence, N.W.T. The ferry will eventually be replaced by the Deh Cho Bridge, right, which remains under construction. ((CBC))

"Nobody should panic. We'll have lots of milk and bread," Walker said.

"This time of year, usually the ferry will only go out for a day or two. It's very abnormal for it to be out this long."

The last time the Merv Hardie ferry had to stop for this long was in 1998, Walker said.

The mass stockpiling of gas, however, may be a greater concern. Government officials had advised motorists not to stock up on gas or propane, as there was just enough in the current supply to meet immediate demands.

Officials also say fuel suppliers in all North Slave communities, including Yellowknife, have enough diesel and heating oil available.

Meanwhile, local homes, businesses and office buildings that use wood pellet stoves as an alternative heating source will also face a shortage of pellets because of the ferry interruption.

"Within a day or two, pretty much all of the big systems will run out of pellets in Yellowknife," Thomas Wunderlin of Arctic Green Energy, which sells wood pellet heating systems, told CBC News on Tuesday.

"All pellet heat is essentially supplementary heat," he added. "So all these buildings, they all have backup heating oil boilers, so it will just revert back to heating oil."

Wunderlin said the shortage could cost his company tens of thousands of dollars.