Broken beaver dam caused Alaska Highway washout, officials say as detour opens

Traffic is moving again up and down the Alaska Highway north of B.C.'s Liard Hot Springs. And officials say they've found the culprit in the Canada Day washout that destroyed part of the highway — a broken beaver dam.

Detour opened Monday, after 3-day closure caused headaches for travellers

The washout that has closed the Alaska Highway over the holiday weekend. On Monday, a 3-kilometre detour around the site was opened to traffic. (Yukon Highways and Public Works/ Twitter)

Perhaps beavers need holidays too, from all that dam maintenance — especially on Canada Day. 

Officials say a major washout on the Alaska Highway in B.C. over the holiday weekend was caused by a broken beaver dam that sent a torrent of water through the area, sweeping away a section of the highway in northern B.C. and causing major disruptions for travellers and truckers before a detour opened to traffic on Monday.

"There was, you know, quite a bit of water there," said George Smith, a manager with Public Service and Procurement Canada, the department responsible for that stretch of the highway.

"And once that beaver dam broke, the rush of water from that lake came down through and plugged off the culvert, and washed out the highway."

The washed-out highway is still impassable. Photos and video taken over the holiday weekend show a wide, deep gap where the road was destroyed by the rushing water.

There's now a three-kilometre detour around the site. Smith said it's an old section of the former road alignment that they managed to make useable and open on Monday.

"It was quite a bit of work. It was a good effort, but we had our maintenance contractor do some work and we got some help from Lower Post First Nation," he said.

"They worked quite a few hours straight, just to try to get this detour in."

A beaver in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge, Que. The Alaska Highway washout over the holiday weekend is being blamed on a broken beaver dam. (Maxime Corneau/Radio-Canada)

It may still be a bit slow-going for motorists though, Smith said. He's asking people to be patient.

"People are just going to have to wait for the pilot car and then, you know, go through there at a reduced speed."

He's not sure how long it will take to fix the actual highway. He said engineers were expected to arrive at the site on Wednesday to take a look, and then they'll come up with a plan.

Travellers stayed positive while they waited

The three-day highway closure has caused plenty of headaches already — for local residents, tourists and for Yukon retailers waiting for stock to arrive from down south. The highway is the major overland shipping corridor into Yukon.

Yukon resident Ray Marnoch, waylaid on his way home from a road trip to Winnipeg, said motorists were mostly staying positive as they waited for the road to reopen.

Marnoch and his son Frank, along with their dog, decided to backtrack a bit and hunker down at Toad River, south of the washout. 

"There's a cafe here, and gas and water and stuff like that. So we stayed a couple of nights here, thankfully," Marnoch said on Monday afternoon.

"We've been, you know, talking to truckers, RVers and bikers, from like the Florida Keys and Tennessee. You know it's been kind of interesting, actually." 

Marnoch said they had to decide whether to wait it out at Toad River, or turn around to Prince George, B.C. and drive up the Stewart-Cassiar Highway to get home.   

"But that's another 2,400 kilometres that we'd have to add on to our trip. And after 7,000-k, I didn't want to drive that. So we stayed put," he said.

"It's been kind of crazy to know what to do."

Some people decided to turn around, he said, including a couple of bikers who had originally been heading for Skagway, Alaska, and instead turned back south. He said others, such as truckers, opted to sit tight and wait for the road to reopen.

Marnoch said he's impressed by how everybody responded — keeping spirits up, and helping each other out.

"You know, the people working on the road, the truckers, the RCMP came through, and all the staff at the different highway lodges and stuff. It's been really good," Marnoch said.

"It's the best of the North — everybody pulls together."

Written by Paul Tukker with files from Dave White