Dawson City ice bridge looking uncertain again this year

'Now three years in a row the river is jammed, upriver from Dawson, and that leaves a big open lead of water right in front of town,' says one resident.

Yukon government looking to hire engineers to build river crossing, but nothing announced yet

A stretch of open water can be seen from the riverbank in Dawson on Tuesday. Some years, an ice bridge would already be open by now. (Jesse Cooke)

People in Dawson City are wondering if they'll see a useable ice bridge form across the Yukon River this winter — because so far, it doesn't look promising.

"What we've got is a repeat of the last couple of years," said Jesse Cooke, who lives in West Dawson, across the river from the main town site.

"Now three years in a row the river is jammed, upriver from Dawson, and that leaves a big open lead of water right in front of town where the typical ice bridge would be."

Each winter since the 1960s, the Yukon government has maintained an ice crossing. It's usually open for at least two or three months, allowing the 100 or so residents of West Dawson to drive to and from the downtown.

Typically, the ice bridge crossing has been maintained where the George Black ferry runs in summer. (Jesse Cooke)

Things changed two winters ago, when the usual crossing spot failed to freeze over. Dawsonites had to find their own route across the river, travelling at their own risk. The same thing happened last year

The government attempted to help the river freeze over last year by spraying water at the ice edge, but that $120,000 experiment was canned after a week.

Cooke believes the persistent patch of open water represents a new norm, and Dawsonites shouldn't count on the river freezing over each winter. He says it may have to do with climate change, or the changing contours of the riverbed. 

"Last year was a typical winter — it was very cold, and we had lots of stretches of –40. It's not that the river didn't freeze — it froze up nice and solid, just in the wrong spot," he says.

No plan yet

A report done earlier this year for the Yukon government by the National Research Council was inconclusive on why freeze-up has been different in recent years. It cites upriver ice jams, an evolving riverbed, climate change, and effluent from the Dawson City wastewater treatment plant as possible factors.

An attempt to help the river freeze over last year by spraying water at the ice edge was a failure. (Government of Yukon, Department of Highways and Public Works)

The report also suggests a number of ways the government might respond, including using an ice boom, extending a tow line across the channel, or trying again to spray ice at the river (according to the report, last year's attempt failed, in part, because of warm weather, last-minute planning, and failure to use an ice boom). 

The Yukon government has not said what its plan is this winter. Earlier this fall, it put out a request for proposals to build an ice bridge, possibly using an ice boom, but a contract has not yet been awarded.

According to the tender document, construction of the bridge is to start no later than Dec. 15.

Cooke was not willing to wait — he and his family decided to move into town for the winter, just to be safe.

"What we've got is a repeat of the last couple of years, so we're kind of glad that we made the move," he said.

"I hope it's not a new normal as in, like, we're never going to get an ice bridge again. Because that just can't happen — we have to figure out a solution. And by 'we,' I mean us as residents, but I mean the Yukon government, too."

With files from Sandi Coleman


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