Dawsonites waiting for Yukon River freeze up — again

Most years, the river is frozen by now and the territorial government would be preparing to build and maintain an official ice road crossing. But like last year, there's still open water.

Last winter there was no official ice road crossing, and this year may be the same

There is still open water at the Yukon River ferry crossing in Dawson City, where the territorial government typically builds and maintains an ice road crossing. The government is to provide an update on its plans for this year, on Thursday. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Some people thought it was just a freakish winter last year, when the Yukon River never completely froze over at Dawson City.

This year? A bit of déjà vu.

"I honestly didn't think it would happen again," said Sebastian Jones, who lives in West Dawson, across the water from the main town site.

"I've spent a lot of time on the river, and I've watched the ice closely for 30 years. And the more I know, the less I know — I can't say for sure about anything, anymore."

Most years, the river is frozen by now and the territorial government would be preparing to build and maintain an official ice road crossing, where the ferry normally travels in summer.

Last year, though, there was no official crossing because the ice wasn't deemed safe enough. Instead, Dawsonites forged their own unofficial crossing, involving a five-kilometre detour upriver, around the open water and unstable ice, then across the Klondike River into town.

They've been doing the same this year and it means a longer, more circuitous journey, with an element of uncertain risk. Right now, only walkers and snowmobilers use it — not vehicles.

'We still don't know if this is the new normal,' said West Dawsonite Gabriela Sgaga. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"You have to adapt. It's going to take longer to get into town, it's more challenging," said Gabriela Sgaga, another West Dawsonite.

"So far, people are meeting the challenge. We still don't know if this is the new normal, maybe it's something that's occasional — we're just not sure."

Jones acknowledges it's impossible to draw a definitive link to climate change, but says there's reason to wonder.

"When we put together the climate change adaptation plan for Dawson, this is one of the things that we predicted would be more likely to happen — that living across the river people would become more isolated than we were in the past," he said.

"And it kind of looks like that's happening."

Yukon's Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn is expected to provide an update on Thursday about the government's plans for an official ice crossing this year.

Right now, people are crossing by snowmobile and foot upstream from town. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

'A wake-up call'

The 100 or so residents in West Dawson are used to being cut off from town for at least a few weeks every year, during freeze up and break up. They plan accordingly, storing up provisions so they won't need to get to town.

Jones says many people took extra precautions this year.

"Last year, when we had a freeze up like this, it was a real wake-up call to people," he said. "This year, people laid up more provisions."

Newcomers to Dawson, and winter tourists, might be a little more put out.

Paul Robitaille of the Klondike Visitors Association says visitors love the novelty of an ice crossing, and its absence "definitely hurts our image a little bit."

A view of town, and the Yukon River, from the Dome. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"The ice bridge is such a cool northern thing, and it's a shame," he said.

Sketchy ice conditions can also cause headaches for people organizing some of the town's winter events, he says, such as the Percy DeWolfe sled dog race, the Trek Over the Top event, and the Yukon Quest.

Last year, the Yukon Quest altered its route at Dawson, to ensure a safer river crossing for mushers.

"It's challenging for a lot of those events — but they're adaptable," Robitaille said.

Any road crossing?

Sebastian Jones acknowledges that there may not be any road across the river this year, for vehicles — even an unofficial one. The makeshift crossing built last year was a use-at-own-risk prospect, and at one point, a chunk of ice actually broke away.

Sebastian Jones says there's been talk in West Dawson about building a small fire hall on that side of the river. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"It was kind of miraculous that nobody was on that section of ice when it broke, because had they done, they might have been okay, but it would have been absolutely terrifying," he said.

"I don't think it would make any sense for us to do as we did last year."

West Dawsonites may adapt, but one real concern is how emergency vehicles get to West Dawson. Without an official ice road, there's no way for a fire truck to get across the river.

Jones says there's been discussion in West Dawson about building a small fire hall on that side of the river.

"If this is the new normal, that will become more and more important," he said.

With files from Alexandra Byers and Claudiane Samson


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