Warm winter sets back construction of Dettah ice road

Construction is beginning today on the ice road connecting Yellowknife to Dettah on the N.W.T.'s Yellowknife Bay, but a warm November means that it will open in January for the second time since the 2006/2007 season, and the second year in a row.

GNWT's Michael Conway says warm November led to delays in start of road's construction

Workers were out testing ice thickness Wednesday on Yellowknife Bay, in anticipation of the start of construction of the Dettah ice road. Construction is slated to begin Thursday. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Construction is beginning Thursday on the ice road connecting Yellowknife to Dettah on the N.W.T.'s Yellowknife Bay, but a warm November means that it will open in January for the second year in a row.

"With the way the weather has been, and the way we've had to approach building ice roads, it's just getting more and more difficult," said Michael Conway, who supervises ice road crews in the North Slave region for the territorial government's transportation department. 

"This is the second year in a row where we've had an extremely warm November, and a fairly warm December as well."

Last year, the ice road opened on January 2. Typically, it opens before Christmas — its 15-year-average opening date is December 21.

Workers were out on Yellowknife Bay Wednesday testing the ice for the road. It's the second time they've attempted to test this season, after a December attempt was cut short due to unsafe conditions. 

"We had very little ice," said Conway. "Actually surprised at how little ice there was. We stopped, and decided to wait to the new year."

Conway also said that improvements in technology have led to later openings for the ice road in recent years. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the road frequently opened in late November or early December.

"We're using some very specialized equipment to get us out on the ice," he said. "25 years ago, we'd have a CAT and a grater, and that would be it."

Although Dettah has an alternative access road, some communities in the Northwest Territories aren't as lucky, requiring the seasonal road to connect them to the territory's all-season highway network. Several roads have opened, though many are suffering from poor conditions, including the access road to the Sahtu community of Colville Lake.

"It's a hell of a ride," says band manager Joseph Kochon, who has taken to calling the road the "highway from hell" due to the poor conditions.

However, Conway says that despite frustrations with delays, the roads are necessary to ensure goods and supplies are distributed across the territory.

"A lot of the communities in the Northwest Territories are only supplied by winter road," he said. "Some are not connected by the Mackenzie River [allowing for barge resupply]. 

"We have to get the supplies into these communities."

with files from Alex Brockman