Elders in Líídlįį Kúę reflect on spring breakup, then and now

Líídlįį Kúę, in Dene Zhatie, means the place where two rivers meet. It has been a place for Dene to gather for millennia. It is also an area prone to flooding, sparking concern about how the community will be impacted by spring break-up, during a year of high water levels.

As the potential of a flood looms over the N.W.T. community, elders share stories of breakups past

The flats, also known as the papal site, is a spiritual gathering place. Prior to 1963, many homes rested here. Now, it is mainly used for drum dances, community events and celebrations. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Líídlįį Kúę — Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories — rests at the foot of two vast rivers. The Dehcho and the Liard River connect the community to extensive travel routes, used by the Dene for millenia. 

As temperatures warm, the rivers begin to break up, launching large ice chunks downstream, toward the Arctic Ocean. For those who haven't seen it, it's a spectacle. 

In most years, the community gathers to watch in awe, but in some years, the spring break up is marked by ice and water creeping into town. 

The bulk of the community's homes, stores and key infrastructure reside on the island that sits a few meters above the river. 

In recent years, the risk of flooding has been low. However, unprecedented water levels on Great Slave Lake, which feeds into the Dehcho, is causing some residents to worry about how this may change how the river behaves.

Break-up used to be 'violent,' elder says

Bob Norwegian has been watching the river for years and carries with him vast knowledge passed down by his ancestors. 

The Dehcho and Liard River converge right before the foot of Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Some predict that high water levels might not necessarily pose a threat to the community. They say the sequence that the rivers break up affects the risk of a flood. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

"The river changes like it's a living thing," he said. "One year it's really low, another year it's really high." 

In years when the water is low, it freezes onto sandbars. The river then "has to bulldoze all that frozen ice on the ground. That's where it gets stuck, and that's where it floods. When the water's high, the water is flowing underneath," he said.  

Prior to the 1960s, high water was the norm, Norwegian said. When the rivers broke, it was violent, with five to six feet of thick ice jarring into each other. 

From inside your home, it sounded like thunder. 

"You could see the cups and things rattling inside your china cabinet. And it doesn't do that anymore. Like the last few years, it just seemed like it was just slushy going down. You know, it doesn't make any noise anymore," said Norwegian. 

Hudson's Bay Company employees in front of ice push-ups from the Mackenzie River break-up, in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., a scene captured in the 1920s. (NWT Archives/Robert Duncan fonds/N-1989-001: 0002)

Norwegian told CBC that the real threat of a flood comes when the Dehcho breaks before or at the same time as the Liard River. 

That's what he, among other elders, say triggered the 1963 flood. Both rivers are immensely powerful, so when they crash together at the same time, it poses a threat to the community.

Many continue to talk about the floods in 1963 and 1989. People share stories about what they experienced, or what they had been told by relatives and folks that were there when it happened. 

'A lot of people lost a lot of stuff' 

Jessie Snider, an elder from Líídlįį Kúę, recalls when the island was connected by a road that had to be rebuilt every spring. There's now a causeway that connects the town to the "hill," which is off the main island and on higher ground. 

Jessie Snider was a teenager when the community flooded in 1963. She remembers being flown to the airport on a helicopter, where she waited to be evacuated to Yellowknife. (Travis Burke/ CBC News)

During the 1963 flood, the road was submerged and families were helicoptered out to the airport. That's where Snider waited until she was flown out the next morning. She spent the next couple weeks in Yellowknife with her family, where they were provided with the necessities they couldn't bring with them, like blankets, food and extra clothing. 

At the time, Snider was a teenager.

Her auntie lived down by the flats, also known as the papal site. She said the only visible part of the house was the roof. 

A photo from the NWT Archives showing the 1963 flood which submerged most of the island under water. The area shown is the modern-day papal grounds site. (NWT Archives/Sacred Heart Parish (Fort Simpson) )

Prior to that year, many people lived down at the flats, but they were later forced to relocate. 

Now, there aren't really homes on the flats. It is a place of gathering. Drum dances, celebrations, weddings and other community events are held there. 

"A lot of people there lost a lot of stuff," Snider said. 

Scene from the 1963 flood. (NWT Archives/Sacred Heart Parish (Fort Simpson) fonds/N-1992-255: 0054)

Jessie's husband, Richard Snider, added that "most people don't understand the damage that happens when there's a flood." 

"Water's the most powerful thing there is," he said. "You can't stop it."

After the flood, Jessie Snider asked her mom, "Whose bright idea was it to put Fort Simpson on this island?" 

The road that leads to the hill in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. Prior to the permanent causeway, a road had to be re-built every spring to connect the community to hill, which leads to the airport and highway systems. (Hannah Paulson/CBC News)

Líídlįį Kúę, a place for gathering

Many centuries ago, Bob Norwegian said Líídlįį Kúę was a spiritual place for Dene all the way from Great Bear Lake to the Yukon, and even modern Arizona, to gather. 

It was, and continues to be, a place to heal, hold drum dances, exchange ideas and share oral histories. 

Treaty payments at Fort Simpson, N.W.T., in 1954. (NWT Archives/Terrance Hunt fonds/N-1979-062: 0242)

Norwegian said leaders and the people would strategize, too. "What's the best way to hunt? Maybe this here is not a good place to hunt. Moose might be low this year, best to go with caribou … They all exchanged ideas on how to survive." 

Gatherings were rooted in the people's life cycles and information sharing. It was not a fixed settlement, Norwegian said, until much later. 

Missionaries and the Hudson Bay company began settling in the region in the early 1800s. Hudson Bay posts were established up the river from where Líídlįį Kúę is now, but relocated when the grounds became unstable, Norwegian and Snider said. 

Increasingly, a permanent settlement was built on the island to support the trading posts and churches. Oil, gas and mineral exploration increased too, said Norwegian. 

Governor General Georges Vanier examining beaver pelts outside the Hudson's Bay Co store at Fort Simpson, N.W.T., June 20, 1961. ( NWT Archives/Northwest Territories. Office of the Commissioner fonds/G-1979-011: 0039)

Over time, Líídlįį Kúę became what it is now. 

Years ago, Norwegian was with his dad, looking onto the Líídlįį Kúę, when his father said "you know, if you really look at this island, it is made of permafrost underneath." 

Standing by the riverbank across from his home, Norwegian looked onto the poplar trees straight across the river. 

Before Líídlįį Kúę became a permanent settlement, Dene peoples gathered in different areas, including across the way. 

"My idea is that we should have stayed on that site. Fort Simpson is in a poor location."

"It's all sandy and marshy … out here. It's really hard to maintain." 

What's next for the community?

As spring breakup approaches, community members prepare for what will happen next. Fort Simpson Mayor Sean Whelly said they have been holding emergency preparedness meetings for months and are ready for different outcomes. 

A look at water levels in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., during the 2020 spring breakup season. Water levels on the Mackenzie River stopped just short of declaring a local state of emergency. (Submitted by Josanne Kenny)

A state of local emergency will be declared at a lower water level than in usual years to give the community time to organize.