The Mackenzie River is a lot lower than normal. Those who rely on it wonder if it's an anomaly

This winter, some N.W.T. officials will be reviewing the summer's scramble to transport goods to remote communities in case there's a repeat of the Mackenzie's historic low water levels.

Options will be assessed for next spring after a summer scramble transporting goods

A wide river is seen beside brush.
The Mackenzie River as seen near Fort Providence, N.W.T. The river runs from Great Slave Lake, through the Northwest Territories and empties out into the Arctic Ocean. (Julia Wong/CBC)

Joe Lacorne looks toward the Mackenzie River, a familiar sight for many decades. But the river doesn't look normal.

"The water level is really low this year," he said. "It's hard to get around with even boats."

Lacorne, who has lived in the tiny hamlet of Fort Providence, N.W.T., for about 60 years, said he keeps an eye on the river for his community.

"Spring time, [it's] always like a big rush of snow melting and that's when the water is up high," he said.

"But during the summer, we just lost water, just rapidly. Water disappeared."

Historically low levels

The Mackenzie, one of the longest rivers in Canada, runs from Great Slave Lake through the Northwest Territories before eventually emptying out into the Arctic Ocean.

It is used as a highway to transport goods to remote communities along the river and in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in the high Arctic.

But early this season, territorial officials knew that it would not be business as usual.

"What we've noticed since the spring is that water levels are much lower than they have been historically," said Tracy St. Denis, assistant deputy minister of programs and services for the territorial infrastructure department.

"The additional heat and the lack of precipitation obviously did not assist us," she said.

Starting in May, temperatures in N.W.T. began pushing well above normal and stayed high through the summer, including a new record of 38 C being set in Norman Wells, not far from the Arctic Circle.

"Not being a scientist, it's no surprise to residents of the Northwest Territories — or even people across Canada — that Canada is seeing, from coast to coast to coast, impacts of climate change."

Stuck tugboat

Two boats can be seen on the river.
A tugboat operated by Marine Transportation Services, left, became grounded in the Mackenzie River near Fort Providence earlier this month. With help from other boats, it was eventually freed on Sept. 14. (Julia Wong/CBC)

A tugboat from the Marine Transportation Service, which is operated by the territory, ran aground because of low water levels earlier this month near Fort Providence, which is located along the Mackenzie approximately 315 kilometres southwest of Yellowknife.

The boat was meant to help transport goods up the river but that trip was cancelled, said St. Denis.

The Coast Guard was alerted to the situation on Sept. 8 and sent a vessel to assist. But is also "experienced a grounding" due to "the challenging nature of the grounding location and river conditions," according to Sam Di Lorenzo, a spokesperson for Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

The Coast Guard vessel was able to free itself. The tugboat was freed after many days, with help from another boat.

Early in the season, the department took steps to ensure goods could still reach northern communities, such as trucking goods out of the territory then north onto the Dempster Highway, an unpaved road, and shipping goods from the west coast north and around Alaska, also known as the "over the top" method.

A woman wearing glasses and a dark blazer uses her right hand to point at a map.
Tracy St. Denis points at a map of the Northwest Territories. Her department will review what happened this summer to ensure they're ready next year. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

Costs associated with the alternative routes for the goods are not being passed on to clients, St. Denis said, adding it is premature to say if that could change in the near future.

In the meantime, the department will be taking time this winter to assess the situation and make sure they're not caught off-guard should the situation repeat itself next year.

"I think the message moving forward is that the operating environment has changed and will continue to change and communication with our customers is going to be key," she said.

'River was my playground'

The river holds a special place in the heart of Michael McLeod, the N.W.T. Liberal MP who was born in Fort Providence.

A man wearing glasses and a black jacket stands in front of trees.
Michael McLeod, the only MP for the Northwest Territories, said there was very little runoff in the spring. (Samuel Martin/CBC)

"The Mackenzie River was my playground and so water levels are something we're quite familiar with," he said.

He's been keeping an eye on how this year is playing out. 

"We didn't have much of a runoff this year. Then the snow melted and disappeared into the ground — it was absorbed into the ground so there's very little that went into the lakes, into the creeks, the streams that feed the Mackenzie River," he said.

"And over the summer, we've not had very much in terms of rain."

Remote communities concerned

Norman Wells Mayor Frank Pope said the community of roughly 750 people receives goods, like groceries, supplies and construction materials via the Mackenzie between the end of June and the end of September.

A man wearing a yellow vest and green shirt can be seen in an office.
Frank Pope is the mayor of Norman Wells, a hamlet that lies along the Mackenzie River. The community of about 750 receives goods like groceries, supplies and construction materials via the Mackenzie River. (Google Meet)

"North of us, between Norman Wells and Fort Good Hope, we have a couple of sets of rapids," he said. "We do know that late in the season these rapids are impassable for larger boats. And this year, these rapids were impassable in the middle of the summer, which is about a month and a half earlier than usual.

"This is just a very, very unusual year."

Pope said he is concerned about next year, wondering if water levels will return to normal or whether this year is a harbinger of what the future might hold..

If the barges can't get through, the hamlet has to resort to flying goods in. And that is expensive.

"Everything [that] comes in here is costing us a lot of money and a lot of people here are on fixed incomes. We have quite a large elderly population here living on pensions," Pope said.


Julia Wong

Senior reporter

Julia Wong is a senior reporter based in Edmonton.