'A nightmare trip' as Mackenzie Valley winter road turns to mud and slush

One of the main winter highways in the Northwest Territories turned into a swamp this week following unseasonably high temperatures.

Muddy, swampy conditions made for treacherous driving on one of the N.W.T.'s main winter roads

Here's the view from inside Paulina Roche's Ford F-150 pickup truck as she made her way on a swampy section of the winter road. (Submitted by Paulina Roche)

Paulina Roche willed her F-150 through the swamp and up Blackwater Hill. Her tires churned through the mud, moving the truck forward inches at a time.

Her truck is built for this kind of work, but it wasn't enough. The hill won. It bogged down in the mud, and she needed another vehicle with a winch to get her back on her way.

"It was just terrible, it was just like driving through a big puddle of mud," Roche said. "Even with the four-wheel drive, you couldn't make it up."

That scene played out dozens of times on the Mackenzie Valley winter road this week as unseasonably warm temperatures turned one of the main winter roads in the Northwest Territories into a muddy mess.

"It was a nightmare trip," Roche said. "A lot of vehicles are damaged. It's just awful. I've never experienced something like this before.

Paulina Roche made it back to Deline on Wednesday, smiling after she was able to get her truck cleaned up. (Submitted by Paulina Roche )

"I'm a really good driver, my son's a really good driver, there are a lot of good drivers out there," she said. "But we just kept getting stuck."

The seasonal road begins in Fort Simpson and runs through Wrigley, Tulita, Deline, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake. Conditions on the highway rapidly deteriorated this week, until it closed for the season Wednesday.

Roche, who lives in Deline, was in one of nearly 50 trucks with people from the Sahtu who made the trip north through the muck this week.

Our trucks were covered in mud, our insides were covered in mud, our clothes, everything was covered with mud. - Paulina Roche

They'd spent the weekend in Behchoko for a hand games tournament and needed to get home. By most accounts, conditions started getting bad after Wrigley, where the worst conditions began and traffic slowed to a crawl.

"You were hitting potholes, you were getting stuck in the mud, you were getting pulled out," Roche said. "All of us were covered in mud. Our trucks were covered in mud, our insides were covered in mud, our clothes, everything was covered with mud."

As many as 45 trucks lined up at Blackwater Hill waiting for their turn to climb. Many couldn't make it and needed assistance. (Submitted by Brandon Orlias)

On Tuesday, the road was only open for night travel, meaning most of the convoy had to wait a day in Wrigley.

For Linda Kochon Manuel, that meant she spent the day taking in a family violence workshop, a service that rarely comes to her home in Colville Lake.

Even with the delays and the mud, she never lost hope she'd make it home, she said.

"As Dene people we don't give up," Kochon Manuel said. "If you have to get somewhere you have to do it, no matter how hard it is, you're going to have to make it through."

6-hour trip turned into 23-hour marathon

The roughly 325-kilometre drive between Wrigley and Deline on the winter road usually takes about six hours. This week, that trip took about four times as long, with many only travelling at 15 or 20 kilometres per hour.

For example, Roche spent 23 hours on the road with her son, getting stuck about three times along the way. She kept in touch with other drivers in the convoy on her CB radio, making sure everyone was safe.

The drive through the swampy highway left Terry Eddibar's Ford pickup truck covered from top to bottom with mud. (Submitted by Terry Eddibar )

Pictures on social media showed seemingly endless lineups of Ford, Chevy and Dodge Ram pickups, caked in mud waiting to head up the hill at Blackwater Creek — the same hill Roche's truck couldn't climb.

Wilbert Kochon, the chief of Colville Lake, was able to make the trip home without assistance, but he and his daughter spent about six hours in line at the hill before they could make it up.

The whole trip took more than 30 hours on the road, significantly longer than normal. He drives the highway every year, but says he's never seen conditions as bad as they were this week.

For him, there was nothing to do except drive slow and take it easy.

"It's nothing you can change. You just have to wait and take it as you go," he said. "Not much you can do, just enjoy each other's company."

Swampy conditions on the winter road persisted all week, until the road was closed for the season Wednesday. This section here is at Bear Rock, outside Tulita, N.W.T. (Submitted by Terry Eddibar )

Based on interviews by Trail's End host Lawrence Nayally and Gabriela Panza-Beltrandi


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