Slow start to the N.W.T. winter road season, as delays abound

It's been a somewhat rocky start to the N.W.T.'s winter road season this year. A combination of warm temperatures, lots of snow, and choppy ice conditions have caused delays throughout the territory.

Dettah and Inuvik-Aklavik ice roads both affected by challenging conditions this year

A view of the Dettah ice road from a car dashboard in February 2022.
A view of the Dettah ice road from a car dashboard last February. A combination of warm temperatures and heavy snowfall has delayed the road's opening this winter. (Submitted by Edward Sangris)

It's been a somewhat rocky start to the N.W.T.'s winter road season. A combination of warm temperatures, lots of snow, and choppy ice conditions have caused delays throughout the territory.

The opening of the famed Dettah ice road, a six-kilometre route that cuts across Yellowknife Bay, is typically opened on Dec, 24, according to a 20-year average. Yet a week-and-a-half later, there's still no word on when it will be operational.

According to Dettah chief Edward Sangris, the wait is difficult for people in his community who rely on the ice road.

"A lot of people are at a disadvantage because they [still] have to commute the long way around," he said, referencing the 27-kilometre all-season road that connects the two communities. "It's a bit of an inconvenience." 

A spokesperson for the N.W.T.'s infrastructure department said on Wednesday that work on the road was delayed until after the holiday season for safety reasons — and that mild weather and heavy snowfall were to blame. 

"There was substantial overflow encountered and measured ice thickness did not meet the minimum requirement for constructing and opening the ice road," the spokesperson said, in an email.

The territorial government requires ice to be at least 35 centimetres thick before beginning construction on the road. Crews are scheduled to resume with ice checks and road preparation on Thursday.

The infrastructure department spokesperson couldn't provide an anticipated opening date. However, Sangris said the community has been told to expect it sometime in mid-January. 

Edward Sangris, chief of Dettah, says his community is already feeling impacts of the delayed opening of the ice road. (Gabriela Panza Beltrandi/CBC)

January opening dates aren't exactly unheard of — it happened in the three years before 2021, too. 

Still, it's left many wondering what's going on. Sangris says it's just another example of the challenges wrought by climate change. 

"When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s, the winter roads were always open early," he said. "But as years go by, it's been opening later and later. It's actually gotten to a point where people are saying, 'How can we depend on the winter road, when the weather is getting warmer every year?'" Sangris said.

"So, I think those kinds of things are finally starting to sink in. We have to do something about climate change."

Road delays 'really hard' on families

Elsewhere in the territory, it's a similar story.

The Aklavik-Inuvik ice road wasn't finished until Christmas evening this season. That's later than the average date of Dec. 20, based on the last 20 years.

Dave and Mina McLeod have been building that road with their company, K & D Contracting, each year since 2005. Mina said this was perhaps the latest completion date they've ever experienced.

"We get a lot of calls, we get texts, we get Facebook messages from people asking if the road is open," she said. "We try our best to have it open before the holidays, but this year, it was the 25th." 

A warm fall and slow freeze-up meant crews working on the ice road from Aklavik to Inuvik weren't able to finish construction until Christmas evening this year. That's later than average, compared to the last 20 years. (Andrew Pacey/CBC)

The Department of Infrastructure announced on Dec. 26 over Twitter. that the road was officially open to vehicles weighing up to 5,000 kg.

Mina McLeod pointed to the warm fall as a primary culprit behind the delay. This, alongside high water levels, is also causing problems for the seasonal back road between Aklavik and Fort McPherson, N.W.T.

The two hamlets join forces every year to create the 180-kilometre route on river channels in the area. It's primarily used for travelling between the communities (shaving about 110 kilometres off a drive that's otherwise routed through Inuvik) and out to bush camps.

K & D Contracting has been hired to work on the road from the Aklavik end, with LG Contracting working from Fort McPherson to meet in the middle. 

Usually open by December, Mina McLeod said rough ice conditions have slowed both companies' progress. The road likely won't open until next week at the earliest.

Already, it's been "really hard" on local families, McLeod added. 

"The communities are so closely connected. They had three funerals in [Fort] McPherson [recently] that I know a couple people drove all the way around for. They have to camp and then come back. But if this back road was open, a lot more people would have gone up."

Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road on track to open at month's end

The territorial government reports the conditions of highways, winter roads, and ice crossings on its website. As of Wednesday afternoon, the winter roads to Délı̨nę, Gamètì, and Wekweètì remain closed.

But not all road crews have been bogged down by the season's challenges. 

The Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road — which leads to the N.W.T.'s diamond mines and is operated and maintained through a joint venture — is set open on Jan. 31 as scheduled, as first reported by NNSL. Work began on the road in mid-December. 

Snowcats plow snow off frozen Tibbitt Lake during construction of the Tibbitt to Contwoyto winter road in 2010. That route is set to open on schedule at the end of January. (TCWR Joint Venture)

Barry Henkel, director of winter road operations for the joint venture, conceded it is "unseasonably warm right now," but that it's nothing they can't handle. 

"We've been building the road for 20-plus years, and when it's like this, you just change your approach to the construction and carry on," Henkel said.

Henkel said water trucks are now working on more than one portage at a time to compensate for the weather and stay on track. 

The road will begin to accept lighter loads in early February. It's scheduled to close by March 31.


Meaghan Brackenbury is a reporter with CBC in Yellowknife on Treaty 8 territory. You can reach her at