From big crunch to rotting mush: How spring break-up looks in the N.W.T.

It's a yearly ritual for many of the people who live on the banks of the Mackenzie River: watching and waiting as spring slowly forces ice to crack and break-up. This, year, though, the scene has taken on a different look, which some are attributing to low water levels.

'It used to be a lot more violent, have more power,' says Bob Norwegian, 'now... it's just mush'

It's spring break-up season on the Mackenzie River, but onlookers are saying that low water levels may be responsible for visible changes in the yearly ritual. (Shannon Caidler )

It's a yearly ritual for many of the people who live on the banks of the Mackenzie River: watching and waiting as spring slowly forces ice to crack and break-up.

Bob Norwegian has been watching break-up for years in his home community of Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories.    

"If you are along the river, you can hear just a grinding and a snapping, and almost like a miniature thundering going on underneath," Norwegian says.

"It's really exciting to listen to and witness."

Break-up on the Liard River. Peter Bertrand, from Fort Liard, says that 'In the past you would often see big huge chunks of black ice, three feet in some places. This year it just looks like slush.' (Peter Bertrand )
But in recent years, he says, those sounds have been changing.       

"It used to be a lot more violent, have more power," he says. "And solid ice about five or six feet thick just grinding. Now it's more like it just rots away — it's just mush."

Norwegian isn't the only one noticing a difference.

Peter Bertrand lives in Fort Liard and says he's noticed something similar with the Liard River.  

"In the past you would often see big huge chunks of black ice, three feet in some places," Bertrand says. "This year it just looks like slush, lots of white coloured ice. It's not clear, solid ice."     

Bertrand believes the changes could be due to the territory's low water levels. Last summer, shipping company NTCL said hydro reservoirs on the Mackenzie River were five feet lower than 2014 levels.

Norwegian agrees, saying water levels are getting lower and lower on the Mackenzie River.

"Every year it seems to fall by about six inches," he says.  

Flood watch

With every spring break-up comes the possibility of flooding, if the ice jams the waterway.

Bertrand had some tense moments standing on the bank of the Liard River last weekend, watching ice pile up and water levels fluctuate.

"All of a sudden I could hear that rushing sound from that ice flow and when I looked out and the whole ice was starting to move," Bertrand says.

"It was a good feeling, because then the water just keeps moving."  

The Liard River, near Fort Liard. Flooding hasn't been reported in the Northwest Territories community, but Bertrand said that this year's break-up season produced some harrowing moments. (Peter Bertrand )

There were some uncertain moments on the shores near Fort Simpson as well, where the river broke Monday night.

Norwegian says water levels rose very quickly just before it happened, about 2.5 metres in five minutes.  

"Then all of a sudden it just let loose," he says. "It just kept bulldozing its way."

He says some view the river's movement as a form of spiritual or psychological release.

"I just feel like everything is all tensed up, and then all of a sudden when it lets go everything is releasing," he says.

Norwegian misses the power he's seen in previous years, thought.

"It's a real phenomenon that takes place every year," he says. "It is the sheer power of nature at its best."

With files from Kate Kyle, The Trailbreaker


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