'It's bizarre': Dawson City ice bridge stalled by open water in Yukon River

Usually by mid-January, Dawsonites are able to travel across an ice bridge to West Dawson. Not this year. Residents say it's an unprecedented situation, and Yukon highways officials say nothing can be done until the river freezes over.

'Staff who've been out there 30 years have never seen it like this,' says highway official

Andrea Magee sent this photo to CBC, showing open water on the Yukon River at Dawson City. (Andrea Magee)

Here's something new — open water at Dawson City, Yukon, is stymieing government efforts to build an ice bridge across the Yukon River to West Dawson this year.

"It's bizarre," said Yukon Highways Director Clint Ireland. "I've just been talking to staff who've been out there over 30 years, and they've never seen it like this."

In a typical year, the government constructs and maintains a crossing through most of the winter. Last year, it was officially opened in early January.

The ice bridge opened in early January last year. (Jim Regimbal)

Dawson residents report the open water stretches six kilometres downriver from the town.

While West Dawson residents have been crossing via an alternate route upstream from town, Ireland says it's not viable for his crews because they would have to cross private property. 

He says the ferry landing across from town — the usual route — is the only option for an official, maintained crossing.

"We've had to build them at angles, we've had to build them around open water, we've had to do a bunch of things but there's really only one viable access and that's at the ferry landing on the West Dawson side," Ireland said.

Ice dam is the problem, says hydrologist

Environment Yukon hydrologist Rick Janowicz suspects an ice dam upriver from Dawson is responsible for the unusual open water.

"Just an ice cover upstream that's not allowing the ice pans to develop and fill in the ice downstream," he says.

Highways officials say they too are anxious to get across so they can open the road in time for the spring gold show as they've never gone a whole winter without an ice road.

"Not in any of our records, I was trying to go back... I haven't found one time we have not been able to build an ice bridge," said Ireland.

Yukon Quest officials have already planned for an alternate crossing upstream for next month's international sled dog race.

"Right now we are cautiously optimistic for some freeze-up," said Ireland. "But for now it's just wait and see."

Dawsonites are used to seeing the river freeze over much earlier in the winter. This photo from November - with lots of open water - shows that it was already shaping up to be an unusual winter. (Will Fellers)