North

Yukon halts river-freezing experiment at Dawson City

'This was an innovative process to try to adapt to a changing climate ... we weren't successful,' said Yukon's highways minister.

'We made our shot ... we weren't successful,' highways minister says

Workers earlier this month examine the span of open water they intended to help freeze over at Dawson City. After a week of work, the plan was suspended on Monday. (Government of Yukon, Department of Highways and Public Works)

One week and $120,000 later, the Dawson City ice bridge-building experiment is dead in the water.

"We didn't get off to a good start," said Yukon's Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn. "We always knew that Mother Nature could be capricious." 

The territorial government first announced the plan in late December: engineers would use "spray technology" — previously used elsewhere, including the N.W.T. — to help the Yukon River freeze over at Dawson City. If all went well, an ice bridge would be open to the public in as little as three weeks.

Spray technology has long been used in the N.W.T. to make ice. This archive photo shows the building of an ice crossing on the Mackenzie River near Tsiigehtchic in 2011. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

But on Tuesday, Mostyn said the high-pressure slush cannon had been building only a metre of ice per day. At that rate, bridging the 90-metre gap of open water would have taken three months. If temperatures had cooperated, staying at –30 C or below, it still would have taken up to six weeks to freeze the river.

Daytime temperatures in Dawson City crept above zero last Tuesday and Wednesday.

'This was an experiment'

Mostyn insists the project wasn't just money down the river, though.

"This was an experiment. This was an innovative process to try to adapt to a changing climate," he said.

He says the territorial government will again try to use the technology and engineering, but not until next winter. 

"This year, it's done. We made our shot," said Mostyn. "We weren't successful. The weather didn't cooperate. The technique at this stage didn't work. We didn't have enough time to make it happen."

Highway and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn announced the plan to 'nudge Mother Nature along' last month. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

He says next winter, engineers may start spraying the ice as early as November, to take advantage of earlier ice formation.

The Yukon government typically maintains a winter ice road crossing at Dawson every winter. About 100 people live across the water from the main town site, in West Dawson, and rely on the connection.

Last winter, however, the river never completely froze over where that government crossing normally is. This year looks similar, so far — there's still that stretch of open water.

The government usually spends about $80,000 each winter to build and maintain the crossing. When Mostyn announced the plan to build an "ice Band-Aid," he said it would cost about $100,000, with an additional one-time investment of $100,000 for engineering costs.

To residents on the other side of the river, he says: "I'm sorry it didn't work this year."

"But we're an adaptive species and we do what we have to do to get the job done. People are making their way back to Dawson. But I couldn't tell you how they're doing that, and it's certainly not a way the Government of Yukon sanctions."

The ice bridge across the Yukon River in 2016 — the last time the territorial government built and maintained an official crossing. (Jim Regimbal)

'I'm really upset'

​Jesse Cooke has been living in West Dawson since 2013 and says he was initially a "believer" in the plan to freeze the river.

"I was impressed with the speed of their response and for thinking outside of the box and actually trying something," he said.

This week is a different picture.

"I'm really upset ... It was the only week we had warm temperatures like that. The only week this whole winter," he said. "They show up for five work days — Monday to Friday — try to build an ice bridge in the rain, and then say it didn't work? Then they turn around and go home?"

"Didn't you look at the forecast? There's a million reasons why I'm upset right now."

Cooke acknowledges that people often argue that residents of West Dawson and Sunnydale chose to live across the river, and therefore knew what they were getting into.

"What I expected when I got into this was two periods of time — seasonally, in the spring and in the fall — when we can't get home. And that's okay, I get it," said Cooke. "But there has always been a [government-built] ice bridge."

He says that's what he expected when he bought his property.

"Now I'm into this mortgage, and I don't know if I can ever sell this house. No one's going to buy this place without a bridge. We're stuck."

With files from George Maratos and Dave White

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