On thin ice: West Dawsonites wait for an ice road that may not come
Ian Stewart/Yukon News
West Dawsonites are hardy folks.
Faced with an open expanse of running water cutting off their homes from downtown Dawson City as November rolls into December, they are anything but discouraged.
“There’s definitely events going on in town that one can’t hit, but on the other hand, we have to make our own social life, too,” said Sebastian Jones, who’s lived in West Dawson for about 15 years. “It definitely gets more close during seasons like this. It’s almost like a little club, in a way.”
Every year, there’s a period of time after the ferry stops running and before the Yukon River freezes up enough to drive on when the 100 or so residents of West Dawson are cut off from town. But this year, thanks to an ice jam well upriver, the stretch of river where people would usually cross shows no signs of freezing. And some residents are wondering whether there will be an ice road at all.
“We would need really cold temperatures for an extended period of time,” said Jesse Cooke, who’s lived in West Dawson since 2013.
Cooke explained that the Yukon River usually freezes up once ice pans start floating downstream and jamming together.
This year, by coincidence, an ice jam formed a couple of kilometres outside of town, Cooke said.
“Now that the ice has all jammed up upriver, there’s no more source of ice pans,” he explained.
As a result, part of the river running past Dawson is still open and moving well. It likely won’t freeze, Cooke said, until ice spreads out from the shores to the middle of the river.
“It just takes a very, very long time for it to freeze in that way.”
In the meantime, West Dawsonites can get across the river by snow machine or on foot where the ice has jammed upriver. But that means a long trek out to the ice jam, across the river and back into town.
Jones said the distance between the ferry landings is usually 400 metres straight across the river. Right now, with the detour, it’s closer to 13 kilometres.
“It just puts into perspective how inconvenient it is to get across the river,” he said.
And the trip isn’t an easy one. Cooke said there’s often overflow water on top of the ice, and there’s no easy road for snow machines to follow on the Dawson City side. The lack of snowfall this season also makes for lousy driving conditions.
“I damaged my machine and others have done the same,” he said.
Cooke doesn’t believe the Yukon government will be able to put in an official ice road this winter, since the current crossing is so inaccessible. That would be a challenge for him this year, as he’s got a new one-year-old baby with a taste for fresh fruit.
“It was a little different a few years ago, before we had kids.”
If there’s no road, he said, he may end up hauling 20-litre jerry cans of diesel across on his snow machine to use as heating fuel through the winter.
“I’d say it’s a major inconvenience to not be able to drive your truck into town.”
But Cooke said the winters in West Dawson are a time to catch up with friends and family. There are other young families there, and he said there’s always lots to do.
“It’s a lifestyle choice, that’s for sure.”
Jones said he thinks an ice road is still possible, though he’s not sure. He’s seen an ice jam like this once before, at least 20 years ago, and he said the river didn’t freeze over in front of town until February that year.
“It is possible that there won’t be a full-on ice bridge this winter. It is possible,” he said. “And that would be a first time ever.”
The Department of Highways and Public Works says it still hasn’t made a decision about the ice road, and is waiting to see what the weather will bring.
But Jones isn’t too concerned about the river, all things considered. He’s had to cancel some work in town, but he’s well-stocked at home, with a supply of moose meat and salmon, canned goods and root vegetables from his garden.
“I’d be fine here if I had to wait till the ferry went in,” he said.
If need be, West Dawsonites can also catch a ride in the helicopters crossing the river for exploration work.
Arden Meyer, general manager of Trans North Helicopters, said he hasn’t seen too much extra demand from West Dawson residents this season, despite the inconvenience of crossing the river.
He said residents can book a helicopter and fill it up with supplies for about $300. It’s not a profitable venture, “but it’s a community service,” he said.
And if cabin-bound West Dawsonites have a hankering for those elusive fresh vegetables, they can still head over to Kokopellie Farm in Sunnydale every Saturday for a farmer’s market, where Otto Muehlbach is selling potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage and rutabaga.
He, too, is largely unconcerned by the open river. He hasn’t tried to cross.
“We were prepared,” he said. “The root cellar’s full with veggies and we’re producing eggs.”
He’s thinking about cancelling his car insurance for the winter, in anticipation of a season with no ice road.
The location of this year’s ice jam is probably just a coincidence. But Muehlbach believes the winter weather in Dawson is changing, with less snow and warmer weather.
Still, that’s not all bad. Earlier springs and later falls make for longer growing seasons, he said — good news for a farmer.
“Mother Nature gives and Mother Nature takes.”
This story has been edited to correct the spelling of Jesse Cooke's name.