The road is long, with many a winding turn

For 30 years, the Sahtu winter road has served as a seasonal link between the central Mackenzie Valley and the outside world. Now, with budding interest in the Canol shale oil play, the GNWT is mulling whether it’s finally time to build a permanent highway alongside the mighty river.

1. JUST PAST THE END of the gravel road in Wrigley, NWT, there’s a turnout that marks the official start of the Sahtu winter road. There isn’t much to it, just a frigid wooden outhouse, spray-painted orange on the outside and covered with frost on the inside, and a plowed-out, kilometre-long turnout for the truckers headed north to chain up their rigs.

There, the din of idling tractor engines is constant. Drivers have an hour to fasten chains to their wheels, though the task typically takes around a half an hour. They’ll often spend the rest of the time eating, making use of the waning cell signal to phone home, or to stretch. They are in for a long, bumpy ride, one that punishes the spine and neck.

Tire chains are the only way a 40-ton rig will make it to Norman Wells, or to the Canol shale play south of the town, or to any of the myriad petroleum exploration projects going on in the Sahtu region. Tire chains are mandatory for tractor-trailers, as several signs near the ice road entrance loudly proclaim to drivers. Failure to abide by this rule results in a $500 fine, for each pair of unchained tires. The average rig has four pairs of tires connected to the drive train. The chains are made from links three quarters of an inch thick. They’ll last roughly three round-trips, and tear the hell out of a road made of snow. But opting out of the chains, in addition to being profoundly dangerous, is a sure way to lighten one’s wallet.

All this is being explained to me by Malcolm MacPhail, an affable 32-year old driver from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. As we talk, we discover he lives a block away from the house I grew up in (proving that, for a giant country, Canada is tiny sometimes). Father of a six-year old boy, MacPhail would prefer to keep his money—that’s why he’s here, after all—so he’s chaining up in –30 C weather and getting ready to make the 330-kilometre trip, at a likely top speed of about 25 kilometres an hour. It’ll take him around 12 hours to pilot his 42,000-kilogram flatbed, laden with industrial equipment, to Norman Wells. “As long as you take your time and go easy, you’re fine,” MacPhail says with a shrug of the shoulders. “You just gotta know how to drive.” 

MacPhail’s is just one of the dozens of vehicles that will do the run today. He says the cost of shipping his load up with Sahtu winter road from Grande Prairie to Norman Wells is $20,000. That’s just for his time and vehicle costs. He’s feeling optimistic he’ll be able to make good time to Norman Wells: radio chatter indicates the road’s in pretty good shape—today at least. Would this trip be any easier with a proper all-season road?  I ask MacPhail. He reckons the trip would be faster, and that summertime travel would have at least one distinct advantage: “It’d be nicer than freezing your ass off out here, eh?”

2. WHILE THE ROUTE along the Sahtu winter road is blessed with staggeringly gorgeous scenery at every turn and frequent, stunning views of the Mackenzie River, driving it is not like heading out for a leisurely Sunday cruise. If you are not driving an 18-wheeler, here’s what you need: a four-wheel drive vehicle (in our case, my battle tested Toyota 4Runner), tire chains (not required for small vehicles, but strongly advised), a Citizens Band radio set to the LAD-1 frequency. Recommended but not required: a large bagof Starburst candy and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d. city.

The CB radio is especially important, because it allows you to keep tabs on other vehicles on the road—and them to keep tabs on you. Generally, you’re expected to call out your position at distance markers placed every five kilometres along the way or at river crossings. “Northbound pickup, 885,” you might say. This becomes important when crossing one of the dozen one-lane bridges, which, because they cross rivers, are often bookended with steep approaches and limited sightlines. If you’re stuck on a bridge as a flatbed comes steaming down the hill toward you, you’re going to have a bad time. The radio allows drivers to negotiate these crossings and determine the best place to pass frequent, slow-moving convoys. Heavy trucks are limited to a top speed of 25 kilometres an hour, while the speed limit for regular vehicles is 50.

Winter roads are not built to the same standards as conventional roads. The Sahtu route is quite literally a path bulldozed through the woods. There are no cuts to even out steep hills. The roadbed is not built with gravel shoulders, but is instead a strip of grass that’s kept road-worthy by a fleet of graders which fill in potholes and smooth the surface by towing three large tires behind them. If you’re fortunate enough to be travelling just after a grader has gone by, you can top out well above the speed limit on straight stretches (not that I ever did), but hitting a pothole at any significant speed is, shall we say, unadvised. Such are the risks associated with travelling on a road that relies on snow and cold for its very existence. 

3. MUCH LIKE THE Inuvik-to-Tuktoyaktuk highway, currently under construction in the Mackenzie Delta, the concept of an all-weather highway running up the Mackenzie Valley has its roots in the Diefenbaker government’s Roads To Resources program of the 1950s. In 1974, the federal government, then in control of the NWT’s fledgling highway system, completed the design work on a highway from Fort Simpson to Inuvik, but it only built the first leg, from Simpson to Wrigley, in the early 1980s.

And that’s where the highway still ends. The federal government offloaded responsibility for the NWT’s highways to the territorial government in 1989, and Yellowknife has never had the money to do much more than sporadic upgrades and realignment, and numerous engineering studies and economic analyses.

With unprecedented industrial interest in the Sahtu’s potential oil reserves—companies have committed to spending more than $700 million in the region—and the GNWT theoretically soon to be flush with cash and control courtesy of devolution, finance minister Michael Miltenberger reckons the time to extend Highway 1 at least as far Norman Wells is coming soon. “We know there’s a lot of activity in the Sahtu. If that oil play or shale gas pays off and becomes a producing field then there’s going to be, between ourselves and industry we figure, the right conditions to make that investment, to do that road from Wrigley to Norman Wells,” Miltenberger told reporters during February’s budget lockup. “There’s lots of things that have to happen of course. We have to successfully conclude our discussion with the federal government [on the debt cap]”—the GNWT wants it extended to $1.8 billion—“and all the exploration that’s going on has to be successful.” 

It isn’t clear what this means for the original plan, which would connect with the Dempster Highway terminating at Inuvik, a project that carries a price tag of around $1.8 billion. The federal government has already indicated a willingness to fund part of the cost, under the latest version of the Building Canada Fund, but the NWT’s total allocation from that fund is $258 million over five years. 

Norman Yakeleya, the MLA for the Sahtu, and a former territorial transportation minister, says the federal government has already indicated a willingness to help out with the Mackenzie Valley Highway. “Harper has indicated that the next step in federal funding after the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway will go to the completion of the Mackenzie Valley Highway.”

That, of course, begs the question: Given that the Sahtu region may be sitting on a shale oil resource that is, in Yakeleya’s words, equivalent to the prodigious Bakken shale in North Dakota, was it a mistake for the federal government to bless the Inuvik-Tuktoykatuk highway with its favour, when the Mackenzie Gas Project is on life support? On that matter, Yakeleya is diplomatic. Three years ago, when the feds first ponied up $150 million to help build the road to Tuktoyaktuk, few had any idea that interest in the Canol shale was about to intensify, he says. And he credits the Inuvialuit leadership with a straight up political victory. “They did their homework, their lobbying, and they certainly were pushing strong and hard for that highway.“

4. TRAFFIC ON THE busiest section of the Sahtu winter road, from Wrigley to Norman Wells, has spiked in recent years. In 2011, the daily average number of vehicle trips at Deline Junction, just south of Tulita, was 42. In 2012 it was 68. The next year, it was 137. Just south of Norman Wells, average daily traffic went from 79 in 2011 to 164 in 2013. That might not sound like rush hour, but consider the nature of that traffic: 40-tonne rigs are the norm, pickups and SUVs the exception. Those heavy loads exert a punishing toll on the road surface, especially at the approach to bridges, where traffic is funnelled into a single lane, often causing ruts that can become a foot deep. It’s not unusual to see rigs stuck on the side of the road waiting for a tow, or smaller vehicles abandoned. Near Fort Good Hope, one SUV had clearly rolled over several times (the driver, we were later told, was fine).

This is what happens when you try to cram a year’s worth of truck traffic into a three-month road season. Over the five years ending in 2007/2008, the most recent available data from the Department of Transportation, the average opening date for the stretch between Tulita and Norman Wells was December 18, with the road shutting down April 2. “It creates a lot of pressure on industry to get things done,” says George Iliopolis, co-owner of Cornerstone Oil Field Services in Tulita.

This year, the Department of Transportation  was expecting the road to close around April 5, with warmer temperatures and overflow (sections where streams bubble over the road surface and freeze into treacherous gobs of ice) starting to take their toll on driving conditions. The department had initially hinted at limiting traffic to night driving only, but backed down after backlash from trucking firms operating on the road. 

“We completely understand what [DoT] is trying to do to save the roadbed,” says Norm Bassett, general manager of Bassett Petroleum, a Hay River-based trucking firm that usually has around 10 vehicles on the Sahtu winter road at any given time. But for-cing drivers to switch their sleep schedules with little warning is dangerous, Bassett says. “We’re a high-risk business because we’re hauling dangerous goods and fatigue becomes a very key factor when it comes to safety.” He’d like to see DoT consult more closely with trucking companies on road closures and daytime driving bans, and he’d like to get more than the 24-hour notice the department generally gives before shutting the road down for the season.

5. THE ROAD’S SHORT operating season offers governments, businesses and oil companies a narrow window to ship supplies up the road. Given the uncertainty surrounding this, companies generally prefer to ship what they can by barge up the Mackenzie River during the summer. That’s the case for ConocoPhillips, which is fracking for shale oil across the river from Norman Wells. But they’ve still used the winter road in recent years to haul loads of fuel and frack sand. You can put them down as supporters of an all-weather road. “ConocoPhillips works regularly with the Department of Transportation to monitor the conditions of the government ice road and obtains updates on travel restrictions to assure safe transportation,” company spokeswoman Lauren Stewart says in a statement. “An all-weather road to Norman Wells would be an important step towards supporting full-scale development of potential oil shale assets in the region.”

The authors of a 2009 economic analysis for the all-weather road were optimistic it would lower costs for industry and residents alike, and provide a boon to the NWT economy: at least $200 million in GDP from building the road, $15.7 million per year in new GDP thanks to lower freight costs in the region and $2 million per year in increased tourism.

Bassett thinks the Sahtu’s communities would benefit from increased freight competition, although he’s concerned about the GNWT’s ability to maintain the highway over the long term. “To build it is one thing, to maintain it is another,” he says.

Norman Wells’ mayor, Gregor Harold McGregor, says an all-weather road is the only way Norman Wells will be able to properly capitalize on activity in the Canol shale. He’d like to see Norman Wells grow its permanent population of 727, which can double with the influx of transient workers when oil projects are in full swing. By his own estimation, McGregor says an all-weather road would allow trucks to travel at 50 to 60 kilometres an hour, roughly double their current top speed, cutting transit times in half. “With the amount of activity out in the Canol, I don’t know how things could proceed very rapidly if we didn’t have an all-season road,” he says. “And the winter road is not conducive to a lot of heavy equipment and vehicles.”

6. INVARIABLY, THE QUESTION OF all-season access to a once-remote corner of the NWT brings the question: What if it’s too much? What if the sleepy Sahtu is flooded with booze, drugs and strangers with bad intentions? There’s already a sense that Norman Wells’ status as a freewheeling oil enclave is bad for the rest of the region. Communities saw a wave of alcohol-related problems after Norman Wells voted to do away with daily alcohol limits at its liquor store. That prompted Yakeleya, the Sahtu MLA, to push through a private members bill extending to all Sahtu communities the right to call and vote in future plebiscites governing Norman Wells liquor sales.

The town’s own economic development officer, Nicky Richards, is opposed to an all-season road. That puts her squarely at odds with her own mayor, though the disagreement is a cordial one: McGregor actively encourages me to speak with Richards to get her view. “We’ve been managing here all this time, so I don’t know why it has to change,” she says.”A lot of people don’t like change, and I guess I’m one of them.”

Richards admits it might seem strange for an economic development officer to argue against a road, but notes that Imperial Oil has been pumping oil out of the region via pipeline since the 1940s without one. She’d rather see development efforts focus on building up local small businesses, handicrafts and, especially, tourism. “When you market this town down south and tell people we don’t have a road, you can’t drive here, they’re intrigued right away.”

Wilfrid Jackson, an old-school trapper, outfitter and bed-and-breakfast owner in Fort Good Hope, wants the cheaper prices and year-round access of an all-weather road, and is growing impatient.  “We’ve been waiting for the last 10 years and it’s still not done. I’m gonna die soon,” he says, laughing. “I want to drive on it.”

“Of course” people want the all-weather road, says Ron Pierrot, a former chief of Fort Good Hope’s K’asho Got’ine Community Council. The arrival of the winter road in 1983 wasn’t a huge change, although there were problems with alcohol. “I would say it’s been 60 per cent good,” Pierrot says. He suspects there will be some local opposition, but he feels Fort Good Hope needs more visitors and lower freight costs. “Things need to change.”

Yakeleya sees things much the same way. When the idea to complete an all-weather road up the valley was floated in the 1990s, elders worried the region wasn’t ready for the inevitable influx of alcohol, drugs, and unsavoury characters. But today, elders see the signed land claims, a resurgent oil industry and the wane of the trapping economy. “The wage economy is stronger than the traditional economy,” Yakeleya says. “The lifestyle is changing. With the Mackenzie Valley Highway, the lifestyle will change more.” 

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