Inuvik’s mayor says conditions on the Yukon side of the Dempster Highway are worsening and action is needed to improve the “lifeline” for Beaufort Delta residents.
In a January 10 letter to the NWT’s infrastructure minister, Mayor Natasha Kulikowski said the Yukon’s Dempster south of Eagle Plain, in the Rock River area, was “terrible.”
In the letter, first reported by Yukon News, Kulikowski notes two liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers tipped or went off that stretch of highway within a week in the summer of 2019, closing the road for days.
The Dempster is the only year-round route from the south to Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Tsiigehtchic, and Tuktoyaktuk
“It’s basically our lifeline to the south,” Kulikowski told Cabin Radio.
“All of our food supplies, all of our gas supply – whether it’s LNG for the power corp, propane for Inuvik Gas or even the gasoline that fills the tanks that is then provided for vehicles – all at some point comes up the highway.”
The highway can deteriorate around August during the rainy season, when the area gets “slimy” and turns into a black clay, Kulikowski said. Drivers have to reduce speeds to 50 km/h or slower to move safely through those areas.
Inuvik resident and former mayor Jim McDonald, who has been driving the road since 1981, said problems span a stretch from 100 kilometres south of Eagle Plains to the NWT border. In the section south of the plains, drivers can be reduced to just 30 to 40 km/h.
“The road is beat down right to the base, right? So the base of the highway is built with the heavier material, rocks and stuff,” McDonald said. “A lot of that is protruding to the surface now.”
North of Eagle Plains, McDonald described the surface as “snotty, slippery, and dangerous, really.”
McDonald believes the road has been getting worse each year, to the point where problem patches are now not only an inconvenience but a safety issue. He blames a lack of long-term maintenance and resurfacing.
The northern section of the Dempster Highway in an NWT Parks map.
When the road closes unexpectedly, availability of fresh produce and dairy products falls.
“Within a couple of days store shelves start getting pretty bare,” said McDonald. “In the winter, the propane for heating comes in on the highway now, so it’s a critical transportation link for us.”
Oshea Jephson, a spokesperson for Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works, said three times more money is spent maintaining the Yukon’s 465 kilometres of the Dempster than other highways in that territory.
The highway sees around 80 vehicles a day up to Tombstone Territorial Park. Only around 50 vehicles per day make the trip beyond that, Jephson said.
“The Dempster, just like most Yukon highways, is maintained to the safe and appropriate standard given that usage and the socio-economic functions that it provides,” he said.
“It is a more remote highway and conditions are a lot harsher on the Dempster, so drivers are always encouraged to consider those conditions when travelling.”
Questions to the same Yukon department about the cost of road maintenance and plans for road resurfacing were not immediately answered. The NWT’s Department of Infrastructure was also approached for comment.
Mayor of Inuvik Natasha Kulikowski is shown in a submitted photo.
Fixing the highway will also be beneficial for the Yukon, Kulikowski argued, as residents from the Delta travel to Dawson and Whitehorse to shop, participate in sports, and fly elsewhere.
“While some folks might say it’s an Inuvik problem or an NWT problem, really, the folks from here are using the highway to get down there and they’re spending money in the Yukon,” she said.
Increasingly, the road is now driven by tourists. Driving the Dempster is a bucket-list trip for many, even more so now the highway allows visitors to dip a toe in the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk.
Kulikowski urged the NWT’s infrastructure minister, Katrina Nokleby, to raise the issue with Yukon’s highways minister – Richard Mostyn – “for the safety of the travelling public in the 2020 spring and summer seasons.”
Jephson said the mayor’s letter is on Mostyn’s radar, and he’ll discuss it with Nokleby at a February 14 ministers’ meeting.
Kulikowski has yet to hear back from the NWT minister but said she had spoken with Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis.