On the ground for Fort Simpson’s ‘surreal’ river breakup

An aircraft sits partially submerged during flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8, 2021
An aircraft sits partially submerged during flooding in Fort Simpson on May 8, 2021. Photo: Dennis Nelner

The evacuation siren was the latest in a line of unusual sensations for Fort Simpson residents this breakup season. With water far higher than many can remember, the community readied to leave on Saturday.

For the majority of the afternoon, water alongside – and pouring into – the village reached a level well beyond 14 metres according to village officials. Fifteen metres triggers a total evacuation of the community.

Some residents of the village’s island, which is the most vulnerable to flooding, were being evacuated on Saturday night to Fort Smith.

Jonathan Antoine, a filmmaker in the Dehcho, said the water was the highest he had ever seen. This year is the only time he can remember the evacuation siren sounding.



“It’s pretty wild,” he said. “It seems like a movie, a little bit … it’s surreal, for sure.”

Ice from the Liard River pushes ashore near Fort Simpson in May 2021. Photo: Jonathan Antoine

As water heaved huge quantities of ice past Fort Simpson’s island banks on Saturday, Antoine broadcast the event live on Facebook to hundreds of viewers. He told Cabin Radio residents were “excited the river is finally flowing, but also concerned, because it’s rising.”

Water covered some areas of Fort Simpson. The road to the Ehdaa site – the papal grounds, where Pope John Paul II visited in 1987 – was closed, with the cement base of the village’s iconic ceremonial tipi underwater.

Footage shared online showed roadside posts being clipped out of the ground like twigs by oncoming blocks of ice at the river’s edge.



Some roads in Fort Simpson were submerged. Photo: Jonathan Antoine
A video of the Liard River flowing on May 8. Video: Jonathan Antoine

Fort Simpson resident Dennis Nelner described this year’s breakup as “pretty close” to flooding the community saw in 1989.

“1989 was the year when the water levels came over the road,” he said on Saturday.

“It’s just a game of inches now, I guess.”

Territorial officials warned communities earlier this year that higher water levels – a factor for more than a year now across much of the territory – could result in flooding.

While touring Fort Simpson to assess the damage, Nelner found the runway next to the Wolverine Air building underwater.

The Wolverine Air site in Fort Simpson. Photo: Dennis Nelner

He reported seeing canoes carried away by the river.

Earlier in the day, Mayor Sean Whelly said residents felt “pretty anxious” this year as the water was doing things they had never seen before.

“I was looking at people’s faces and they sure looked a lot more concerned than I’ve seen in years,” he said.



“People knew it wasn’t going to be a totally normal year. It’s going to be a little switch between anxiety and relief as the river moves and then starts to back up again – their emotions go with the river, I guess, for now.”

Not all residents were too concerned.

Marshal Nahanni-Kwasney acknowledged the river was the “highest it’s been in quite a while” but noted power to the community had been restored and the water level appeared to have held steady at 14.4 metres or below.

Nahanni-Kwasney had no plan to evacuate Fort Simpson entirely. Instead, he expected to move higher up the community’s hill.

As of 7:30pm on Saturday, officials said the water level remained at 14.4 metres.

Additional updates through the night can be found on the village’s Facebook page and website.

A video shows flooding related to ice breakup on the Liard River in May 2021.