The Village of Fort Simpson is requesting construction of a shelter on the far side of a river crossing outside the community to ensure the safety of people facing long waits during freeze-up.
When the ferry across the Liard River ends for the season, there is a weeks-long period during which Fort Simpson can only be reached by air – a service relied on by residents who need medical care or are visiting family in other communities.
Fort Simpson lies west of the river. On the east side, Highway 1 stretches toward Fort Providence and the rest of the NWT or Highway 7 takes travellers south to Fort Liard. Sometimes, helicopters are used to hop across the river and reach waiting vehicles on either side.
People disembarking helicopters on the east side continue their journeys either using vehicles they left on that side of the river before freeze-up, or by meeting up with others prepared to give them a ride.
If something goes awry, those waiting on the far side face a quandary. There are no publicly accessible services for more than a hundred kilometres on the east side of the river.
At a November 8 meeting of Fort Simpson’s council, Councillor Muaz Hassan said he worries for people stuck waiting on the east side with nowhere to go.
“If you miss the helicopter, or if there is any bad weather, then that person is on the other side – and if that person doesn’t have enough fuel in the vehicle for the night, or has kids or anything, then we might face a problem … of where people are going to stay,” Hassan said.
He envisages circumstances in which people could be forced to spend a night waiting by the east side of the river in a powered-down vehicle, with limited cellphone service, as November temperatures plummet.
Jean Marie River, the nearest community to the east, is 130 kilometres away. The tiny community is still recovering from severe flooding in May.
Fort Simpson councillors asked for a cabin to be built on the east side of the river crossing to provide a safe, warm shelter for anyone stuck waiting for a prolonged period.
Vandalism could be a concern, depending on what is left in the cabin. Mayor of Fort Simpson Sean Whelly recommended keeping fuel inside a lockbox and providing a phone number people can call for access to the code. A booster for cellphone signal in the area may be required first.
“If you’re there and its 20-below out, and you’ve got no fuel, then maybe you just want to turn around and get back to another community if you can,” Whelly said.
The mayor added the swift closure of the ferry in some years – with little to no notice as river conditions deteriorate – makes a shelter all the more vital.
“We’ve had people trapped this year, it’s happened in other years, and sometimes it even happens because in the middle of the season something happens and people just can’t get across,” he said.
Eventually, a winter road across the ice opens and reconnects Fort Simpson to the highway system.
According to the Department of Infrastructure’s website, the average opening date for the community’s ice crossing is November 28.
Correction: This article previously stated the Village’s senior administrator said a shelter could be constructed “very soon.” In fact, a campground in the location may be constructed soon, which council suggested a shelter could be added to.