The Northwest Territories’ newest highway officially opens on Tuesday, but more work must take place before an access road to the Whatì Falls opens to the public.
The 97-km Tłı̨chǫ Highway, or Highway 9, for the first time connects Whatì year-round to Highway 3, Yellowknife, the South Slave, and the rest of Canada. Previously, the community of 500 was accessible only by air or winter road.
Unusually, the road’s opening day will not be marked by any formal ceremony, the territorial government said. The territory’s fall Covid-19 outbreak, which significantly affected Tłı̨chǫ communities, is the reason.
Instead, staff will simply open the road to traffic at km 196 of Highway 3 at 10am on Tuesday.
The spectacular Whatì Falls are set to become the NWT’s latest star attraction with the road’s opening, but the Tłı̨chǫ Government is warning would-be tourists that an access road to the falls remains closed.
The falls won’t be welcoming visitors until at least next spring.
“It’s going to increase accessibility to a pretty unique community and also a spectacular natural area out there, and the Whatì falls are a pretty big draw card,” said Mark Poskitt at the Tłı̨chǫ Government’s Department of Culture and Lands Protection.
“But that access road is in need of upgrading, and we want to make the area by the falls safer for community members and for visitors before we let people down there.
“There’s a bit of work we want to do and that’s anticipated to happen in the spring of 2022. Hopefully, if you’re wanting to go out and visit in the summer of next year, then that will be possible.”
Plans for the falls include development of a day use area and safety measures like fencing to ensure the falls can be viewed safely. The access road as it stands can be impassable to many vehicles, depending on the conditions, so the road surface will be improved. Fire pits and picnic tables are also planned.
Poskitt said the Tłı̨chǫ Government wanted to make sure “the right facilities that are in place, so that we’re not trashing a pretty special and culturally significant area.”
What happens to the Whatì Falls in the longer term is up for discussion, as the potential for tourism – once visitors to the NWT are once again welcome – is considerable.
“There’s some discussion about a potential future overnight campground,” said Poskitt, and with that, there are probably other business opportunities for local vendors and tourist operators.”
However, that kind of development can only come after community consultation and with the support of residents, he added.
“The sky’s the limit,” said Poskitt, “but we really want to do it in a careful way, in a sustainable way, and in a way that has the community’s backing.”