Richard Beck's snowmobile beneath a truck following a collision on December 13, 2021. Photo: Alisa Blake
A Yellowknife musher broke several ribs and a leg in a collision with a truck, further elevating concern about the safety of a crossing shared by dog teams and vehicles.
Richard Beck, a 10-time winner of the city’s Canadian Championship dog derby, and his dog team were attempting to cross Kam Lake Road, between Kam Lake and Grace Lake, when they were struck on Monday afternoon.
None of his dogs were harmed but Beck, who is in his late sixties, required surgery and is beginning a long recovery process at Stanton Territorial Hospital.
Alisa Blake, Beck’s daughter-in-law, rushed to the crossing to find Beck being loaded into an ambulance.
“He’s doing OK. He did have to have surgery. He has some broken ribs and a broken femur,” Blake said.
“I’m just thankful that I’m able to talk about my father-in-law and say he’s in the hospital, he’s recovering, and not speaking of him in the past tense. He came within inches of losing his life.”
The collision horrified the city’s dog mushing community, for whom the crossing is a constant worry.
Jo Kelly, of Qimmiq Kennels, was returning with her dog team about 15 minutes behind Beck when she reached the scene.
“This is a spot I pass with trepidation every time, and I just felt sick when I came over that hill with my dog team, looked over, and saw his snow machine rolled under that truck,” Kelly told Cabin Radio on Wednesday.
“It’s the worst nightmare. It’s a terrible crossing … I’ve had close calls there. I’m sure everyone has.”
‘So much new traffic’
Kam Lake has been home to Yellowknife’s dog mushers for decades. More than 100 dogs can be found occupying a lot on Curry Drive, a block away from the crossing.
In winter and spring, with mushing season under way, trails extend from Curry Drive across nearby Grace Lake and Kam Lake.
In recent years, Grace Lake has been transformed into one of the city’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, offering families the opportunity to build their dream lakeside homes from scratch. There’s also a gravel pit beyond the development.
That means more passenger traffic, more construction vehicles, and more service trucks using the one road that stretches between Grace Lake’s southern reaches and Kam Lake.
Some mushers say the type of driver is changing, too.
“Yellowknife residents know Kam Lake is dog mushing central and to watch out for that, to move slowly on the road alongside the dog lot,” said Jordee Reid, president of the Yellowknife Dog Trotters Association, which represents the city’s mushers.
“But with more residents down here, there’s a lot more traffic, too. Even though the dogs have been here for 40 years, all the people haven’t been. There wasn’t traffic like this in the past.”
Kelly said: “People don’t expect to see dog teams because there is so much new traffic. Historically in Kam Lake, people expected to see dog teams.”
Mushers describe the crossing as a blind corner. To fully gauge whether they can cross, dog teams must inch out into the road – a dangerous manoeuvre, as 10-dog teams rarely operate in inches.
“By the time you stick your nose out of a blind corner with a dog team, you’re committed. It’s not like power steering or power brakes, you can’t swerve to avoid things and sometimes you can’t stop,” said Kelly.
“We all use that same crossing and have all known for some time that it is a very dangerous place,” said Reid.
“It could have been any one of us. It is surprising that nothing quite to this scale has happened sooner.”
‘A stop sign, you listen to’
The City of Yellowknife has tried to make the crossing less dangerous.
At one point, the city built a culvert under the road with the intention that dog teams could pass through the culvert from lake to lake, safely away from traffic. But the culvert design and height, mushers say, made it unusable. Dog teams went back to using the road.
The city installed signs warning of the crossing, but mushers say several have been stolen and the remaining sign is neither close enough to the crossing nor large enough to make a difference.
“They need a proper, I would say, crosswalk,” said Kelly, searching for a word to describe a much more visible crossing for dog teams. Others said a stop sign would work.
“Snow machines and dog teams need protection on that crossing,” Kelly continued. “There’s nothing there to slow people down.”
Reid said the existing signage was too passive to have an impact on musher safety.
“It seems like it needs to be something a bit more abrupt. A stop sign is something you need to listen to,” she said.
Blake said she had called municipal enforcement to see if more patrols of the area could be made.
“There are many times I’ve seen passenger vehicles and dump trucks probably going at 50 km/h, 60 km/h,” she said.
The City of Yellowknife, which declined an interview request for this report, said the posted speed limit on that stretch of road is 30 km/h.
“There are signs posted in the area warning traffic about snowmobiles and dog teams,” city spokesperson Aimée Dentinger said by email.
Hurt, but alive
The exact detail of what happened in Monday’s incident was not provided by RCMP, whose officers attended the scene. The driver of the truck, who was not identified, could not be reached for comment.
In a written statement, RCMP spokesperson Marie York-Condon said: “At this time, there does not seem to be any criminal intent and no charges or tickets have been filed.”
Beck’s season is over before it began. Dog races don’t ordinarily start in earnest until January and the Canadian Championship usually runs on Yellowknife Bay in March.
“There is nothing at the end of that road that is so important you need to speed along on it,” said Blake, pleading with Yellowknife residents to pass the crossing as slowly as possible.
Reid, describing a shaken dog mushing community, said what happened could have been much worse.
“I know Richard is really hurt, physically and I imagine mentally as well, but he is still alive,” she said.
“I’m really quite upset that it has to take an accident like this.”