The winter road from Fort Smith to Fort Chipewyan will be open before Christmas – but the section connecting Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray isn’t scheduled to open until after the holiday due to warm weather.
Parks Canada staff told Cabin Radio workers at Wood Buffalo National Park are building the winter road from Moose Island to Fort Chipewyan and expect it to open by December 25.
Construction has started on the nearly 200-km ice road connecting Fort Chipewyan to Fort McMurray, but the pace of construction depends on cold weather.
The ice covering four river crossings must be about a metre thick, enough to hold cargo trucks and other vehicles travelling to Fort Chipewyan.
“We know the Fort Chipewyan community relies on the road and we are committed to opening the route as soon as it is safe for light vehicles. Crews are working every day,” said Keith Smith, director of public works for the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (RMWB).
If the road stays closed for too long, the municipality offers free shipping for residents to bring in personal goods and supplies. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said the community is anxious for temperatures to drop so the road can open.
“We’re at Mother Nature’s authority here and she dictates what is going to happen to the road. It’s unfortunate,” said Adam. “We’ve got to work with the temperatures and the RMWB. What happens if it turns plus-10C for four days? That is out of our control.”
The road has been open for fewer than 100 days each winter since the 2016-17 season. Warm weather caused the road to temporarily close in 2005-06, 2006-07, and in 2008-09.
The 2020-21 season was the shortest, opening for 59 days. At one point, the municipality considered an emergency airlift to bring supplies to Fort Chipewyan. That option was last used in 1998.
Adam said a permanent road connecting Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray should be considered as winters get warmer.
“From Fort McMurray to Fort Chipewyan, from the south to Lake Athabasca – with a ferry or bridge going across there – or else we can come around from Birch Mountain into the Peace, come around that way. There are two possibilities,” said Allan.
An all-weather route has been discussed before. In November 2018, council unanimously passed a motion asking the federal and provincial governments to consider building one.
Advocates say a permanent road would lower living costs, open Fort Chipewyan to development, and be a boon for tourism. Others argue construction risks damaging the freshwater delta south of Fort Chipewyan and will disrupt hunting and trapping.
Sarah Pruys and Sarah Williscraft contributed reporting.