Bone-chilling temperatures have been a boon to builders of Manitoba's northern winter roads this year.
The province is forecasting that most of the 2,500-kilometre winter-road network -- serving two dozen far-flung communities -- could be in operation by the end of January.
Larry Halayko, director of contract services for Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation, said Friday many roads could be open earlier than in a normal season.
In a typical year, all roads are open by the first week of February. "Right now, we're anticipating the end of January to have access to all the communities," Halayko said.
Last year, mild temperatures caused a significant delay in readying the roads. Several northern leaders expressed concern the entire season might be lost. But in the end, the network operated for about 45 days.
The winter-road system is a lifeline for fly-in communities. It's the time when building supplies, fuel and other bulk products can be shipped in large quantities.
A normal season lasts eight to 10 weeks -- usually from late January to the end of March.
This year, the community of Shamattawa, 750 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, is awaiting delivery of materials to build a new school.
"Our understanding is that will bring an additional 300 (truck) loads into that community," Halayko said.
Four of 19 road sections in the northern reaches of the winter-road network have already opened, albeit with weight restrictions.
In the southern part of the system, only one of 16 sections is open -- a two-kilometre stretch from Provincial Road 234 to Matheson Island. This road, too, is operating with a load restriction.
Halayko said about 200 people -- mostly from First Nations -- are employed in building the roads. They are removing and/or packing snow along the routes to lessen its insulating effect to speed freeze-up.
The work began in late November to early December this season, a little earlier than normal.
About 180 kilometres of road -- less than 10 per cent of the 2,500-kilometre winter-road network -- is built over water. The remainder is built on land.
Tracking winter roads
30,000 -- number of Manitobans, in 23 northern communities, who benefit from the roads
8-10 -- number of weeks the system normally operates
2,500 -- length of the temporary road network in kilometres
2,500 -- number of shipments (fuel, food, building supplies, etc.) in a typical season
-- source: Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation