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Thaw bedevils North

Trucks stranded as winter road melts

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/3/2010 (2630 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At least half a dozen semi-truck drivers are stuck in the mud and one 52-year-old driver has been airlifted to safety after an early spring thaw left the freight haulers stranded on a winter road near Bloodvein First Nation.

The province shut down the seasonal transport road linking many northern First Nations last Wednesday, after warm temperatures made maintaining the vital winter routes impossible. A convoy of trucks was dropping off loads of groceries and gravel crushers to the Island Lake communities of Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point at the time of the closing, and didn't depart for Winnipeg until late Friday evening.

Rapid thawing of winter roads have left some trucks stranded.

RCMP HANDOUT

Rapid thawing of winter roads have left some trucks stranded.

Fargo high school students pitch in to build a dike around a riverfront home.

Fargo high school students pitch in to build a dike around a riverfront home.

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

RCMP said that's when the drivers found themselves stuck in mud on the north and south sides of Wrong Lake near Bloodvein First Nation.

One 52-year-old driver from Selkirk had to be airlifted out by RCMP early Monday after company officials hadn't heard from him in a day. The man, a diabetic, briefly contacted the company on Sunday to say he had no food and feared for his life. RCMP chartered a helicopter to retrieve the truck driver, accompanied by a nurse and RCMP officer from Bloodvein First Nation.

He was transported to Bloodvein where arrangements were made to fly him home.

RCMP Cpl. Kevin Elliott said there are still at least six semi-trailers stuck in deep ruts near Bloodvein, and nobody knows whether they'll be able to remove trucks or be forced to leave them in the bush all summer.

"It's a real mess," Elliott said. "Those ruts are getting pretty deep."

Farr North Transport owner Bruce Graham said he is still waiting to hear back from three of his drivers who have been stranded near Bloodvein for two days. Graham said he believes they are sleeping in their cabs and still have food supplies, but are waiting for a bulldozer to help pull their trucks out.

"I'm not sure where they are right now," he said, noting the drivers do not have satellite phones. "If I don't hear back in the next 24 hours I'm going to send up a search party."

Earlier this week the Manitoba government asked for Ottawa's help to airlift critical goods to northern communities after the early shutdown of the winter road system. About half of the winter roads opened by Feb. 1, with the rest opening Feb. 12. Normally, the road system -- temporary routes created over frozen swamps, muskeg and even lakes -- is open for about eight weeks.

With road linkages severed, remote communities have no other option but to fly supplies in at a much higher cost.

But transport workers like Graham say the closing won't stop some trucking companies from taking on the added risk of travelling on deteriorating roads.

The closure allows companies to "up the ante" and charge communities twice the rate for delivering goods, he said, since it is still cheaper than flying them in. Graham said he knows of at least one local trucking firm that is loading up freighters to send goods on the winter road to Island Lake -- the same stretch of road that is littered with broken-down, stranded trucks.

Not all trucking companies are looking to capitalize on the early season, offered one driver familiar with the section of road at Wrong Lake.

He said every spring transports get caught in the thaw (and the provincial road closure) on the way back to southern Manitoba, while others -- those who do not wish to leave trucks up north when the melt occurs -- are just trying to finish their last run of the winter.

"This is the business we're in," said the driver, who didn't want give his name or company affiliation. "The early spring caught everyone by surprise and unless it gets really cold again, I think we're done. But that's not going to stop some guys from trying their luck out there."

A Manitoba Highways spokesman confirmed that signs are posted on winter roads to warn drivers the routes are closed, and that anyone travelling on closed roads is doing so at their own risk.

Manitoba Trucking Association executive director Bob Dolyniuk said the short winter road season has impacted both drivers and the communities they deliver to, but that the association does not condone taking on risks that could endanger lives.

"Nobody should be sending trucks up," he said. "If the road is closed by the province there should be no trucks on the road, period."

jen.skerritt@freepress.mb.ca adam.wazny@freepress.mb.ca

 

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Communities scramble to bring in vital supplies

A state of emergency has been declared by two northern First Nations -- Shamattawa and Red Sucker Lake -- that depend on goods arriving on winter roads.

Northern Grand Chief David Harper, of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, expects other communities to soon call states of emergency. His organization is assessing the communities to find out how much their supplies fell short this year.

Harper said the winter roads are used to truck in non-perishable food and building supplies, as well as fuel to heat homes and operate vehicles, boats and planes.

MKO is supporting the province's call for the federal government to help alleviate costs to fly in urgently needed goods.

Harper said not only did the winter roads close early, but the mild weather meant several communities already had to pay more to truck in items because the semi-trailers were restricted to half loads.

Non-perishable items like flour, cereal and canned goods spike in price when they have to be flown into communities.

Harper said it would be too expensive to fly in building materials, so many communities will not build new homes or other projects this year.

Perimeter Aviation general manager Mark Wehrle said his company, Calm Air and Keewatin Air have the cargo capacity to ship just about anything to the northern communities. He said the air companies will work with the govern­ment and First Nations to be as cost-effective as possible, including taking freight one way and passengers the other.

Calm Air now has an ATR 72 -- a twin turbo­prop airliner capable of carrying 8,000 kilograms of cargo compared to about 5,500 kilograms carried by a Dash 8.

-- Kevin Rollason

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