Metis Make Ice Road History

News North YK, April 22, 2002, Guest Comment by Garth Wallbridge.

The ice was thick, the road was short, and the trucks were rolling.

On Feb. 22, a new ice road was opened at Edzo, which is located 100 kilometres west of Yellowknife. The ice road around the Frank’s Channel Bridge across Great Slave Lake was the dream of Sholto Douglas for many years.

As a Metis born and raised in Edzo, he always knew that there was a better way to get oversize loads into Yellowknife and further north rather than by travelling all the way across Great Slave Lake from Hay River in the middle of the winter. He has been proven right. History has been made.

In the middle of the night, seven loads wider than 26 feet or higher than 17 feet ventured out on the ice road that had been built in record time. The trucks went through the North Arm Territorial Park picnic site just south of Edzo onto the ice.

The ice was a metre-and-a-half thick when the gargantuan loads went out onto the 1Oth largest lake in the world and were back on Highway 3 to Yellowknife in less than a hour.

The road is only 14 kilometres long — 12 on the Big Lake as everyone in the area calls Great Slave Lake, and two on the portage back onto the highway just North of the access road to Rae.

Working together

Waakw’a Development Corporation Ltd. is wholly owned the Metis of Rae-Edzo. The word Waakw’a is the Dogrib name for Metis. Their president is Sholto Douglas, who works in Fort Smith but is a …

Douglas, 45, has spent his entire life On the land. He is a wildlife officer. He hunts and fishes pretty much every weekend and he knows the land and waters around Edzo very well. He was married last summer at Old Fort Rae, 15 kilometres down the Big Lake from the Frank’s Channel Bridge.

In November 2001, only about a dozen weeks before Diavik Diamond Mine was going to be hauling thousands of loads North, Sholto contacted the trucking companies contracted to haul the goods for Diavik.

‘Do you want a better, shorter road to get big loads past the Frank’s Channel Bridge,” he asked?

“Why travel 200 kilometres or more, all the way from Hay River, across the Big Lake when the Metis of Rae Edzo can build you a road less than a 10th the distance, at a much lower cost?”

Mullen Transportation and Darien Transport agreed that shorter was better, a lot better.

The Frank’s Channel Bridge was built in 1960. It is an older design of a bridge with a superstructure above the bridge deck. This limits the size of loads that can come North. Anything oversize has to be barged in during the summer, or if it is needed during the winter, hauled two hundred kilometres or more across the Big Lake from Hay River.

Mr. North Douglas, vice-president of Waakw’a and Sholto’s brother, knew that for this idea to work the support of other aboriginal people in the area, the Dogribs, would be needed. So he went to see Chief Eddie Paul Rabesca of the Dogrib Rae Band.

The chief could see the benefit to people of the area and agreed that there would be no cultural or environmental problems with the new road and so he gave his approval.

Sholto Douglas hired me, a business advisor and lawyer with land use permitting experience, to get the necessary permits in place.

These included a territorial park use permit to go through the picnic site, approval from the Federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, a temporary highway access permit, and approval by the territorial archeologist confirming that the route avoided any sites of archeological or cultural significance.

Most importantly, a land use permit from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board was required. The land use permit application was submitted in December and a permit was issued on Feb. 4.

The permit allows Waakw’a to build the ice road every winter for the next five years.

Within two days of the permit being issued Waakw’a had two of their people, North Douglas and William Lafferty, lay out a trail across the ice. They cut holes through more than a metre of ice, every 200 metres, for 12 kilometres. They blazed a trail through two kilometres of bush on the north end of the route to get back on to Highway 3.

Stan Dean and Sons Ltd., ice road builders for more than 30 years, set to work to build the road the next day. Construction was completed on Friday afternoon, February 22, and Robert Dean, general manager of Stan Dean and Sons was confident that the new route would fit the bill.

Late Friday evening the seven trucks went across the road. On Saturday at first light the road was checked for problems. Not that Robert Dean expected any but you always want to check for cracking or other problems. Everything was just as expected, perfect.

Mullen Transportation has a contract to haul material into the Diavik Diamond Mine site. They subcontract the oversize loads to Darlen Transport of Kamloops, BC. Darlen is owned by Rocky McLeod, a Metis businessman from Fort Nelson BC who has family roots in Fort Providence.

Sholto Douglas said, “It is not often you get to play a small part in the making of history. After more than half a century of industrial development in the North you would think that all the useful ice roads would have been found.

But this goes to show there is always room to do things better. I predict that this will be the only road now for big loads to go North. It is fast to build because it is a lot shorter and of course this makes it a lot cheaper.”

Not only are the companies involved in the new transportation link happy, the federal government inspectors have given it their seal of approval and indeed were pleased with the project.