Building and maintaining ice roads in Ontario’s Far North
By NICK STEWART
It may be swamp and muskeg through the summer months, but as temperatures start to drop, the Far North landscape is transformed by a community-owned company into a winter road for businesses and area residents alike.
Typically open from Jan. 15 through March 15, the James Bay winter road covers 303 kilometres between the communities of Kashechewan, Attawapiskat and Fort Albany, who collectively own the Services Company. The road also reaches Moose Factory and Moosonee, as well as the De Beers Victor project site.
Having been hired over the last four years by area communities as well as De Beers, the Services Company’s four employees work around the clock alongside the British Columbia-based North American Enterprises, its primary contractor. North American helps to perform maintenance of the roads and oversees the various sub-contractors, many of whom are from Far North communities.
“It’s a 24-hour job, certainly,” says Gilbert Etherington, winter road manager, Services Company.
“It takes constant effort to ensure the safety and integrity of the roads, since there’s nothing but swamp underneath them.”
Some Far North businesses make use of the road in order to transport heavier items that are too costly or too large to fly into the area, such as cranes and other heavy equipment, as well as fuel. With preparation for its Victor Project site well underway, De Beers is also making extensive use of the winter road, with 2,000 loads of equipment and supplies and 500 loads of fuel expected for the 2007 season.
Sub-zero weather through November and early December freezes the ground enough for bulldozers to pack the potential road surface with snow, which must sometimes be collected from the roadside in seasons where snowfall has been particularly low.
“Had it not started snowing when it did in early January, we would have been forced to buy a snow-making machine,” says Merv McLeod, partner in McLeod Wood Associates, and advisor to the Services Company.
After this base has been established, tanker trucks holding anywhere from 12,000 to 24,000 litres of water flood the surface of the roads to create a three-inch layer of ice. This provides a surface on which vehicles can safely travel, though McLeod says with a chuckle that the company learned the hard way that the frozen surface must also be scarred by special machines. This ensures that vehicles have enough traction to avoid skidding onto the roadside, despite the 50 kilometres-per-hour speed limit.
The many waterways that dot the landscape also act as additional barriers to the transportation of equipment and heavy goods.
To cope with creeks, the Services Company uses pumps to gradually flood the water’s surface to build up an 18-inch-thick foundation of ice. Snow is then packed onto the frozen surface until the height is level on either side, allowing for a smooth crossing and a technically sound pathway.
Rivers are dealt with in a similar way. In early December, workers stake out the proposed road area with flagging tape. They also explore the river banks, digging holes in which the pumping equipment will be inserted. Once the river’s surface is naturally frozen, providing nearly 24 inches of ice cover, workers slowly flood it an inch or two at a time. In this manner, the integrity of the ice is maintained while the surface is gradually built up to a thickness of 48 inches.
Maintenance of these crossings is the company’s primary priority as the season rolls on, especially as many of the rivers are affected by tides. This constantly erodes the foundation of the ice, requiring the company’s continued attention.
“Once we start getting heavy traffic out there, some of the ramps will start to deteriorate, so they keep flooding it and adding snow and building it as they go,” says Etherington. “It’s a constant process.”
Despite this year’s mild seasonal weather, the winter road was opened to light traffic on Jan. 18 instead of the traditional Jan. 15, with heavier traffic allowed soon afterwards.
“Although we haven’t had much snow until recently, progress on the road has been quick. It’s real solid now and open for business.”