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Transportation in the North

Technical Series 94-221

Key Messages

  • This factsheet provides an overview of transportation in Northern Canada.
  • Transportation options in the North vary depending on geography and weather conditions.
  • Air transportation is available to almost all communities.
  • Road: Highways link the western Arctic with northern B.C. and Alberta. Winter roads are used to link some communities.
  • Water: The Mackenzie River is a major route in the western Arctic. Sailing time by freight barge from Hay River to Tuktoyaktuk is approximately 16 days.
  • Ocean freight: Shipping is the only option other than air for communities in the Beaufort Sea, Hudson Bay and the Eastern Arctic. They are served from Tuktoyaktuk, Churchill and Montreal. The shipping season is limited to 10 to 12 weeks in the high Arctic.
  • Rail: A rail line links Grimshaw Alberta to Hay River and another links Churchill with southern Manitoba.

Introduction

Transportation is a key factor in the economic and social development of the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories. Transportation systems have evolved from the original dog team to the present air and road transportation systems, due to development of the North and largely as a result of mining in the western Arctic. The Mackenzie River, serving as the original main transportation route of the region, determined the location of many communities. Consequently, main routes of the contemporary highways and airlines follow the river's general course.

Air Transportation

Because of the vast distances which must be covered, transportation by air is the choice for most travellers in Canada's North, even if alternatives are available. The shortness of the ice-free season makes air transportation essential. To meet this need, commercial air carriers offer scheduled service to virtually all communities. There are approximately 47 local, 9 regional and 3 national airports in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon

In the western Arctic, air charter carriers play a significant role in the Mackenzie region, operating to all communities and industrial sites. Private corporations, in particular the hydrocarbon companies, operate their own aircraft when large or continuous freight movements are required.

In the eastern Arctic, the only modes of transportation to the Arctic communities from the South are by sea or air. Since sea transportation can only operate into the high Arctic for ten to twelve weeks out of the year, air transportation plays a major role in movement of food and materials on a year round basis.

Air carriers charge per seat for passenger service. Cargo can be shipped at a charter rate (pay for the entire aircraft) or by weight. The prices are determined by the competitive market and usually reflect local costs.

Although air transport represents a significant part of the market for high-value and perishable commodities, it is not competitive with barge service for bulk freight, even though barges operate less than half the year.

Road and Road Transportation

The Road System

Northern roads are often long, because of the wide dispersion of communities, and have little traffic. Most roads are gravel surfaced, although parts of the Alaska Highway, Klondike Highway, Haines Road, Hay River Highway and the Fort Smith Highway are paved or have a bituminous surface treatment.

Six ferry crossings are an integral part of the road system. Ferries usually operate from mid-May to early-November in the South while at the more northerly crossings the season is from June to mid-October. Ice bridges can be started about the middle of December and kept in operation for two to three months.

In addition to the major road network, winter roads provide surface transportation to some communities. Winter roads are impassable in summer because of poor drainage, and because of dangers of severe erosion caused when vehicles disturb the thin organic layer above the permafrost. These roads often provide vital transportation links necessary to provide communities with supplies needed to sustain themselves over the winter months. Without these seasonal roads, the basic supplies needed would have to be transported by aircraft at great expense.

Highways in the Yukon

The principal road entrance to the Yukon Territory is the Alaska Highway. It is an all-weather road, open year round, which enters the Territory near Watson Lake and winds its way through the Yukon to the Alaska border at Beaver Creek.

Other roads that cross the southern border of the Yukon include: BC Highway 37, The Robert Campbell Highway, Highway 7, The Haines Road, and The Klondike Highway. The Dempster Highway branches off the Klondike Highway approximately 32 km southeast of Dawson City. The Dempster runs northeast, crosses into the Northwest Territories to Fort McPherson and Arctic Red River and then joins the Mackenzie Highway south of Inuvik. The Dempster is Canada's first road to cross the Arctic Circle.

Boundary Road, or the Top-of-the-World Highway (only open in the summer), Canol Road and Nahanni Range Road, Highway 10 are other major roads in the Yukon.

Highways in the Northwest Territories

The Mackenzie Highway originates at Peace River, Alberta and is the principal highway route into the Northwest Territories. It makes its way up to Fort Simpson and Wrigley via a bridge at Willowlake River and a ferry at Camsell for year round access.

Other roads in the Northwest Territories include Highway 3 (the Yellowknife Highway), Highway 4 which is designated as the Ingraham Trail, the Liard Highway (which provides an all-weather connection between Fort Nelson, B.C. and the Mackenzie Highway), the Dempster Highway, Highway 5, and Highway 6.

Examples of winter road links are Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, Wrigley to Fort Good Hope and from Fort Norman to Fort Franklin.

Highway Freight Carriers and Buses

Trucking firms and buses serve the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. Freight rates are dependent on the size of the shipment and class of goods.

Water Transportation

In the western portion of the Northwest Territories, the backbone of water transportation is the Mackenzie River. In the eastern Arctic the supply route is generally from Montreal, up the Gulf of St. Lawrence through the Strait of Belle Isle to Hudson Strait or Baffin Bay, and points north.

The Mackenzie Watershed Routes

Within the Mackenzie watershed there are five sectors: the Mackenzie River from Hay River to Tuktoyaktuk, including the Peel River; the western Arctic coast (Beaufort Sea area); the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca system; Great Slave Lake; and the Liard River and Fort Nelson River System.

Navigation problems on the Mackenzie River include a short shipping season (beginning of June to mid-October), ice conditions, low water levels (especially in the fall), four sets of rapids and decreasing daylight in the fall. Because of the rapids, barge tows must stop and each barge must be carefully moved through a channel to protect the cargo.

The dominant carrier is the Northern Transportation Company Limited (NTCL), which moves between 80 per cent and 90 per cent of the tonnage in the Mackenzie watershed. Barges, with tanks below deck, are designed to handle large volumes of bulk petroleum products. Cargo carried on deck includes general merchandise, construction materials, steel containers, highway trailers, drummed fuel, drilling rigs and pressure silos of bulk drilling muds and cements. Resupply tonnages have remained fairly constant throughout the years. Cargoes related to oil and gas exploration have decreased since the mid-1980s.

Central, Eastern and High Arctic Shipping

Much of the freight carried on the Mackenzie system is transferred to ocean vessels at Tuktoyaktuk for distribution to the Beaufort Sea area and to coastal points and islands as far east as Spence Bay. NTCL carries almost all of the freight into the area.

The eastern Arctic is served by the Eastern Arctic Sealift, coordinated by the Canadian Coast Guard, as well as by private shipping lines that contract directly with resource development groups to transport supplies and equipment to the site of their operations. Cargo, originating from many Canadian and foreign points, is assembled principally at Montreal. Consignees include federal and territorial government departments, Crown agencies, private companies and individuals. Tonnage carried varies from year to year in volume and make-up but bulk fuel has predominated, at least in recent years. The Coast Guard provides ice routing and escort services to the ships carrying this cargo.

Areas served include Iqaluit, Strathcona Sound, Resolute Bay, Rae Point, Little Cornwallis Island, Eureka and sites in Foxe Basin and other points as far north as Grise Fjord. NTCL service to the Keewatin consists of shipments moved by rail north to Churchill, Manitoba, marshalled in Churchill and shipped by tug and barge to communities along the west coast of Hudson Bay. NTCL also assembles freight for shipping out of Montreal to the eastern Arctic communities.

Rail Transportation

The White Pass and Yukon Railway

The White Pass and Yukon Railway, which was built in 1898-1900 for prospectors and miners of the Klondike, connects Whitehorse to tidewater at Skagway, Alaska. The railway was closed in 1982 after the closure of its main customer, the Cyprus Anvil Mine, in Faro. The railway has started a summer tourist service from Skagway to the White Pass Summit and Fraser, B.C.

The Great Slave Lake Railway

The Great Slave Lake Railway was constructed by Canadian National Railways in 1965. The route runs from Grimshaw, Alberta and then heads north to Hay River, Northwest Territories.

Although this line was designed for the movement of lead-zinc ore concentrates from Pine Point Mines, there have been considerable grain and lumber shipments as well. The increase in petroleum exploration in the Arctic generated northbound traffic on the line to Hay River, the staging area for the Mackenzie River barge system. The rail yards at Hay River are a major constraint in this system. The main line is bounded by commercial and residential development and the noise of marshalling within the town restricts its hours of operation.

Courier Services

The major couriers, Purolator, Buffalo Air Express, Northwest Territorial Airways and Canadian Airlines International offer service to many northern points including Whitehorse and Yellowknife. In some places consignees are expected to pick up their shipments at the airline offices.

Resources

Building in the North - Responding to the Environment, Volume 1, prepared by Van Ginkel Associates Ltd., prepared for Canadian Arctic Gas Study Limited, Gulf Oil Canada Limited, Imperial Oil Limited and Shell Canada Limited, March 1976.

Canada's North: The Reference Manual, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, 1983, revised 1990.

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