A Coast Guard tender gathering buoys as it made its way south passed through Norman Wells on the weekend, signaling the close of the shipping season on the Mackenzie River, a week earlier than normal because of low water.
A Northern Transport Co. Ltd. (NTCL) tug pushing barges carrying supplies and building material intended for Fort Good Hope and Colville Lake arrived just ahead of the Coast Guard and left its cargo in Norman Wells to await the opening of the winter road.
The departure of the Coast Guard left Duane Bohlken, manager of SRP Petroleum, anxiously scanning the river for another tug and barges bringing fuel supplies to Norman Wells.
“We’re expecting five barges with diesel, jet fuel and aviation gas,” said Bohlken, who referred questions about the last shipment to Bill Smith, NTCL’s vice-president of marketing. Smith did not return calls from The Journal.
Low water on the Mackenzie created headaches for NTCL and its customers this year.
While rival Cooper Barge Services completed its season last week without mishap, NTCL was forced to turn back on its final run to the Arctic coast when its tug and barges hit a rock at the San Sault rapids.
Cargo on the Arctic coast shipment included supplies for Inuvik, fuel for Tuktoyaktuk and Cambridge Bay, and a rock crusher owned by Hodgson Contracting of Norman Wells that was destined for the Hope Bay mine project
“You could say that NTCL is over-drawn on its water account,” quipped Rick Muyres, a Norman Wells contractor, but in downriver communities the delayed shipments are no joke.
Sahtu MLA Norman Yakeleya said the stranded supplies for his constituency will have to be flown or trucked in on the winter road, further adding to the cost of living in remote communities.
Yakeleya said NTCL has agreed to pay for the cost of trucking some supplies, but the delay will disrupt timing on construction projects.
“Contractors will have to lay off people who were expecting to go to work,” Yakeleya said. “Those workers may have moved on to other jobs when the building materials arrive.”
In Fort Good Hope, Chief Greg Laboucan said some food supplies intended for the shelves of the Northern Store and Co-op will have to be flown in at a cost of $2,000 a tonne.
“That means higher prices for everyone,” Laboucan said.
This isn’t the first time in recent years that supplies for Northern communities have been delayed by low water, and Yakeleya said there is growing frustration with NTCL’s practice of leaving vital shipments until late in the season.
Muyres, who has run boat charters out of Norman Wells for more than 20 years, said low water on the Mackenzie is normal for early autumn.
“It’s no lower this year, but NTCL seems to have lost the skill or the will needed to relay barges past the San Sault rapids,” he said. “In the past, they used two tugs for the job, but that’s expensive.”
Muyres said the federal government’s decision to discontinue its dredging service on rivers in the Mackenzie basin more than a decade ago has also contributed to navigation challenges.