by P.J. Harston
Northern News Services
NNSL (NOV 20/96) - Twice a year - once on each side of winter - the North's major ground transportation system usually grinds to a halt at the Fort Providence ferry crossing.
When the MV Merv Hardie shuts down before the ice road is complete, travellers often get caught on the wrong side of the Mackenzie River.
But more importantly, the flow of perishable and non-perishable goods on their way to Providence and the North Slave - including Yellowknife - slows to a trickle.
"When it's out, our freight division comes to a standstill," said Janet Robinson, spokeswoman for RTL - Robinson Enterprises Ltd.
However, the frustration level doesn't boil over at the North's largest trucking company.
"It comes with the territory," said Robinson. "After a while, you come to expect it," said Robinson.
If the ferry remains closed for any length of time, some goods are either flown across the river by helicopter or across the Great Slave Lake by aircraft out of Hay River.
But that's an expensive proposition that adds cost for distributors, retail stores, and eventually to the consumer.
And while revenue losses and shipping delays are certainly frustrating, Robinson said the government does "as good a job as possible" in keeping trucking companies aware of the ferry and ice-road conditions.
"We get the same amount of notice as the general public, and I think they do a pretty good job of keeping us informed," she said.
Early last week the ferry went out of service with little warning, and left many people wondering how long the disruption would last and what caused it.
Marine services superintendent Tony MacAlpine blamed the disruption on a large volume of ice that made navigation difficult.
"In this case, and in most cases, the captain made the decision. He's got the final say, and if he doesn't want to go, he doesn't go," MacAlpine said Tuesday morning.
The ferry was pulled out of service for a week while transportation officials waited for the Mackenzie River to jam with ice and freeze.
It was back in operation Monday morning.
MacAlpine said that, about two days prior to the shutdown, the ice volume was starting to increase and they knew it was just a matter of time before ferry service would be disrupted.
"It's certainly not an exact science, that's for sure," he said. "And I've been doing this a long time."
Following the freeze-up, workers dug a channel across the river for the ferry to run in. The channel should stay open through January or until the ice road is complete and travellers and truckers can drive across the frozen river.
"We had an easy time of it this year, but there's been past years when we just don't get anywhere (in breaking up the ice) and it becomes very frustrating," said MacAlpine.
He said the pressure on his department becomes immense as ferry delays drag on and consumer goods begin to dry up in the communities.
"A lot of times the guys just want to give up. They go at it 24 hours a day smashing through that ice, and they just want to go home. But we can't."
MacAlpine said changing weather and ice conditions often get in the way, but in the end, he knows the ferry will be back up and running because he's got no choice.
"There's no other way to get groceries and other stuff into those communities, and I don't know about where you are, but the shelves were pretty bare around here (Fort Simpson) by the end of last week," he said.
In addition to keeping the ferry at Fort Providence running, MacAlpine also oversees the building of ice bridges at the ferry crossings on either side of his community.