Ferry run is a crap shoot

by P.J. Harston
Northern News Services

NNSL (NOV 22/96) - The Merv Hardie ferry is predictable, its captain says. But the river it runs on and the weather that swirls around it often cause delays for the vital transportation link.

"We're running on schedule. No problems," Capt. John Grant said Wednesday in Fort Providence.

But that wasn't the case late Nov. 11, when ice chunks blocked the ferry's route across the Mackenzie River.

Grant had to shut the ferry down for six days.

The Department of Transportation's marine services superintendent, Tony MacAlpine, said that the captain always gets the last word on whether or not to launch.

"There have been times when I've gone down to the crossing to see for myself what the conditions are and I've agreed with the captain every time," he said in an interview earlier this week.

He noted that at the best of times his department has just 48 hours warning that ferry service may be in peril.

Prior to 1982, that shutdown would have been the end of ferry service at Fort Providence for the year.

But in '82, the department's workers dug a channel across the river through the ice, once it had settled and frozen solid.

The idea was that the ferry could run until an ice road across the river was complete.

Each year for the last 14 years, the ice channel has extended ferry service by about 70 days, minus the two or three days it takes the ice to settle.

"Every winter we lose it for at least a couple of days," MacAlpine said.

This year's six-day disruption was an anomaly.

In 1982, the extended ferry service was welcomed by Yellowknife merchants as a "great Christmas present."

Albert Eggenberger, then Yellowknife Chamber of Commerce president, said the move would save city consumers $500,000 a year.

That was the amount the chamber figured was added the price of perishables and dairy products flown to Yellowknife over a two- to three-week period.

It was also supposed to end the stock-piling of non-perishables, often weeks before the shutdown, to ensure goods were available, especially through the Christmas season.

This month's six-day disruption saw a return to perishable goods flights, although it's too early to tell just how it cost area stores and consumers.

Since 1982, the earliest the ferry has gone out of service is Dec. 27, and the latest is Feb. 10. Transportation staff didn't have dates for ice road openings available, but said the ferry has run continuously until the ice road could handle heavy traffic every year since 1982.