It's not often that we think it's appropriate to stop and reflect on a highway chipsealing project in the NWT.
However, now is one of those times.
On Sept. 15, the final piece of gravel on Highway 5 between Hay River and Fort Smith was covered by chipseal.
That is an important development for transportation in the South Slave. Dare we say it is historic? Yes, we will. It is historic.
It is the first time since Highway 5 was completed in 1966 that it is fully chipsealed.
That is going to mean a lot, including for Hay River. In fact, the full implications are probably not even quite understood right now.
For those readers who may not be regular travellers by motor vehicle to Fort Smith, here is just a taste of what it was like to drive on that final gravel section – 63 kilometres through Wood Buffalo National Park.
Oftentimes, the road was exceptionally fine, and you could cruise along almost like on a paved highway.
However, at other times, especially after it rained, the road was a minefield of potholes.
We can attest to the hazards of Highway 5 potholes. Once heading to Fort Smith in the spring, a late snow had covered the potholes, and the company's former Ford Ranger smacked into a particularly nasty pothole. No word of a lie, the truck – on its own – made an instant 90-degree turn and headed off the road at full speed. Before we really knew what was happening, we were looking up at the highway, doing about 80 kilometres an hour on grass, and wondering how we got there. So we popped back up onto the highway and continued on our way.
Such was driving on a gravel road with a posted speed limit of 90 kilometres an hour.
Then there were the flying rocks, the dust and the occasional slowdowns as maintenance crews worked on the gravel.
And sometimes, apparently because of the right combination of gravel and rain, the highway was exceptionally slippery. Not your run-of-the-mill slippery, but slippery to the point that you would think you're driving on some kind of grease.
Perhaps there are a few people who will miss the gravel section of Highway 5 since it definitely provided an out-in-the-hinterland feeling when driving through Wood Buffalo National Park.
But we won't miss the gravel at all, and we wholeheartedly welcome the chipseal.
And we recognize Parks Canada for spending $28 million over two years to upgrade the road and complete the chipsealing.
As for what the chipsealing will mean for Hay River and Fort Smith, we can offer a few possibilities.
The highway will be safer, which will be good for everyone.
A completely chipsealed highway will very likely attract more tourists to Wood Buffalo National Park, and that will be good for the whole South Slave.
And it will also help unite Hay River and Fort Smith through easier and more convenient business and personal travel.
It's still 267 kilometres between the two communities, but Fort Smith and Hay River are now closer together.