Skip to content

Civil engineer sounds off on Mackenzie ferry closure

Questions why essential maintenance wasn't done in off-season
The scene on the northern shore of the Mackenzie River Crossing as vehicles line up in anticipation of the ferry reopening. Tsiigehtchic, a community of fewer than 200 residents, has been cut off from the rest of the territory for close to a week.

Tyler Gregory wants to give credit to the maintenance workers at the Mackenzie River ferry crossing, which re-opened after nearly a week at 2:53 p.m. July 9.

"The workers, as soon as they got here, have been working non-stop," he said on July 9. "I saw them working until about 11 p.m. last night. They're working pretty hard and I understand that it takes a long time for people and parts and all that stuff to get here given how remote we are."

Having been waiting on the crossing at Tsiigehtchic since the ferry went down for maintenance on July 4, the vacationing Missouri-based civil engineer also wanted to give a shout out to the people of the Delta, whom, he added, are wonderful.

"Obviously, the ferry set me back several days, which is a little frustrating but at the same time I really enjoyed staying in Inuvik — I ate at all the restaurants, it's a lovely town and I really enjoyed my time there.

"People have been super fantastic. I've talked to so many people in Inuvik that have been great, and out here people are bringing us sandwiches and drinks. The people have been so lovely."

Nevertheless, as he waited for news of the ferry over the past weekend and entering this week, he's begun to ask some pointed questions.

If a major transport corridor was shut down, he suggested he would likely be fired if his department communicated with the public the way he's received communications from the territorial government.

"The latest update the GNWT provided on Facebook is the first time in this whole ordeal that was the most accurate update that was consistent with what folks have been telling us out here," he said. "I didn't really start getting frustrated until last night. They kept acting like Monday was the day, so a bunch of people showed up [at the ferry landing] yesterday.

"Back in my world this would be completely unacceptable to have a critical thoroughfare be completely shut down for a week and the government have a completely laissez faire reaction to it. I would be fired if one of my projects had a situation like this where people were constantly left in the dark of what is going on for something that could have been avoided."

As a civil engineer, Gregory also questioned why important maintenance was being done mid-season instead of during the off-season.

"I work with department of transportation and these agencies all the time down in the United States. What's frustrating to me is the fact that this all stems from a routine inspection that occurred on Thursday [July 4] that found the fire suppression system was out, and now they're going through essential maintenance now. This ferry is sitting here inoperable for six months through the winter. You would assume they'd do an entire maintenance and repair session prior to the start of the season, so how was this not caught before ferry season started? Does that mean for the last month that this boat has been operating without proper fire suppression? In my mind this is 100 per cent human error. It's not like a landslide took out a road or a force of nature. So I've been frustrated from the lack of communication."

Gregory guessed there were 16 vehicles on the north side of the river but added he couldn't see to the end of the traffic on the other side. He said another person waiting flew a drone and said traffic was backed up for kilometres. He noted a lot of the vehicles were freight trucks.

The Department of Infrastructure provided two notices on its social media feed on July 5. The first was simply telling travellers the ferry was closed while the second explained the GNWT needed to bring in expertise and parts, and that a further update would be provided on July 8. That update was released at 5:14 p.m. and simply stated, "Arctic Red River/Mackenzie River Ferry at Highway 8 remains closed. Technicians continue working through the evening to finish the necessary repairs. An update will be provided at 9 a.m. We thank travellers for their patience."

An update on July 9 published at 9:43 a.m. reads "Technicians have been on site late into the night and early this morning to get the ferry operational as quickly as possible. They were able to source local parts to complete repairs and have been working to ensure the ferry is safe for travellers and to pass inspection from Transport Canada (TC). Once the work is complete and the inspection is done, TC will give final approval to open the ferry. We cannot offer an exact timeline but we are working to have it open this afternoon.

"We know the importance of our ferries in the NWT in connecting our communities, residents and businesses, and we apologize for any delays and inconvenience this may caused travellers. We’re working very hard to ensure operations can continue quickly and safely. The ferry status will be updated on the NWT Highway Conditions map as soon as [it] is open, and we will continue to update on Facebook as changes any new information is available."

Another update at 12:18 p.m. on July 9 reads: "Work on the Arctic Red River Ferry is nearing completion and subject to Transport Canada approval, we anticipate resuming operations this afternoon. An update will go out once ferry operations can resume."

For Gregory, the updates haven't provided much relief.

"I'm down here staring at the ferry desperately hoping we can cross the river today," he said. "I've seen it on Facebook, one person made the comment that this happens frequently. I don't care where you live, locals should not be used to this. This is completely human error. I don't care if the boat is 50 years old, they have all winter to inspect and repair these things."

A spokesperson with the department of infrastructure said the ferry was last inspected by Transport Canada last year and the fire suppression issue was not apparent then, noting certificates of inspection are good for a whole year.

"The problem with the fire suppression system was not something easily visible to staff," said GNWT media relations officer Tami Johnson. "When Transport Canada inspected the ferry on Thursday July 4th, 2024 the issue was identified. Technicians were originally scheduled to be onsite to perform annual service on the system in June 2024 but were turned back due to wildfires in the Yukon.  The service work required a combination of specialized parts not available in the region and locally sourced parts and supplies.

"The fire suppression system is fully operational and we do not anticipate any further work to the system."

The GNWT announced the ferry resumed operations at 2:53 p.m. and said the ferry would run for four extra hours in both directions to cover the backlog in traffic.

About the Author: Eric Bowling

Read more