Driving Depends on Icy Conditions

It’s hard to think of an icy road as being anything but dangerous, but that’s not always the case. In Dawson City it can go both ways.

For those wanting to drive from downtown to the Midnight Dome subdivisions, Mary McLeod Road is often the preferred route, especially for those who live along the stretch past the graveyards.

There is another route—up the Dome Road out by the ball field—and I’m told that if your destination is the three subdivisions in what I call Literary Heights (’cause all the streets are named for writers),the distance is about the same.

Still, I prefer that tree-lined drive up Mary McLeod, when I can use it.

The thing is, it’s a seasonal road, and it was closed to prudent vehicular traffic about a month ago. Why? Because of the ice.

The groundwater on the hill doesn’t freeze as long as it stays underground, which is what it does most of the year. The evidence of flowing water can be seen in the steam rising off the tailings piles along the Klondike Highway at -25 or lower.

The hill is about the same except that there always comes a point during the winter when the water is forced to the surface and flows across the road.

And then it freezes, forming something we refer to as the glacier. Eventually it gets too thick and persistent for the city’s ploughs to clear away and then they close the road.

People still walk it, and it’s a route for snowmobiles and ATVs, but it can get nasty enough to damage the undercarriage of a vehicle, or cause total loss of traction, especially coming down, so it’s best to take the other route until the glacier melts in the spring.

An SUV from the local RCMP detachment cruises the ice bridge on a March afternoon while the Highway’s crew works at flooding the other half of the bridge off to the left PHOTO: Dan Davidson

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the ice bridge across the Yukon River, which provides an easy route between the town and the settlements of West Dawson and Sunnydale for four or five months of the year, depending on how fast the river freezes after the ferry is pulled in October and how quickly the ice rots in April.

The ice bridge starts out as a foot trail and is expanded by users over a period of weeks until dogsleds, snowmobiles, ATVs and lighter trucks with blades have pounded and smoothed it into something that regular trucks and cars can travel on.

Then the Department of Highways and Public Works takes over, flooding and scraping it into a massive boulevard causeway that even I don’t mind driving on.

At that point the ice is about two metres thick for most of its width.

This year, however, the west bank approach took a long time to fill in and just today I saw a two-person Highways crew out there, flooding it to freeze harder and thicker. In spite of warmer days these last few weeks, it’s still well into the -20s at night and that lets the fresh water (pumped up from a hole drilled down through the ice) set nicely before the next dawn.

They’re thickening it now so that heavy equipment will be able to move across and be read to open up the Top of the World Highway a couple of months from now.

It may be hard to believe that extra flooding on the ice bridge could be a sign of spring, but that’s pretty much the truth.

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