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Arctic Road Show

Oct 25, 2017 - 2 years ago

By Supply Post

Completion of Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway fulfils long-time national dream
By Graham Chandler

On par with the transcontinental railroad and the TransCanada Highway, an all-weather road network uniting Canada from coast to coast to coast has long been a nation-building vision.

On November 15th the dream will crystallize. That’s when the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway (ITH) is scheduled for a grand opening. For the first time it will be possible to drive to Tuktoyaktuk—until now accessible only by air, sea or winter road—any time of year.

The $229.3 million contract to build the 120-km highway—the NWT’s largest infrastructure project—was awarded in early 2014 to a local company, EGT-Northwind Ltd. It’s a joint venture partnership between E. Gruben’s Transport Ltd. of Tuktoyaktuk and Northwind Industries of Inuvik, both 100 percent Inuvialuit-owned.

The builders come with generations of northern construction experience. “My grandfather and my dad started the company here in the 1950s with dog teams,” says Merven Gruben, vice president of E. Gruben’s Transport and director of the EGT-Northwind partnership.

It all started to come together about four years ago. “We had been lobbying for this road for years and years,” says Gruben, who was the mayor of Tuktoyaktuk for six years to 2013. The effort included videos and several trips to Ottawa. “We got the attention of the Prime Minister [Stephen Harper] and he came to Tuk,” he recalls.

The entire length lies in permafrost, so planning took meticulous research, study and analysis. Every section of the route demanded close examination and investigation for its unique features, both above and below the surface.

The highway passes through two distinct ecoregions that challenged the builders: the Mackenzie Delta and the Tuktoyaktuk Coastal Plain. The Mackenzie Delta ecoregion includes the southern two-thirds of the Mackenzie River Delta and is mostly complex networks of lakes and interconnected channels. North and east of the Mackenzie Delta is the Tuktoyaktuk Coastal Plain. It includes the active portion of the delta as well as some uplands. It too is tricky for road building; being underlain by continuous permafrost with various forms of excess ice. Depth of the active layer (the portion that thaws seasonally) varies from 30 to over 150 cm.

So avoiding alteration of or damage to the permafrost was an overriding concern in developing the plan and undertaking construction. Traditionally, road building follows ‘cut and fill’ techniques—cutting into the higher parts of the terrain and filling the lower. With the ITH that couldn’t be done; it would mean slicing through protective layers of organics, exposing permafrost. Instead the design is fill only, sourcing gravel from borrow pits along the way. Geotextile fabric is placed under the fill along the highway’s entire length. “You are not allowed to disturb the permafrost; it will screw up your foundation,” explains Gruben. Construction was started from both ends to minimize overall build time. At the Tuktoyaktuk end, building started about 20 km south of the hamlet where an earlier road was already complete.

Gruben says one of their biggest surprises was a lack of good gravel source material. Because construction was done in winter, “it was all frozen of course.” They identified pits by eroded areas, and then drilled boreholes to confirm suitability. “The really good material we could scrape but for the most part to haul that material we had to do a lot of blasting. With good patterns it worked out really well.” Most of the pits will be retained for ongoing maintenance over the years and for community gravel sources.

The geotextile is an important but labour-intensive part of the operation. “We put the cloth down, placed the fill over it and built it at least a metre thick,” Gruben explains. “We had a lot of guys on it and along with the culverts it took quite a crew. We had probably 15 or 20 working on geotextiles at any given time.” Overall labour force peaked around 600; approximately 80 percent Aboriginal, from Yukon as well as NWT and northern Alberta. The Inuvialuit Administration maintained a keen eye ensuring wildlife and environmental sensitivities were monitored and protected throughout construction.

Progress is on schedule. As of late October, the team had 25 km left for final surfacing. “Then just grading, compacting and shaping, and over the next few days the boys will be putting the signs out and finishing the guardrails,” says Gruben. Remaining active equipment consisted of five graders, ten packers, one water truck, one excavator, ten clam-dumps, one loader and four bulldozers.

Official opening will happen at both ends. Scheduled festivities include feasts, drum dancing, fireworks, ribbon-cutting, and more. Federal and territorial dignitaries will join in marking the historic day.

“It is a huge Canadian project to connect from coast to coast to coast,” sums Gruben. “Once it’s connected it is going to be crazy. The Arctic Ocean will sell itself.”

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