Roy Moonias stands on a rise overlooking a frozen lake bathed in wintry moonlight. In the distance, the headlights of a big fuel truck appear. “It’s coming,” he shouts, holding up his phone to shoot some video.
Mr. Moonias has a professional interest in the truck’s progress: His men built the road it is travelling on. Open for only a few weeks a year, the winter road to his remote Indigenous community passes over muskeg, swamps, eskers, creeks and, finally, this lake. His crew has been striving since November to get it ready: Plowing, smoothing, flooding and clearing fallen timber until everything is just right, or as right as it can be on a road constructed of ice and snow on a foundation of muck.
Now, the road is set for its big test. Snowplows have cleared the ice on the lake, leaving a wide corridor lined by snowbanks that stretches a kilometre and a half from shore to shore. Crews have set up log posts fixed with reflectors to mark the way.
The fuel truck and another one behind it are the first fully loaded transports to get to Neskantaga this season. A couple of hours earlier, Mr. Moonias jerked the cord on his big Husqvarna chainsaw and plunged it, buzzing, into the ice at the middle of the lake. The 36-inch bar didn’t reach water, so he knows the ice is at least three feet thick, strong enough to support even a truck with 28,000 litres of diesel on board. A sonar device has confirmed the measurement.
As the truck’s lights grow bigger, he jumps in his pickup truck and drives to the middle of the lake to see the tanker lumber across the ice. “That’s solid,” he says, a grin splitting his face.
His road is part of a network of temporary highways that are crucial to the survival of the scattered Indigenous communities in Ontario’s North.
Most of the year, places such as Neskantaga are reachable only by air. The community of about 300 people lies on Attawapiskat Lake, 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay and far from any highway or even gravel road. Everything must come in by plane: Groceries, medical supplies, car parts, even diesel fuel to run the power plant that keeps the lights on. For passengers, return flights to Thunder Bay, the regional hub, can cost $800.
Thin white lines through a vastness of bush, the winter roads connect these isolated communities briefly to the world outside. When they open, residents jump in their vans and trucks and drive out to stock up on food at the supermarket, get their vehicles repaired, watch hockey games in Winnipeg or visit relatives they rarely see in Thunder Bay. Trucks laden with fuel, food and lumber pour in.
The winter roads are a Northern success story, a symbol of what remote communities can do for themselves if given a chance. Indigenous crews such as Mr. Moonias’s do most of the work, not the outside contractors who usually build the high-end infrastructure in fly-in First Nations. Paving a swamp with snow or flooding a lake in the middle of a frigid night takes grit and skill.
Leading visitors on a day-long tour of the road, Mr. Moonias shows how it is done.
The winter roads have a colourful history. In the early years of what would become Canada, the first Europeans travelled the way Indigenous people had for thousands of years: by canoe. Then came the trains. The Canadian Pacific Railway linking British Columbia to Eastern Canada was completed in 1885. Next came the highways. The Trans-Canada opened officially in 1962.
But neither rail nor road ever reached most of the people of Ontario’s Far North, the huge tract from the Manitoba border to James Bay. They were left essentially stranded, cut off from modern land transport.
It took an enterprising frontiersman to help change that. Svein Sigfusson was born in Lundar, Man., to parents who had emigrated from Iceland. In the 1940s, he was looking to move tons of whitefish and trout caught in northern lakes to markets in Winnipeg and Chicago. A six-foot, four-inch “lean, mean son of a bitch” who won medals for the hammer toss and discus throw – he found a way.
In what he would describe in his book Sigfusson’s Roads as “utter madness,” he and his drivers set off in the dead of winter with Caterpillar tractors to pull heavy oak sleighs through the “low, wet wilderness of marshes, muskeg and hundreds of thousand of lakes.”
When they came to cracks in a frozen lake, they drove wooden wedges into the cracks to brace it, then inched forward. Machinery and men sometimes crashed through all the same. More than 100 tractors sank during his 30 years in the business, and three men went down with them.
Mr. Sigfusson writes that he jumped off of four sinking tractors over the years. His grandson, Dwayne, who still works in the business, says he has jumped off a few himself. When asked what he did next, he smiles and says: “I swam.” Another winter-roads veteran, Thunder Bay developer and contractor Pierre Gagné, had a trick to avoid going through: He would get out of the tractor and steer it from a sleigh trailing behind, using long ropes to manipulate the controls similar to how a carriage driver uses reins to steer a team of horses.
Sigfusson Transportation would go on to build 5,700 kilometres of winter roads in northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. In the late 1950s, it started cutting roads into the Indigenous communities of Ontario’s Far North, among them Mr. Moonias’s home. Governments took on oversight of the roads in the 1970s and started handing over responsibility for operating and maintaining them to First Nations. This year, the Ontario government is giving the communities $5.8-million to construct and maintain 3,160 kilometres of winter roads. Ottawa is kicking in the same amount. About 24,000 people live in those communities, 90 per cent of them Indigenous.
The roads reach into the farthest corners of Northwestern Ontario, linking places such as Bearskin Lake, Wapekeka, Marten Falls and Kasabonika Lake to the highway grid. In the 2016-17 season, officials say, Ontario’s winter roads carried around 17 million litres of fuel and 1,500 truckloads of goods. One First Nation, Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, is relying on the winter road to bring in the materials for a whole new $42-million school.
Bigger communities are usually in charge of the larger trunk roads that connect communities “upstream” and “downstream” from them. The trunk roads connect to the less heavily travelled link and trail roads that branch off to individual First Nations. Some communities pool their resources to form winter-roads corporations. One of them, called Kimesskanamenow, runs the road connecting Attawapiskat and Kashechewan to Moosonee on the James Bay coast. Manitoba has its own winter-roads network serving 23 remote communities.
Mr. Moonias, 54, is one of the most seasoned winter-road builders. A former trapping instructor, forest-fire-control expert and chief of Neskantaga, he has been at it since the 1990s.
He and his community learned early on how important a good, safe winter road can be. On Feb. 19, 1997, road builder George Ostamas, Jr., aged 44, was driving a bulldozer over a lake when it went through the ice. Another plow driver saw his lights disappear.
Mr. Ostamas’s sister, Maggie Sakanee, says that it was so cold the ice reformed almost at once over the hole where the bulldozer had been. It took divers three days to find her brother’s body. Now she says a prayer to the Creator and makes an offering of tobacco every time she travels the road. “I think about it all the time and I pray that it doesn’t happen to another family. It was so devastating to the whole community.”
Ever since, Mr. Moonias has been striving to make the road better. He has altered its course many times to skirt lakes instead of crossing them. He has upgraded his equipment. Instead of bulldozers and plows, tracked snow groomers similar to the ones used on ski hills do much of the snow clearing. They are lighter and so can start work earlier in the season, when the frozen swamps are still a bit soft and the lake ice still too thin for bigger equipment. Neskantaga has four of the $100,000 machines.
There is “always something,” he says. “It never stops. There is a lot of secret ingenuity that has to happen.”
His crew uses every trick in the book, including a very old one: Shoring up soft sections with a corduroy road; logs placed side by side. He has even installed plywood outhouses along the route, which can take four or five hours to travel. He tries, gamely, to persuade his visitors that it will cost them a toonie to use one.
Now, he is working on the biggest improvement yet: A bypass that would take the road over a river and avoid the dangerous crossing of Lake Kabania. Bulldozers have already cut trails to the river, taking a route mapped by GPS and approved by community elders who know the land. He needs a Bailey bridge to span the river, too – a portable structure that can be hauled into the bush.
Some day even further in the future, Neskantaga would like to have an all-season road.
In the meantime, just keeping the existing road open is challenge enough. This has been a bad season for winter roads. A warm spell in early winter put many First Nations behind on their road building.
At the end of January, Alvin Fiddler, Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation, or NAN, a regional grouping of Indigenous communities, called it “a developing crisis.” He tweeted a photo showing a groomer from one community that had gone through the ice. Only logs secured to the front and back kept it from sinking. By mid-February, NAN reported that there were still just five communities where the roads were good enough for full loads of freight. Mr. Fiddler’s own community, Muskrat Dam, had to pay to fly in fuel. He estimates that, this year, the winter roads were about a month behind where they should be. Climate change may hasten the melt in the future.
Neskantaga is way ahead of the pack. Mr. Moonias puts it down to “dedicated people and perseverance.” His team of four to five road builders started work at the end of November and got the road open for light traffic by mid-December, early enough for people to scoot out for Christmas shopping. When the area gets a cold spell, he says, crews work 24 or even 36 hours straight to take advantage of the good conditions. Below -10 Celsius is best.
Even in winter, swamps are hardly the ideal place to build a road. Ordinary roads have a base laid below them to support the surface pavement. This one has only mud, water and vegetation underneath. Mr. Sigfusson described the muskeg of the North as “warm, wet muck under moss, grass, reeds, tamarack and swamp willow.” Left alone, it stays soft even in the coldest weather, so heavy equipment can easily sink into it and get stuck.
The way around that, Mr. Moonias says, is to make the cold work for you. The snow acts as a blanket over the ground, holding warmth in. His guys come along early in groomers to plow it off, letting the frost penetrate. The groomers’ six-foot-wide treads churn soil and plants in with the snow, creating a mix that freezes hard as concrete. Then they haul giant truck tires behind them on chains to smooth and compress the surface.
Mr. Moonias stops next where the road rises onto an esker, a narrow ridge of sand and gravel, formed by a glacier, which rises above the flat muskeg. The ground here is firmer. The trouble is not freezing the mush but avoiding the rocks that protrude from the earth, often heaved up by the frost. Rocks routinely snap the plows of snowplows and break the tracks of groomers. One grading machine had its windows shatter when its scraper flew up on impact with a boulder. The road crew marks hidden rocks with orange fluorescent paint so drivers can spot them and hangs bright green tape from tree branches to warn them a rocky patch is coming up.
Unlike the swamp road, this part snakes back and forth to avoid rock. It rises and falls, roller-coaster style, with the topography. Drivers have to proceed slowly or risk going off the road and running into the trees that stand tightly on either side. Many prefer to travel at night, when the piercing headlights of oncoming vehicles make collisions less likely and when their own headlights expose bumps and gouges that are often hard to make out in the bright winter daylight.
Mr. Moonias pauses next at a snow bridge. The road to Neskantaga is criss-crossed by creeks and swamp channels. To span them, the road crew uses a groomer to fill them with snow, then pumps water on top. The resulting slush freezes into a solid bridge.
He is putting metal culverts into some of the smaller creeks to firm up the crossing. With bigger ones he is installing modular steel Lessard bridges, a lesser version of the Bailey bridge. A pair of dump trucks come by as he waits to buttress the crossing with loads of rock.
But other encounters along the road give proof of its value. A pair of contractors in an extra-large pickup are bringing a sewer pipe into Fort Hope, a few hours beyond Neskantaga. They say this is the best winter road they know of, right across the North.
Another pickup is carrying a whole family to Fort Hope. John Ray Meeseetawageesic, 53, is on the final stretch of a 24-hour trip to pick up his grandchildren in Round Lake, way over toward Manitoba. They bounce around the back seat and climb onto his lap as he speaks. A hunter, trapper and firefighter who works on winter roads himself, he says that when the road opened, he jumped at the chance to bring his grandkids to stay. It would have cost him thousands to fetch them by air.
Mr. Moonias finally rolls into Neskantaga after dark. There, too, residents say the winter road is essential. A van carrying young hockey players just used it to reach the Lil’ Bands hockey tournament in Dryden, five hours from Pickle Lake. Despite her fears, Ms. Sakanee, who lost her brother through the ice, took it to go shopping in Thunder Bay with three other women and to attend an elders’ meeting there.
The winter road has its downsides, she says. For one thing, it makes things easier for those who want to sneak drugs or alcohol into her dry community. They can avoid luggage checks at the air terminal.
Still, Neskantaga could hardly get by without its winter road. Mr. Moonias’s brother Dominic – there are seven Moonias brothers in all – says the price of gas and diesel would be sky high if all of it had to come in by air tanker. As it is, he charges $2.25 a litre for those who want to fill up at the little gas bar he runs, about double the Toronto price. Flying in fuel can cost three times as much as trucking it.
The winter road helps the community build up its other infrastructure, too. Residents of Neskantaga have been deprived of safe drinking water for a quarter century, the longest span in Canada. The road brought in much of the equipment for a sophisticated new water plant.
That multimillion-dollar project, like so many in Northern communities, has been plagued by delays. Not so the winter road. Locally built, locally run, it is something the community can count on – at least until the warm weather returns. The short winter-road season, barely started for many First Nations, is already moving toward its close. Mr. Moonias says with a chuckle that “that groundhog” has signalled an early spring.
In March, the strengthening sun will start melting exposed snow banks and turning the top of the ice to slush. As the winter recedes, the frost underneath will start to melt. Before long, the route through Ten-Mile Swamp will look like a canal, all water and bugs and mud. Mr. Moonias’s crew will put away their pumps and heavy equipment till next fall, when winter-road season comes again.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that one of Ontario's winter roads connects Fort Severn to Moosonee. In fact, Fort Severn is served by a separate road. The article also gave the wrong first name for a Thunder Bay developer and winter-roads veteran. The correct name is Pierre Gagné.