The last time the cargo barge didn't make it to Fort Good Hope, a small community near the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories, grocery store shelves emptied and prices shot up. A can of pop cost $3.50.
A local contractor took a big hit, too when low water levels meant this year's late-season barge couldn't get in. Junior McNeely will now have to fly in 59,000 kilograms of mechanical equipment to finish a job.
"It's going to cost me a lot more money now."
Northern Transportation Co. Ltd. (NTCL) has been a crucial cargo link to remote communities in the Mackenzie Valley since the Great Depression and to the Western Arctic since the 1950s.
"People depend on it," said Gary Reidford of Territorial Investments, which owns convenience stores in Paulatuk and Ulukhaktok and a hotel in Tuktoyaktuk. "NTCL is a major factor in our business."
But the marine transportation company is now insolvent. And there are a lot of questions about how goods will get to Paulatuk and other communities along the Northwest Passage next season.
From its base in Hay River, NWT, on Great Slave Lake, NTCL barges thousands of tons of groceries, building materials and fuel to communities along the 1,700 kilometre Mackenzie River, into the Beaufort Sea and beyond. At one time a crown corporation, NTCL was bought by the Inuvialuit Development Corporation in 1985 and became a private, indigenous-owned company.
NTCL is attempting to sell its assets, leaving little hope its barges will see another season on the water.
Mr. Reidford said he hopes another barge company will be able to pick up where NTCL leaves off. "Otherwise, the people in the communities, it's not going to be very good for them."
Paulatuk is small – only 300 people – and most of the other communities served by NTCL aren't much bigger. Still, Mr. Reidford said he doesn't know if Paulatuk could get by without a marine supplier. Prices would certainly go up. And he wonders how vehicles and construction equipment would get to the community.
Although there is another barging company plying the Mackenzie River, Cooper Barging Service doesn't operate in the Western Arctic. Its main run this season was between Fort Simpson and oil-producing Norman Wells, much further south. It's unknown if the northern B.C.-based company has plans or the capacity to expand its services if NTCL ceases operations. (Michael Cooper, company president, did not respond to phone calls or e-mails.)
Taking over NTCL's business would involve a lot of heavy tugging. NTCL resupplies 10 communities in the Northwest Territories with at least one barge a year between June and October. It also has the territorial contract to deliver fuel – for homes, cars and aviation – to most of these communities. That contract is now out for tender, ahead of schedule.
Pete Spilchak, president of the Norman Wells Chamber of Commerce, says the uncertainty around fuel delivery is a worry.
"If [fuel] can't get delivered, it will affect everybody that needs fuel to work. It impacts the big picture."
Mr. Spilchak said when low water levels in the Mackenzie River prevented NTCL's barges from getting to the communities a few years ago, fuel was flown in. "That brought the cost up," he said.
NTCL's annual barge is expected to arrive in Paulatuk this week, carrying some of the $150,000 in supplies Mr. Reidford ordered for Territorial Investments. He said the barge is two months behind schedule, but he's just relieved it's coming at all.
With all the uncertainty, he says, "anybody that's doing any barging this year is going to be happy when they finally get their stuff."