SHOAL LAKE, Man. – An annual mad dash for supplies that residents of an isolated reserve near the Manitoba-Ontario boundary make on their ferry’s last day before winter freeze-up was extra hairy Friday when the vessel broke down, stranding people and their vehicles on either side of the crossing.
Erwin Redsky, chief of the Shoal Lake 40 First Nation, said the hydraulics failed just hours after the reserve’s council declared Friday morning that ferry operations would cease that evening.
Redsky said the necessary part for repairs wasn’t available until next week, and with the ice continuing to freeze, the community took to motorboats to push the barge back and forth.
The final trip was completed in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
“I was able to get my vehicle out pretty early on before it broke down but there were many people stranded, including some visitors and service providers,” Redsky said on Saturday.
A service provider who was connecting the internet for the community became tired of waiting and abandoned his truck, Redsky said.
“He eventually walked across the ice to get home. We said we’d look after his vehicle,” said Redsky, who added the community got his vehicle to the mainland a few hours after he left.
Linda Redsky, who was stuck on the mainland with her husband, three-year-old granddaughter and a car full of groceries, said the barge got stuck at one point in the thickening ice and had to be freed.
She said her granddaughter suffers from asthma and her medication was at home. But she said a first responder was able to supply an effective dose.
“People were stepping up, trying to help each other,” Redsky said, noting her family crossed on the ferry at about 1 a.m.
An ice road on the crossing is built every year as soon as the ice is thick enough, but until then there is no way for vehicles to get to or from the reserve. Many people park their vehicles on the mainland during the interim.
Shoal Lake 40 residents were moved off their land onto a peninsula a century ago during construction of an aqueduct which sends fresh water to Winnipeg. Construction created a man-made island and cut them off from the mainland.
The aging ferry is prone to breakdowns and some people have died trying to cross the ice in winter.
While water still flows to the Manitoba capital, the reserve has been under a boil advisory for 18 years.
Last month, the First Nation received final design plans for a 24-kilometre, all-weather road along with a projected price — $33 million.
All levels of government have agreed to contribute to the costs for construction of the route, dubbed the “Freedom Road,” but some details are still being worked out.
Chief Redsky said he will meet Monday with Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman, as well as representatives of the provincial and federal governments, to try to resolve the outstanding issues.
Construction is expected to start within three months after final details are worked out.
The road would make it feasible to bring in reasonably priced equipment to build a water treatment plant and other projects.
Redsky said the community doesn’t want to waste money on a new ferry when construction will hopefully start soon on an all-weather road.
“It was a total community effort last night with the support of our neighbouring community,” Redsky said about Friday’s scramble.
“It was just one of those nights and early morning hours that we shouldn’t have to go through again.”