Saturday, 21 January 2012

#NWT's old Slave River fur-trade route could provide relief from Alberta's troubled pipeline dreams

Old fur-trade route could provide relief from Alta.'s troubled pipeline dreams


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Long forgotten in the far northeastern corner, Fort Fitzgerald, population eight according to the 2010 census, was once bustling with boats and barges ferrying cargo up the mighty Slave River.

It may boom again, and soon.


A proven northern route that can expedite shipments from Fort McMurray to oil-hungry customers in China and India may just be the answer.

"We need to look at as many options as possible," says Travis Davies of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, "mostly in terms of moving equipment and components."

As the producers of oil from the bituminous sands continue to expand their operations, Davies notes, "We've got an amazing resource here and we need to continue to explore all kinds of ways to get it to market."

Imperial Oil may also need to consider using water routes up the Mackenzie, Slave and Athabasca rivers to bring heavy machinery to existing operations in Fort McMurray and especially for its Kearl oilsands project currently under construction.


It would be a hard slog to get any northern oil route approved, as seen by the 30-year-old (and still waiting) Mackenzie Valley pipeline proposal.

If a way were to be found, oil would be the latest in a long list of products transported on the Slave River.

Formed where the Athabasca and Peace Rivers come together, the Slave River was a lifeline for explorers, fur traders and early oilmen.

Our present-day society is built around the road. But 200 years ago the rivers were the superhighways of Canada.


Explorers in this region included Alexander Mackenzie, who in 1789 travelled the length of the 1760-kilometre-long river that now bears his name. But that big river drained into the Arctic Ocean, not the Pacific.

In 1804 the Hudson's Bay Company built a trading post at today's Fort Simpson — at the confluence of the Liard and Mackenzie Rivers. In 1805 it built another one where the Bear River flows into the Mackenzie River — now Fort Good Hope. The system expanded in the early 1800s, and might have become even greater had it not been for one navigational challenge.

Near the border between Alberta and the Northwest Territories, four sets of violent rapids in one 25-kilometre stretch prevent river travel. In the days of canoes and York boats, river craft had to be portaged around four mighty rapids: Cassette, Mountain Portage, Pelican and Rapids of the Drowned.

All but the Rapids of the Drowned are in Alberta. The total drop is 33 metres. That's why a 40-kilometre portage road links Fort Fitzgerald, Alberta, to Bell Rock, just to the north of Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories.

River navigation is hindered, but not impossible, along this stretch of the Slave River. Were it not for the rapids, large ocean vessels could ascend the Mackenzie River, cross Great Slave Lake, continue up the Slave and Athabasca rivers to the geographical centre of Alberta — the town of Athabasca.

Large and heavy loads could be brought to the massive industrial area further north at Fort McMurray. One of the challenges of the North is its distance from markets and suppliers of machinery and supplies.

But that did not stop the U.S. army during the Second World War. In 1942, Fort Smith had a population of just 250 souls, but it played host to 2,000 American soldiers. They portaged thousands of loads of oilfield and pipelining equipment around the Slave River rapids in aid of the booming oilfield at Norman Wells. Their efforts also made possible the construction of history's most expensive and shortest-lived pipeline. The Canadian American Norman Oil Line (CANOL) cost almost $2 billion in today's currency, or five times the original estimate.

The wartime CANOL pipeline only operated during 1944 and 1945, and delivered less than a million barrels of oil from Norman Wells to Whitehorse in the Yukon — at a cost of about $200 per barrel in 2011 currency.

David Finch paddled the mighty waters of the Slave River in a voyageur canoe as part of the Slave River Paddlefest celebrations in July 2011.

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