“This is the one place in Canada where there is only one road, one bridge across the country,” said Nipigon Mayor Richard Harvey.
He’s talking about the Nipigon River Bridge, a newly-constructed bridge in northern Ontario, which is the only route from Ontario to the western half of Canada; a bridge which cold weather severely damaged in the evening on January 10. According to the Ontario Provincial Police, it’s been closed for “an indefinite time due to mechanical issues,” and could remain closed for “possibly days,” per a report from CBC.
Mayor Harvey isn’t exaggerating. Police have begun attempts to stop people before they begin road trips into western Canada, and are recommending that if they must, they take an alternate route through the United States — a route that’s about 600 kilometers (370 miles) out of the way and in the wrong direction.
All told, even without traffic, the alternate route adds over 12 hours to the trip, and police are reporting that transport traffic through the area is already backed up. Nipigon Township has begun opening community centers to anyone stranded.
The bridge itself is located about 100 km northeast of Thunder Bay, and fits anyone’s definition of “the middle of nowhere;” Nipigon Township boasts a population of a little over 1,600, and the weather is a balmy -4°F at the moment. Not exactly camping weather, and there aren’t a lot of hotels to choose from, either. “It’s not just us. It’s all of Canada that has a problem right now,” said Mayor Harvey.
Meanwhile, engineers on site are baffled as to why the bridge failed. “The reality is nobody really knows what happened.”
The bridge’s failure was observed by Dorian, Ont. resident Ashley Littlefield and her husband, out driving.
“As we turned [onto the highway], we saw the whole bridge – a kind of big gust of wind came underneath it and blew it up and then it came back down. We watched two pickup trucks come flying over… They didn’t see us, didn’t hear my horn honking, and they flew over and smashed their front ends down on the cement.”
The municipality of Greenstone, located along Highway 11 northeast of Nipigon, has declared a state of emergency.
The bridge itself is in the midst of a twinning project, a $106-million CAD project intended to replace the old structure with two identical, two-lane bridges; a project that, when complete, would prevent exactly this from happening. It’s both a mystery and an irony that it happened almost right after the first of the two new bridges was opened.
Meanwhile, CTV is reporting that Mayor Harvey intends to investigate alternatives to restore some vehicle traffic while the bridge is being repaired.
“This is something that, in our emergency preparedness in this area, we have run scenarios for and we do have options on how we would fairly quickly get traffic moving if there is a more serious issue. There are alternate routes that we could, with a little bit of work, open up to get at least some traffic moving again.”
The pedestrian crossing slung under the bridge deck remains open. No injuries or damaged vehicles have been reported.
In the meantime, MP of Thunder Bay – Superior North Patty Hadju is urging anyone stranded on Highway 11/17 to contact the Nipigon Community Centre at 807-887-3585 to arrange temporary accommodations as the temperature continues to drop.
With any luck, the township will be able to handle the influx of stranded drivers; for many waiting to cross the damaged bridge, it’s a very long way home.
[Image via the Government of Ontario/Hatch Mott MacDonald]