Sunday, May 9, 2010

Rivers and bridges and ferries

Saskatchewan is cut east to west by two main river systems.  In the north the Churchill River slices across the province on its way to Hudson Bay.  In the south the North Saskatchewan River rises in western Alberta and heads southeast for Prince Albert.  The South Saskatchewan meanwhile rises in southern Alberta and heads northeast for Prince Albert.  Just east of P.A. the two rivers connect and then, joined into the Saskatchewan River, head east on their way to Lake Winnipeg and eventually Hudson Bay.

With those major rivers to contend with the provincial department of highways has settled on river ferries to solve the problem of river crossings where they don’t have adequate traffic to justify a bridge crossing.  Today we are parked at Petrofka Bridge for lunch.  I can remember when they built this bridge and more importantly I can remember how much fun it was crossing before the bridge was built. 

River ferries are like a step back in time.  Some guy who lives next to the crossing gets up each morning and spends his day making lazy crossings of a slow moving river.  Most of his traffic is local so he knows pretty well everybody that makes the crossing.  Most of the ferry operators are sociable types, maybe not so much as they used to be, but they’re still pretty talkative.  I can remember ferry crossings when we were kids being grand adventures.  You’d pull up to the river and, if you were lucky, the ferry would be on the other side so you got to get out of the car and play while the ferry made it’s slow, deliberate crossing.  Some of the operators would actually “ferry” across the river, turning the boat at a slight angle to it’s direction of travel so as to use the river current to push it across.  They all had engines but not all operators would use the engine for the crossing. 

We would have crossed on Wingard ferry today except for the fact that we were worried about the condition of the ramps and the access roads.  Which brings up the reason why ferry crossings were always a bit of an adventure.  In the winter when the river was clearly frozen the ferry couldn’t operate but in between winter and summer there was always a time when you weren’t sure what to expect. 

I remember one spring trip to Saskatoon that was more than a little exciting.  We didn’t go to Saskatoon very often and even less often for just one day but that is my recollection of this trip.  We crossed in the early morning on the river ice but it was the return trip that was memorable.

I remember waking up in the back seat of one of the old Mercuries, sitting up and seeing what looked like a black lake in front of the car.  As far as the car headlights could penetrate the blackness of the night all we could see was water in front of the car.  There was a half-ton parked kind of beside and a bit ahead of us and that was why we had stopped.  Evidently the truck driver in front of us had stopped and father had got out to confer with him.  The noise of father getting out of the car was likely what woke me up. 

When he got back in the car father’s face was grim and I don’t recall him saying much, if anything.  He put the car in gear, swung around the truck and drove deliberately into the water.  Obviously I’m here to tell the story so it had a happy ending.  Afterward I remember father saying that he knew there still had to be ice under the water because it had been there in the morning but it had to be a tough call for him at the time.  The alternative to crossing there would have been roughly a 3 hour detour through Prince Albert for a bridge crossing. 

I think Petrofka bridge was already under construction that spring night so that was likely our last ever river ice crossing as a family.  I’ve made a few since then and its always unnerving, even in the dead of winter when you know that the ice has to be solid.  I can’t imagine what father must have been thinking that spring night with his whole family in the car as he entered the black water.

1 comment:

Wil said...

Wow! That must have been a really tough call. I've done similar, responding across a frozen lake to a fire that would have required a 42 mile circuit to reach otherwise ... but we did it with doors open, radio silenced and every one of us listening to the cracking of the ice under the 3" of rain water for anything out of the ordinary. No way I'd have done it with my own family aboard. Tough enough to do with my men...