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Travelers play waiting game as washed-out Alaska Highway remains closed

Scott Woodham

Update, 12:30 p.m. Monday: WATSON LAKE, YUKON TERRITORY -- 

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Sunday night, seniors at Watson Lake Secondary School held a chili feed to help break the monotony for stranded travelers and try to raise donations to go toward a graduation event for themselves. Graduation is scheduled for this Saturday, but corsages, tuxedoes and evening gowns must all come from Whitehorse, and relatives from all over. With the washout between here and Teslin to the north, and a historic flood event in the Upper Liard region to the south, no one's getting through just yet to celebrate with Watson Lake grads.

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Though graduation is facing dire straits, the food situation is still not an issue. There hasn't yet been a run on the stores, but shelves are growing bare patches. Snack foods, bread and perishables like eggs and cheese have seen the strongest demand, and the local grocery has run completely out of bottled Coke and Pepsi. There's still plenty of Dr. Pepper, though, and stocks of Ketchup, Dill Pickle, and "All-Dressed" potato chips remain healthy.

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The latest official word about when the road might be repaired enough to let traffic flow (trickle, actually)  between Teslin and Watson Lake comes from Peace River radio station CJDC in northern British Columbia. Officials said they were hopeful they could open a temporary road by Monday afternoon, and that commercial vehicles would be given priority because of shortages of essential goods in communities within the closure zone. Lines of semi trucks have been stacked on the frontage roads in Watson Lake, at least 25 visible at the center of town. Those with refrigerated trailers have been idling since Friday.

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However, the word on the street is that a Wednesday morning reopening is most likely, but rumors are thick and have been growing slightly more pessimistic by the day.

Original Story: WATSON LAKE, YUKON TERRITORY -- The washout of the Alaska Highway between Destruction Bay and Haines Junction has been fixed enough for one lane of traffic to dribble through, but traveling farther south than Teslin or farther north than Watson Lake remained impossible Sunday.

Repair crews were able to make an outlet to the south for the people stranded on the highway between washouts in the Rancheria area, but crews on Sunday were still working on the big washout between Watson Lake and Teslin.

The joke around town is that the highway's actually been open all this time, with the closure a ploy to give tourism in the southern Yukon an early-season boost. That's only funny after one has shared a breakfast table with travelers who watched 200 feet of roadbed and asphalt boil away under swift-moving overflow -- right before their eyes.

There are plenty of such first-hand witnesses in town now, most of whom were lucky enough to make it back to Watson Lake before a second, smaller washout stranded others in the Rancheria area.

Although there have been reports of dwindling supplies in Whitehorse and other highway communities caused by the interruption of supply routes, shelves and restaurants here have experienced no shortages, despite the stranded travelers and flood evacuees from nearby communities swelling the population by more than 100.

Elders evacuated from the Liard First Nation community of Lower Post, in far northern British Columbia on the Liard River, have been put up in makeshift housing at Watson Lake. The upper Liard River has risen sharply, and 11 communities in the area had to be evacuated as a dike gave way. Other Upper Liard communities are considering evacuations, the CBC reports.

Crews are working around the clock, CBC reports, and the official word is that slow, one-lane traffic  through the remaining washouts between Teslin and Watson Lake may begin by Monday morning. But that's a rough timeline provided by officials, who until Sunday have been cautious not to get anyone's hopes up too quickly.

Yukon’s Department of Highways and Public Works continues to recommend that motorists not to travel to Teslin or to Watson Lake.

Here's how things looked to this Alaska Dispatch editor earlier this weekend:

The road gods took a huge dump on us. We're stuck in Watson Lake. The Alcan is closed in two spots between here and the Alaska border because of mudslides and washouts. The crews are working, but the word around here is the slides won't be totally cleared until Monday at the earliest. The one at Kluane Lake is really bad, say rumors, and it might take longer to clear for one lane. Local info on it is limited, though, because no one from there made it here before other slides closed the road.

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Allan Nixon, assistant deputy minister of the Yukon Highway Department's transportation division, told the CBC:

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We just need the water to recede a little bit so we can get a really good look at what we have. And we need to make sure that in the landslide areas that it's safe for our crews to get in and finish cleaning up the areas and then it's safe for people to start using the road again.

 For more updates check here or here or here

Contact Scott Woodham at scott(at)alaskadispatch.com