It's December, and Fort Simpson's ice crossing is nowhere in sight

"People are worried that the ice bridge might not get in before the Christmas period," said Sean Whelly. "We're in a bad spot and can't do too much about it."

In an average year, the Northwest Territories community's ice crossing would have already opened by now. Instead, there's open water on the Liard River.

If the crossing doesn't open in December, it's another month where residents' movements are restricted and businesses face extra costs.

Whelly believes the water is freezing differently this year.

Usually, he said, ice pads in the river "jam up" to create a pan of ice, and the ice bridge builds up from there. This year, Whelly said, the ice is freezing from the edges of the river toward the centre – a much slower process.

As the hub of the Dehcho, Fort Simpson is relied upon by smaller communities in the region like Wrigley, Jean Marie River and Nahanni Butte.

"People up and down the valley will probably have more issues around resupply and cost of living," said Whelly. "It's getting harder to survive, I guess, on the economy that's here."

Businesses are already facing the consequences, said Raj Hundal, owner of Fort Simpson's Unity Store.

Hundal told Cabin Radio a southern shipping company is charging $2,057 to fly in 25 turkeys and 25 hams.

Hundal said the store will stock essential items and absorb additional costs wherever they can, with a focus on making products available at a reasonable price.

"We're not going to try to make any profit out of the sales at that time," said Hundal. "If we have to fly stuff over, we're just going to increase the prices the minimum we have to, just to cover the shipping."

Hundal added customers may notice there are already some bare shelves at the Unity Store as a result.

This year's Dehcho Assembly has been rescheduled several times and is currently set for the first week of December in Fort Simpson. Grand Chief Herb Norwegian says they're standing firm on that date, whether the ice crossing is ready or not.

"These kinds of things that happen, we make provisions for that way ahead of time," said Norwegian, adding that large meetings where people have to be creatively brought in are "something that we specialize in."

Whelly says the wait may affect holiday travel, too.

Alternatives to leaving by vehicle over the ice crossing – a flight out or a helicopter ride – can cost many hundreds of dollars per person.

Whelly says people in Fort Simpson already feel more isolation at this time of year, while the ferry has closed and before the winter crossing opens, which can take a toll on mental health.

"We're not desperate here, I don't want to create that impression," said Whelly, but "something in the long run is going to have to change here, and governments can help."

Whelly has been lobbying the GNWT to take a serious look at a bridge that would connect Fort Simpson to the rest of the territory year-round. Any such project would take years to complete.

"Ten years would be almost optimistic," the mayor said.

"If we don't start talking about that and moving ahead, taking some steps towards it, we will be a lost generation here.

"The river is going to play a big part in how our community and our region survives into the future."

Simona Rosenfield, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio