The first time I heard the term “breakup” was when I heard my Dad tell someone that Rig #19 had to be moved before breakup. I later learned that breakup meant Spring was on the way, that the ice was breaking up and the frost was coming out of the ground. It also meant that Kenny and I could build dams in the ditches to see if we could flood the road before some adult came along in his car and purposefully drive through our dam.
I also learned the ramifications of breakup affected the oil patch greatly. It meant the bans were on, which meant the big trucks didn’t move and if you had equipment in the bush it had better have been moved before the dreaded bans were on. There are stories of rigs being left in the bush where there was muskeg until freeze-up, which had its own problems. Breakup also meant there would be no income for the family until roads were dry and the rig could be up and running again, so it had a direct effect on entire families. While breakup doesn’t affect the oilpatch as much today it has been with us since the beginning of time.
The first to experience breakup in the Peace River country were the Indigenous people. While they traveled across land, a great portion of travel was done on the rivers: canoes and dugouts in the summer, dog sleds and just plain sleds, or walking in the winter, as this was the easiest way to get around. Breakup was very dangerous and unfortunately there are reports of drownings from people going through the ice.
In later years when boat traffic was heavy on the Peace River, breakup was a sign the boats would soon be running and the people along the river looked forward to the much needed supplies the boats would bring. I’m sure that breakup affected us all in some way or another but I believe that the worst case would be for the soldiers building the Alaska Highway. Most were from the south and had no idea what it was or what it could do, but they soon found out. The following story tells it all:
Spring breakup, as it is called when the frost, ice, and snow leaves the lower places in the far north, came in April 1942, the year the Alaska Highway (Alcan) was built. Troops of the 35th Engineer Regiment, U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers at Dawson Creek found themselves isolated in mud for hundreds of miles in all directions. They were expected to build a road through it.
All along the proposed route, some 1,600 miles long, the breakup was causing hardship to the builders. Regiments of engineers had been established in bivouacs along the way from Dawson Creek, Mile 0 on the finished road, to Fairbanks, Mile 1,630. A wilderness of mud was their lot; there was little they could do either by hand or with equipment. The equipment that year, the first year of the war for the United States, was scarce and was needed at a hundred fronts. Men were needed. The men, GI’s and civilians, faced up to the bewilderment of mud, as a fact of life in the north. Most of them were new to it, from parts to the south, where breakup isn’t a natural upheaval. Many of the 10,000 working in the swamp said they wouldn’t do it again for a million.
April was unusually warm for that time of the year in 1942, but this meant no reprieve from the bitter cold that still came at night. Some men found themselves with vehicles in bottomless mud, that had frozen on the surface during the night and was covered with three inches of snow. They had reason to think the road would not be built. They agreed with T.S. Elliot that “April is the cruelest month.”
Mud plagued the builders until late fall when the freeze up came. But ways were found to build, mud or no mud. By late fall, the road was built for the most part. Long segments of road needed only to be tied together and the project would be done. The last link was made in November 1942 near Kluane Lake. That was a cold day and there was no mud about.
Those who travel the Alaska Highway today can see a monument at the place called Soldier’s Monument. It stands for the GI’s who built the road out of mud. It also stands for the greatest pioneer road built in modern times.
Larry Evans is a former fire chief, city councillor, and lifelong historian living in Fort St. John.