$17M dredging on Moose River to keep ferry running to Moose Factory Island

Millions of provincial taxdollars are being spent making one northern Ontario river deeper, so food and fuel can continue to reach an Indigenous island community.

This the second summer of dredging on the Moose River between Moosonee and Moose Factory Island at a cost of $17 million.

More and more sand is flowing into the channel from James Bay, making it more difficult for ships to cross, especially the Niska ferry operated by the provincial agency the Owen Sound Transportation Company.

“And it’s just filling in too fast and so the government of Ontario really has no choice to serve the Moose Factory Cree but to keep the water clear, so we’re just doing the best we can,” said CEO Carl Kuhnke, adding that the channel was last dredged about a decade ago.

The Niska ferry has had to follow a specific path across the Moose River this season as the channel becomes more and more shallow. (Erik White/CBC)

The 28-metre ferry can carry 50 passengers or eight cars, but it mostly brings trucks and trailers full of gasoline, food and other vital supplies over to Moose Factory.

A pathway for the Niska between the two communities has already been dredged and captain Steve Jeffrey says he has to “pay close attention” to his charts so he doesn’t end up on a sand bar. 

“You can’t take your eyes off of things for 10 seconds or you’re literally on the beach somewhere,” he said. 

“We wouldn’t be using this vessel if they weren’t dredging.”

The 60-year-old, who has had a long career piloting ferries in British Columbia, once worked in the dredging industry and says it’s “basically a kid in a sandbox” moving sand from one place to another. 

A man wearing sunglasses stands in the bridge of a ship
Captain Steve Jeffrey says he needs to make sure to follow his charts when he takes the Niska across the Moose River or he could easily end up on a sandbar. (Erik White/CBC)

Kuhnke says he is hopeful that the dredging will wrap up by October and won’t hangover into the next sailing season.

He says with inflation, the cost of operating the ferry has shot up in recent years, but he isn’t convinced that raising their fees will make things better.

A barge and a small boat drive on a river with forest in the background
The Moose River is a busy waterway with dozens of barges, water taxis and fishing boats, but most are not affected by the lower water levels. (Erik White/CBC)

“We’re providing a service and we have to be as reasonable as we can, because the individuals and the companies that are using our ferry system are also facing those cost increases,” he said. 

“So if everyone keeps passing along the cost increases then everything doubles.”

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