Monday, January 11, 2016

The Detour Through Another Country

Canada was cut in half yesterday when a bridge on the Trans-Canada Highway broke. It was the newest and, for those crossing Canada, the most essential bridge on the highway. Cables on the Nipigon River Bridge at Nipigon, Ontario, shortened more than intended in cold weather, lifting one end of the bridge deck above the road surface. The 400-meter, 2-lane bridge was immediately closed to vehicular traffic, though pedestrians could still cross. The bridge reopened at 9 a.m. after weights and, I assume, a construction plate made the bridge passable again, but only one lane is open, only standard-weight vehicles can cross, and backups are expected.

The Nipigon River Bridge is not so easy, from an American perspective, to put in its correct geographical context. The first step is to remember that Michigan consists of two peninsulas. The Lower Peninsula, the one that most people automatically think of, separates two of the Great Lakes, Lakes Michigan and Huron. Logically, there must be an Upper Peninsula, but where is it? It sounds like a trick question to most Americans at this point. The Upper Peninsula is easily found, though, extending westward from the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula. It also falls between two of the Great Lakes — Lake Michigan to the southeast and Lake Superior, the largest lake in North America, to the north. Upper Peninsula residents are occasionally so tired of being forgotten that some of them petition for statehood, but with a population so much smaller than any U.S. state, this idea has a hard time being heard, let alone being taken seriously.

Before I proceed, a quick apology to Canadians for taking such a long way around in explaining how eastern and western Canada are connected. I promise I am most of the way there.

The Upper Peninsula is possibly the most-forgotten region of the United States, and to its north is the largest lake in North America. The definition of a lake implies that there must be land on every side, so of course there is land north of the lake. Most of the land area of Ontario is found between Lake Superior and Hudson Bay. However, this is an area more forgotten in Ontario than the Upper Peninsula is in Michigan. Most of the northern shore of Lake Superior is organized into a district (think of it as a county) that is the size of Ohio in land area, but with a population matching that of Dayton, Ohio. In all of northern and northwestern Ontario there are only six highways worth noting, so road maps of Ontario may relegate this vast area to a tiny inset in one of the corners of the map if they include it at all. The inset effect can lead people not to realize how large this area is. If you drive around the north end of Lake Superior from Sault Ste. Marie, which is where road maps of Ontario traditionally end (and is a name that Americans may recognize as the northern terminus of Interstate 75) to the next city, Thunder Bay, it is an 8-hour, 700-kilometer drive during which I believe you will pass through only three towns with a population over 1,000.

All this geographical context is necessary to understand the magnitude of the problem caused by the broken bridge. Ordinarily when a bridge is out, you ask where the detour is. Here, there is no detour. The short stretch of highway extending west from Nipigon is one of the few places in North America where there is no alternate route. To be more precise, the only sensible detour to suggest is U.S. Highway 2, through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, south of Lake Superior. If you had already arrived at the Nipigon River Bridge, that would be a very long way around. The local municipality declared a state of emergency when the bridge closed and set up shelters for stranded travelers. The bridge reopened this morning, but with only one lane open, the highway cannot carry its usual volume of daytime traffic. Possibly for the rest of the winter, most travelers driving between eastern and western Canada will have to drive through the United States.

The Trans-Canada Highway is symbolically important in showing that a country as far-flung as Canada is can function as a single country. The symbolic value is reason enough to give a high priority to the engineering work needed to restore the highway to normal functioning.