Normally, when a river turns pumpkin orange, it’s a clear sign that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong: A chemical spill, a burst tailings pond or some kind of unearthly algae bloom.
But just at the side of the Yukon’s Dempster Highway — a gravel road running from the Klondike to Inuvik — it’s possible to view a remote waterway that has been opaque with pollution since Gwich’in peoples first entered the area. “It’s rust,” said Matt Herod, a geoscientist who has studied Red Creek, one of two “rusty” waterways along the Dempster Highway.
Herod describes the creek’s distinctive hue as a kind of “milky, coffee colour.” On his blog, he’s called it a “pretty wild place geochemically.” Red Creek, along with nearby Engineer Creek, gets its colour from iron deposits that have broken to the surface. Specifically, the water becomes jet black after picking up minerals from an exposed seam of black shale, and progressively turns red as it meanders downstream.
The water may not necessarily kill anyone who drinks it, but it fails several basic Canadian Environmental Quality Guidelines. Animals have been seen to avoid Red Creek, and the rocks along its path are dyed a deep reddish hue by the high-water mark of the contaminated creek.
Herod performed a chemical analysis of the water, and found levels of iron, nickel, and zinc at more than 10 times what the geoscientist considered a “normal” Yukon concentration.
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