Trucking down an ice road in Bethel, Alaska

The frozen Kuskokwim River


Last weekend, we checked another item off of our Alaska bucket list: driving on an ice road.

We were in Bethel, which sits on the Kuskokwim River, and at that time the river was covered in about five feet of ice.

We’d heard that people actually drove on the Kuskokwim but only half believed it until, on our first morning there, we saw this truck barreling down the “road”:

Man but did we want to follow him.  The concept of an ice road is bizarre and yet the most rational thing ever.  It’s like a frozen superhighway, except that, somewhere below that ice, water flows continuously toward the Bering Sea.

There were several obstacles that prevented us from trying it out for ourselves:

1) we were in a rental, and I’m pretty sure that a trip down the Kuskokwim was not in the rental agreement

2) said rental was a Chevy Impala with neither ground clearance nor snow tires

3) driving on the river meant that we actually had to drive out on the river.   The entrance looked sketchy, scattered with jagged bumps and shallow puddles, and the idea of nosing our car off of steadfast ground and onto the river unnerved us both.  We squelched this adventurous desire and headed back to the house, accepting that the closest we’d get to the frozen Kuskokwim was the riverbank.

As luck would have it, however, we were staying with locals, friends of a coworker.  Ron and Janet turned out to be incredibly gracious and generous hosts who welcomed us into their home, and when we talked about our fascination with the ice road, Ron offered to take us on a drive.  Of course we agreed immediately.

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Source: Wikipedia

At 702 miles long, the Kuskokwim is the second longest river in Alaska and the longest free-flowing river in the US.  Dozens of Yup’ik Eskimo and Athabaskan villages scatter its banks, and people have long used the river for transportation.  It’s flat and wide (Kuskokwim is a loose translation of a Yup’ik word meaning “big, slow-moving thing”) and therefore perfect for boat travel.  In most winters the Kuskokwim becomes an ice road, allowing villagers to travel by car, snowmachine, and even dog team to communities near and far.  Depending on the weather, the road may grow to 200 miles or more in length.

Bethel is the largest town on the Kuskokwim, and travelers come from all over the area for shopping, festivals, and family visits.  But it’s not just individuals who use the ice road; trucks drive the river to bring fuel to the villages, and loggers transport timber.  People also thread nets under the ice and leave them in place for several days, returning with the hope that these nets will be filled with cod or other fish.

How do people know when it’s safe to hit the ice road?  It’s never “officially” declared open, but a large group of dedicated individuals, including the all-volunteer Bethel Search and Rescue team, monitor ice conditions, using chainsaws to cut into the ice and measure its depth.  Safe trails are then indicated with markers.

The caption on this picture, from Bethel Search and Rescue, said: “Sample of ice taken right on the truck trail by Nick O. Nick’s old fish camp… 11 (inches) thick minus 2 (inches) of snow ice = 9 (inches) of good ice”–a depth considered “marginal” for truck travel
Ice road marker (Source: Bethel Search and Rescue)

The quality of the ice is also assessed from the air, with fly-overs revealing holes in the ice and patches of open water.

A stretch of the Kuskokwim River near Napaskiak, Alaska (Source: Bethel SAR Facebook page)

How thick is thick enough for driving?   According to one source, the ice needs to be a foot thick to safely hold cars and trucks, while fuel trucks require at least 30 inches.  Bethel Search and Rescue states that not everyone agrees on the safest minimum thickness for travel, and many factors influence the quality of ice:

  • age – newer black ice is stronger than old milky ice
  • distance to shore – ice close to shore is weaker than ice farther out
  • river outlets and inlets – ice close to outlets and inlets is weaker
  • obstructions like rocks, trees and plants
  • water currents
  • cover of snow  (Source: taken verbatim from Bethel Search and Rescue)

Ultimately, travelers should apply caution and common sense in heavy doses before setting out, because driving on ice roads can be dangerous, and accidents do happen.

A photo from a Bethel Search and Rescue update (2015). The red circles are open water, with safe passage in between. “It looks scary and is dangerous,” the posting said, “but a lot of traffic has passed through this area safely. Travelers just need to stay between the poles.”  Gotcha.
The caption of this photo read, in part: “This just opened up last week – a result of the current eating the bank away under the ice and the hanging ice caving in, leaving swift, deep open water. We’ve seen this before – just not in this area – the River’s always teaching us.” (Source: Bethel Search and Rescue, 2015)

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Danger be damned.  We climbed into the truck and put our faith in Ron, a long-time Bethel resident who had taken many trips upriver.  We noted a few small pools at the entrance, but he assured us that the river was plenty frozen for driving.  He progressed cautiously nonetheless, avoiding the puddles.

 

Dale and I were enthralled.  The Kuskokwim was impressively wide, and the road cut right down the middle.  The distant river banks were composed of bushy tundra with a scattering of taller trees here and there, and the river had many islands and sloughs (inlets) that begged to be explored.

Abandoned boats were caught in the ice, and the shore was littered with ramshackle tin and plywood fishing cabins that are used in the summer.

Ron talked about the Kuskokwim, about boating in the summer and visiting distant upriver villages.  He told us about an old gold mining operation in the hills and about a crotchety Alaskan miner who once took a Cat excavator up to his camp, defying authorities and trashing the tundra with its tank-like treads.  The occasional vehicle or snowmobile met us from the other direction, and we pulled over to let them pass.

Dale and I both wanted to stand on the frozen river, so at one point Ron stopped and we climbed out.

Me, with Ron in the background

Our timing was just right.  Spring is finally reaching Alaska, and the Kuskokwim ice road may be viable for only a few more days.  When the ice breaks up, it’s apparently something to see; it groans, shifts, cracks, and splits apart.  Large chunks of ice float downriver, and the road quickly dissipates.

On the day we were there, however, the road was still solid and trustworthy.  As Ron drove, we marveled at the fact that the Kuskokwim was flowing somewhere beneath us.  Ron shared our enthusiasm, and it was nice to know that it wasn’t just rookies like us who appreciated the experience; even long-time Alaskans can be awed by a drive on a frozen river.


Random notes:

  • Most winters, the river freezes adequately for travel, but it’s not guaranteed, and when it doesn’t, residents of many villages may be cut off for the winter, with air travel being their only means of reaching the outside world.  Several sources I read said that the river isn’t staying frozen as long or as consistently, not surprising given that the rate of climate change is happening much faster in Alaska than in the rest of the United States.
  • When disaster strikes, Bethel Search and Rescue offers assistance and expertise, and their interesting (if outdated) website chronicles some of their hard work.
  • Sometimes the ice freezes unevenly and causes huge bumps that are difficult to navigate.  This article shows how workers cleared a large ice jam in preparation for the Kuskokwim 300, a high-profile dog mushing race that starts and finishes in Bethel.
  • To get a better look at driving on the ice road, check out this YouTube video.  It’s accompanied by a catchy little tune that’ll stick in your head.
  • In addition to being one of the longest rivers in Alaska, the Kuskokwim is the ninth largest in the US by average discharge volume at its mouth.  It’s formed by the confluence of several forks that have their start in interior Alaskan mountain ranges.  The mouth of the river is about 50 miles southwest of Bethel, where it flows into the Bering Sea at Kuskokwim Bay.