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Economy

Traffic is heavy on the Kuskokwim Ice Road, which stretches from Napakiak to Kalskag

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Mark Leary
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Hank Aloysius Jr., a Kuskokwim ice road grader operator.

After the December 2021 meltdown, the Kuskokwim River ice road has refrozen smooth and thick, and traffic on it is heavy. It stretches from Napakiak up to Kalskag.

The Kuskokwim Ice Road is at least 2 feet thick in most places. Mark Leary, Director of Operations for the Native Village of Napaimute, who maintains the route, said that the snow melting in December turned out to be a blessing in disguise for ice road conditions.

“River conditions are good. You know, it's much smoother because of meltdown in December. It's not completely smooth, but it's much smoother than normal,” Leary said.

Leary and his team took two graders upriver from Bethel, reaching Kalskag on Jan. 8. He said that they’re planning on extending the ice road to Aniak later this week. He also said that people should note that the road to Akiak and Kalskag goes through Kuskokuak Slough, not through Akiachak.

Leary said that the only trouble spots are in the Tuluksak River, which broke up during the December melt.

“There is still open water inside the Tuluksak River,” Leary said.

Downriver, Leary said that the ice road is marked as far as Napakiak, and his team plans to add markers all the way to the tundra villages later this week. But they haven’t brought their graders down there because they haven’t needed to.

“There is very little snow below Bethel, so it doesn’t need plowing,” Leary said.

The ice road’s near-perfect driving conditions contrast with terrible flying conditions in the region. Extreme weather in the past few weeks has canceled or delayed many flights from Bethel to the villages. Leary said that has put a huge number of vehicles on the ice road.

“Holy cow. You should see the amount of traffic. Sometimes in the day in the Bethel area it's comparable to the Glenn Highway around Anchorage,” Leary said. “People loading up with groceries, I see people with new appliances, new furniture, cases of tissue. The stores in Bethel been feeling it. The shelves are pretty empty. The ice road is open.”

There are still some problems with maintaining the ice road, though. Leary said that some people have been vandalizing trail markers, shooting signs or running them over.

“That's a huge no-no, and it's actually illegal. There's a law about disturbing trail markers, you know. That's endangering people's lives,” Leary said.

Leary also added that the water is extremely high right now. Once it drops, travelers may see sand bars poke up near or underneath the ice road. If travelers see that, they should be careful of thin, shell ice that could be easily broken through.

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