Drivers on the frozen Kuskokwim River may experience a smoother ride this winter. Alaska Hovercraft, a company that delivers mail, is using a new vehicle that it acquired last year. It goes by many names: Pistenbully, snow cat or groomer. It’s big, it's red, and it’s making it easier to drive on the river.
Last winter, Alaska Hovercraft graded a few miles in front of Bethel just to test the device out, but this is the first year they’ve graded a significant portion of the ice road.
Gux Laraux , the Bethel manager for Alaska Hovercraft, says they’re doing the new grading mostly to run their business.
“We deliver mail on the ice road when it’s safe,” Laraux said.
Laraux said Alaska Hovercraft services eight villages along the Kuskokwim that includes those between Napakiak to Tuluksak. They deliver mail using a hovercraft when conditions require it, but usually they drive a truck on the frozen river most of the time in the winter. But this year, early conditions on the ice road didn’t allow for that.
“We had some fairly rough ice in front of Bethel and going down downriver,” Laraux said.
So, they used the Pistonbully to smooth it out.
“Before, it probably wouldn’t be passable with a truck,” Laraux said. “And after a grader goes over it, you probably average 40, over 40 miles per hour with a vehicle now.”
So far, they followed the Kuskokwim River to grade the road from Kwethluk to Napaskiak.
“We’re eventually going try to make it to Tuluksak is our plan, but the weather has been kind of a hamper,” Laraux said.
Laraux has even more plans for the Pistenbully. He says the company wants to use the machine to go over land to deliver mail to communities like Quinhagak and Kipnuk, but that will require some permitting, so they can't yet expand their mail delivery that way with the new vehicle.