Heavy snowfall has made maintaining the lower Kuskokwim Ice Road a challenge this year. The road is shorter than usual, even as its crew is working harder than ever.
At its peak this winter, the lower Kuskokwim Ice Road stretched from Kasigluk in the tundra villages, down the Johnson River, and then up the Kuskokwim River to Kalskag. Now the ice road is about a quarter of its former size, and usable only on the Kuskokwim River from Napakiak upriver to Kwethluk. And it won’t stretch any farther upriver this season.
Mark Leary, with the Native Village of Napaimute, coordinates the ice road crew. The crew stopped maintaining the road past Kwethluk last week, when overflow flooded the route. The Akiachak channel will no longer be plowed.
“That channel was thin to begin with, with a lot of snow on it too early,” Leary said.
Graders were able to form a road in January, clearing away the snow. With the insulating snow gone, the ice in the path thickened. Then a warm spell hit in February. Overflow flooded the ice road in that area, so the crew created detours around the overflow.
“Every place that we made a new detour, moving undisturbed snow off the ice, we found that the ice had gained very little, if any, thickness over the past couple of months,” Leary said.
The ice measured about 17 inches, and the snow depth above ranged between 3 and 4 feet. The overflow kept washing out the road, and vehicles got stuck. Then more warm spells hit.
“So we had to make the decision to stop maintaining that section through the Akiachak channel,” Leary said.
Overflow prevented creating an alternate route through the Kuskokwak Slough. Further upriver, overflow has also flooded a section of road between Akiak and Tuluksak, near Mike Napoka’s Island.
“Ice broke away from a sandbar, dropped a couple of feet," Leary said, "and water started flowing out on top of the ice and into the road.”
Leary said that ice breaking from sandbars is common this time of year, when the river reaches its lowest point. But once again, overflow prevented the crew from creating an alternate route. Overall, maintaining the road has been a bigger challenge than usual this year because of the heavy snowfall.
“And too much snow too early in the season before the ice had a chance to thicken,” Leary said.
Many locals say that more snow has fallen this year than they’ve seen in decades, though there is no entity measuring the amount. The constant snowfall has meant constant plowing.
“Our guys are burnt out. They’re very tired," Leary said. "This has been a never-ending battle that sometimes is demoralizing.”
Leary described the crew working back-to-back 14-hour days, sleeping in their plow trucks or in villages along the road in designated quarantine housing, all to keep the road open.
“Then another storm would come and all their work would get blown away,” Leary said.
There has also been emergency plowing for medevacs and fuel deliveries, and special plowing for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation to get COVID-19 vaccines to villages.
The constant snow this season meant that the crew has not been able to make the road as long or as wide as in the past, cutting off many communities' access to the ice road. The limiting factor, Leary said, is money. The ice road is funded by a hodgepodge of about 30 entities, mainly consisting of cities, tribes, Native corporations, and school districts along the route. The funding changes from year-to-year. Six people work on the road crew. With more funds, the crew could employ more people, have more equipment, and open the road to more communities. Or, even better, Leary said, the work could spread out along the river.
“The real answer is for each village to have its own equipment and its own crew and take care of its own little section,” Leary said.
Leary compares his vision to a long state highway that has multiple crews assigned to maintain specific sections. The regional Calista Native Corporation is lobbying the state to dedicate more funding to the ice road project.