For the first time ever, the ice road on the frozen Kuskokwim River has been plowed to Sleetmute, a village north of Bethel. According to Mark Leary, who helped lead the effort, the ice road now stretches about 355 miles from Tuntutuliak, located south of Bethel, to Sleetmute.
That’s longer than most traditional highways in the state, but it’s likely a bit rougher in places given that the road is a frozen river. The previous record was about 200 miles from Bethel to Crooked Creek in March 2018. The ice road allows for snowmachine and vehicle traffic in a region that otherwise relies on unpredictable airplane travel in the winter
Tim Zaukar manages the roads for the village of Crooked Creek, and helped plow the ice road to Sleetmute. He says that before the road was put in, the snow and rough ice made it hard for people to travel to other villages and to get medical aid and food supplies.
"I don’t think they really thought we would make it there, and we did, and I think a lot of people were surprised," Zaukar said.
A crew from Napaimute, a seasonal village in the Middle Kuskokwim River area where Leary works, headed out from Bethel on Feb. 7 to plow the river, but the six-man crew hit a rough patch once they got to Chuathbaluk. Boulders of ice and thick snow blanketed the river in that section, making it impassible to snowmachine and truck traffic. He says that it took a long time to bulldoze, and then plow, the stretch from Chuathbaluk to Napaimute
"It took us 14 hours to go 20 miles. We arrived at Napaimute at two in the morning," Leary said.
But from there, it was much easier going. Zaukar and four other men helped plow all the way to Sleetmute, roughly 70 miles up the river. They arrived in Sleetmute on Saturday, Feb. 15, where residents greeted them with a huge potluck. Leary and his crew are currently headed back to Bethel, plowing the entire way back.