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Record snowfall weighs on Kuskokwim Ice Road

The Kuskokwim Ice Road is seen in front of the village of Kasigluk on Feb. 29, 2024.
Sage Smiley
The Kuskokwim Ice Road is seen in front of the village of Kasigluk on Feb. 29, 2024.

The Kuskokwim Ice Road remains open from the tundra villages all the way to Aniak, but record snowfall for the region is a heavy burden to bear for the river.

“With all this snow and the berms getting bigger, and bigger, and heavier, we've been experiencing cracking in some areas with water coming out,” Kuskokwim Ice Road crew leader Mark Leary said on KYUK’s Talkline on March 8. “This is something we rarely ever see with the ice road.”

In response, Leary said that the ice road crew spent the week making changes to the road between Akiak and Tuluksak, and building a whole new ice road from Tuluksak to Kalskag.

Leary said that the sheer amount of snow on the river led him to reach out to University of Alaska Fairbanks climate specialist Rick Thoman to better understand what is happening.

“I reached out and asked him to look back and see how we're doing on snowfall this year. And he told me in the area between Kalskag and Napakiak, we're having the most snow that we've had in 50 years,” Leary said.

Thoman responded by phone on March 8 to confirm the unusually heavy snowfall and elaborate on the findings of his climate analysis model.

“The snowfall this winter, very similar to what occurred in 2021-22 and 1992-93,” Thoman said. “But otherwise in that 50-year stretch, there's really no other winters that are even particularly close. This winter, [there has been] roughly three times as much snow as has fallen in the least snowy winters over the last half century.”

Kasigluk Search and Rescue leader Wilson Twitchell also called in to Talkline to warn travelers that the accumulating snow had made the ice road narrower than usual in spots.

“For those drivers driving into Kasigluk, there are some pretty high snow berms and the ice road does constrict down to one lane,” Twitchell said.

Twitchell also recommended that travelers keep their headlights on at all times on the river and implored travelers to pack out their trash.

On top of reports of discarded trash, Leary noted a significant number of broken-down vehicles along the ice road.

“I think I counted about six between the Johnson River and Kalskag,” Leary said. “People need to get them off the river. Conditions could change any time now.”

Leary said that owners of vehicles stuck on the river, some which are very snowed in, can call 907-545-2877 for potential assistance gaining access to their vehicles.

Leary’s March 8 river update ended on a somber note, noting the recent passing of an ice road crew member, 45-year-old Tim Zaukar of Crooked Creek.

“We're actually traveling this morning with a heavy heart because we lost one of our fellow ice road brothers in Crooked Creek last weekend,” Leary said. “We're gonna go up to Crooked Creek and pay our respects. We're gonna miss our good friend.”

In 2020, Zaukar played a key role in making the longest-ever ice road at 355 miles.

With the start of spring only weeks away, communities along the Kuskokwim River may not have much longer to access the vital frozen transportation network. In 2023, the Kuskokwim Ice Road crew announced that they would stop maintaining the river route on April 1.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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