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Kuskokwim Ice Road: New Funding Necessary for Seasonal Highway

Region is in need of economic development, affordable energy, affordable housing, and cheaper transportation


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The seasonal Kuskokwim Ice Road drives down transportation costs and offers a conduit for economic growth for thousands of locals in isolated villages in Southwest Alaska.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leary

As the sky turns pink with the approaching dawn on the shortest day of the year, a handful of people from villages along the Kuskokwim River head out onto a jumble of ice to start marking what will become a 250-mile-long frozen road linking villages from Nunapitchuk south of Bethel to Napaimute to the north. The temperature is well below zero and the sun will barely rise above the horizon before it sets in mid-afternoon.

 

Arrive Alive

The river is the only highway linking about 15,000 people in the middle and lower Kuskokwim River, says Mike Leary, director of development and operations for the Native Village of Napaimute. It is a region in need of economic development, affordable energy, affordable housing, and cheaper transportation.

The ice road, even if it only exists for four or five months, drives down costs and offers a conduit for economic growth, Leary says. But the funding for the road is inadequate and unreliable. Workers from local tribal governments and search and rescue organizations build and maintain it. Many are volunteers.

“These are our highways—our only highways—and they need to be treated as such with stable funding for annual establishment and maintenance,” Leary says.

In 2016, Leary received a $116,000 safety grant from the Federal Highways Administration and is compiling a report on the ice road called “Arrive Alive—a Tribal Transportation Safety Project.” The road itself costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to build and maintain—there’s no defined amount, Leary says. Money comes from a variety of federal and tribal sources. Next year, the safety grant will be gone.

“I made a list of everybody that I see out there on the ice road,” Leary says. “Just about every public and private entity in the region uses that ice road. It saves them thousands and thousands of dollars on their operating budget.”

Many people use it, but few contribute to the costs related to the road’s upkeep.

“The ice road is such a huge social and economic benefit for the region, but there’s just a handful of people out there pulling the load,” Leary says.

 

A lone trucker braves the hazards of traveling on the frozen river. Thinning ice and overflow, as well as caved-in snow banks and dangerous winter storms, make for a long, painstaking journey.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leary

 

The Calista Connection

The middle and lower Kuskokwim River is part of the region overseen by Calista Corporation, one of the thirteen regional corporations established under the 1971 Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to benefit Alaska Natives. Calista includes fifty-six villages in southwest Alaska and has about 17,300 shareholders, primarily of Yup’ik descent. The region is one of Alaska’s poorest economically, and Calista Communications Manager Thom Leonard says the corporation has long advocated for more stable funding for the ice road.

“The ice road is critical when it’s safe,” Leonard says. “Traveling by air just fifteen miles to [or] from Bethel can easily be in the hundreds of dollars. With the ice road, it can allow a person [or a family] to travel to Bethel to purchase food and supplies more affordably. Others travel to the regional hospital for non-emergency services. In fact, the Lower Kuskokwim School District started traveling on the ice road this academic year in order to manage travel costs.”

The village corporation for Napaimute and nine nearby villages, The Kuskokwim Corporation, also supports the tribes’ efforts to strengthen the local economy, says Andrea Gusty, vice president of corporate affairs for The Kuskokwim Corporation.

“They’re the ones doing the heavy lifting. They’re writing the grants,” Gusty says. “They’re coming up with the business plans that work for their tribe, and we’re supporting them.”

 

Workers brave the elements on the 250-mile long Kuskokwim Ice Road to make a mill delivery. The frozen river road links villages from Nunapitchuk to Napaimute in the Bethel region.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leary

 

Ice Road Opportunities

One of the opportunities the ice road is supporting is a local sawmill, which was moved downstream forty miles from Chuathbaluk to near Kalskag in 2013, so workers are able to cut commercial timber on demand. Napaimute means “The People of the Trees.”

The tribe bought the mill from a Chuathbaluk family for $600,000, funded by a federal grant. The ice road makes it possible for the corporation to move the wood and equipment economically between harvest sites and customers. Kalskag High School students make trail markers for the road from local spruce. The tribe buys them from the students and the students use the money for their senior trip.

Leary is hoping that if the Alaska Legislature increases the gas tax to help maintain roads and airports, a portion of the funds will be dedicated to the ice road.

“Back in the day when the state was rich, the state used to fund the ice road,” Leary says. “The city of Bethel would put out a bid for ice road plowing every year. Our family used to do it. We used to have an ice road plowing and trucking business. That all went away.”

Today, the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities has no oversight of ice roads, a spokeswoman says.

 

Workers use chainsaws and ice augurs to drill into the ice to set markers in areas of thin ice and open water with willow saplings. The jumble ice near Chuathbaluk gets so bad, tribal members are forced to chop a path across the river to widen it for travel.

Photo courtesy of Mike Leary

 

Building the Road

“Every year is different and the River is always teaching us,” says an update on the 2016 ice road construction. “After several days of reconnaissance to figure out the best routes, actual trail and open water marking has begun.”

The road starts out as local subsistence trails radiating from the villages as the ice freezes. Crews mark safe routes, connecting them from Napaskiak to Bethel and Bethel north to Akiachak and outward as the season progresses. It’s a careful, painstaking process.

Open water and thin ice aren’t the only hazards on the ice road. Rough ice, caved-in banks, shelf ice, overflow, and winter storms can lead to miles-long detours or can even close the road completely for days. As the ice thickens, it may restrict the river flow and cause blowouts, breaking ice up to three feet thick. Drunken driving is another hazard.

Workers use chainsaws and ice augurs to drill into the ice to set markers or to line areas of thin ice and open water with willow saplings tied with blue warning ribbons. The jumble ice near Chuathbaluk was so bad, tribal members had to chop a path across the river before it could be widened for further travel.

Once the ice is at least twenty-four inches thick, strong enough to hold heavy equipment, a plowed and graded ice road is next. The plows follow eight-foot-tall markers that show where the ice has been deemed safe. As an additional safety measure, a snowmachine goes out in front of the plow to confirm the measurements and a pickup truck loaded with fuel, tools, and supplies follows, checking the ice again.

The equipment Leary and others use on the middle route has seen more than its share of rough conditions. The local legend “Mad Max,” plow truck is more than fifty years old. Companion trucks “Old Miska” and “Little Bull” have also seen decades of service. Some vehicles are World War II surplus. In early 2016, equipment problems threatened to sideline construction entirely until Leary stumbled upon a surplus eighteen-year-old grader at the Kasigluk airport.

“It was going to go up to bid at the end of the month,” Leary says. “Being a state machine, it was well-maintained. Eighteen years old, but that was like brand new to us.”

Leary paid for the machine over the phone with a credit card and drove it 150 miles downriver to Kalskag. Shipping one in from outside the region would have cost $20,000.

 

Everybody Benefits from the Ice Road

Use of the road has grown over the years. Leary says he would love to put a counter on the ice to measure traffic, but for now he has to count on anecdotal evidence instead of hard data.

“I often thought we could make it a toll road,” he muses. “I don’t know how that would fly. If everybody who used the road paid a dollar.”

A stable funding source would allow the tribes to build a 250-mile-long ice road with regular maintenance and standard signage. Leary would also like to see a radio channel broadcast regularly updated travel and weather conditions. He’s presenting his “Arrive Alive” report to a national tribal conference in Tucson, Arizona, in September.

“I’m getting on my soapbox whenever I can,” Leary says. “Look, the tribes need help. Everybody benefits from the ice road. ”

 

 

This article first appeared in the June 2017 print edition of Alaska Business Monthly.

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