Ice Road to Tanana

Jan 1, 2017 | Alaska Native, Construction, Transportation

Sam Friedman

Tyrell Seavey mushes on the Yukon River near Tanana, where a village-built ice road now connects Tanana to the Alaska road system.

Unique method to transport cargo

The Yukon River city of Tanana began seeing savings from its new road well before the grand opening of the new state highway in September 2016.

This summer a triplex went up to house teachers at the Maudry J. Sommer School. The new building is what Tanana City Manager Jeff Weltzin calls a “legacy building” for the community. It’s a sturdy construction with walls that are two feet thick to keep heating costs down. It’s the type of project that would have been difficult before Tanana had a seasonal link to the Alaska road system.

To build the triplex, the city government shipped a Conex storage container to Fairbanks earlier this year, then had it driven more than two hundred miles over the length of the Elliott Highway and the new state road, the so-called “road to Tanana.” The road ends on the south bank of the Yukon River, so to reach Tanana the Conex finished the trip by crossing a six mile village-built ice road. The shipping container weighed about fifty thousand pounds, but traveled safely over the four feet of solid ice, which is rated to handle a load nearly twice as heavy.

The price for shipping these materials to Tanana was a few thousand dollars, Weltzin says. Before the ice road and the new state highway, the cheapest option would have been barging the container from Nenana, a job that would have cost well more than $10,000.

“It’s almost an order of magnitude less” he says.

Where the Rivers Meet

Most of the year one cannot drive there, so by most definitions Tanana is a bush community. But it’s not very remote by Alaska standards. The village is less than an hour’s Cessna flight from Fairbanks and is located near the confluence of the Yukon River and its largest tributary, the Tanana River. This major river crossroads make the village site an important location. It’s the site of Nuchalayawa, a major gathering of Native Alaska people from around the Interior that was once held annually and is now held every other year.

For years Tanana residents debated whether they wanted highway access. Then-Governor Sean Parnell proposed the road in 2011 as part of his “Road’s to Resources” program to link Alaska’s road system with possible mine sites for gold and other natural resources.

In the town of 322 people opponents were concerned road access in the area might hurt important hunting and fishing grounds. Costs always played a large role in the “pro” side of the road debate.

Building the Ice Road

The city got to work on the ice road well before the state’s gravel road was completed to Manley Hot Springs.

In January 2015 city workers cleared snow along the six mile stretch of river to test out the ice road route that would also be used in the 2016 season.

The route hugs gravel bars along the southern shore of the river for most of the six miles before crossing the main channel just upstream of Tanana. Even in the 2015-2016 winter—an unseasonably warm year—the ice froze to more than four feet thick under the ice road. Even in winter the Yukon River remains deep and wide. Beneath the four feet of ice there’s at least fifteen feet of liquid river water that doesn’t freeze.

While the Yukon River ice is relatively safe upriver of Tanana, it’s not consistent along the length of the river. Half a mile downriver from Tanana a change in the river’s hydrology makes that section of river a bad place for an ice road, Weltzin says.

“There’s a part of the Yukon that doesn’t freeze at all just below the village. That’s because there’s some kind of upwelling,” he says. “That’s where we depend greatly on local knowledge of the residents of the river.”

Over the last two years, the Tanana road crews have been relying on the Interior’s ambient freezing temperatures to build the road. They’ve been plowing the snow away so it doesn’t insulate the ice and each day they drill into the ice to test the thickness.

This winter the city plans to give the ice some help. By spraying water onto the ice each day, they hope to build as much as two inches of new ice a day on top of the natural ice. Building an extra foot or two of ice could extend the season of the road from six weeks to two or three months.

The ice formed quickly on the Yukon this winter, but Wellitizin has been watching the formation of a mess of jumble ice with concern.

Municipal Road

Industrial ice roads are common in Alaska, but the one Tanana has been building is one of only a handful that are built by communities to transport supplies.

Melissa Head keeps track of permitting for ice and snow roads as part of her job as a natural resource manager at the Alaska Department of Natural Resources office in Fairbanks.

In the last few years there’s been between two hundred and four hundred miles of state-permitted winter roads built each year over snow and ice, she says. Almost all of the roads are connected to North Slope oil and gas development projects, she says. For example, one of the longest ice roads is a forty-mile seasonal between ConocoPhillips’ Alpine unit and its Kuparuk Field. The biggest recent year for state-permitted winter roads was the winter of 2013 and 2014 when there were 395 miles.

A handful of non-oil related winter roads in Alaska include an ice road to the Koyukuk River community of Bettles and a road that was built some years to the Yukon River community of Stevens Village.

Bettles Road and Trials Chief Richard Thorne estimated that in 2016 the twenty-seven-mile Bettles ice road cost the city between $25,000 and $50,000 to build, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported this spring. Thorne estimated it saved more than $600,000 in shipping costs for the approximately forty residents of Bettles and the nearby town of Evansville.

The Stevens Village ice road is also twenty-seven miles to the Dalton Highway and has been built at least three times, says Weltzin, who was tribal administrator in the community in the ‘90s when the ice road was used to bring a convoy of fifteen fuel-hauling semi-trucks to the village. He still remembers the price they were able to provide fuel for: $1.05 a gallon.

Ice roads are also used widely in Canada. Although it’s known as an Alaska reality show, the History channel’s “Ice Road Truckers” began as a show about truck drivers who traverse frozen lakes to carry equipment to diamond mines in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Later seasons moved away from actual ice roads and onto the snow-covered gravel of Alaska’s Dalton Highway.

Some of the ice road manuals Weltzin has been studying for the Tanana road come from the governments of Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories.

Beyond Ice Roads

Although they get the job done, ice roads provide only a short opportunity to get heavy equipment across. In the Interior two recent projects are seeking to make permanent bridges in areas previously linked mainly by winter roads.

Most notable is the Tanana River Crossing, a railroad bridge that extends 3,300 feet across the Tanana River in Salcha. The $187 million bridge is the longest bridge in Alaska and was completed in August 2014. The bridge was supposed to replace ice bridges used to access military training lands south of Delta Junction, but there hasn’t been new funding to extend the rail line the rest of the way.

On a smaller scale, the city of Nenana is building a bridge across the Nenana River near the city to provide better access to agricultural lands on the other side of the river. In December 2014 a bulldozer traveling the ice road on the Nenana became partially submerged in the river ice.

At the Road to Tanana opening this fall Alaska Department of Transportation officials speculated that a bridge will one day cross the Yukon River at the end of the road, but the state’s budget crisis makes it unlikely anything will be built in the near future.

For now there are boats during the ice road’s down season. This fall residents who have boats went to Fairbanks soon after the road opened to buy supplies of bulk heating oil for the winter, Weltzin says. The city is applying for a grant to buy a boat in order to provide ferry services to other residents.

Sam Friedman is a reporter in Fairbanks

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

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