Graybeard Outdoors banner
1 - 10 of 10 Posts

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
1,732 Posts
Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Kuskokwim ice puts villagers on fast track
TRAVEL: Frozen river brings convenience -- and danger.



By Joel Gay
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: January 26, 2003)
Bethel -- The taxi, a Chevrolet Suburban with a yellow Kusko Cab sign on top, lurched and slipped down an icy track toward Napaskiak. A glaring sun warmed the cab, and country music blared from the radio.

Twin ruts would pass for a road almost anywhere in Alaska, if not for the man off to the side pulling a whitefish out of a hole in the road.

When the Kuskokwim River freezes, it forms a sinuous 100-mile boulevard that gives a dozen villages their cheapest, easiest access of the year to the hub city of Bethel. People flock to it on dog sleds and snowmachines as soon as the river freezes. But for four or five months every winter, the ice road draws family sedans and fuel trucks, bulldozers and state trooper vans.

It seems normal enough. But just below is a cold, murky river that claims lives every year. Though the ice road itself steers clear of thin ice and open water, shortcuts can be deadly. Earlier this winter, a snowmachine towing a sled hit a lead. Only two of the three passengers made it out alive.

The ice road only looks benign, said cabdriver Ben Barnes. "Once you get away from Bethel, you're in the wilderness," he said.

Still, most people who live along the river take the ice road for granted. And if they can't drive themselves, they can call river cabs like Barnes'. It costs $30 to go the seven miles to Napaskiak, about the same as an airplane. But a taxi can drive in the dark, when airplanes are grounded.

"My mom goes out with her girlfriends ice fishing," said state Rep. Mary Kapsner of Bethel. "They tell the cabdriver, 'Come back for us at this time.' "

Regulated by the city, only vehicles with 12 inches of ground clearance may get a river cab permit, said Bethel Police Department taxi coordinator Andrew Steele. Suburbans are the cabbies' vehicle of choice.

"You really appreciate that (clearance) when you see the kind of conditions we get," Steele said.

Locals say the snow doesn't fall in Bethel, it blows in from somewhere else. Even when the ice road has been plowed in the morning, there's no guarantee it will remain open for long, Steele said.

And the weather can turn like a flock of sandpipers. A recent cold snap drove the temperature down to nearly 40 below. The next day it was almost 40 above. The fluctuations can make the ice crack and water stream to the surface. The overflow isn't necessarily dangerous, but it can hide weak spots that will swallow a car.

By city law, river cabs need a VHF radio, flares, twin car batteries and a winch or come-along, not to mention a space blanket for each passenger. Even the passengers must have a winter hat, boots, gloves and coats "appropriate for the weather conditions," the city says.

Other ice road drivers are not always so cautious, said Harry Faulkner, who grew up in Bethel and now is a partner in the company hired to keep the ice road open, Faulkner Walsh Constructors.

"A friend of mine drove into an open lead in Akiak. We fished the car out but never did find him," Faulkner said. "Instead of hugging one bank, he went to the other."

Ice travel has always been part of Bethel life, Faulkner said. His family once owned an air service, and when the ice was 6 inches thick, "everybody would pitch in and build this great big long runway" on the river in front of town, he said. "The whole airport was ignored at that time of year."

The winter weather had a flip side, though, Faulkner said. As the ice got thicker, people started driving on the frozen river. "It cost our business dearly when the river was good, because the airplanes got parked a little."

Bethel long ago realized the value of the ice road, and that hasn't changed, city manager Bob Herron said. "The business people of this community want to keep access to the city open," he said.

Since the 1970s, state funding has let Bethel mark and plow 83 miles of thoroughfare. Other communities also get maintenance money to take care of stretches of the ice road, and in a good year it's open from Napakiak to Aniak, about 100 miles.

People start driving on the river as early as they dare, said Sgt. Duke Ballard of the Alaska State Troopers. In some winters that's October, sometimes not until January, but it often seems too early, he said. "You can't regulate common sense."

Bethel's search-and-rescue group broadcasts ice depths and open hole locations on KYUK, the region's public radio station. The local joke is that the "ice is thick enough when cars stop breaking through."

Most years, the ice road doesn't open officially until January, when Bethel awards its maintenance contract and the ice is thick enough to support heavy equipment. Once the ice depth reaches 24 inches, Faulkner figures the river is strong enough for a road grader.

He marks the route using wooden lath and reflective tape. After the first big snowfall, a grader and snowplow will cut a two-lane road smooth enough for two-wheel-drive cars.

His biggest maintenance headache is wind-driven snow, which can close the corridor in a matter of hours. Once the drifts reach a certain size, "it's almost easier to build a new road" than plow out the old one. The route can change three or four times a winter, he said.

The ice is usually strongest where the river channel is deep, and weakest along its edges and sandbars, which is where cars break through. It's up to each village to maintain the on-off ramps. Faulkner said they sometimes build snow-and-ice bridges when fuel trucks or heavy equipment need to clamber up the banks.

He has taken 70,000-pound bulldozers up the river in years past, he said. During one particularly cold winter years ago, he and his father ran ropes from the Cat's steering handles back to the warm cab of a pickup and drove slowly behind the machine as it crawled up the ice.

Barnes had soft ice and overflow on his mind as he approached Napaskiak recently. A truck had broken through two days earlier. Rather than follow crusty old tracks into a freshly glazed section that could have been ice or open water, Barnes picked through a maze of new tracks that seemed to go too far past the village. Unsure, he turned around and waited for an oncoming truck, then drove in behind it.

"Always follow these local guys," he said.

Drivers aren't the only ones on the ice road. Yako Steven, who grew up in nearby Oscarville and now lives in Napaskiak, took a snowmachine to check his whitefish net. Cars and trucks rolled by every few minutes, but he ignored them.

"It's a lot of work," he said as he chipped at a hole in the ice with a long, heavy bar, "but all winter long we have whitefish for dinner."

Earlier, he cut a series of holes in the ice and, using a stick, strung a line through about 50 feet of river. Then he hauled his net under the ice and staked each end with a long wooden pole. In good fishing areas, the ice road is flanked by a scraggly forest of bare poles.

Steven checks his net every four days. At the peak of the run, he takes home about 20 golden-brown whitefish, each the size of a small pink salmon. On a recent day, he was happy to have hauled up 10. "We'll eat good tonight."

Back in Bethel, Faulkner was mapping out his plans for the next few months. His personal deadline for getting off the ice road is April 15. In the meantime, "there are projects that have to be done in these villages." He planned to start driving machinery downriver to Tuntutuliak to move some houses, and Tuluksak was running low on fuel.

"It's an every-year thing."

Reporter Joel Gay can be
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
1,920 Posts
Wow Dave

that is an incredible story. That sounds like another planet compared to where I live. How incredible the way some folks can adapt to their environment, even one as harsh as that place. Makes me envious, and thankful at the same time. God bless ya'
markc :eek:
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
1,732 Posts
Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Ya gotta survive

The winters can get a little boring up here at times. Once when in Nulato my buddy and I took off one night by snow machine and traveled 112 miles to buy 2 dozen eggs for his wife up the frozen Yukon and back.

Made it back and never broke one egg. :yeah:
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
1,732 Posts
Discussion Starter · #5 ·
egg rate

They was a goin about 35-50 miles per hour!

Or, about $2.75 a dozen. :-D
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
1,920 Posts
Now that is a honey do!

Gotta luv it. I usually volunteer to ride /drive my kawasaki Mule to the corner store for stuff for my wife. Wish it was farther away sometimes. made a trip during a break in the pirate bowl last night, lots of mud, lots of fun! Nothing like that trip for eggs though.
markc :-D
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
7 Posts
River driving

I have drove my car and truck on the river when conditions are good. They do a pretty good job plowing and if you have studs, it's not too slippery.

Right now, you would be in 2 feet of water if you took the river road anywhere. It has rained for 4 days straight! This winter really sucks. I have only put 225 miles on my snowmachine. With a bit of luck, it will get cold and snow again, but the likelihood is nil.
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
3,945 Posts
good news /some bad

Well its good to hear that Cripple Creek fellow was found and ok after 3 days out along the Kusko.

Helps offset the bad news about losing those guys through the ice up near Lime Village or Stony River.

Man this winter is treacherous - hope the Iditarod goes ok with no bad accidents.
 

·
Registered
Joined
·
7 Posts
That guy from Cripple was trying to walk home! He was sitting in Napaimuit. I don't know why he didn't get into one of the houses with a vhf and use it. He was actually found up river from Napaimuit walking the bank of the river.

The one guy that drove his machine into the river is probably gone. His buddy got out, but he didn't. Man, this river swallows people all the time!
 

·
Premium Member
Joined
·
1,732 Posts
Discussion Starter · #10 ·
Sad but it happens every year.

I have lost two of my former students up on te Bering Coast doing the same thing. Two years ago a group of snow machines from Golivan did the same thing and lost 8 machinces. The Yukon along the confluence of the Koyukuk is known to kill people every year too.
 
1 - 10 of 10 Posts
Top