With winter snow trails, North Slope Borough hopes to offer residents a safe path over tundra

Last April, Robin Mongoyak drove his family’s new Subaru Forester from Prudhoe Bay to Utqiaġvik, using a new trail provided by the North Slope Borough. (Photo courtesy Robin Mongoyak)

If you live on the North Slope of Alaska, you have limited options when it comes to bringing in goods from down south — especially big things like cars, appliances and lumber.

Some of the communities can get those things through a seasonal ocean barge service. Others are only served by air cargo. But there’s a third option some people take to try to save money: driving over the tundra.

Now the North Slope Borough is testing a pilot network of winter snow trails, which they hope will make that a safer choice.

Ten years ago, Robin Mongoyak bought a new truck in Anchorage and drove it up the Haul Road with a buddy. That road ends in Deadhorse.

“We were stubborn,” Mongoyak said. “We thought, ‘Oh, everybody’s making it across … the Slope to Barrow from Deadhorse. We got an F-150 (with) four-wheel drive. I think we got no problem making it too.’”

But once they were out on the open tundra, they hit some bad weather.

“We had total white-out,” Mongoyak remembered. “You felt like you were 30,000 feet in the air. I mean, the wind was blowing that hard.”

The snow piled up rapidly around the truck, and they constantly had to get out and dig.

“Holy cow, man. There were so many times where we almost gave up and abandoned our vehicle,” Mongoyak said.

They did eventually make it home to Utqiaġvik. But Mongoyak told himself he would never attempt that drive again.

Then last year… he did.

Out past the airport, where the view south is miles and miles of flat, snow-covered tundra, Mongoyak gestured at a spot just to the side of the road.

“That’s where we came in from,” he said.

Robin Mongoyak at the southern edge of Utqiaġvik, next to the spot where he arrived last year as part of a caravan escorted by North Slope Borough staff that drove a snow trail from Prudhoe Bay. Jan. 30, 2019. (Photo by Ravenna Koenig/Alaska’s Energy Desk)

Instead of braving the tundra independently, when Mongoyak wanted to bring up a second car for his wife last April, he joined an organized caravan of cars, escorted by North Slope Borough staff and specialty equipment to help people if they got stuck in the snow.

They made their way from Prudhoe Bay to Utqiaġvik along a snow trail built by the borough.

Mongoyak said that even though the caravan was slow, since they often had to stop and wait for borough staff to pull out cars that got stuck, it did feel less risky.

He estimated he saved hundreds of dollars taking the car up that way. He might have saved more if he’d driven the car up from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay himself, instead of paying someone else to do it.

It also gave him peace of mind to get the car up from Anchorage quickly, instead of having it sit in a lot for months, waiting for the summer barge service.

The borough’s Community Winter Access Trails — or CWAT — project is in its second year. It’s a project to build trails and then lead organized trips — like the caravan Mongoyak was with — between several North Slope villages and Prudhoe Bay.

Gordon Brower is the director of the borough’s Planning and Community Services Department, which is overseeing the project. He said that residents of the borough have been driving over the tundra on their own for years, and that has resulted in people frequently getting stuck in the middle of nowhere and needing rescue, which can be expensive for the borough.

“In some cases in the past, people … have broken down a hundred miles in either direction,” Brower said. ”Near-deaths and freezing, running out of gas are some of the issues surrounding being able to go between communities,” he added.

Brower said this year the borough anticipates they’ll be able to connect Utqiaġvik, Atqasuk, Wainwright and Anaktuvuk Pass with chaperoned pathways to Prudhoe Bay and the Haul Road.

They have a permit for five years — counting this year and last year — but will be making the decision year-to-year whether to continue the project.

The borough is keeping track of how many people use the road, what kinds of goods they’re bringing in, and collecting feedback from the community about the trails.

“It’s a proof of concept to measure the impact to the economy,” Brower said. “What kind of impact does it have when you’re connected for just several months?”

Brower said that information could help inform a larger state of Alaska project to identify regional infrastructure and connectivity needs — a chronic issue for the North Slope.

That’s the Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resources — or ASTAR— project. While the state said they still haven’t determined what the specifics of it are, it could include a network of year-round gravel roads between some of the North Slope communities.

Right now, crews are out working on the trails to two of the villages. Others will begin when weather conditions allow.

The borough said that once the trails are open, ideally they’ll be usable until the end of April or early May.

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