Kuskokwim Ice Road crew fights weather to keep river traffic flowing

a grader
A grader operated by the Kuskokwim Ice Road crew is seen on the Kuskokwim River on Feb. 23, 2024. (Courtesy Mark Leary)

The Kuskokwim Ice Road crew confirmed Friday that travel was safe from the tundra villages of Kasigluk and Nunapitchuk down the Johnson River, and up the Kuskokwim River all the way to Kalskag. However, the crew still urged travelers to prepare for the worst. Safe passage has also been confirmed from Kalskag farther upriver to Aniak.

While bitter cold weather at the end of January was just what the Kuskokwim Ice Road crew needed to establish and mark more than 200 miles of river roads, crew leader Mark Leary said that the work of maintaining the ice road has been constant amid the recent warm weather and intermittent snow storms.

“These crazy little storms we’ve been having, they just blow through for a couple hours and mess up everything, and then it gets good again,” Leary said.

Ice road crew members logged another long day on the river Friday, working in highly variable weather. Four graders, four plow trucks, and five support trucks addressed areas with drifting snow and standing water, both of which can present serious safety risks for travelers.

The 10-person crew was ultimately able to split up and ensure safe passage from the tundra villages to Kalskag.

a four-wheeler
A traveler struggles to find safe passage through standing water below the village of Crooked Creek on the Kuskokwim River on Feb. 23, 2024. (Courtesy Mark Leary)

“It’s Friday, there’s kids and basketball teams moving all over the river. The plow truck just met two Suburbans full of school kids headed for a ballgame in Napakiak,” Leary said. “That’s why we work so hard to get everything open, even though it’s a losing battle sometimes.”

Also on Feb. 23, the Native Village of Kalskag confirmed that the road from Kalskag further upriver to Aniak was also safe for travel. However, Leary said that unusually warm weather had led to hazardous levels of standing water further upriver near the village of Crooked Creek.

“They’re more east of (Bethel). They’ve been getting that Anchorage weather, where it was in the 40s and rainy,” Leary said.

Even when it comes to areas downriver that appear to be safe, Leary stressed that strong winds are quickly replenishing recently plowed snow drifts, and that all travelers should leave fully prepared to wait for help in case they break down or find themselves stuck.

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