Safety concerns prompt sudden closure of Kuskokwim Ice Road

an ice road
Kuskokwim Ice Road crew members close off the main entrance to the ice road at the Bethel watefront on March 22, 2024. (Courtesy Mark Leary)

Following a wave of balmy weather that has quickly made meltwater of record snowfall on the Kuskokwim River, the ice road crew announced Friday that it was ceasing maintenance of the frozen transportation network.

Crew leader Mark Leary recommends against all vehicle travel on the river, at least for the time being.

“It’s a river on top of a river, and it’s hard on your vehicle. It’s dangerous, and it’s gonna start freezing at night, and that’s gonna put a thin layer of ice,” Leary said. “And somebody tries to drive through that and breaks that thin layer, it becomes a mess.”

Leary said that he had been hopeful the ice road could stay open longer for the use of communities along the river.

an ice road
The Kuskokwim Ice Road is seen just outside of Bethel on March 22, 2024. (Courtesy Mark Leary)

“This has caught people off guard. People have plans, they have vehicles in their villages that they want to leave in Bethel for the summer,” Leary said. “So we continued to leave it open and watch and watch.”

But when Leary checked out the river near Bethel early Friday morning, he said that he knew he needed to pull the plug.

“I had a report of a person that put a tape measure into the road, and in some spots there was 20 inches of water,” Leary said.

If weather cooperates and the opportunity arises, Leary said that the crew is prepared to plow another road parallel to the currently closed route, which it has done in previous years.

In 2023, the Kuskokwim Ice Road crew announced it was ceasing maintenance on April 1, but still found a window in the weeks that followed to get heavy equipment out on the river.

“We ran a 35,000-pound grader to Kasigluk on April 20,” Leary said.

While the ice road crew stands by for another potential window this year, breakup is just around the corner for the Kuskokwim River. The median day for breakup at Bethel over the past century has been May 12. But in 2019 the river shattered historical trends, breaking up on April 12.

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