Sunday, March 23, 2008

On the Ice Road

Yesterday was such a gorgeous day that Dutch and I couldn’t wait to get out and burn some gas in our snowmachines. There was nowhere we particularly needed to go; just getting out of town is the only goal, and the reward.

The Ice Road on the Kuskokwim River is the best I can remember in years. Though winter was late in coming, since December the weather has mostly remained consistently cold (except for that miserably warm week around K-300), which is good for the river’s surface. And we have had quite a lot of snow this winter compared to our norm.

In years with little snow, driving on the Ice Road can be quite a challenge. The bare ice can be quite bumpy, depending on how windy it was when the surface of the river froze. And without snow it can be very hard to see where the road is. There are no tire tracks to follow on bare ice. Just like with a boat in the summer, when there is very little snow on the river ice, you can drive pretty much wherever you have the guts to try.

The river is nearly a mile wide here at Bethel, and at times may have open leads of water despite otherwise thick ice. The best road is never in the same place two years running; placement all depends on the conditions. Picking the best path to follow is a skill that takes years to develop.

This year we have had tons of snow (literally), and except for that one week in January, we have not had regular warm-ups with rain to melt it all away. We have had so much snow that there are ten-foot-tall piles of it everywhere, and the city is running out of places to push it to. Dutch’s crews have actually had to resort to hauling it to get it out of the roads; which, at the cost of fuel here, is an expensive proposition.

All the snow this year means that the Ice Road would not be drivable in cars and trucks if it were not being plowed. A huge plow with giant wheels and snow blade goes out each week or so and runs downriver to Napakiak and upriver to Kwethluk or Akiak. The result is a smooth, flat trench of well-packed snow with two-foot tall berms on each side. There is no question of whether you are in the right place and actually on the Road. It is practically as well-groomed as an Interstate, and people are flying along at 50 mph as if it were one.

The Ice Road is just barely wide enough for two trucks to pass each other with each edging to the side as far as possible and both going slowly. But everybody seems to be in a hurry, and not everyone is polite. Earlier this year we actually had a head-on collision between two vehicles on the Ice Road right in front of Bethel in broad daylight. No one was killed, but both vehicles were pretty much totaled. It is best to keep in mind that this is not a concrete highway; respect the fact that you are driving on ice, and do so with caution.

Snowmachines tend to avoid traveling directly on the Ice Road, preferring to follow it off to one side. It is an easy landmark in a flat terrain that doesn’t have many natural ones. Yesterday Dutch and I traveled beside it for a few miles upriver, then turned off above the Bluffs to go up the Gweek River. The snowmachine trail on the Gweek sees a lot of traffic coming down from the village of Akiachuk and is easy to follow.

Once we turned off the main river the wind lessened considerably. It was about +5F degrees yesterday, but the wind made it significantly colder on any exposed skin. A few miles up the Gweek we pulled over to the edge right next to the tree line and turned the machines off. We were on a south-facing bend out of the wind with the sun beaming on us; there was nothing man-made that we could see except the machines we were sitting on, and no noise we could hear except the occasional gurgling sound of a happy raven flying over. The quiet stillness of the wilderness enfolded us, and the silence was beautiful.

Today was just as sunny and gorgeous as yesterday, and not wanting to miss another opportunity to get out, we fired up the machines again and took off up the river. This time we went up Church Slough, a short-cut to the village of Kwethluk. The trail is well-marked by many snowmachine tracks, but we only saw an occasional traveler. I was delighted to notice moose tracks crossing the slough at one point, and a pile of moose pellets a few bends farther up. The lower Kuskokwim’s moratorium on moose hunting (I believe this is year 3 of 5) is working; with hunting pressure removed, the moose are returning.

A few miles up the slough, a line of willow trees suddenly sprouts from the center of the ice, and the trail very clearly keeps to one side of it. These are not growing out of the slough; they have been erected there to mark a place with thin ice and/or open water. Most likely, someone who travels the route regularly took it upon himself to erect the markers as a warning to other travelers; there is no government-sponsored Department of Transportation crew out here maintaining the safety of the trails.

The top of Church Slough rejoins the Kuskokwim River about 8 miles upriver from Bethel. When we got there, we stopped to enjoy the view and have a cup of hot tea.

As the photo shows, the area is not completely treeless, though it is referred to as such. The stand of willow trees across the slough from our break spot is about 15 feet tall, but only as big around as a human wrist.

The shiny ice at the edge of the slough is overflow that has refrozen. The Kuskokwim and its sloughs and tributaries are affected by tides from the Bering Sea; when high tide moves up the river, water surges over the ice at the edges and stands on top of it until it freezes again. Overflow can be several feet deep, and depending on the temperature, can take a while to refreeze. If no snow covers it, it looks shiny and is easy to see and avoid. Once it has even a thin snow cover, however, it can be indistinguishable from thick and trustable ice. Breaking through it with a snowmachine or a dog team can mean disaster.

Dutch and I got back to Bethel about 5 pm. Coming around the last bend on a late afternoon, the town is a lovely sight, perched there on the banks of the Kuskokwim.


photos by The Tundra PA.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

living here as long as you have, I imagine you've been up to the Moravian Children's Home up above Kwethluk? I love that place... it's so gorgeous. Only been there in the summer of course...

and by the way, we tried salmon your way from your spice rub posted back in June 06 this week. Yum! Thanks for sharing.

Monday, March 24, 2008 11:29:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Anon--yes, indeed, the Children's Home is a lovely spot; deserted now for many years and looking sad with broken windows. I, too, have only been there in summer, to pick berries and to rod-and-reel for silver salmon in the large clear pool at the base of the hill.

Glad you enjoyed the salmon prep; it's my fave! Thanks for reading, and for commenting...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008 8:04:00 AM  

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