High temperatures sink vehicles traveling ice roads in Western Alaska

A dive crew watches the recovery of a vehicle from the icy water near the Pike's Landing Chena River Ice Bridge entrance in Fairbanks, Alaska on Dec. 19, 2014. (Eric Engman /The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/AP)
A dive crew watches the recovery of a vehicle from the icy water near the Pike’s Landing Chena River Ice Bridge entrance in Fairbanks, Alaska on Dec. 19, 2014. (Eric Engman /The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/AP)
BETHEL — Two pickup trucks used by construction crews working on a water and sewer project in the village of Kwethluk on Monday sank through slushy ice on the Kwethluk River, a tributary to the main Kuskokwim River, said the project superintendent.

Then the small bulldozer that was being used to pull one out crashed through as well.

All of the people got out of the vehicles safely, said Max Olick, Kwethluk’s longtime village public safety officer. The village is upriver from Bethel, the Western Alaska hub.

A season of danger on the Kuskokwim ice road and its branches isn’t over yet.

Rough winter weather

With low snow, travel has been rough all winter. Hunters haven’t been able to get out for moose. Snowmachines running on ice, tundra and bare ground overheat. Three people were killed in December when the four-wheeler they were sharing went through the ice near Kwethluk on Kuskokuak Slough.

Now river ice is melting. Overflow on top is getting deep in spots. River routes that pickups still were driving Monday were becoming pocked with potholes and open holes disguised by thin ice or a dusting of snow.

“It’s getting dangerous real fast, even on the Kuskokwim,” Olick said. “I wouldn’t advise anybody traveling right now.”

No authority officially opens or closes the ice road for travel. But residents of the Kuskokwim and its branches look to officials for warnings and also check Facebook for photos of trucks stuck in the slush.

Bethel Search and Rescue is recommending that cars and pickups stay off the ice road, and that lighter snowmachines and four-wheelers travel only by daylight and use extra care, Mike Riley, the nonprofit group president, said Monday.

Over the weekend, it felt like spring in Bethel. Kids on bikes were everywhere. Some people wore shorts and T-shirts. The high on Saturday was 48 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

On Sunday, Riley traveled in his daughter’s SUV on the Kuskokwim down river from Bethel for ice fishing, or manaqing, near the confluence with the Johnson River. The Kuskokwim was firm when they left Bethel, but after hours of fishing on a warm day travel home was noticeably more risky.

“We hit numerous soft spots. We didn’t stop to check anything out. We just kept on going,” Riley said. They didn’t want to stop — and sink. The area between the downriver villages of Napakiak and Napaskiak was particularly bad, he said. Grit blows from a sandbar onto the snow and heats up fast.

The river ice is being shaved by moving water below and warmth from above, he said. It is shrinking early this year.

“It’s melting quicker than anybody expected,” Riley said.

Open water

Janeen Lewis, who lives in Bethel and originally is from Kwigillingok, drove onto the river Sunday for an outing on a sunny day, then turned around because of snow potholes. Last week, she drove a coworker upriver to Akiak for an adult-league basketball game but encountered open water around a bend past Akiachak. Earlier this month during a cold spell, she rode her snow machine 100 bumpy miles over almost snowless river and tundra to Kwigillingok.

The open water, she said, “was really scary.” She’s not going out again.

Olick called into a Yup’ik talk show Monday morning on public radio station KYUK to say cars and trucks no longer should be traveling on the Kwethluk River.

The water and sewer project is being done by through the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.

On Monday afternoon, a line of ATVs pulled out one of the consortium trucks, bringing cheers from a crowd watching, a video posted on Facebook showed.

Larry Le, the project construction superintendent, said the river was drivable Saturday. But on Monday, two pickups and the bulldozer broke through, he said.

“We did pull one truck out and we still got another truck and the dozer in there,” said Le, who was on the river trying to deal with the aftermath.

Olick said it will be dangerous to leave the truck and dozer in the river. The equipment needs to be removed, somehow, he said.

Contact Lisa Demer at LDemer@adn.com or on 
Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Driving on the ice road in Canada’s Northwest Territories, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Winter speed limits coming into force in Finland, Yle News

Sweden: Motorists warned to watch out for wildlife on Sweden’s roads, Radio Sweden

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