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Alaska’s seasonal roads offer survival and Adventures

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Ice and winter roads

In Alaska, oil, electricity, and other companies as well as military build winter roads and/or ice roads. Winter roads are seasonal roads built thru the taiga or tundra on the snow-packed wilderness. There may be some ice bridges over frozen lakes or rivers. When building an ice road, naturally frozen water surface like rivers, lakes or sea-ice are used. A winter road is  built on compacted snow of a given thickness over the frozen tundra or bare ground. In some places, a combined winter and ice road is built. In this case, frozen water is preferred even when it means a deviation of a couple of miles. Going over frozen water reduces potential impacts on vegetation.

Access is limited

These winter roads run across land that is leased or owned. This means a normal person like me cannot drive on these roads. Access is for the owners and ice truckers only. Once in a while, some scientists may be lucky to take a ride when they do research for or in collaboration with these companies or the land owners.

In Prudhoe Bay, for instance, the public has no access to the Arctic Ocean as the oilfields are onshore. Tours only exist in summer, but they are worth taking them! They are very informative and the black stony beach is worth seeing.

For the above reasons, I have no photos of seasonal roads.

Why ice and winter roads?

These seasonal roads serve to provide access to facilities, communities or places that have no permanent road access. Otherwise these locations can only be reached by air on a small air stripe or helicopter platform. Icing is a thread for all small aircraft including helicopters. Add the strong snow blowing winds over the tundra as another aviation threat. A big advantage of these seasonal roads is that one can haul large and heavy equipment that cannot be transported by air freight.

Breakup and freeze-up

For hard to reach communities located off the road network, breakup and freeze-up are the worst times. During breakup, they cannot use the water yet for hauling supplies by boats, but cannot travel on the ice safely anymore. Their air stripe may be useless too. There may be too few snow to land on skids, but too much snow to land on wheels. During freeze-up, rivers cannot be traveled anymore by boat because of ice forming in several square feet size pieces on the water. Even when they are already forming a closed surface, the ice is still too thin to travel on with trucks or even light snow-machines. Thus, for these communities it is important to haul enough bulk supplies (e.g. fuel for heating and energy generation) into the community prior to freeze-up and breakup.

How to build an ice or winter road

Seasonal road construction typically starts in November or early December depending on weather conditions and location. Of course, there are strong regulations about building a seasonal road. These regulations also encompass safety conditions that must be fulfilled during the construction of a seasonal road. Furthermore, there are regulations for clean-up after the season.

Ice road construction

Qualified state personnel in survival built-in floating suits inspects the ice thickness travelling in a light, floating vehicle. Think of the vehicle as a wheeled, amphibious all-terrain vehicle. The staff drills the ice to determine its thickness on a regular basis. However, they start doing so in early winter in contrast to the ice thickness measurements made for the Nenana Ice Classics.

Once the ice has a certain thickness, they deploy ice profilers. Think of this equipment as a sort of radar. It sends out a signal. the signal reacts to the discontinuity at the ice -water interface. The return signal depends on the ice thickness underneath. The measurements serve to determine the safest, and hopefully longest lasting route.

Winter road construction

On land, the active layer has to be frozen totally. This means here the fall temperatures, the snowpack thickness as well as the thickness of the active layer are key in deciding when it is allowed to start the winter road construction.

In both cases, on land and over frozen water, snow cats serve to compact the underlying snow and snow plows serve to create an even surface. Did you know that these snow plows serve to maintain unpaved roads in summer?

Environmental conservation

Of course, the area has to be cleaned up after breakup. Thus, these companies hire students to collect log sheets and other things that may have been blown away when opening the doors of trucks.

Clean-up

These students get several weeks of training in ecology, Arctic ecosystems, first aid and survival (a learn-to-return class) prior to their deployment onto the North Slope or into the woods of the taiga. There they are all on their own, picking up debris and trying not to disturb the animals and plants. Note that at that time, the animals are having their youngsters and there may still be snow patches around.

Being paid for an adventure

No access to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. No texting, no cell phone. Hundreds of miles away from civilization. Somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Note that once you are about 25 miles or so out of Deadhorse or Prudhoe Bay there is no cell phone signal. The same applies to Fairbanks. Be aware, Alaska is still only 2% developed. It’s the Last Frontier!

All they have is a satellite phone for emergencies, food, tents, and other things necessary for survival. They have to prepare the water from the lakes and rivers for drinking. It is unsafe to drink it as is. Many Alaska rivers and creeks have micro-organism that are health adverse. After their six weeks or so term, the students are picked up by helicopter. I bet they will enjoy their first hot shower. 😉

Have you ever washed yourself with ice-cold water from a river or washed yourself with snow?

Focus Alaska is a weekly series that covers Alaska lifestyle, history, Alaska unique things including Alaska street style, as well as insider travel tips to see places that are off the typical tourist paths.

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Photos of me: G. Kramm

Copyright 2013-2017 Nicole Mölders | All rights reserved

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