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In Alaska, seasonal roads are built on the tundra and on rivers. This post includes when and how they are constructed, why they help the survival of communities, and may offer adventures for outdoor enthusiats in summer. Read to understand the paradox of survival in winter, and summer adventures.

  1. Ice and Winter Seasonal Roads
  2. Access Is Limited
  3. Why Are Seasonal Roads Needed?
  4. Breakup and Freeze-Up
  5. How to Build an Ice or Winter Seasonal Road?
    • Ice Road Construction
    • Winter Road Construction
  6. Environmental Conservation Is a Priority
  7. A Paid Job and an Adventure


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Ice and Winter Seasonal 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. To built a winter road, constructors compact snow of a given thickness over the frozen tundra or bare ground. In some places, they build a combined winter and ice road. In this case, the constrution team preferrs building on frozen water 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 leased or owned land. 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. Learn more about these tours to the Arctic Ocean.


ice road as an example of seasonal roads
“Ice Road” by The Webhamster is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0



Why Are Seasonal Roads Needed?

These seasonal roads serve to provide access to facilities, communities or places that have no permanent road access. Only small aircrafts that can land on an air stripe or helicopters can reach these these locations. 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 is to heavy for air freight. Since Alaska’s river are undeveloped, shipping is often not an option.


ice road trucker on the Dalton Hwy in Alaska
“Dalton Highway’s Ice Road Trucker” by puliarf is licensed under CC BY 2.0



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 of no use too. There may be too few snow to land on skids, but too much snow to land on wheels. During freeze-up, you cannot no longer travel by boat because ice is forming in several square feet size pieces on the water. Even when the ice is 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.  Every year in spring, you read an article that someone broke thru an ice bridge.


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, strong regulations about building a seasonal road exist. These regulations also encompass safety conditions that must be fulfilled prior to start and during the construction. Requirements include a certain snow depth, and days below the freezing point, among other things. Finally, 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 to start the winter road construction. IOn land and over frozen water, snow cats compact the underlying snow and snow plows create an even surface.

Did you know that these snow plows serve to maintain unpaved roads in summer?

See photo below. More on Alaska unpaved roads at the link.


snow plow used for building seasonal roads in winter an maintaining unpaved roads in isummer
Snow plow maintaining a dirt road on a rainy day in summer. “Denali Snow Plow” by rwoan is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Environmental conservation is a priority

Of course, the companies have to clean-up the area after breakup. To fulfill this obligation, these companies hire students to collect log sheets and other things that the wind blew away when opening the doors of trucks.

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 while 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.


A Paid Job and 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. Most Alaskan rivers have foam in summer in some places. After their six weeks or so term, the company picks the students 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 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.


Alaskan standing on a snowy road in a leather skirt and denim jacket leather and denim
Halogen leather dress, GNW tight, Russian belt, Burberry collar, boots c/o Coolway and sequin patch denim jacket c/o StyleWe


Photos of me: G. Kramm

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