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Sign of spring: Alaska's Taylor Highway reopens after winter-long closure

Jerzy Shedlock
Alaska's Taylor Highway from Tetlin Junction to Eagle is reopening this weekend -- even though crews are still removing some snow and ice. Alaska DOT

Despite a predicted switch back to “winter-mode” this weekend across much of Alaska, the opening of Taylor Highway in the eastern part of the state near the Canadian border signals the beginning of spring.

The highway, Alaska Route 5, is a 160-mile stretch of road extending from Tetlin Junction, an unincorporated community in the Fairbanks Census Area, to Eagle.  It’s now open, says the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Crews started removing snow and ice along the highway in late March.

Eagle, a community of 200 far up the Yukon River and just a short snowmachine ride from the Canadian border, has faced multiple summers of severe flooding the past five years that has also damaged the highway. In July and August of 2010, for instance, heavy rain washed out sections of the road and triggered landslides that covered other portions. One man -- a customs employee with the Division of Homeland Security -- died after his car went off the road when the flooding first hit.

The first 60 miles of the highway, the only road to Eagle, are paved while the rest is gravel. From October through April, it’s closed to automobiles but continues to used by snowmobiles.

The Department of Transportation is reminding drivers to remain cautious, especially between miles 93-126, as winter has maintained its grip on the highway’s higher elevations.  Among the concerns: drifting snow, ice and water running across the road surface. Maintenance crews are on the road working to mitigate those problems. 

Due to blowing snow, the highway may only be open for a couple hours during the weekend. Drivers can visit 511.alaska.gov or call 511 for the latest conditions.

Taylor Highway connects to the Boundary Spur, or Top of the World Highway, which offers access to Dawson City in Canada’s Yukon Territory. Boundary Spur will remain closed until U.S. and Canadian customs opens the road in mid-May. But opening the border is based on the breakup, the upheaval of spring when melting snow causes ice to break apart and float downstream on Interior Alaska rivers, including the mighty Yukon. Once the ice is gone, the George Black Ferry across the Yukon River at Dawson can operate. 

Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com