Carolyn Haggard lives on an island on Flat Lake, a wooded refuge in the unincorporated community of Big Lake that’s about a 90-minute drive north of Anchorage but a world away.
Haggard, like most neighbors, uses a boat to get out of the house in summer. Come winter, though, she joins a handful of Big Lake volunteers who band together to plow a road across the frozen water.
One winter — it was January or February when the ice was thick and strong — Haggard watched as three concrete trucks drove the ice road to a nearby home. Fuel trucks rumble over it, and truckloads of lumber.
“In winter, we depend on the ice roads. Everybody out here, for the most part, has ... power. Other than that, we are responsible for our own infrastructure — wells, septics,” Haggard said. “So it’s not much of a stretch for us to provide our own road system as well. It’s all just part of the deal.”
Alaskans have traveled over snow and ice for millennia. Winter roads are common across Alaska and Canada — anyplace in the far north where swampy tundra and muskeg solidify in winter.
The ice road along the Kuskokwim River in Western Alaska can stretch over 300 miles, connecting villages that otherwise rely on unpredictable air travel in winter. The reality show “Ice Road Truckers” popularized the stories of North Slope big rigs that travel across frozen Arctic bays and inlets or snow-packed overland routes.
Big Lake’s ice road sits on the fringes of suburbia, just north of the crowded core area around Palmer and Wasilla that holds the majority of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough’s nearly 110,000 residents.
The Big Lake Ice Road runs about 6 1/2 miles from the Big Lake Lodge — an access point returning to use this year — and a campground on the south shore of the lake, as well as Burkeshore Marina, which also helps clear the road. It extends to the lake’s west side before entering Mud and Flat lakes.
The road isn’t made or maintained by the state or Mat-Su borough. Instead, it’s up to local residents to provide the equipment and time.
The main road across Big Lake, known as Ice 5, was finished up just last week by Dan and Cathy Mayfield, longtime residents and trails advocates. Dan Mayfield, a former Mat-Su assembly member, said the couple waits for 12 inches of ice before putting in the road.
His wife’s parents kept the ice road open across the lake starting in the mid-1970s, Dan Mayfield said. He and Cathy helped them and then took on the job in 2008.
Nobody has a Zamboni. Instead, locals put their own plow trucks on the ice. Keeping the road snow-free allows the ice to thicken through the season.
Ice road volunteers use chain saws outfitted with rulers to check thickness.
“Sometimes it freezes early. Sometimes it freezes late,” Mayfield said. “This year, what we had was the east end of the lake froze and the west end of the lake hadn’t frozen yet. Then we got a dump of snow.”
The snow insulated the east end of the lake and the west end froze without any cover, forming thicker ice.
“Every year has its little peculiarities,” he said. “So we just deal with them and do the best we can to keep the ice measured and make sure people are safe out there.”
The people who make the road say drivers can know it’s safe, provided they’re within the plowed berms, because they’re diligent about checking thickness. But driving anywhere else requires a user-beware attitude and the ability to check the ice themselves.
It’s never considered safe to travel over the channels between the lakes, locals say, encouraging instead the use of overland portages.
The ice road volunteers use their own trucks and fuel. Some locals chip in for the season to help defray costs.
But some drivers, especially from out of town, might not realize the labor that goes into the frozen route under their tires.
“People don’t really give it much thought. They pull out of their driveway in Anchorage and the roads are plowed, and then they get to Big Lake and the road’s still plowed. Modern civilization, you kind of take it for granted,” Haggard said. “It might be nice for people to be aware it doesn’t just happen. It’s not the state or the borough creating these roads.”
Mayfield guessed there might be 1,000 cars using the road on a winter weekend.
“Not only with residents but also ice fishermen, snowmachiners, people who want to come out and shoot their rockets. Folks who want to fly their ultralight airplanes,” he said. “We’re a very, very busy place.”