The Kuskokwim River now has its longest ice road ever, in a year when people thought there might not be any ice road at all.
As of last week, the graded, marked road stretched 200 miles from Bethel upstream to Crooked Creek. The project has involved almost a dozen tribes, working together across months.
The day the Kuskokwim's longest ice road was completed was a reunion.
"It was a good day, a lot of handshaking, a lot of backslapping," said Mark Leary, director of development and operations for the Native Village of Napaimute.
His crew, heading upriver, met with the crew from Crooked Creek, heading downriver, led by Timmy Zukar.
The road stretches across a section where it's never been. Crooked Creek joined the project for the first time, adding the miles to make the historically long road. And it was done during the warmest winter on record.
"They proved it can be done, safely, in a wild, long, lonely stretch of the river, too," Leary said.
This happened in a winter when road plowing started in mid-January, a month later than usual. People were surprised that it happened at all.
Many open holes still perforate the ice, but the freezing and thawing has created a glassy surface that is easy for crews to plow, and equipment upgrades mean that the crews aren't facing constant breakdowns as in past winters.
The newest plow truck is actually 25 years old and comes from Seattle's Sea-Tac Airport.
"We gave it a name: Tumlista, The One Who Makes a Trail," Leary said, laughing.
For travelers along the lonely stretch of road below Crooked Creek, take caution. For 60 miles from Crooked Creek to Chuathbaluk, there's no cellphone service and the snow quickly drifts. Farther downriver there are two areas marked with "Danger" signs. One is 10 miles below Kalskag at Coffee's Bend, where the road winds between a cutbank and an open hole. The other is below Tuluksak, where dark sand has blown across the ice.
"And soon as that sand gets exposed and the sun gets a little stronger," Leary warned, "we may lose that area very quickly."
The road's social and economic benefits spread to all of the villages it connects. Building the ice road provides employment during a time of year when seasonal work is hard to come by. It allows residents, businesses and government agencies the ability to avoid hefty plane tickets, and it gives the Kuskokwim a highway in a land far off the road system.
This story was republished with permission from KYUK.