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Rural Alaska

On the North Slope, snow roads constructed with an eye toward a future Arctic road system

  • Author: Shady Grove Oliver, The Arctic Sounder
  • Updated: April 29, 2018
  • Published April 29, 2018

Locals had the opportunity to hit a new set of trails this winter. Instead of snowmachines, they brought trucks.

"It was definitely an adventure not to be taken lightly, but if you travel with the borough you get with the safe traveler program and you will be taken home," said James Roy Ahmaogak, who has, so far, driven the snow roads twice this season.

The roughly 300 miles of hard-packed snow roads were constructed under the Community Winter Access Trails (CWAT) project, headed by the North Slope Borough.

The initial idea for the project was to find a way of connecting Utqiaġvik, Atqasuk, Wainwright, Nuiqsut and Anaktuvuk Pass with the haul road by way of Prudhoe Bay.

It began, in part, to test the viability of a road system on the Slope concurrently with planning the Arctic Strategic Transportation and Resources (ASTAR) project. That project, if constructed, would bring hundreds of miles of year-round gravel roads to the Slope to ease industry access to drilling and processing sites and community access to goods and services.

While a gravel road could cost upwards of $2 million per mile, snow roads are much cheaper at about $5,000 per mile, according to estimates provided under ASTAR testimony.

"What this is is a hardened, packed trail and the purpose was to start to really operate on the tundra in a manner which could inform what a year-round road system would look like in this area of the world," Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack told the House Resources Committee earlier this month. "So what we've had is two particular uses of this road. It was permitted by the North Slope Borough. We appreciate their support. … It resulted in a snowpack road between the end of the existing year-round road."

Getting to the North Slope by ground, rather than air, was an attractive factor for many residents who decided to give the snow roads a try.

"It provided a way that the people didn't have to rely on the ways we have been transporting our goods and cars and trucks," said Ahmaogak. "By being able to drive your own stuff is such a relief from the big burden of cost transporting through other venues."

This was something Mack touched on during his presentation to House Resources.

"We're working to make sure the entities which are serving the North Slope in the bypass mail system — the contractor right now is Lynden — … we're working to get them out on the trail, as well, to utilize it, so we can start to understand the impacts and the benefits of the more traditional transportation systems," he said.

Right now, vehicles are especially challenging to get to the North Slope. Other goods come in by bypass mail, which is trucked to Deadhorse, where it sits in a warehouse before being placed in a full load on a plane and flown into Utqiaġvik and the outlying villages. The cost and time of all of those steps adds up for locals.

"It doesn't work badly if you order something from Google," said Mack. "It's not so good for lettuce."

Snow trails aren't permanent, so they'd have to be constructed anew every year, which is currently the plan for the next several years under the borough's outline for CWAT.

"My understanding in working closely with the borough on the snow roads activity is it takes several trips to build up the snow from the ground into the path that is permitted through the Bureau of Land Management and DNR," said ASTAR Lead Project Coordinator Jennifer Adleman, speaking before House Resources. "Working with a variety of equipment that has come in from Deadhorse, as well as from Barrow, they have been able to pack down the snow, add more on top, pack that down, and then through use of the trail, the additional vehicles, the caravaning that the commissioner spoke to, as well as the bypass mail vehicles, will continue to pack down."

Ahmaogak noted the second time he drove the road, on April 19, conditions were better than the first time, on April 12.

"The snow road was hard, hard enough to be mistaken as a regular Barrow road, but there are some deep holes and long sections that have a lot of snow," he said.

The second trip he took lasted about 16 hours and they made a handful of stops along the way to gas up, he noted.

"The weather was very nice for a while, but we traveled into ice fog so bad we decided not to travel for awhile. But other than that it was a nice ride," Ahmaogak said.

Other locals who have driven the road have commented, too, that it was nice to be able to bring new vehicles and goods to town without having to wait for summer or fly them in.

Whether these snow roads will be continued past the duration of CWAT is yet to be seen and much of it depends on the future of ASTAR.

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