Ice can be both an ally and a hazard during the Alaska winter


It is an everyday occurrence here in Alaska. Ice is a factor in our out-of-doors life for eight or nine months of the year. If one has an inside job that requires driving to and from work, ice is a pain. Should one be a dedicated gardener, unexpected ice can be a disaster. However, to the folks that work, play and live off the highway system, good ice is a welcome friend.

The majority of Alaska has no connecting roads. Frozen rivers are the highways that serve communities and connect friends and families. There are a few weeks or month of late fall when the rivers are running too much slush ice to allow boat traffic. Rivers freeze, but the ice is too poor to support traffic, thus villages are isolated except for air traffic. Trappers wait impatiently for safe ice to travel on. Families must wait to hunt, fish and visit relatives.

There is no hurrying nature. The fall of 2021 has been a warm one. It is almost mid-November and we are still waiting impatiently for good ice to form. Personally, I checked three river crossings on my dog trails today — and found none of them safe. I scooted my snowmachine across another; okay for a moving machine, but not something you might walk on.

What is safe ice anyway? Some will tell you that no ice is safe. I would have to disagree with that statement. True; no ice is safe if you are drinking alcohol. However, if one keeps their wits about them, most ice in Alaska is safe by the end of November. Common sense rules when venturing onto any frozen surface. Don’t get in a hurry on unknown ice.

Here is a “hurry” story from my younger, more careless days on the trapline. I was running my trapline on a Skidoo Elan (it was pretty new, so that tells you how long ago this was). Two otter came out of an open hole near a lake outlet and scooted down the ice covered creek. Naturally, being a gung-ho trapper, I gave chase, but not for long. My machine was wide open coming around the second creek corner. It turned out there was a wide open lead immediately ahead. The otter slipped right in, and so did my machine. I had the sense to bail from the Elan, but still slid in to the water. The creek was four or five feet deep, not enough to be dangerous, but plenty deep to soak me — since I didn’t necessarily go in to the water right-side up. It was minus 30 and I was 10 miles from my closest cabin; six miles from the closest trees. I made it, since I am able to write this, but I don’t remember the walk being much fun. That episode took most of the “hurry” from my ice travel.

River ice is always a risky proposition. During a 20 year period, from 1990-2010, more than 300 Alaskans died by drowning between November and March. Half died from going through the ice on snowmachine or an ATV. The Native populations are the most vulnerable. The simple explanation is that they use the ice more than most. Hunting, fishing and other subsistence activities have them outside and traveling far more than those living on the road system.

New, clear ice is considered safe to walk on when it is three or four inches thick. One can walk on as little as an inch of new clear ice, but I would not risk walking over water deeper than my boot tops. Nor would I feel wonderful about crossing Paxson Lake on four inches of ice, especially when those loud cracking sounds occur. My dog team is petrified when the ice cracks under them, even if it a foot thick. You can drive a pick-up truck on twelve inches of ice if it good ice.

Here is the rule of thumb: clear ice is good. Four inches for people in groups up to four. Five or six inches if there are 10 ice fishermen. Six inches will hold a snowmobile or an ATV. Eight inches supports a passenger car. The military landed a C-130 on Paxson Lake with 18 inches of clean ice. The key here is “good” ice. White ice has air bubbles and is half as strong. Black ice is always poor and unsafe, though in the spring, on a cold morning, one might sneak across when that black crystal ice is temporarily froze together. My heart would be in my throat if I had to cross ice like that.

Average winter temperatures have been on the rise in Alaska for the past few decades. Three or four degrees of temperature rise makes a big difference in October when we are expecting freeze-up. Prior to 2002, Paxson Lake was frozen in October; always. Since that time there have been five November freeze-ups. It is warming whether we want to believe it or not. We are not going to change nature. What we do need to change is our expectations. Don’t think, just because it is the middle of November, that it is time to drill a hole in the ice and catch fish. Check the ice carefully and check your patience.