Ice road to bettles a lifeline for residents local news newsminer.com gas tax

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Richard Thorne, Bettles road and trails chief, estimated the ice road costs the city about $25,000 to $50,000 to build. He estimates investment saves residents and business owners of his town, and nearby Evansville, more than $600,000 per year.

The ice road, which connects Bettles to the Dalton highway near milepost 135 at Prospect, has been open to the public since the first weekend in February, according to Thorne. Besides four-wheel drive pickups, the ice road is used by large semi-truck tankers that haul in a year’s supply of diesel for the community’s electric generators, owned by Alaska Power and Telephone.

In addition two “ice bridges” are needed to span the frozen Jim River and South Fork of the Koyukuk River. Storm, who helped build the road from 2012-2014, said the ice must be at least 2-feet thick to support trucks, or else river water needs to be pumped atop the ice to thicken it.

“Usually you like it to be at least 20 below zero,” he said. “So when you spray the water out of the hose into the air, in a mist, as it falls to the river ice, you can almost hear it tinkle as its freezing when it comes into contact with the ice.”

Temperatures colder than 30 below bring problems with the water pumps and hoses freezing up, plus the grader can have sluggish hydraulics and flat tires. Storm also said he and the other grader operators had to be careful to plow excess snow to the downwind side of the road, reducing drifts.

The city’s permit from the Bureau of Land Management allows travel to begin only when the road is officially declared open. That opening occurs when 6 inches of packed snow has been attained on their lands, according to both Tim Lamarr, Area Manager at BLM, Fairbanks, and Mayor Fox.

Travelers should carry tire chains and be self-sufficient with survival gear in case they get stranded mid-way on the road, they said. Drivers are warned to carry enough fuel for their return trip back to the Dalton, because it is not always available in Bettles.

In 2013, a mid-summer forest fire thawed permafrost, resulting in mud slides that later turned into impassable frozen obstacles, Storm recalled. The past two winters road builders struggled to find a detour that big trucks could go around — no sharp turns and not too steep a grade.

Proposed cuts to state revenue sharing funds might put the road in jeopardy, according to Mayor Fox. She estimates the city could perhaps endure one more year of such cuts, but after that, the community may not have the resources needed to reopen it.

Fox credits Evansville Inc., for permission to cross their Native lands, and for construction assistance. With a winter population of only 20 people in the pair of villages, she said, every bit of help counts on a project as challenging as the winter road.

Road builders do enjoy a few natural perks. “Some really good northern lights, some really beautiful sunrises and sunsets,” recalled Storm, who has spent many memorable days and nights operating the grader. “You’re just out there by yourself and there’s no one else around, no signs of human inhabitants.”