Driving on Frozen Lakes and Rivers

by Jim Thompson | Last Updated: December 16, 2020

In Alaska, temporary roadways are sometimes created on the surfaces of large lakes. These throughways are dubbed “Ice-5” as the path cleared can be as wide as Interstate 5, the highway that runs from to California. Cars, trucks, snowmachines and other ATVs can drive on these ice roads. Some roads are even wide enough for small bush planes to land in emergencies. Although the plowed roads or river trails are not quite wide enough for six vehicles to drive side by side, these ice trails are considered state highways. The suggested speed limit is about 35 mph.

How do you know if an ice road is safe for travel? The rule of thumb is that the ice needs to be three feet thick for cars and five feet thick before large fuel trucks can drive on them. Passage of these trucks is vital as they transport heating oil to people’s homes. These conditions are usually present by mid-December during a normal Alaskan winter.

My friends and I drove 100 miles in a car on the frozen Kuskokwim River in early March. Along the route there was a trail marked for the K-300 Dog mushing race that took place in January. The trail was set apart by 8-foot branches wedged into the ice sticking straight up with orange safety tape attached to the top, so it was easily spotted. The markers were about a half mile apart. It took us about 4 hours to drive the route to Bethel, Alaska, our final destination.

Potential dangers lurk if a driver decides to veer off the ice trail. The river’s warm spots and thin ice will cause a vehicle to sink in the icy waters, proving fatal in most cases. Last winter a young man was driving his 4-wheeler on the river but veered off the ice trail and disappeared. A search was conducted for over a week, but the body was never found. Due to the river current, the vehicle probably sank to the bottom while the body was swept downriver under the ice.

Another possible danger posed when driving on a frozen river is called “shell ice.” Shell ice is a thin layer of ice formed on the surface due to a wave or current with no solid ice beneath. A driver can easily mistake shell ice for solid and sink into the river or lake. If the driver is on a snowmachine, his best recovery strategy is to go full throttle and get out quickly. If the driver is in a car, truck or 4 wheeler, they should first attempt to steer quickly off the shell ice. Drivers can tell if they are on shell ice by the presence of a crackling sound from beneath the tires. If someone has gone over shell ice before you, the surface of the river is jagged, looking like a snow cone. Try to avoid these areas.

Driving on ice is challenging because ice is inflexible. Even pavement has a little give on its surface, allowing the possibility of traction. Going slow on the ice road and avoiding small potholes will allow a vehicle to reach its destination safely and without damage.

Always carry an emergency supply kit in the vehicle when traveling long distances on an ice road.

A well-stocked emergency kit should include the following:

If you keep these safety tips in mind and pack well with an emergency kit, you will have an Alaskan adventure that will be fun and safe for your friends and family!