BETHEL, Alaska (AP) — A pioneering plowing effort has opened an Alaska ice roadfarther than most traditional highways in the state.

The Kuskokwim River ice road has been plowed to 355 miles (571 kilometers), its longest extensionever, KYUK-AM reported Thursday.

The ice road allows snowmachine and vehicle traffic in a region that otherwise relies on unpredictable airplane travelduringthe winter.

Care of the ice road typically begins in January. Crews clear the river and mark theice road so travelers can reach villages near Bethel.

The average length of the ice road has been about 200 miles (322 kilometers), according to Mark Leary, who works for the village of Napaimute.

The farthest Leary previously plowed in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta was Crooked Creek, but this time he wanted to go 42 miles (68 kilometers)farther to Sleetmute.


“Our role was just to prove that it could be done,” Leary said. “People were skeptical.”

Leary and four others left Bethel Feb. 7 and picked up at least two extra men to help.

Tim Zaukar maintains the roads for Crooked Creek and helped plow through to Sleetmute.

Many villages in the middle Kuskokwim area do not have clinics or a permanent health aide, so residents rely on planes to travel for health care needs in the winter. Having another means of travel is important to them, Zaukar said.

“It was hard to travel with the normal means of travel, with snowmachines and four-wheelers and stuff, because of all that rough ice down there and snow we’ve been having,” Zaukar said.

The road means more traffic, which could put a greater burden on search and rescue crews by increasing the potential for stranded drivers, Zaukar said.

Residentshave seemedgrateful for the extension allowing them to travel without airplanes.

“It was a historical moment to extend the ice road all the way up to Sleetmute,” said Rebecca Wilmarth, whose village of Red Devil now has access to the road for the first time.