By Jenny Neyman
Alaska in the springtime is a sloppy situation.
Best-case scenario, breakup mud is shallow, short-lived and segregated to soggy spots away from where anyone walks or drives. Skilak Lake Road, though, is more of a worst-case scenario, every year turning to mush when the trees turn to green. This year has been so bad the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities closed the gravel road to all traffic Thursday for as long as conditions dictate, potentially up to a week.
“It is very wet and very saturated in a number of places to the point where even four-wheel drives are getting stuck. Having vehicles try to get through the area, they’re creating huge ruts, that, a, they’re getting stuck, and then they’re destroying the road surface, so the whole thing is shut down,” said Shannon McCarthy, spokesperson for DOT.
McCarthy said the plan was for maintenance crews to work on the road Thursday and Friday and reassess the situation Monday. The lower section of road, miles 19 to 8.5, was opened to four-wheel-drive traffic Tuesday. The upper section, Miles 0 to 8.5, remains closed, and the entire road is still closed to RVs and trailer traffic.
“They got some dozers down there. First of all they filled in the ruts and then they leveled the road with a crown of course in the middle so if it can shed any water it will. And then time. They have to have the road dry out because if you let cars back in on a road that’s that wet they will just re-create those ruts, and of course ruts hold onto water really well,” McCarthy said.
The 19-mile loop road off the Sterling Highways at Mileposts 58 and 75.2 accesses several trails, campgrounds, cabins and boat launches. And while May isn’t peak activity time for the popular Skilak Wildlife Recreation Area, the closure is having an effect. McCarthy estimates the road gets an average of 100 vehicles a day, as many as 200 in the summer, and as little as 25 to 50 in the winter.
Keith Burton, from Utah, and Taryn Dixon, from Texas, are two of the more dramatically affected. They got to Alaska last week, planning on heading to their summer job at Alaska Wildland Adventures Lodge across Skilak Lake on Saturday. Instead, they couldn’t even head down the road to the boat launch.
“We haven’t seen it yet,” Burton said.
“I’ve seen what I saw on the Internet when I applied, and we drove out and saw the road closed sign, but that’s it,” Dixon said.
They were making the most of their change in plans, since the road closure gave them the weekend to explore the central peninsula.
“We like what we’ve seen so far, it’ll be a good summer,” Burton said.
“I’m from flat Texas, no mountains no trees, no anything. I saw my first moose yesterday, so that was cool,” Dixon said.
Several factors contribute to Skilak’s yearly breakup woes. Water is the ultimate culprit, with spring rains exacerbating the usual winter snowmelt running through the area. The road base is short on gravel and heavy on clay, which holds onto water longer.
“The road itself during the fall rains may have gotten saturated. And of course it’s easy to drive on a road that’s frozen and has water in it, it becomes ice and it’s a fairly stable material at that point. But with a road like this where perhaps it needs new material, there’s lot of dirt, and when dirt gets a lot of rain it can actually hold a lot of moisture,” McCarthy said.
Most roads these days are built to withstand the seasonal surrender of winter, but Skilak wasn’t built these days. It was built in 1947 as part of the original Sterling Highway. Al Hershberger, who moved to the central peninsula in 1948 and worked as shop foreman for the Alaska Road Commission, said that the highway was rerouted to its current path when it was paved in 1958, and Skilak became the recreational road that it is today.
“It’s about same amount that the distance one way or the other is pretty much the same but it was much easier going and it was better to build a new road to the specifications than to try to bring old one up to specifications,” Hershberger said.
Skilak Lake Road is one of several other stretches of the original Sterling Highway from Soldotna to Homer replaced by straighter, better-built sections when the highway was paved in 1968, including Ski Hill Road and ARC Loop Road. The whole highway was built with a mere $3 million federal appropriation.
“You can’t even maintain a section of it for that now,” Hershberger said. “We built a lot of road and we built it fast and it was travelable, except in the spring it wasn’t too good.”
The highway as it is today has been upgraded over time, but a section like Skilak provides a glimpse of how all roads were back in the 1950s.
“The first year or two or three or four years the Sterling Highway was open it was that way every spring. The road actually was closed, for several years, the road would be closed during breakup. They didn’t want it torn up, of course we didn’t have all that much traffic in those days, either, so it wasn’t all that terrible they closed the road,” Hershberger said.
Upgrading Skilak Lake Road would require new material to be brought in, and DOT is seeking grant for the project, McCarthy said. If that funding comes through, someday Skilak might be as worry-free as the highway nearby. At least, in terms of the mud.
“Now we don’t worry about the condition of the road, we worry about the weekend traffic,” Hershberger said.