Iliamna road gets some basic repairs

Posted: Wednesday, April 30, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) An unlikely consortium is making improvements to Pile Bay Road, the narrow, rough connection between Iliamna Lake and tidewater in Cook Inlet that was built as a short-cut for fishing boats heading to Bristol Bay.

A private contractor is donating work as part of another project. The state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is providing the planning and some money. The biggest contribution comes from the Denali Commission, which has offered $750,000 to replace a bridge over the Iliamna River that's kept larger vehicles from using the road.

Pile Bay Road is a 15-mile, one-lane gravel connector built in the 1930s as a shortcut from Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay. Fishermen could drive their boats onto a trailer in Iliamna Bay, across the inlet from Homer, and the boats could then be hauled over the Chigmit Mountains to Iliamna Lake. A 90-mile lake crossing brought them to the Kvichak River, which runs down to Bristol Bay.

That's quite a difference from the 1,000-mile sea voyage around the tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

The state has been spending about $10,000 a year to keep the road passable for freight hauling.

This year, though, Wilder Construction Co. of Anchorage decided to use the road to haul 35,000 tons of equipment, a rock crusher and an asphalt batch plant for $11 million in paving projects at Iliamna and Newhalen, on the lake's north shore.

Wilder had to dredge a new channel at the head of Iliamna Bay to get its barges to the road.

This summer, the state will spend about $800,000 for bulldozer time, some dynamiting and the bridge.

The bridge has been a major bottleneck. While older fishing boats could make it across the bridge, newer ones are too wide, forcing their owners to go by sea.

The new bridge will be wide enough for Bristol Bay fishing boats and, with no overhead barriers, will allow for tall loads.

Village residents are excited about the changes, said Carole Absher, tribal administrator in Kokhanok, a village of 175 on the lake's eastern shore. Any improvement to Pile Bay Road will benefit us and all the lake villages,'' she said.

Though it's possible now to bring in bulky items like four-wheelers, lumber and fuel by the road, it's a logistical nightmare, Absher said. Freight can come by barge up the Kvichak River from Naknek, but in some years the river is too low for that traffic.

Officials at the Lake and Peninsula Borough are excited about the road improvement plans, said planner Marv Smith. We're hoping it's going to turn around'' the economy of the seven lake villages, he said.

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