Frozen Chena River doubles as an ice bridge for drivers

Posted: Monday, November 26, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Leave it to intrepid drivers to use the frozen Chena River as a shortcut instead of taking the more circuitous asphalt routes.

The slight but steady stream of traffic across the river begins about this time of year, said Russell Toppman, a bellman and front office worker at the Princess Riverside Lodge. The Princess sits next to the main east exit of the ice road, although some drivers prefer to go a few hundred feet down the river and exit next to Pike's Waterfront Lodge.

Patty Weaver, general manager of Pike's, said she saw this year's first cars on the river about three weeks ago.

Toppman said that the first crossings of the winter are generally done by people driving smaller or more expendable cars. The Chena Ridge Road resident said he regularly uses the ice crossing, but prefers to let others test it out first.

''I wouldn't want to be the pioneer,'' he told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. ''I haven't started doing it this year.''

Toppman moved here four years ago from Florida. He said he was initially skeptical of the crossing but eventually gave it a shot. ''I saw so many people do it, and it cut 10 minutes off my trip to work,'' he said. ''For me, it's just the ultimate in convenience.

Speed is a consideration when it comes to climbing the riverbank on either side: a head of steam is essential in conquering the roughly 10-foot incline.

Some say they're too cautious to make the crossing, regardless of their vehicle. ''I wouldn't in a million years,'' said Peggy Baitsholts, who works in the Seasons gift shop in the Princess Lodge. ''I've been here nine years, and every single spring somebody goes in.''

Indeed, some of the local workers see the first breakthrough as a rite of spring, an unofficial Fairbanks equivalent of the Nenana Ice Classic.

The state does not officially maintain the bridge due to liability concerns but does take steps such as putting up signs and barricades to warn people when it is unsafe. Alaska State Trooper Aileen Witrosky said she believes the crossing is perfectly legal. ''I'm not aware of any statute that says that it's illegal,'' she said.

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