A frozen river turned road, makes an excellent shortcut. Here’s how it’s done.

A tractor is parked by the bank of the frozen river. Further away, on the ice, there are two men standing by their kick sleds. We’re in Nedre Saxnäs, a small village outside of Sorsele, with its twin settlement Övre Saxnäs on the other side of the Vindel River. The two men are the residents Lennart Sjöberg and village elder Leif Karlsson, and they’re in the middle of making an ice road.

Here, in Saxnäs, the river is used as a road during the winter months. In the past, the ice road made sure children could go to school without being boarded in a home on the other side of the river as they were during spring and autumn. The Swedish Road Administration used to keep it opened until 1977, and the village has taken care of it themselves since 1987. Nowadays, while frequently used, it’s mostly for promoting village community between the upstream and downstream Saxnäs, and as a shortcut – the ice literally paves the way between Övre and Nedre Saxnäs, turning a one-hour drive into ten minutes of transport in a serene winter landscape with the mountain Ols towering in the background.

The river is sprayed with ice cold water.

Quality matters

There is no need to check the thermometer today; the clear skies and sunshine say the same thing as the air pinching my nose and cheeks. It’s the coldest day of the season so far, and perfect conditions to build an ice road. The cold means that the ice will freeze in a short while, making the ice into quality ice – ice that can hold for driving.

Quality matters, says Leif Karlsson. If it consists of only frozen water – so-called black ice – twenty centimeters of thickness is enough to drive a car over the ice. If the ice is layered with snow, the ice is weaker, making it necessary to have thirty centimeters of ice before driving on it.
– You need to keep the weather conditions in your head in order to judge the ice quality, Leif explains while drilling a hole in the ice and measuring the thickness with a hook-formed measuring rod. He himself keeps a weather journal to keep tabs. If watering of the ice is followed by snow, the ice road is delayed.

The drill test: just to make sure the ice will hold a least a tractor.
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There are two open ice roads in Sorsele, one connecting Nedre Saxnäs (by the E45) and Övre Saxnäs and one connecting Blattnicksele (also by the E45) and Södra Blattnicksele. Both ice roads are transmission stations in the dog sled competition Vindelälvsdraget in March.

The procedure

The procedure seems simple enough. After drilling, Lennart uses a water pump with a nozzle to spray the ice with cold water. Hence, the kick sleds – watered ice is slippery and accidents might happen. As the water starts pooling, the concert begins: the ice sings in a dark, muted voice, it crackles and pops, and steam starts rising from the surface.
– We can probably drive on the ice tonight, Leif says, radiating with pleasure. The ice road is ready fairly early this year. Usually, it’s opened for driving sometime between late October and December.

At its strongest, the ice road holds for four-ton trucks. Before opening the road, Leif checks the quality of the ice himself. He drills holes where he knows the ice to be at its weakest and then tries it by driving his tractor onto it. If it’s too weak, the water will start churning in the holes, or flood the ice. It hasn’t happened to him yet.
– The tractor manufacturer recommends us to drive with the overhead hatch open when driving on ice. I think it would be hard to climb out the hatch if the ice breaks, he concludes, and continues with a grin on his face:
– That’s why I always drive with the door open the first time I drive on it.

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