As the cold wind blew and snow started to cover the landscape, the water that flowed through the Moose Creek Dam became stagnant. The freeze over at the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project was a clear sign that the icy grip of winter had taken hold and would last for months to come.
During this season, the team that operates and maintains the subarctic facility transitions to their winter responsibilities in North Pole, Alaska.
Brad Olson, asset management specialist for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – Alaska District, drove around the project in a truck and pointed to some of the trails at the project.
“We mainly remove snow this time of year,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re always planning the work we will do as soon as it thaws.”
Though the project is not operated for flood risk management while the river is frozen, the staff is always preparing for the next flood season as well as performing maintenance and making improvements on nearly 20,000 acres of public land. An upcoming activity involves the installation of a new streetlight near Lake Park to assist recreators with visibility in winter months when daylight is as little as three hours.
The site is located at one of two water-filled gravel pits created during the construction of Moose Creek Dam, which was completed in 1979. Known as the Chena Lake Recreation Area, both spots are used by outdoor enthusiasts year-round.
“People come out here to watch the aurora borealis,” said Julie Anderson, chief of operations for the Alaska District. “We want to balance the safety of adding the new light without inhibiting parkgoers from continuing to observe the northern lights. We added another light a few years ago and question how we ever lived without it.”
The increased lighting helps improve safety on dark winter days at high-traffic areas within the park.
The Chena Lakes also serve as a popular place for community members and visitors to wet a line.
“Right now, there are a lot of people using the lake for ice fishing,” Olson said.
An avid angler himself, he described the location as a great spot for people to try their luck catching rainbow trout, silver salmon and arctic char stocked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
With a permit from that agency, people can build ice huts on the lakes or rent them from the Fairbanks North Star Borough, which partners with USACE to run the recreation area.
Moose, snowshoe hares, lynx, fox, wolves and other animals are often spotted around the project grounds. This prime habitat attracts photographers, wildlife viewers and even trappers and hunters to the area.
Parkgoers also can catch a number of sled dog races throughout the snowy months at the facility. For authorization to conduct these events, organizers must receive a USACE special use permit in advance.
Meanwhile, back at the USACE project office, the staff excitedly highlighted the new road grader vehicle that they use to remove an average of 62 inches of snow each year.
“We have less than 100 hours on it!” said Ryan Lucke, engineering equipment operator for the Alaska District.
During the winter, he is often seen on the machine plowing snow from roads, paths and walkways on the project grounds.
“We aren’t just clearing the main road,” Olson said. “We’re also keeping trails accessible for walking, biking and cross-country skiing.”
They also groom the top of the dam for 1 1/2 miles from the entrance of the project to allow dog walkers and fat-tire bikers to better utilize the path during the winter months.
Standing on top of the control works for the dam, Anderson described how families often sled down the 50-foot-high structure when the weather is warmer and the sun is shining.
“Sometimes, we find (thank-you) notes left for the team in the snow,” she said. “Even though our top priority is to protect the community from flooding, it’s nice to know that local citizens enjoy and appreciate the recreational opportunities available here.”
These messages express appreciation for the park and the team enjoys reading them, often taking photos to share with others in the office.
From Nov. 1 to March 31, project lands are open to snowmachining. However, the sides and top of the dam are off limits to such activity. Still, it is not uncommon to see snowmachine tracks running under the control works of the structure. This can be risky as the ice can be thinner directly under the concrete dam.
“People will run their machines right up the river,” Anderson said. “They are braver than me.”
During this period, the district’s two full-time park rangers patrol for snowmachiners who ignore posted warnings and choose to ride on the dam.
“Snowmachines can harm the structural integrity of the dam, which can increase the risk of failure,” Anderson said.
Individuals caught breaking the law face hefty fines as well as additional potential consequences.
Besides searching for snowmachine violators, the park rangers remain on the lookout for vandals, timber poachers, squatter shacks, dumped vehicles, land encroachments and off-road infractions. To accomplish this work, they use a variety of vehicles equipped for the harsh weather and rough terrain. The project has snowmachines, trucks and a small unit support vehicle at its disposal. The SUSV is a tracked amphibious vehicle that is especially useful in preventing weather-related injuries to the park rangers when it is particularly cold outside.
“In the winter, we patrol by way of snowmachine predominately, but when temperatures fall below negative 30 degrees, we utilize the SUSV,” said Justin Kerwin, senior park ranger. “This decreases the chance of our park rangers experiencing an injury from exposure to the cold. The windchill on a snowmachine at that temperature can fall below negative 80 degrees, so we prefer a cabbed machine when available.”
The district’s patrols and wintertime maintenance are done in conjunction with the staff from the Fairbank’s North Star Borough. In the winter, the borough’s team consists of a site manager, caretaker and two park rangers. In the summer, they also have seasonal park rangers to ensure staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“The borough has been a great partner for many years,” Anderson said. “Recently, their team has been working to make improvements to the recreation areas on the project.”
These upgrades include making the lakes handicap accessible and paving gravel roads with a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“The handicap accessibility will be nice for the veterans, wounded warriors and other people with disabilities who want to access the recreation areas,” Olson said.
The changes will complement the district’s upcoming dam safety modification project, as evident by the sight of construction contractors establishing temporary offices and installing new powerlines on the property.
With the first phase of work scheduled to begin in the spring, this massive undertaking will reinforce a portion of the earthen dam to increase the path of seepage into the Tanana River during high-water events. Ultimately, this effort will address the risks of aging infrastructure and extend the life of the dam for many years to come.
“The changes are a lot like dredging,” Anderson said. “You will see a lot of activity, but it will look the same after we finish the work. The real difference will be structural.”
Through close coordination between USACE, the borough and contractor for the project, every effort will be made to keep the public informed of temporary impacts on recreation during the construction process.
To learn more about recreational opportunities at the Chena River Lakes Flood Control Project, please visit: https://www.poa.usace.army.mil/Locations/Chena-River-Lakes-Flood-Control-Project/Activities-and-Recreation/