When Rivers Become Ice Roads

Caitlin Dempsey


Each winter, certain rivers and lakes in colder regions freeze to a depth where the surface ice can support heavy trucks. Ice roads are primarily found in cold climates such as northern Canada, Alaska, and parts of northern Europe and Russia.

The creation of an ice road begins with assessing the thickness and quality of the ice to ensure it can support heavy loads. Ice must typically be at least 12 inches thick to support light vehicles, and much thicker for heavy trucks. Snow is often cleared from the ice surface to promote thickness and reduce insulation, allowing the ice to grow stronger.

Safety is a significant concern with ice roads, as conditions can change rapidly. Local authorities and businesses frequently monitor the ice thickness and condition, providing updates and warnings to users. Factors such as snow cover, temperatures, and currents affect the stability and thickness of the ice.

Mackenzie River ice road in Canada

This November 7, 2016 Landsat 8 satellite image shows a portion of the Mackenzie River ice road.  The images shows the river’s East Channel.   This ice road is part of a larger network of winter roads that connect remote communities and industrial sites in northern Canada, providing essential access where permanent roads do not exist. Ice roads in this region typically open in the third week of December and stay frozen until late March or early April.

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The white, snow covered branches of the Mackenzie River are evident in the satellite image.  The green areas are pine tree covered land.  The higher elevations are bathed in golden light from the sun.

Portion of the Mackenzie River in Canada. Landsat 8 image, NASA, captured November 8, 2016.
Portion of the Mackenzie River in Canada. Landsat 8 image, NASA, captured November 8, 2016.

Canada’s Largest Watershed

Canada’s largest watershed is the Mackenzie River system.  The largest and longest system in Canada, the river is 4,200 kilometers (2,600 miles) long and drains into the Arctic Ocean.  During the cold winter months, parts of the river become a ice road that trucks up to 22,000 pounds can navigate.  

The 194 kilometers (120 miles) long ice road connects the outposts of  Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk during the winter. The area is home to caribou, waterfowl, and fish.  It’s also a migration path for reindeer.  The area captured is slightly north of Inuvik, home to 3,000 people.

More: Where trucks drive on the river, NASA.

To get a feel for what ice road driving is like, watch this video taken in February of 2016 as the driver navigates the route:

Ice roads on the Mille Lacs in Minnesota

It’s not just rivers that support winter time ice roads. Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota also supports seasonal pathways over the frozen surface of the lake. The thickness of the ice determines when the roads open and close. On Mille Lacs Lake, the entire surface of the lake freezes over with ice freezing down to depths between 2 and 4 feet. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, ice depths of 16 – 17 inches can support a heavy-duty truck and depth of 20 inches will support a heavy-duty truck with a wheelhouse shelter.

This Landsat 5 satellite image taken on January 11, 2020 shows the criss-cross grid of ice roads across the southeastern section of Mille Lacs.

A satellite image showing a white frozen lake with roads on the ice.
Ice roads on Mille Lacs in Minnesota. Image: Landsat 5, January 11, 2010, USGS, public domain.

The creation and maintenance of ice roads are managed by local businesses, such as resorts and fishing guides. These ice roads are primarily used by fishers to access ice fishing spots and to bring their ice shacks onto the frozen lake. Fishing is a popular activity on Mille Lacs Lake, one of Minnesota’s largest lakes.

This article was originally written on March 21, 2017 and has since been updated.

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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.