Airboat ride on frozen Chena River causes stir, packs snow

In this Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011, photo, Lee "Skip" Olsen drives his airboat up the frozen Chena River in downtown Fairbanks, Alaska. Olsen was packing the trail and staging area for the Tired Iron Rally, a retro-snowmachine race and rally that will be held in February. Tired Iron organizer David Weaver said he hopes packing down the snow will make the river ice thicker and safer. (AP Photo/The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Tim Mowry) MAGS OUT

FAIRBANKS — Lee “Skip” Olsen is always looking for an excuse to fire up his airboat, even when the water is frozen.


So when David Weaver, organizer of the Tired Iron, a retro snowmachine rally held in Fairbanks each winter, put word out that he was looking for someone with an airboat to pack down the trail and staging area for this year’s event in hopes of making the Chena River ice thicker, Olsen didn’t hesitate.

“He was asking me how much I was going to charge him and I said, ‘I ain’t going to worry about it,’” Olsen said, standing next to his airboat on the frozen Chena River Saturday afternoon in downtown Fairbanks. “I haven’t had my airboat out since moose hunting season in September.”

Olsen fired it up on Saturday and drove it three miles down the Chena River from Fort Wainwright to the Cushman Street bridge, packing the trail as he went.

Once in downtown Fairbanks, Olsen circled the area between the Cushman Street bridge and the William Ransom Wood Centennial Foot Bridge, which serves as the staging area and race course for the kids’ races, to pack down the snow.

The sight of an airboat doing roadies on the frozen Chena River in downtown Fairbanks caught the attention of a few folks who stopped to take pictures.

By packing down the snow now with an airboat, Weaver is hoping it will make the ice thicker for the Tired Iron, which is scheduled for Feb. 25 and 26. Weaver said he has to flood the ice in thin spots every year in order to get the ice thick enough to hold the event, which draws hundreds of spectators and racers to the Chena River.

“Soft snow insulates the ice,” Weaver said. “We’re just trying to pack it down and get that ice thicker. We’re just trying to make it safe. It’s a test, but I think it will work.”

The only problem that arose on Saturday was when ice clogged the fuel filter and stalled the airboat near the foot bridge. Olsen tried using a few bottles of HEET — fuel line antifreeze — to melt the ice but ended up having to remove the filter and chop a thick layer of ice that had built up in the filter.

“I had it in the shop and must have had some moisture in the gas tank,” Olsen said. “It was thawed out at first but must have frozen.”

After removing the ice and dumping some more HEET into the filter, Olsen fired the airboat up again and headed upriver.

Running an airboat in the winter isn’t much different than the summer, he said, though he keeps a heater in the cab to keep him warm in the winter.

“If you get 2 1/2 or 3 feet of snow it’s like riding on a pillow,” Olsen said.


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