As of Wednesday afternoon, the Kuskokwim River ice remains jammed in the Middle River at Birch Crossing. There the Kuskowkim makes a sharp 100-degree bend, where ice gets trapped every year.
Fifteen miles above the jam, Aniak remains under a flood advisory with shallow water filling its low-lying areas near the barge landing and gravel pit. The water level has held steady over the last 24 hours since the ice moved out and isn’t expected to change until the jam releases.
Below the ice jam, the National Weather Service has issued a flood watch for Kalskag and cautions that high water could soon sweep past. The ice began shifting near the village Wednesday afternoon, forming long cracks and pressure ridges across the river. The village is ready and anxiously awaiting break up. Darren Deacon lives in Kalskag, where all eyes are watching for the Kuskokwim to open.
“People are checking the bank daily and at night," Deacon said. "And sometimes you’ll hear on VHF people asking how the river is, and somebody will kind of say in a sad voice, ‘It’s still there.’”
When the ice clears, spring begins. And once again, people can travel the river to visit family, to fish, to hunt, and to simply get out of town after being holed up during the long rot of the river ice.
“Everybody is just waiting and waiting, ready to go, you know,” Deacon said, laughing.
Nevertheless, signs of spring are teasing and exciting the village.
“We’ve seen a bunch of swan fly by yesterday," Deacon said. "Hasn’t been very many geese, but quite a few ducks.”
Deacon can hear gunshots every morning from bird hunters who get just far enough from the village to shoot. They’re ready to hop in their boats to get farther out of town, which people are already doing upriver by Sleetmute. There, the river cleared three days ago. Barb Carlson lives just a few miles away.
“My river is wide open and flowing," she said. "There’s some ice up on the beach, and some of the sloughs are still holding ice.”
Like recent years, it has been a mild break up, with thin ice and a long mush-out before the ice starts moving. By Sleetmute, the water level remains low and only rose for about six hours when the ice jammed at Red Devil, the next community downriver. With no crashing ice floes scraping the river banks and tumbling broken trees into the water, Carlson has seen little driftwood floating by.
“I don’t think I’ve seen enough firewood combined to even do a steam bath once,” she said.
Carlson warns boaters that ice chunks continue floating downriver. The National Weather Service reports that ice is still holding in the headwaters near McGrath where there are fewer tributaries to flush out the ice.
On Wednesday, the River Watch team with the National Weather Service flew the Kuskokwim from Aniak to the Johnson River downstream of Bethel. They report, that below the ice jam at Birch Crossing, the ice turns to a long squiggle of mush. At Akiak, open holes begin appearing and continue to the Johnson River. Where the river splits between Kwethluk and Akiachak, ice covers the Akiachak channel but has moved out of the Kwethluk channel. Downstream of there, many side sloughs have opened, including the Napakiak and Napaskiak Sloughs. Near Bethel, chunk ice fills Steamboat Slough and Straight Slough.
View pictures of the Kuskokwim River from the National Weather Service flight here.