Lower And Middle Kuskokwim Breakup Winding Down While Headwaters Breakup Just Getting Started

May 9, 2018

Ice breaking near McGrath at the Kuskokwim River headwaters on May 9, 2018.
Credit Jonathan Egrass

It’s been an uneventful breakup on the Kuskokwim River this spring. And that breakup looks to be nearing its end, except in the headwaters, where a large snowmelt could push driftwood to the lower river.

Water levels continue dropping near Tuluksak after an ice jam cleared below the village last night. Tuluksak entered a flood warning on Tuesday after a large ice floe plugged the mouth of the Tuluksak River, causing water to back up toward the community. But Tuluksak resident Joe Demantle says that even at its height, the flooding remained minor.

“It was probably about 4 feet to get over the lowest part of the bank near the tanks over here,” Demantle said.

Two other communities also had brief flood warnings this breakup: Red Devil and Aniak in the Upper Kuskokwim. As in Tuluksak, the water only rose a few feet above the banks in each village, causing water to fill low-lying areas for only a short time. And that might be as risky as this breakup will get.

“It looks like the threat is pretty much winding down,” said Mark Leary, who flew the Lower Kuskokwim River on Tuesday evening.

As far as he could see, the Kuskokwim River from Bethel downstream to the Johnson River was open. Wilson Twitchell in Kasigluk says that the open water continues up the Johnson toward the tundra villages.

“The riverways are pretty much free of ice except for the north section of Kasigluk," Twitchell said, "and the numerous lakes around here are still full of ice."

From the Johnson River upstream along the Kuskokwim to Aniak, only two areas were still ice packed Tuesday evening. First, the Kuskokwim channel upstream of Akiachak from just above the village and in the upper end of the Kuskokuak Slough. Second, on the west side of Unduu Island near Tuluksak. Fish camps along the river appear untouched.

“Looks like the fish camps just about everywhere we observed were staying dry,” Leary observed.

Though the Lower and Middle Kuskokwim has opened, it’s a different story at the headwaters. There, large stretches of ice have yet to move. Brent Gibbons flew the river from Aniak upstream to McGrath on Tuesday.

“Twenty miles above McGrath, all the ice was pretty intact. Just starting in a few places to break apart," he reported from his trip.

Tuesday night, the main ice in front of McGrath shifted downriver, stopping at a narrow bend and leaving a mile of open water in front of the village. As of Wednesday morning, the water level had not changed and flooding did not seem likely. The ice froze just over two feet thick at the headwaters, and the broken ice seems to be disappearing beneath the intact ice instead of jamming.

“The ice appears pretty thin," said Gibbons. "It’s just breaking apart and crushing up, so I don’t think we’ll be sending big, dangerous ice downstream like some years.”

But what they might be sending downstream is a swell of water and with that, driftwood. The snowpack in the nearby hills and Alaska Range is higher than normal, and warm temperatures lie ahead. Before the wood arrives, Mark Leary reminds people of the traditional values for claiming and collecting this shared resource.

“First of all, when somebody ties up a log, you don’t touch it. Doesn’t matter if it stays there for a long time. You don’t know that person’s situation. Maybe their motor broke. Maybe they’re sick. Who knows? You don’t touch a log that somebody tied up," Leary said.

"Another way that people claim logs," Leary continued, "is if they’re stranded, like they go dry on a sandbar.If they cut the stump off, you don’t touch it. One more thing about wood gathering. If there’s wood that naturally floats in and gets stranded in front of somebody’s fish camp or cabin, don’t take it. Leave it for those people so when they go there they have wood for their camp.”

Travelers are warned that heavy ice continues running in front of Bethel.