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Looking back on the top stories from 2021

As we approach the new year, KYUK is looking back on some of the defining stories in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from 2021.

January

2021 began with a tragedy. Two men drove into an unmarked open hole in the river ice near Tuluksak and drowned. The search for the missing men became a training ground for a new generation of search and rescue volunteers.

A fire destroyed Tuluksak’s only source of clean running water. Three and a half weeks later, Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration. Another month later, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC) installed a potable water system for the community.

YKHC opened COVID-19 vaccinations to everyone in the region age 16 and older.

Aniak musher Richie Diehl won the Bogus Creek 150 Sled Dog Race. He made history as the first musher to also win the Kuskokwim 300 in the same year, and he set a new K300 record for fastest finish. For the first time, four of the top five K300 mushers to finish were from Kuskokwim River communities.

February

Two Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta school districts, the Kuspuk School District and the Lower Yukon School District, reopened schools in some of their communities as the number of COVID-19 cases fell.

March

The Lower Kuskokwim School District reopened in-person learning as well. Other school districts resumed basketball.

April

The region marked one year since its first confirmed COVID-19 case.

Mekoryuk became the first Y-K Delta community to possibly have reached 100% vaccination against COVID-19, thanks to the work of a mother-daughter health aide team.

The Hooper Bay girls basketball team won the 2A state basketball championship.

Chevak declared a state of emergency after a fire destroyed its old school.

Bethel City Council voted to hire an investigator to review how the city handles sexual assault cases. The action came after a Bethel resident alleged that the police department waited 34 days before picking up her sexual assault kit.

May

COVID-19 vaccinations opened to 12-to-15-year olds. As cases dropped, the Bethel City Council rescinded its mask mandate for vaccinated individuals in public places.

Orthodox Christians in Bethel gathered for the first time in nearly a year and a half to celebrate Pascha, or Easter. On that high holiday, longtime KYUK colleague Lillian Atmak Michael died at the age of 64. She is remembered as a teacher, translator, reporter, storyteller, and friend.

Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta State Rep. Tiffany Zulkosky introduced a bill to recognize Alaska Native tribes in state statue. The bill would eventually pass the House, but still awaits introduction in the Senate.

Illegal Facebook gambling began surging across the region.

NPR named KYUK interns as finalists in their student podcast challenge.

June

The city of Bethel began offering $100 gift cards as incentives for people to get vaccinated against COVID-19. YKHC ended its free COVID-19 testing at the airport and its drive-thru testing at the hospital after people largely stopped using them.

Global supply chain challenges led to a national increase in lumber prices, exacerbating the housing shortage in the region. Later in the year, supply chain issues would lead to a shortage of Toyo stoves in the state.

Napakiak created a comprehensive 50-year plan to relocate its community. “Retreat,” they called it. The plan is one of the first of its kind and could provide a blueprint for other communities threatened by climate change.

July

July 2021 marked the wettest July in Bethel in over 90 years with near record rainfall. The rain made drying what few salmon people caught difficult.

This year’s Kuskokwim salmon run saw what has become an average number of king salmon in recent years, well below the historical average. And the chum salmon run crashed to record lows. Meanwhile, federal and tribal managers wrestled with state managers for control of the Kuskokwim salmon fishery. Local subsistence fishermen increased pressure on state and federal organizations to limit salmon bycatch in the Bering Sea.

Runs were even worse on the Yukon River. The Yukon saw its worst summer and fall chum runs on record. It also saw its lowest coho run and its fourth lowest Chinook run. Bristol Bay processors shared salmon from their area with hungry river residents. Facing uncertainty that the runs would ever rebound, subsistence families and the whole commercial industry tried to pivot to new food sources.

A federal judge sentenced former Bethel elementary school principal Chris Carmichael to 15 years in prison for enticement of a minor. A state judge sentenced him to 25 years with 10 years suspended. The Lower Kuskokwim School District agreed to pay $3.8 million to settle a sex abuse lawsuit in the Carmichael case. A second lawsuit is ongoing.

A Korean cab driver in Bethel was shot in the face and survived. The attack marked the third Korean cab driver in Bethel to have been shot or violently assaulted in the last 15 years.

As COVID-19 cases resurged across the state, hospital leaders warned of bed shortages in the state’s major hospitals.

August

The Bethel City Council reinstated its pandemic mask mandate for everyone in public spaces. YKHC mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for employees, and the region hit its highest infection rate since January 2021.

Alaska Native corporations received federal CARES Act funds, and tribes received American Rescue Plan Act funding, infusing millions of dollars into the region.

The U.S. Census Bureau released data showing that the Y-K Delta population had grown about 9% in the past decade, making it one of the state’s fastest growing regions.

A state judge ruled to protect the Power Cost Equalization Endowment Fund, preventing energy costs from spiking in rural areas.

At the end of August, the Pfizer vaccine received full federal approval.

September

Hospital officials across Alaska warned that the health care system was collapsing. YKHC, along with other Alaska hospitals, reached capacity and activated crisis standards of care.

YKHC warned people to avoid all physical risks, including riding ATVs. They could not guarantee adequate health care if someone got hurt. The health corporation had delays in flying critical care patients to urban hospitals because of hospital bed shortage.

YKHC began offering COVID-19 booster shots.

The Bethel courthouse suspended criminal jury trials due to rising COVID-19 cases. And LKSD encouraged parents to vaccinate their children.

The City of Bethel mandated COVID-19 vaccinations for employees. All but six got vaccinated by the deadline.

October

Bethel elected new city council members, one of whom was Council member Mary “Beth” Hessler. Hessler is the only council member not vaccinated against COVID-19, and the only member to vote against the city mask and testing mandates. Her election marked a break in the council’s unanimous support of pandemic mitigation measures.

COVID-19 cases in the region reached their highest levels in 10 months, and YKHC expanded monoclonal antibody treatments to villages.

Former Y-K Delta state representative Tony Vaska died from cancer. He left a legacy of advocating for education and protecting subsistence.

November

Bethel recorded its coldest November in 80 years. The low temperatures triggered an early freeze-up, freezing barges in the river and stranding a group of hunters on the lower Yukon River for a week before a helicopter could reach them.

The Native Village of Akiak made history as the first Y-K Delta community to bring broadband internet to its residents.

A state board redrew the boundaries of Alaska voting districts, adding one community to the Bethel House District 38 and removing nine other communities. Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay, and the Calista Corporation have filed a legal complaint against the decision.

Children ages 5 to 11 became eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations. And the Association of Village Council Presidents mandated vaccinations for employees.

Alaska State Troopers arrested suspects connected to a string of violent crimes in Russian Mission after evading capture for months. The delay underscored the lack of public safety officers in Western Alaska.

December

The Bethel Regional High School boys wrestling team took first place in the state wrestling tournament. The girls team placed fourth. Bethel wrestler Landon Smith became the 15th Alaska male wrestler to win a state title every year of his high school career.

Bethel recorded its rainiest December ever. The historically bad weather stranded hundreds of people in Bethel during the holiday season.

Alaska confirmed its first cases of the omicron variant. Scientists believe that the new variant is at least twice as transmissible as the previous delta variant. With many more people expected to get infected, local health officials are urging everyone to get vaccinated and boosted to protect their health and to prevent the health care system from becoming overwhelmed.

Happy New Year 2022. Thank you for sharing your stories with us at KYUK this year.

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