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Bethel’s tripod is on the river waiting for breakup. The creator broke down his design.

Eric Whitney with the tripod on the Kuskokwim.
Sunni Bean
Eric Whitney on the Kuskokwim with the tripod.

Eric Whitney is collecting trash beside the seawall on Front Street.

He has a fluffy australian shepherd-husky mix, and a fat tire bike parked beside him.

“This is Lucy,” he said. “We have three dogs. This is the one that goes with the bike best.”

We’re standing next to the magenta Kuskokwim Ice Classic hut. A string runs from the hut about 100 yards down to the river, where it’s tied to a tripod that Whitney built and installed on the ice in April.

Now, he’s waiting with the rest of Bethel to see when it moves down the river, marking break-up and the unofficial start of spring.

There's a wooden calendar painted on the side of the hut, with the dates of break-up going back to 1924. Though most years, break-ups have fallen in mid-May, in recent years, they tend to come earlier. The earliest date recorded was in 2019, on April 12th.

“On our fourth meltdown of the year, it kind of seemed like we better get this up,” Whitney said. “Then we had a whole nother month of cold weather, and we could be putting that thing up right now no problem.”

It’s not just Bethel residents that make bets on the breakup. The Alaska Pacific Forecast Center puts out its own prediction too. The Kuskokwim Basin saw some deeply cold weather this April, cycling between melts and freezes, which pushed back the center’s predicted date. Now, it’s expected in Bethel in the 2nd or 3rd week of May. They also reported an excess of sand on the river between Bethel and Tuluksak, which could cause rapid deterioration.

We headed down to the river to check out Whitney’s latest tripod. The river already has inch-wide cracks and long stretches of puddles, and thin plates of ice with patterns like giant snowflakes.

Whitney is the kind of person who does things himself. He makes art out of all sorts of materials,

though tripods are some of his largest projects.

“I make some little yard creatures, I guess. And carve wooden bowls –birch bowls – out of barrels. We built a warming hut out of all reclaimed sort of recycled foam panels and stuff that was destined for the dump.”

He has been making Bethel’s spring tripods since 2015. When he first started, he said he liked to complicate things.

“When I first started we went for elaborate designs,” he said. “That did involve a bit of engineering and head scratching, and it was a lot easier to put it up with a forklift.”

But this year, he chose a more simple design. He wanted to use local wood from a mill upriver, so it would be more natural when it ends up on river banks downstream, but he couldn’t get it.

“This is wood from the lumberyard. It's a two by six. Two by fours. There's really nothing special about it,” Whitney said.

He painted the tripod’s long legs with acrylic paint in bold blocks of color. The longest piece of wood is 28 feet.

“I was thinking spring– spring colors. And also what was in the shop at the time.” Whitney said.

He went with lime green, yellow, and blue, and created a wooden flower on top with its head tilted towards the sun. He starts off by priming everything so the colors come out bright.

“Because you want that,” he said. “I want it snappy.”

Around a dozen people helped him transport the wooden parts in a truck and trailer, and install it in the ice. They start by drilling three holes, 12 feet apart for the main pieces.

“Sticking those in the hole, having a crew hold those while I get the next one up, like, perched precariously on a ladder,” said Whitney. “And I’ll screw them together.”

He added reflectors for SnoGos and the last bold ice road drivers. He’s still peeling off stray fragments of tape while we look at it. He doesn’t need to be too detail oriented, since it’ll be floating down the river soon enough.

He said, “A lot of times it sinks into the ice here, and parts of it will stick up.”

When that happens, it starts to pull on the 250 pound test line running to the hut. As the tripod moves down the river, it pulls the string off a reel. When the string reaches the end of the reel, it trips a clock.

“And that's the time,” Whitney said. “That moment means that was the time of breakup.”

There’s even a backup camera with a timestamp, in case of any doubts about the reel system.

“There's a whole system in there that is highly secretive,” Whitney said.

While some hope for a mush out, the anti-climatic safe and slow melt, Whitney’s hoping for a big breakup.

“The less interesting one is a mush out, where everything just sits in place so long, and the sun rots it out. And by the time it starts moving, it just kind of crumbles to bits. And it makes a great sound like wind chimes or something, I can't really describe it,” said Whitney. “But it's not as exciting as a big turning breakup. If it’s a good one, you'll see chunks of churning ice and logs sticking up out of the river and water as high as the top of the seawall.”

He’s recovered a few tripods when they landed in handy locations other years, but he probably won’t try to get this one back.

“Hopefully somebody downriver can find it and get some use out of it. I know lumber is expensive.” He said.

Some lucky Bethel residents will win some hefty prize money – last year’s four winners of Minute Madness won $10,000 each.

“There’ll be music, some people dancing, there'll be a hot, usually a grill, and there'll be hot dogs and snacks,” He said.

Whitney’s mostly looking forward to a running river again.

“I look forward to getting out on the boat and just poking around looking for wood and barrels and just being on the river, camping,” he said.

Sunni is a reporter and radio lover. Her favorite part of the job is sitting down and having a good conversation.