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Science and Environment

As The Threat Of Ice Jams Looms Over The Kuskokwim, An Old Tradition Remembered

Kuskokwim River ice piles onto the Aniak shore on April 30, 2020.
Dave Cannon

Longtime residents of the Kuskokwim River and the National Weather Service are expecting ice jams and flooding this breakup. To reduce the risk of both, some residents have floated the idea of "sanding" the river. The process involves dropping sand from a crop duster airplane onto the ice. The dark sand helps soften the ice so that it is less likely to jam when it cracks. Sanding hasn’t occurred in decades, but one person in Bethel remembers sanding the rivers in the late 1970s, mostly the Yukon River. Tim Meyers shares this memory.


Tim Meyers: I bought a crop duster to haul fish in, and I got this contract for hauling sand the winter before hauling the fish, and I was like, ‘Holy cow! What a deal!’ Prior to me doing this, they’d been doing it for years. And they would send someone out and drop bags of red dye on the ice, half-mile apart. You could see them.

So we’d load the plane up sand out of Galena a lot, and we’d just have to fly down and connect the dots. They dropped all this sand on the river, which rotted the ice a lot more, and the point was it wouldn’t jam there as much. And they were strategically placing it in spots they knew jammed. There were sharp bends in mountainous areas on the Yukon where it definitely jammed.

I know it has to be done after it stops snowing, because if you put all the sand down and you get another 6 inches of snow, it doesn’t have much value once it’s covered up with snow again.

You can’t put damp sand in the hopper. It’ll never come out, so they had a way: they fired up a big dryer. They dried the sand to powder, and they had a auger. They augured the sand right into the hopper of the plane, and when it was powder dry, it would come out real easy. And I did it for two or three years on the Yukon. The Kuskokwim wasn’t as much, and the guy who I helped do it had his own planes. They pretty much did the Kuskokwim themselves. 

The thing with the Yukon, we would load up in Galena, and some of those trips were an hour and a half down, way down river. It was ridiculous to sit in that stupid plane to fly for an hour and a half, and it’d take you five seconds to dump your load, and it’d be another hour and a half down to Galena. And they’d load you in 10 minutes. You did this all day long. It was unbelievable.

That’s really a memory.