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No Kuskokwim Ice Road Yet

Katie Basile

The weather may be cold, but it’s too soon to get out on the river ice. That’s the message from Mark Leary with Bethel Search and Rescue, who flew the river on Wednesday, Nov. 18.

“We’re nowhere near having safe travel conditions,” said Leary. “Nowhere near.”

The Kuskokwim River is not even close to being frozen. The edge of the freezing ice is just a bit past the confluence with the Johnson River.

“As best we could tell from that half mile below the Johnson, the Kuskokwim main channel is open all the way out to the bay,” Leary said.

Leary said that ice is forming up better than it did two years ago, when the winter was the warmest on record, but it is not freezing as fast or as well as last winter, when conditions were near-perfect. This winter, there is open water near each of the tundra villages. In addition, there are some stretches of ice piled up in rough stretches on the Johnson River.

“Several sections of the lower Johnson had broken up in that storm, that high-wind storm they had the other day, and piled up and refrozen. So there’s some pretty long stretches in there that are very, very, rough. That might be an issue later on, when we start making roads and trails,” Leary said.

Closer to Bethel, Straight Slough is much further along in freezing than it ever was last year, but it is not safe yet, and it looks like one often-used section may be a bad spot for most of the winter. 

“Just right exactly where people would cross going from Straight Slough to Church Slough, that area, that crossing in there has got numerous open holes and very thin ice, freshly frozen,” said Leary.

Leary said that Kuksokuak Slough is also too dangerous to use. 

“Although it’s frozen, it has so many open holes you can’t even count. It’s completely riddled with open holes,” Leary said.

Leary did see some people out fishing on the ice near their villages, and he said that it made him smile.

“Every village, there were people out on the ice 'mannucking.' Even with this pandemic going on, they go out in the clean fresh air. They carefully go out on the new young ice, and they fish for some fresh food. What better prevention?” Leary said.

Bethel Search and Rescue has flown out to survey the river on the same day three years in a row to build up a basis for comparing the different patterns of freeze up. Mark Leary’s entire discussion of ice conditions during “Coffee at KYUK” can be found on the KYUK website. To find out more about the ice conditions, go to the Bethel Search and Rescue website.

Johanna Eurich's vivid broadcast productions have been widely heard on National Public Radio since 1978. She spent her childhood speaking Thai, then learned English as a teenager and was educated at a dance academy, boarding schools and with leading intellectuals at her grandparents' dinner table in Philadelphia.
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