Various organizations in Bethel came together to pull a truck off the rotting Kuskokwim River ice before it could fall into the water during breakup. Together they got the truck to dry land.
The black Toyota pickup truck had been stranded on the river ice for multiple weeks. It sat near the Crowley boat launch, one of the main boat launches in Bethel. Spring melt is occurring, and breakup is soon expected. The concern was that if the truck fell in the water, it could become a hazard for boats, tear fishing nets, and leak contaminants in the river.
On the morning of May 2, three groups assembled to remove the truck: Bethel Search and Rescue, Alaska State Troopers, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. By then, a significant amount of water had pooled on the river ice.
“The water was up and into the interior of the truck,” said Boyd Blihovde, Refuge Manager for the USFWS Yukon Delta National Wildlife Refuge. He had gathered the various organizations together for the removal.
Alaska State Troopers were there with their airboat to respond in case someone fell through the ice. Bethel Search and Rescue was there to offer its expertise. Two volunteers from the group checked the ice conditions, waded into the water, and tied the truck to their snowmachines. Blihovde watched from shore.
“It was pretty quick after that,” Blihovde said.
The snowmachines dragged the truck through the water, but the truck hit an ice ridge. The snowmachines strained to pull it.
“The snowmachines didn’t have quite enough power by themselves to do that, and that’s when Crowley must have seen us," Blihovde said.
A Crowley employee began driving a yellow front-end loader down the hill to the boat launch. The Crowley worker tied a line to the truck and pulled it over the ice ridge. The two snowmachines then pulled the truck until it hit overflow. The front-end loader took over again, pulling the truck through the overflow to dry land.
Blihovde said that he doesn’t know who the truck’s owner is, and as far as he knows, the owner was not present when the truck was removed.
Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley said that vehicles being stranded on the river ice is not uncommon. The Kuskokwim River has a heavily used ice road, but he said that this is the first coordinated effort involving multiple agencies to remove a stranded vehicle before breakup.
“This is the first time we’ve ever recorded something like this with the refuge manager and Alaska State Troopers, along with their employees coming out and working together,” Riley said.
Wildlife Trooper Walter Blajeski was one of the troopers on standby in case someone fell through the ice during the truck removal. No one did, but the effort, so close to breakup, carried risk for the volunteers. In the future, Blajeski urges vehicle owners to ask for help removing stuck vehicles before the river ice becomes dangerous.
“If you get your vehicle stuck on the ice, call for help. Don’t just give up. Somebody would be willing to help, be it the city, state, federal government, search and rescue," Blajeski said. "We’d rather deal with it early than later.”
Blajeski said that troopers have issued criminal citations to people in the past for polluting the river when their vehicles fell into the Kuskokwim. Because this truck did not fall into the water, troopers are not pursuing charges.
Last week, troopers had looked at the truck to see if they could remove it using their airboat. According to trooper spokesperson Gretchen Weiss-Brooks, they determined that the boat did not have the power or capability to drag the truck off the ice.
Also last week, Alaska Army National Guard Communications Director Lt. Col. Candis Olmstead said that troopers chose not to ask the Guard to remove the truck using the Black Hawk helicopter that’s stationed in Bethel for breakup. "While there are a lot of considerations for this endeavor, the primary consideration is safety of the crew rigging the vehicle and hooking it to the aircraft while on rotting ice," Olmstead wrote in an email to KYUK.