Kuskokwim River Ice Opens At Nicolai, Tributaries

Apr 27, 2021

An Alaska Army National Guard Black Hawk helicopter lands in Bethel in April 2021. The National Guard is stationing a Black Hawk in Bethel for the duration of the 2021 Kuskokwim River breakup season.
Credit Alaska Army National Guard

Kuskokwim River breakup has begun. The river ice near the upper river community of Nicolai broke on April 23, and boaters took to the open water, according to National Weather Service Hydrologist Celine Van Breukelen.

Government officials and Kuskokwim River residents shared their river ice observations during a teleconference on April 26.

Kuskokwim River tributaries have also opened. Susan Hubbard in Sleetmute said that the Hoholita River is fully open, and the Holitna River is open in spots. A person identified as “Wayne in Aniak” said that the Aniak River has mostly opened.

Hydrologist Van Breukelen said that because of the large snowpack this year, she’s concerned about possible flooding in Kuskokwim communities from Tuluksak downstream.

“Those are locations where the tundra is likely to hold a lot of water and be very slow to drain,” Van Breukelen said.

She said the villages of Aniak and Akiak are in danger of flooding due to ice jams, because there is thick ice downstrean of the communities. 

A Civil Air Patrol flight will survey the river from Bethel upstream to Stoney River later this week. Next week, the National Weather Service River Watch Team will begin flying the river, surveying conditions. Those flights will start on May 3.

The Alaska Army National Guard will station a Black Hawk helicopter in Bethel during the Kuskokwim River breakup to provide emergency rescues, if needed. Last year, pararescues airlifted two Elders near Napaimute after water flooded their cabin. If an emergency rescue is needed, people are asked to call Alaska State Troopers, who will then coordinate with the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center.

State officials are hoping that most flood response can happen locally. Claude Denver with the state's Emergency Operations Center is encouraging Kuskokwim River communities to prepare for potential flooding by creating local emergency response plans and preparing community evacuation centers, like schools.