Search And Rescue Volunteers Adapt To Warmer Winters

The open hole was the biggest BSAR had seen so close to Bethel. The photo was taken Dec. 12, 2019.
Credit Krysti Shallenberger / KYUK

In recent years, climate change has meant the ice necessary for the Ice Road forms later, breaks up earlier, and isn’t as thick. Travelers have died falling in the river or open holes. Now Search and Rescue volunteers in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta grapple with unpredictable river conditions.

It was early December, and the ice on the Kuskokwim River was just thick enough to hold a snow machine. Bethel Search and Rescue volunteers Mark Leary and Charles Guest travelled to six miles upriver from Bethel to an open hole large enough to swallow the town's Alaska Commercial Company store. 

The hole's open water reflected the grey-blue sky. Thirty feet from the water, Leary drilled a hole to guage the ice thickness; it measured 8 inches. 

A quarter-mile downriver is where, two years ago, a family of five drove a snowmachine into an open hole on News Years Eve. One man died, and the rest of the family fell in but survived. Leary says the loss is a reminder of how unpredictable river conditions have become.

BSAR, along with other search and rescue groups in the Kuskokwim River villages, check the trails and mark the dangerous spots as the river begins to freeze. They compile their findings in reports that they post their website and social media.

For the past decade, they’ve watched the winters change.

"Year after year, things seem to be getting worse. We have no snow. We have odd freeze-ups," Guest said. 

Guest grew up in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. He knows the river like it’s his backyard, and he’s seen the impacts from climate change.

Alaska Climatologist Rick Thoman says three of Bethel's warmest winters have occurred in the last five years. The data comes from 95 years of records that count the temperatures from December to February, which are typically the coldest months.

As the winters grow warmer and the ice becomes less safe, people are taking more risks to traveling in the region. Airplane fare is expensive compared to driving on the trails and ice roads. But these trails can have deadly consequences. Last year, four people died driving into open water or falling through thin ice in the region.

Leary says Bethel Search and Rescue is preparing for the warmer winters with new techniques and technology, while relying on knowledge passed down from Yup’ik Elders about how to stay safe traveling in the winter.

"Nowadays, we have added to that foundation of traditional knowledge. We adapted our operation with incorporating modern technology like this ice drill we’re using right now," Leary said, guesturing towards the long machine in his hand.

Another new tool being used is a radar that measures the thickness of the ice, making it easier for the rescue group to track the ice through the winter.

Guest has young children. He says that while he doesn’t talk about climate change specifically with his kids, they do talk about the weather.

"It’s just something we’re learning to adapt to everyday," Guest said. He added that's the Yup'ik way of life. 

A couple days later, Guest, along with other Bethel residents, mark the large open hole with 250 willow branches and blue reflective tape.