Two Men Die Falling Through Open Water On Snowmachines

Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley says ice road travel is safe up until Aniak.
Credit Joey Mendolia / Alaska's Energy Desk/Alaska Public Media

Two people in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta have died in the past two weeks from falling into water on their snowmachines. These are the first deaths related to travelers falling into open water in the Lower Kuskokwim area this winter.

One man, Joseph Kernak from Tuntutuliak, drove his snowmachine into unmarked open water near a lake halfway to the village on March 10. He was returning from Bethel after watching basketball games with his girlfriend, Minnie White, when they fell in and became soaked at below freezing temperatures. Andrew Frank is the tribal police officer.

"She tried to persuade the boyfriend to start walking toward Tunt, but the boyfriend didn’t want to listen," said Frank.

White ended up walking the opposite way from the village. Frank says that a group of people heading from Bethel found her a few hours later. They alerted Frank, who sent Tuntutuliak’s search and rescue volunteers to find Kernak. The volunteers discovered Kernak barely responsive in the early morning of March 11. They changed his clothes into dry ones, tried to give him warm water, and brought him back to Tuntutuliak where he succumbed to hypothermia.

A few days later, Akiachak Tribal Police recovered the body of 41-year-old Eric Phillips from a slough on the Kuskokwim River after finding his damaged snowmachine nearby. He also fell into unmarked open water. Alcohol is said to have factored into both deaths.

Warmer temperatures have weakened the ice on the Kuskokwim River, the main source of travel for residents of the Y-K Delta. Bethel experienced its warmest February on record this year, but Mike Riley, the president of Bethel Search and Rescue, says that it's currently safer to travel upriver to Aniak than it has been, thanks to the recent colder weather.