A state trooper has solved a problem that has plagued law enforcement in the Bethel region for decades: access. When there is an accident or any event that requires Alaska State Troopers to help, their response has been limited by flight or river conditions. If the event occurs during breakup or freeze up, the river can be unsafe for travel, and troopers have to wait for a break in the weather to fly in to help. Not anymore. Troopers now have an option that they did not have before.
Alaska State Trooper Lt. Lonnie Gonzales put over two years into getting a boat capable of navigating the Kuskokwim River in all of its phases. He pointed to an event two years ago when a snowmachine broke through the ice on the river. One person died, and the rest of the family needed help. The hovercraft in Bethel went out and rescued those who were alive, but could not carry the dead body. The plan was to come back and retrieve the body, but the hovercraft ripped its skirt, making it impossible to return. It was not until the next day that troopers got a helicopter in to make the retrieval.
People in the nearby village had wanted to head out into dangerous conditions to retrieve their relative. Gonzales remembers how tough it was to keep them off the river. He used this event, and many others, to fuel his search for an option that would work the entire year, even during breakup and freeze up.
It took him time to find it, but when he saw it, he knew that the Canadian designed “Thousand Island Airboat” would do the job. It could navigate water and ice, and even skim over snow-covered marshes. By the time Gonzales was ready to buy it, it was being built by a U.S. company, with a price tag of $290,000. The state did not have the money.
That did not stop the effort. Troopers convinced staff at the U.S. Marshals' office, which often collaborates with state troopers in Bethel, to make the purchase using funds that U.S. Attorney General William Barr set aside after visiting the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and declaring a law enforcement emergency in rural Alaska. The U.S. Marshals own the craft, but Bethel-based troopers fuel it, maintain it, and use it.
On Sept. 3, troopers tested the new airboat on the Kuskokwim River. Lt. Gonzales says that it is not the answer to all the challenges in the region, but he predicts that the airboat will shine during breakup and freeze up, when conventional river travel is dangerous. Its range is one of the biggest limitations. It takes a high-quality gasoline to fuel it, something not always available at a village gas pump.