When in Naknek, I spent as much time as I could down by the water. Hiking along the shore of the Naknek River was a favorite way to spend my off time. The ice pack was solid enough to keep me from sinking too much in my mukluks, so I hiked as far as time allowed.
The hiking was peaceful, with the slow movement of ice down the river, and the constant flying of ducks, as they skimmed just above the water, their beating wings making small ripples on the glass like surface.
It was an overcast morning when we crossed over the Naknek River for South Naknek. People were still using the ice road, but word was out that time was short. It would turn out that businesses were in a rush to get heavy equipment across ASAP.
The temperature had warmed up, but it was the tide that had the final word for the ice road. High tides had been increasing substantially, as the higher water pushes up against the ice, these huge pressure ridges grew. Some went right across the ice road, which limited access to anything without clearance. I saw no Subarus crossing with us.
An available home in S. Naknek
Of my time spent in the region, I enjoyed my day in South Naknek the most. We picked up a couple of locals for guides, and we had an absolute blast exploring the southern side of the river. We were welcomed by everyone we met, and had more than one offer to help us out if we wanted to move to the area.
I would love to come back to the region in the summer, but I can honestly say I’d want to spend my time on the south side of the Naknek River. It’s a much more relaxed way of life here, and we were told that the huge influx of crowds to Naknek & King Salmon do not hit the southern side. One can still meander down the river’s edge, fishing as you go, enjoying the solitude that Alaska is suppose to be about.
The canneries have all closed up shop in South Naknek. The killing blow came when a road was built between King Salmon & Naknek. It no longer made financial sense to process salmon from the southern side. Grant Aviation still makes daily flights, weather permitting, to South Naknek, and they have a really nice airstrip.
Driving across the Naknek River
The skies cleared well before noon, and we had absolutely beautiful weather as we traveled throughout South Naknek and the surrounding area. The Alaska days were already getting longer, and the sun had regained some of the power that we had been missing during the winter months.
Now that Covid-19 has us all hunkered down, it’s hard not to wonder if I should have taken that job offer I had after one day in South Naknek. Regardless, I can not wait for the rivers to open up, and for winter’s grip to be pried from the land.
By the way, it was -24F at the cabin on Monday morning. Not too hard to figure out why I’m getting a bit stir crazy, surrounded by nothing but snow. At 4pm, the temp had risen to +26F: A fifty degree swing. “Springtime” in Alaska.
Naknek sits along the shore of the Naknek River, where the river flows into Kvichak Arm of Bristol Bay.
Bristol Bay is Alaska’s famed salmon waters. It is the world’s most productive salmon fishery. Naknek is home to both Trident and Peter Pan Seafoods, among many others.
Hiking along the shore of the Naknek River
Naknek lies less than 20 road miles from King Salmon, which is also on the Naknek River. It’s definitely fishing country, with over 75% of the jobs in fisheries.
When we visited, the town had only begun to get ready for the fishing season. Many were worried about what the Corvid-19 virus was going to do to the industry. At the time, Alaska had no known cases of the virus, but Washington State was already a hotbed. Many summer workers come up from Washington every year. Concerns were rampant, and not unexpected.
The nightlife hotspot of Naknek
The community was welcoming and open about their unique lifestyle on Bristol Bay. Naknek has a population of less than 600 in the winter months, but explodes to around 15,000 during the summer. I have always wanted to visit the area in the summer, it must be absolutely beautiful. The sockeye runs are a major temptation, but I simply could not imagine so many people in such a confined space as Naknek. There is a nearby alternative, but more on that in a future post.
I flew out to King Salmon on PenAir, also known as Peninsula Airways. I’ve always liked PenAir and their Saab 2000’s, although the airline is now under the Ravn banner. The twin engine turboprop usually offers a smooth ride out to some of Alaska’s more remote locations.
The Alaska Airlines & PenAir terminal at King Salmon, Alaska
We landed in King Salmon, and drove over to Naknek. This is fishing country, both commercial & sport. Salmon is king here. Anti Pebble Mine signs were everywhere. No surprise that the fishing communities did not want to see the world’s largest open pit mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
We located our accommodations for our stay, only to find out that there was no heat in the building. Only in Alaska would the proprietor think that heat was an option. After scouring Naknek, we ended up back in King Salmon for our room & board.
Inside the Saab2000
Sitting in the emergency row on the Saab2000 does not really offer much of an advantage. It definitely cuts down on the view.
I spent close to ten days in King Salmon and Naknek earlier in the month. Everyone waves at you out there on the shoreline of Bristol Bay. They wave when you’re driving; they wave when you’re walking, or riding a snowmachine, or simply standing around enjoying being off the grid.
Now, I am back in Fairbanks, and as predicted, the habit of waving at every car I pass has become a habit. It would seem that Fairbanks isn’t quite as friendly as I thought. Or at least not as much as a small fishing community. Yet, I’m determined to continue to wave at strangers until I get one to wave back.
We needed a ride across the Ninglick River to the new townsite of Mertarvik. So the word went out, and by morning we had a couple of offers of snow machine rides. I also had received an offer to guide us the nine miles across by foot. Of our little troupe, I was the only one who was intrigued by this, although I had one guy who said, “If you’re walking to Mertarvik, I sure as hell won’t let you be the only one!” In the end, lack of time overcame intense desire, and I hitched a ride on the back of a snow machine.
The snow machine trail back to Newtok
Thirty minutes later, I was dropped off at the Tundra View Lodge. Within fifteen minutes my partner in crime arrived, and we set off to explore the new location for Newtok.
The Tundra View Lodge
People started to move across to Mertarvik from Newtok in October of last year. First in line were the people who were displaced or very soon to be displaced, either by the melting permafrost or the river erosion. Approximately twenty-two homes have been completed in Mertarvik, along with an evacuation center that currently houses the school.
In the evacuation center, I talked with an elder on the move from her traditional home. She told me that she had cried for weeks leading up to the move, and the first few days in the new location. But after a week or so in Mertarvik, she no longer wanted to go back to Newtok. This was home now, and it was time to move forward. The upcoming weekend had an area wide basketball tournament at the Newtok gym, the elder confessed to me that her granddaughter was playing, but she didn’t even want to cross the river for that!
Toksook Bay traveling basketball team
Since the planes were not flying between the villages due to high winds, the basketball teams from around Nelson Island headed over to Newtok by snow machine. I believe this is the Toksook Bay team, as they took a break on the edge of Mertarvik, before taking on the final nine miles to Newtok. Toksook Bay is approximately 59 miles, as the caribou plods, from Newtok.
Mertarvik, looking back across the river towards Newtok
The move across the Ninglick River has been 20 years in the making for the villagers of Newtok. A lot of challenges remain, and the move for the remaining people of the village will still be a long and slow process, but the residents here are a hardy bunch.
There is something quite impressive about a Southwestern Alaska blizzard. We were out at the far end of the village, when our local guide told us that we had 15 minutes left to take cover. He had become incredibly reliable with his predictions, and we had already used up 3/4 of an hour from his first warning call. He had been counting down regularly after that first one.
Visibility had been shortened considerably, and it was obvious that we needed to take cover soon. Even Bear, our furry, four-legged companion, had left us to take his own cover at the 30 minute warning mark.
One side of the church…
… and the other side of the church after the storm.
By sunset, one could hardly see the closest building to you. The wind howled over, under and around the building that housed us. It was simply put: Intense. I can’t think of any time I have experienced such fierce winds. In Fairbanks, we rarely see much wind, the colder it gets, the calmer it gets. Out here in Newtok was a totally different animal. Which meant that we spent far too much time outside reveling in the chaos.
The next day, the kids were climbing up snow drifts against a couple of connex units and running the length of them, then launching off into the massive piles of snow. Backflips were par for the course.
Trails that we had been walking, now had steep drops, only to have us climb back up the other side.
We flew in on a Wednesday, and due to weather, another flight didn’t land at Newtok for the next 8 days. Weather permitting, Grant Aviation makes 2-3 flights per day.
Newtok, Alaska: That wasn’t a landing, as much as it was an arrival.
When we landed in Newtok, the little airstrip was a hive of activity. Two small planes were parked at one end of the runway, with people, gear and supplies being quickly unloaded in the -20F degree air. Two men with four wheelers offered us rides on the back to the heart of the village: The School.
In the summer, Newtok is a village of boardwalks. The entire village is sinking into the tundra, with the melting of the permafrost, and many of the boardwalks will be under water when break up arrives.
Today though, the ground is frozen firm, and the village is encased in snow.
The Yup’ik village of Newtok, which roughly translates to “rustling of grass”, first saw a permanent settlement in 1949, although the ancestors of the residents have lived in the area for over 2000 years. By 1958, the BIA had built a school. The location was determined because it was the farthest up river that barges could bring in supplies.
The Ninglick River has been taking dozens of feet of shoreline annually by erosion, leaving much of Newtok balancing precariously. A new location for the village has been staked out 9 miles away at Mertarvik, which roughly translates as “good water” from Yup’ik. Approximately one third of the village moved across the river onto higher ground this past autumn.
The church of Newtok
The church was empty, as the priest travels from village to village. The sunset is glowing through the windows on the opposite side.
We spent a lot of time in the school, as it acted as a community center for the village. Everyone seemed to go through the school at some point. The teachers, administration, and students were all very welcoming, and I thoroughly enjoyed the interaction.
Bear, aka Dimitri
This little guy became our constant companion and guide. Bear would see us out walking from across the village, and he’d come running for us at a gallop. We often had a pack of village dogs following us, and competing for our attention when we were out & about. Like all the residents of Newtok, they were incredibly gracious hosts.