Tag Archives: ice

The draw of water

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Peter Pan Cannery on the Naknek

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.

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Hiking along the Naknek River

 


South Naknek

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Heading across river

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.

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Pressure ridge

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.

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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.

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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.

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Looking upstream

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.

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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.


Yukon Quest Start

Film Friday: 

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Camera: Rolleiflex 3.5MX; Film: Kodak 35mm, Tri-X 400

 

 

 


Naknek, Alaska

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Looking out over Naknek from the Tribal Hall

Naknek sits along the shore of the Naknek River, where the river flows into Kvichak Arm of Bristol Bay.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Naknek, circa 1946; Naknek Native Tribal Council

 

 


The Great Race of Mercy

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Ryan Redington comes into the village of Ruby, Alaska; Photo credit: ADN/Loren Holmes

Due to the coronavirus scare, about the only sporting event still taking place in the United States is the Iditarod sled dog race.  Interestingly, the Iditarod commemorates the 1925 Nome Serum Run.

 

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Known at the time as the Great Race of Mercy, the race against time stands alongside the Good Friday Earthquake as one of Alaska’s defining moments.

Curtis Welch was the only doctor in Nome in the autumn of 1924.  He had placed an order for diphtheria antitoxin, but it had not arrived by the time the port was entombed in winter ice.  In January of 1925, Welch had diagnosed the first case of diphtheria.

His pleading telegram to the outside world read as follows:

An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP 

With the area population around 10,000, and close to 100% mortality rate, the situation was dire.  After the 1917 influenza, in which half the native population perished, time was of the essence.

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Nome, Alaska circa 1916

The mail route between Nenana and Nome was 674 miles.  The only diphtheria antitoxin was in Anchorage.  The antitoxin was put on the Alaska Railroad to Nenana and then hauled west by dogsled.  The rural Alaskan mail carriers were the best dog mushers in the State, and the vast majority were Athabaskan.  “Wild Bill” Shannon was the first musher to take the serum from Nenana.  The temperature was -50F when he left Nenana with a team of 11 dogs.  When Shannon reached the village of Minto at 3am, it was -60F, and Wild Bill was suffering from hypothermia and frostbite.

The serum went from relay team to relay team.  At times, the serum was brought into various roadhouses to warm up.  One musher at Manley Hot Springs had the roadhouse operator pour hot water over his hands so that they could be broken free of his sled’s handle bars.  It was -56F.

By January 30, a fifth death, and 27 cases of diphtheria had occurred in Nome.  Plans were made to fly serum in, but they were rejected by the Navy and experienced pilots because of the weather.  The relay went on.

Leonhard Seppala left Nome for Shaktoolik to take his place in the relay.  He faced gale force winds and -85F wind chill.  His lead dog Togo traveled 350 miles in total.

Henry Ivanoff’s team was tangled up with a reindeer.

Charlie Olson took the serum from Seppala, his team was blown off course by the winds. He passed the serum to Gunnar Kaasen in Bluff, AK.  Kaassen waited for the weather to improve, but it only became worse, so he set out into a nasty headwind.  His lead dog was Balto.  Kaassen could barely see the first two dogs in front of his sled because of the blowing snow, but Balto led the team through high drifts, river overflow and heavy winds.  At one point, a gust of wind flipped the sled.  The serum was thrown into the snow, and Kaassen’s hands were frostbit trying to recover the cylinder of serum.

In spite of the hardships, Kaassen reached Point Safety ahead of schedule.  The next man up, Ed Rohn, was sleeping, so Kaassen and his team led by Balto continued on.  They arrived in Nome at 5:30am.  The relay of dog teams traveled the 674 miles in 127-1/2 hours.  Not one vial of serum had been broken.

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Gunnar Kaassen and Balto

For the first time since the Last Great Race first ran, mushers this year are not being allowed into villages due to coronavirus concerns.  Checkpoints are in tents out on rivers away from communities.  Spectators have been told not to show up in Nome to cheer as teams cross under the famed burled arch on Front Street.

If nothing else, 1925 shows us how vital it is to step up and come together at a time of crisis.


Mertarvik

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The streets of Mertarvik, Alaska

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.


Kuskokwim Highway

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Breaking trail on the Kuskokwim River; Photo credit: KTOO

The ice road on the Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska has reached a record length this year: 355 miles.

The ice road generally starts to take shape, weather permitting, in January.  This year, for the first time, the village of Sleetmute is on the river ice-highway system.

On average, the ice road runs 200 miles long, or so.  With unpredictable air transportation, the ice road can be a boon for residents trying to reach medical care, or to just buy supplies mid-winter.

Ice thickness near Bethel was at 3-4 feet, but it dropped to approximately 2 feet thick near Sleetmute.  One 14 mile section was so rough that it had to be bulldozed prior to plowing.

Thanks to KTOO, Johnny Cash, Rebecca Wilmarth and Corey Nicholai for the video.


Images of Newtok

Sticking the landing:

Newtok, Alaska: That wasn’t a landing, as much as it was an arrival.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Go Jaegers!

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.

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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.

 

 


Flight to Newtok

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The flight to Newtok took us across a vast expanse of seemingly endless white.  As far as one could see, from one horizon to the other, nothing but white.  Out here, the wind is an artist, leaving mesmerizing patterns in the snow.   Even in the air with two other people, I could feel the grip of isolation.

Earlier in the month, four children became lost in blizzard conditions out here, when they went out on a snow machine.  It was not hard to imagine losing your bearing, especially when the wind picked up.  The kids were found, huddled around the youngest to keep him warm.  They were flown to Bethel with severe hypothermia, but they were alive, against long odds.

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Newtok through the windshield

That’s the village of Newtok, with the airstrip dead ahead.  It’s located on a bend in the Ningaluk River.  River erosion and the melting of the permafrost is taking a huge toll on the village, forcing a move to a new location.

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Newtok, Alaska


Cold Trusses

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