Camera: Leica M3; Film: Fujichrome 35mm, Velvia 100
The North Slope village of Utqiagvik woke up to -20F degree temperatures on Wednesday morning. That was a record low for the day for the village. It was Utqiagvik’s first recording of a record low since 21 December 2007. During that same time span, the village had set or tied 112 record high temperatures.
Alaska has started to “reopen” businesses throughout the state, with everyone seemingly holding their breath as it happens. Travel restrictions into the state remain in place. Restaurants are now able to seat to within 25% of capacity, and members at a table are supposed to be from the same household.
The Fairbanks Borough had seen two weeks go by without a new case of Covid-19, but that ended on Sunday with a case in North Pole. Since then, North Pole has seen another diagnosed case. The State had six new cases on Tuesday, for a total of 351. 228 individuals have recovered from Covid-19, and nine Alaskans have died from the virus. Concerning, to me at least, is the first recorded cases in small, isolated, communities like Kodiak, Petersburg and Sitka after a long period of social distancing.
Fishing communities are still struggling with what to do for the summer season. Valdez has decided to allow fishermen into town without any quarantine, where several smaller communities are demanding a quarantine. The State of Alaska has agreed to allow fishermen to quarantine on their boats, although a realistic plan for that option remains elusive, considering most fly into these small communities, and air travel between towns not on the road system is off limits. Travel between communities on the road system is now being allowed.
Tourism is all but scrapped for the 2020 season. The two main cruise ship companies have written off Alaska for the year, and have even decided to keep their lodges and hotels closed until late spring 2021.
Denali National Park has now opened the Park Road to Mile 12. As spring takes a stronger grip on the land, the Park will continue to open up more of the road as conditions allow. Denali Park is also considering having additional road lotteries in 2020. The lottery, which allows permit holders to drive well into the Park, where usually only busses are allowed, takes place in September. Additional opportunities would be extremely welcome. I’m thrilled with the idea, since the State is all but closed to Outside tourists this year.
The Denali Highway, not to be confused with the Denali Park Road, is NOT open. Yet, people keep getting stuck on the road between Cantwell and Paxson. The Denali Highway, possibly the best drive in Alaska, is not maintained during the winter. It is also not paved, which keeps the riffraff numbers down. Or at least, the tour busses.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.