May 13, 2009


Yukon River Bridge, November 2008

I've been obsessed with the Yukon River breakup for weeks - checking the hydro site religiously and irritating my friend, and weather service hydrologist, Ed daily. He had been estimating that it would break at the Bridge on the haul road (the only crossing of the river in the state) sometime on Sunday. But, at 10 am on Saturday we got the call - "now!". So, Dea, Ed and I flew up the road after a quick pack, and Dennis (check out a post on his new blog) and his family followed us a couple house later.

I've witnessed several events in Alaska that have made me stop to take pause, and truly appreciate, and respect, how fortunate I am and feel utterly in awe. The breakup of the Yukon River ranks tops. The sheer force and relentlessness of incalculable amounts of ice heaving downriver, fighting the restraint of it's banks, is remarkable.

The river has been a real issue this year - flooding Eagle, Circle, Stevens Village, and now Tanana. Thicker than average ice, teamed with the hottest spring on record, resulted in a massive amount of quick melt. This season was devastating to so many, but also in a contorted way, indisputably beautiful. We had a wide view that omitted the human aspect of what was before us. Those in several small villages, cabins, and fish camps, weren't so fortunate.


We arrived at the river early Saturday afternoon, as the ice limped along in fits and starts. Sheets of ice, and bits of open water. The calm. We made camp about twenty feet up an embankment where we could see upriver to the bridge, and downriver. The wait was on.

At about 6:00 on Saturday night it finally broke loose. I was like a kid in a candy store. We all were. Running around to different vantage points. Dea, Ed, and Dennis' family took photos and video, and Dennis and I scurried around behind the big cameras in a comical attempt to slow it all down. From around the warmth of our fire we estimate we witnessed about 60 miles of ice flow by into the late night.

By the time we hit the bags in our tents at 2am the river had encroached up the bank to within 4 feet of our fire pit. With each slow and deliberate movement up the shore, the ice crumpled trees and moved earth. Knowing there would be plenty of ice to see in the morning we slept. At 2:30 Dea woke me "I think the ice stopped". Ed and I climbed out to see the entire river still. Nothing moved. After the flooding upriver earlier, we were not comforted by the sudden quiet. I moved everything out of the tent and into the car while Ed watched the water line. 3am and it had not risen. We were on the low side of the bridge. I made sure I knew where the keys were. 4am and and the ice still hadn't moved, but the water hadn't risen either.

Later in the morning we learned that there was an ice jam 11 miles down river. All told we were looking at a fraction of 36 total miles of unmoving ice. The possibility of flooding was still a big concern. We got word that Stevens Village, after believing the worst was over, was now under water. The mood was heavy. The river level had been rising steadily all day, but now it was threatening to rise much more abruptly. We stared at the river until our eyes played tricks. Roughly 8 more feet and Alyeska was going to shut down the pipeline and the bridge.

We sat all day Sunday, and the ice never moved. This was nature at it's most obstinate. Nothing man could do. The water never rose. The ice stayed contained and finally broke for the last time at 1am on Monday. By now we were all back in Fairbanks.

I don't have any photos yet, but will post some when I get film back. I must confess, I wished I was a filmmaker this weekend. The sound and movement of the ice is the hook. I'm anxious to see how it all represents on film. In the meantime, the following video was made by Ed (at some point I'm sure he will do a much more educated blog post).


patcaribou said... those slow moving lava flows in hawaii. its true, there've been so many instances when i wished my camera had a video mode. but i think its starting to become standard with the new digitals.

Mary said...

Thank you. I've never seen anything like this. I live in the South Pacific.'s warmer down here.

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