Under sparkling blue skies and a warm March sun, hundreds gathered at the end of Suravak Road in the Western Alaska town of Aleknagik recently for the ground breaking of the Aleknagik Wood River Bridge.
"This is a dream a long time coming, some 30 years at least," said Aleknagik City Administrator Kay Andrews. "So many of us have been waiting for this day, knowing we'll soon have a safe way to cross between the south and north shores of our village."
The short but hazardous lake crossing has claimed more than a dozen lives since 1960, though no one offered an exact tally Friday. Middle and high school students cross the lake every school day to catch the bus to Dillingham.
"It's fitting that they're here with us today," said Sen. Lyman Hoffman from Bethel, who offered the keynote address. "Because of their daily crossing, our youth are probably the most at risk, and they are one of the primary reasons we'll have this bridge."
$20 million bridge
Many credited Hoffman with securing the state funding to build the bridge, which will cost upwards of $20 million to construct. He called the bridge a "game changer" for Aleknagik and Dillingham.
"We out here in rural Alaska are also citizens of the state and deserve to be treated as such." He said it's "a crying shame that we've had to wait so many years to get this project underway," and listed a number of hurdles including the state budget and the Department of Transportation's bureaucracy.
The crowd was gathered in sight of recently cleared brush and felled trees. Crews will begin some earthwork in May, and the actual bridge construction will begin in August. The hope is to cut a ribbon on the 440-foot, three-span, two-lane bridge in November 2015.
Connecting past to future
"Here we stand on this incredible day, right at the cusp of actually getting the bridge built," said Rep. Bryce Edgmon during his remarks at the ground breaking. "As I think about this actually happening, it sort of washes over me that this is more than just a bridge connecting one side of a community to the other. When you think about it, this is a bridge that connects the past to the present to the future. This is a bridge that introduces one generation to the opportunities that are going to be there for the next generation."
Some said they remembered official discussions about the bridge as early as the 1960s.
Aleknagik Mayor Jane Gottschalk said the city still has on file the first letter sent from the Department of Transportation, "from 28 years ago." Since then the size, location, and certainly the price tag has changed.
Former mayor Mark Smith said several slim volumes could be written about getting from those yesteryears to today, telling of the "thousand-and-one" deals done to mitigate local politics and mollify family feuds.
This is a bridge that still not everyone in the village is happy to see built. But on display that historic Friday in Aleknagik was only the goodwill of a close-knit community embracing a safer future.
This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.