Alaska News

Couple, sled dogs rescued from Yukon flood

After a night surviving the flood of a lifetime on the Yukon River, Andy Bassich found himself loading sled dogs into a helicopter Tuesday, looping seat belts through their harnesses.

"I'd just pick them up by the collar, get a hand under the belly and shove them in."

The dogs flew quietly in the back of the copter. No yelping or twitching. It had been a long night for the team, and to their master's heartbreak, not everyone survived.

"I think they were happy as hell to get the hell out of there, man."

So was Bassich. The rescue of the former tour-boat captain, his girlfriend and two-dozen sled dogs from a cabin 12 miles downriver from Eagle on the Yukon River came in the middle of another day of violent flooding west of the Canadian border.

Among the developments:

• "House-size" chunks of ice slammed against buildings on Front Street overnight in Eagle, where more than 20 people were staying at the local school because the flood has cut them off from their homes or destroyed their cabins.

• The National Weather Service labeled the flood the worst on record in Eagle and nearby old Eagle Village, where floodwaters inundated homes, a clinic and a public safety office earlier this week.

• The Weather Service warned of imminent flooding in Circle, a community about 140 miles downriver from Eagle. There, locals moved their vehicles, heavy equipment and belongings to higher ground.

Farther down the Yukon, the communities of Fort Yukon, Beaver and Stevens Village are also at risk of flooding, hydrologists said.

It's breakup time in Alaska, and while the Yukon flooding is the most dramatic so far, other riverside communities around the state are on notice.

Hydrologists warned of floods on the Kobuk River at Kobuk. People in Buckland and the Kuskokwim River villages of Kalskag and McGrath are on the Weather Service's "flood watch" list, meaning people should get to high ground and be prepared to leave if necessary.

"We want people along the rivers to get ready for flooding and they can do that by building an emergency kit which has food and water, medications, a battery-powered radio," said David Andrews, operations chief for the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

Throw in a first aid kit, he said. Pack pet food if you have a pet.

Bassich said he'd spent days preparing for high water, but when the water jumped the banks of the Yukon River Monday night, he barely had time to think.

It rose roughly six feet in five minutes.

"Nothing prepared us for what has, and is taking place here," he said.

A NARROW ESCAPE

Bassich, 51, recently retired as a relief captain for the Yukon Queen, a catamaran that connects Eagle with Dawson. He knows rivers, and the Yukon was rushing his cabin at roughly 8 knots, he said. He ran to unclip his 24 sled dogs.

It was 8 or 10 p.m.

"We got most of the dogs in the boats. A couple of them were up on pallets of plywood for a cabin we were planning on building," he said. "I think I even saw one dog standing on top of the barbecue until it (tipped) on him."

The water rose above the floor of the cabin. Bassich, his girlfriend Kate Rorke and the dogs bobbed in a trio of canoes and a pair of boats, all tied together. Five of the dogs sat in one fiberglass canoe.

The river kept rising. The sun came up. Then came the bad part.

In a sudden rush, the river broke. It was getting lower, but much too fast. Whitecaps and rolling waves rocked the boats tied to the cabin.

Two of the canoes ripped apart in the current. The hulls zipped by Bassich. Iceberg -- Bassich's lead dog in training -- and Ouzo swam to safety. They must have climbed up on some high ice, because later they reunited with the family.

"One of the few happy moments of the last 24 hours," Bassich said.

But Skipper, a 1-year-old who looked like a malamute, didn't make it.

Bassich's voice caught as he said the name. "We didn't even realize that he was dead until the water dropped out."

FRONT STREET IN EAGLE

Around the same time upriver, the community of Eagle was having problems of its own.

Nearby Eagle Village had already been destroyed the day before. Now, the abnormally thick ice had jumped the retaining wall that protects Front Street from the river.

The historic Customs House was broken in half, said school principal Ann Millard.

The rising water lifted other buildings from their foundations, and sent them -- like one local put it -- like so many sticks floating down the river, said National Weather Service hydrologist Ed Plumb.

Of the 22 people taking shelter at the school, nine are children, Millard said.

They've been sleeping in the gym, or in classrooms on bedding from the motel, which was now under water. Millard said she could smell what must be roast beef sandwiches cooking for dinner as she talked. People waded into the grocery store to salvage food.

"We've lost a lot of our town, and it's going to be hard to survive for awhile without a grocery store, and a clinic. ... I don't know what comes next," said Millard.

Eagle leaders are expected to submit a request for the state to declare an emergency in the town, said David Andrews, the state emergency operations chief.

That could pave the way for more help and money. Andrews said state officials have not conducted an evacuation because they had not received reports of lives at risk.

HELICOPTER RESCUE

Downriver, the outrushing Yukon tugged at Bassich's cabin, threatening to pull it from its feet. The woodshop floated on top of a four-wheeler. The sauna hiked 150 yards through the woods.

Eventually the rapids stopped and the water began to rise again. Bassich, Rorke and the dogs wouldn't survive another torrent in their over-burdened boats.

Bassich called a friend on his VHF radio. The friend, in turn, contacted the National Park Service.

Bassich sawed trees to make a clearing for the helicopter to approach. Rorke climbed to the roof of the house, and over the next several hours the helicopter chartered by the Park Service ferried dogs from an ice floe to Eagle three at a time.

"They're their family. That's what Kate kept saying the whole time," said Pat Sanders, the lead interpretive ranger for the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, and who arranged the rescue. "She said 'That's our kids.' "

Before coming home, Bassich flew with the pilot downriver, to talk to others who live outside of Eagle but hadn't been hit by the flooding yet.

One family lives maybe 50 miles from town. Bassich spent an hour with them.

This is like nothing you've ever seen, he said. Get to higher ground.

"I told them don't even go to bed tonight. Don't even spend the night in the cabin."

Find Kyle Hopkins online at adn.com/contact/khopkins or call him at 257-4334.

By KYLE HOPKINS

khopkins@adn.com

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email khopkins@adn.com

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