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Rural Alaska

Federal shutdown makes maintaining safety on the Kuskokwim River much more expensive

  • Author: Anna Rose MacArthur, KYUK
  • Updated: January 19
  • Published January 18

When the weather changes, so does the Kuskokwim River. But what doesn’t change is that people still need to travel. Bethel Search and Rescue lets travelers know which routes on the river are safe.

FILE - An aerial survey by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows open water on the Kuskokwim River on November 15, 2018. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)

“A lot of that is preventative," explained the organization’s vice president, Perry Barr. "We have become more active in trying to prevent tragedies.”

Tragedies like losing people to open holes in the ice, which has not happened this winter, but has happened in the past.

“So that’s kind of the biggest reason as to why we do a lot of the surveys,” Barr said, referring to Bethel Search and Rescue flying the river, observing and taking note of ice conditions.

“We want to see where the open holes are, where we have areas where the ice maybe hasn’t really formed, or areas where we have thin ice. We can see a lot of that from the air," Barr explained. "We can see the type of ice that is actually building. Is it clear ice that may indicate a stronger surface, versus dirty ice that may have air pockets in it and not freeze as stiffly? And, of course, some debris that may be found on the river that is dangerous to traffic.”

The most important time to check these ice conditions is after a warm-up, and Bethel just experienced a big warm-up. Temperatures recently plummeted to 25 degrees below zero but in the following days shot up to nearly 40 degrees.

Usually, Bethel Search and Rescue would be calling a pilot at the local U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office to schedule a survey, but the current government shutdown has shuttered that partnership.

“We’ve always had a relationship with them. I would say it would stretch more than 20 years,” Barr said.

The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service does not charge Bethel Search and Rescue for these flights. Now, the organization is having to turn to commercial airlines to charter a plane; the going rate is about $1,000 per hour. That’s a steep price for a donation-based organization that runs off an annual budget of about $60,000.

Barr believes there are better ways for the nation’s leaders to work out issues rather than by closing the government.

“I don’t necessarily think that butting heads within government is a great example to the American people,” Barr said.

Organizations along the Kuskokwim River have another example to offer. Last week two tribes, Bethel’s Orutsararmiut Native Council and the Native Village of Napaimute, helped Bethel Search and Rescue fund a charter flight.

This article was originally published at KYUK.org and is republished here with permission.

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