BETHEL -- Giant slabs of ice, dangerous areas of open water and little snow along the Kuskokwim River are challenging winter travelers as well as organizers of the premier mid-distance sled dog race -- the Kuskokwim 300.
A three-man crew made a 12-hour round trip Monday by snowmachine from Bethel to a miles-long ice jam near Kalskag that no one will be crossing anytime soon. It would take a bulldozer or other heavy equipment to cut through.
The men, all Bethel Search and Rescue volunteers, traveled 90 miles upriver to the jam. They were dwarfed by the chaotic jumble of river ice that stretched as far as they could see on what is usually a main travel route for Western Alaska. Long stretches of the Kuskokwim, while freezing up, are not yet safe for snowmachines or four-wheelers, Bethel Search and Rescue said.
"Holy crap. And we thought the gorge was rough!" musher Jeff King, who has won the Iditarod four times and the Kusko 300 nine times, posted on Facebook after seeing pictures from Bethel Search and Rescue's reconnaissance mission. King, who was referring to the notorious Dalzell Gorge stretch of the Iditarod Trail, said the Kusko 300 course has been rerouted in the past, though he doesn't remember bypassing that particular stretch.
"However I have complete faith in the K300 to provide a safe and reasonable trail," King said.
Scouting a safe course
The Kuskokwim 300 between Bethel and the upriver village of Aniak on the other side of the ice jam is scheduled to start the evening of Jan. 16 -- five weeks from Friday. Two shorter sled dog races that start in Bethel are planned that same weekend, and two more races are planned for this month.
Mushers have until Monday to sign up for the Kusko 300 with no entry fee. After that it'll cost $400, and the fee will increase to $800 on Jan. 1.
The route often veers off the river for stretches, and organizers will mark a route that works for 2015, said Zach Fansler, Kuskokwim 300 race director as well as a Bethel City Council member.
"There are many sloughs and portages and overland trails that we can access," Fansler said Tuesday. Volunteers and mushers will be evaluating routes until a week before the race, he said. Conditions could change. "It's too early to make hard plans and decisions," he said.
But as it is, the ice jam looks impossible for dog teams, he said.
"If they can't get a snowmachine across, then you can't get a sled across," he said.
Mushers can expect race organizers to make safety the top priority and to ensure a good trail, he said.
"The important thing they know is that we are always looking into this and are using the utmost caution and care obviously for our canine competitors and for our mushers," Fansler said.
A warm, rainy spell last month after the start of freezeup cracked Kuskokwim River ice for dozens of miles around Aniak. Slabs moved until they jammed up 10 miles south of Kalskag at Coffee's Bend, named after an old fish camp. Some broken pieces were a foot thick. The moving river spit out chunks of ice into the willows onshore.
The trio of search and rescue volunteers -- Mark Leary, Manno Rodgers and Randy Turner -- left Bethel before first light Monday to document the conditions.
"It will take a great deal of snow, wind and/or rain to improve this area enough for safe travel," Bethel Search and Rescue said in a report posted Monday night. "Holiday travel from the Lower River to Kalskag may need to use the tundra, back sloughs and old portages."
Around Bethel, the river is smooth and frozen hard. Snowmachines and four-wheelers zoom up and down the river. Leary said he's seen a few pickups near Bethel on what usually turns into an ice road.
One man just took two-and-a-half days to travel by snowmachine from Bethel to Kalskag, bypassing the big ice jam on a series of back sloughs. He still encountered rough ice that he had to chop through with an ax, Leary said.
Almost all the snow is blown off the river in some stretches. Snowmachines barely scratch a trail into the glare ice, making it almost impossible to follow the ones that have already gone.
The lack of snow cover also helps the river freeze solid. Leary said he cut into the river ice above Tuluksak with his 16-inch chain saw and didn't hit water.
Small holes are freezing up but some big open holes remain. The recent scouting mission by Bethel Search and Rescue came across big holes above Tuluksak, with waves that lapped up against the frozen river forming an ice lip. Not all the open holes have been marked -- that's an all-day job for a half-dozen volunteers, Leary said. They also encountered fragile shell ice -- thin layers around pockets of air.
Training on the tundra
In Aniak, the turnaround point for the Kusko 300, musher Nathan Underwood said the river is too rough for running dogs. He and his son, Isaac, are racing in the 300 and are training around the village with four-wheelers.
"Just around town in circles. I got 50 miles on them yesterday," Underwood said Tuesday morning. He was preparing to head out to Whitefish Lake and Bogus Creek to evaluate conditions.
"You can find a little snow or frosty grass," he said. Last year, when there was little snow, he was able to put in an overland training trail in that area, which could become a partial alternate route for the Kusko 300.
Rescue teams took to four-wheelers and snowmachines Saturday and marked a winter trail between Bethel and Kwethluk that went partly on the river and partly across the tundra.
Tall branches labeled with blue reflectors were stuck into thin ice at the edge of open water to warn of danger. The Kuskokuak Slough upstream of Kwethluk still had dangerous open holes and isn't safe for travel, Bethel Search and Rescue said.
"The ice is very smooth and slippery," the rescue group said in a river report Saturday. "It would be hard for someone who gets off the trail to stop in time to avoid the deep, swift water."
Last winter, the river froze smoothly but the Kusko 300 still had to be rerouted for stretches because of the lack of snow.
"It was virtually impossible to get traction on it," Fansler said. Dogs could still run, he said, but sleds would have blown around too much.
Now village residents and race organizers are hoping for snow.
"You can't have glare ice, and you can't have a lot of jumbled ice, obviously," he said. "Every year is a different, unique situation."