BETHEL -- In good winters, the Kuskokwim River ice road offers this Western Alaska hub and nearby villages 200 or more miles of smooth travel, a frozen river route with an undercurrent of danger.
This may not be one of those winters.
A late fall mini-breakup in Western Alaska left a chaotic 2-mile jumble of ice below the village of Kalskag. The river jam will need intensive work to make the river into a slick highway passable not only by snowmachines and four-wheelers but also cars and trucks, according to Bethel Search and Rescue, the nonprofit organization that monitors the ice and sends help when things go bad.
Usually Bethel Search and Rescue and river villages have marked the start of a safe trail and dangerous spots of open water by November, in time for Thanksgiving reunions and Christmas shopping trips to Bethel. No one officially declares the ice road open but it gradually lengthens as the river hardens.
So far this year, there's no marked trail, only warnings of the risk and the tracks of those who are venturing out early.
Rainy, warm weather in early November interrupted freeze-up and rewound the river into a thaw. Even long stretches that are freezing over smoothly are dotted with open leads and holes, rescue group volunteers say. Village residents used to boating to Bethel in summer and snowmachining there in winter are cut off.
"Right now it's not safe to be traveling up the Kuskokwim River," Mike Riley, Bethel Search and Rescue president, said Friday afternoon.
Over the weekend, the group's annual fiddle dance fundraiser in Bethel didn't draw its normal packed crowds. Without the ice road, some regulars from Kwethluk, Napaskiak and other nearby river villages stayed home. Others made the short flight.
Last week, the Kuskokwim was still flowing north of Aniak, far upriver from Bethel. A slushy stew moved past the village and ice sheets groaned along the shore. "Running ice," they call it.
Even the frozen stretch of river around Bethel isn't yet ready for ice road travel, Riley said.
A Kuskokwim River flyover Tuesday by Alaska State Troopers and a Bethel Search and Rescue volunteer assessed the river's condition -- and noted the risks.
"The recent cool weather has helped the river heal up a little and allow people to start resuming some of their normal early winter activities close to their communities -- like setting nets under the ice and manaqing (ice fishing), but it hasn't been enough," Bethel Search and Rescue's river report said.
The flyover documented dangers, including five big holes in the river ice in one short stretch between Bethel and Napaskiak.
On Saturday afternoon, a few Bethel residents were walking on the frozen river for ice fishing. People on a snowmachine and a four-wheeler flew past. One photo from the flyover shows the Kuskokwim just north of Bethel with a giant tear in the ice revealing open water -- and nearby tracks from a four-wheeler.
"Danger," the river report said.
Mike Williams, a musher and activist who lives in Akiak upriver from Bethel, took his four-wheeler on the river last week to check his under-ice fish traps -- and fell through thin ice.
"It's extremely dangerous, those areas that are open," Williams said. "I almost got wet but I got out of there. It was a shallow spot but I fell through the shell ice" -- a frozen layer over a pocket of air. His fish traps are set about 5 miles from Akiak. When he got to them after the scare, they were loaded with lush fish, a type of burbot or freshwater cod. He hauled in 195 or so lush.
This year's November breakup sent more than 100 miles of newly formed river ice moving until it jammed up 10 miles south of Kalskag on a Kuskokwim curve known as Coffee's Bend, named after an old fish camp. Some of the ice settled back down, but slabs between 6 and 10 inches thick piled up there.
"If we can get through that 2 miles of terrible ice, then we have 90 miles of smooth river all the way to Bethel," said Mark Leary, a Bethel Search and Rescue volunteer.
Around Aniak, the river often freezes rough compared to the area around Bethel, say those who travel it. The river's condition will change over the winter, too. Fragmented ice could settle down more, or things could get worse.
The November breakup and resulting slab jumble were unusual developments, said Earl Samuelson of Bethel, who has flown for Alaska State Troopers since 1981 and did the recent flyover with Leary.
It's only the third November breakup Leary can recall in a lifetime built around the river. He grew up in Bethel and Kalskag and now splits his time between Bethel and upriver in the small village of Napaimute.
In 2002, he and some other men were trying to clear a winter landing strip on a remote stretch of river between Aniak and Napaimute but couldn't cut through massive, jagged blocks of ice.
"It looked like the Alaska Range all the way across the river," Leary said.
In November 2010, warm weather caused the river ice to break up far upriver, from McGrath on down past Kalskag to the same bend gripping the ice this year. An ice jam 25 miles long froze into place, Leary said. Travelers had to bypass the rough stretch on back sloughs and old portages.
"It used to be when it froze up it stayed frozen all the way until the springtime," said Peter Atchak, the former head of Bethel Search and Rescue who has been involved with the group for nearly 30 years.
Atchak, 64, was born in Chevak and moved to Bethel in 1972. The river froze harder back then.
"In my earlier times, we used to have snow all the way to the top of our rooftops and ice as thick as 5 and 6 feet," Atchak said. "We don't see that no more, those conditions I used to witness when I was younger."
Marking the way
Volunteers use chainsaws to check whether the ice is thick enough for travel and once it is, they'll mark a safe trail with stakes and white reflective tape. But even then there will be open leads and overflow, marked with shiny blue tape on willows or stakes.
Sections with fast current take longer to freeze. Murky ice is softer and less stable than clear ice. Locals "read" the ice, Leary said.
For cars and pickup trucks, the ice needs to be consistently at least a foot thick and preferably thicker than that, said Bethel Search and Rescue President Riley. Fuel trucks need 30 inches of ice, he said. Some villages eventually will plow, clear and mark trails partway to the next village, which then will pick up the work. The village of Napaimute gets state grant money to mark trail from Kalskag to Crooked Creek.
Last winter the river froze exceptionally hard and smooth. Leary drove 260 miles of the ice road, from Tuntutuliak to Crooked Creek. Crews hauled logs by truck and trailer from Napaimute Enterprise's timber project around Kalskag down to Bethel and are gambling that they'll be able to do the same this year. Parents drove to see their kid play basketball downriver. People shopped more, too.
"I saw people bringing back furniture and all sorts of different things back from Bethel to Aniak because of the great conditions," said trooper David Bower, newly stationed in Aniak earlier this year. "Last year was a great year for the ice road."
The river morphs into a bustling route.
"It's like your I-5 or your I-90," Riley said.
When the ice road is smooth, families take off for a drive down to Bethel, Atchak said.
"If my grandfather had seen that, oh man, he would freak out, to see a whole family in a car, dressed up in city clothes, instead of all bundled up in outside clothes." he said.
But even in a good ice year there are dangers. Travis Alexie left Tuluksak on his four-wheeler one evening in early March this year, presumably headed home to Lower Kalskag on snowless glare ice. Troopers believe he came up fast on a hidden open lead and was swallowed by the Kuskokwim. Neither Alexie, 30, nor his four-wheeler were found.
If the river smooths out, Bower will drive his trooper patrol vehicle, a Ford Explorer, onto the ice road. His advice to travelers? Tell someone where they are going, and bring winter gear, water and food in case they end up stuck.
"I err on the side of caution," Bower said. "When I know the river is safe to drive on, I'll probably wait a couple weeks."