Waiting for Break-up
Spring is often a somewhat indecisive season in the subarctic, but this year really is taking the cake. Winter seemed to go on forever, with subzero temperatures deep into April and continuing snowfall that set new records. Finally in May it began to warm up a little, at least to the point that afternoons were above freezing and the sun got a little bit more melt going than the nighttime cold could keep up with. Gradually, in the last two weeks, the land was thawing and we could watch the snow and ice receding. Mornings still required scraping ice off the windshield before driving the truck, but afternoons were almost balmy, sunny and light-jacket pleasant at nearly 50 degrees.
This morning I awoke to 30 degrees and heavy snowfall with about an inch of accumulation since I went to bed last night. Arrrrrrrrgghhh! Yesterday’s areas of bare tundra are whitened up considerably. I begin to wonder if this is the year foretold in Eskimo legend when the river never breaks.
Break-up is the big event we are all waiting for. The Kuskokwim River is 800 miles long, and for six months of the year most of it is covered in a four- to six-foot thick sheet of ice. Cars and trucks drive up and down the river for most of the winter, some years as far as the village of Aniak, 150 miles away. When spring comes, all that ice doesn’t just melt. There is no time for that.
The river will clear itself of ice in a space of about five days, in the violent and mesmerizing event known as break-up. Thawing ice and snow increase the volume of water in the river which begins rising under its cap of ice. The surface of the ice cap degrades under the longer, stronger sun exposure. The ice begins to crack, and when it does it sounds like rifle shots and sometimes canon booms. Quickly from that point, the thick sheet breaks apart and the rising torrent of water coming down from the mountains sweeps the ice out to sea in chunks the size of houses. Anything close to the river’s edge gets swept out along with the ice—lots of trees, unwary animals, boats that weren’t pulled up far enough in the fall, all kinds of things.
Bethel is only 80 miles from the Bering Sea, so by the time all that upriver stuff reaches us, it is huge. The river rages past in a constant loud grind as the ice smashes against itself, constantly shifting, rolling, floating. It is an amazing thing to watch, and most people make daily pilgrimages to the river’s edge to stand in awe of this ravaging process. It is the violent and decisive marker of the end of winter.
Break-up can occur anytime from late April to early June. Historically, the most frequently-occurring date has been May 18th. We have a lottery known as the Kuskokwim Ice Classic; you buy tickets and make your predictions of the exact day, hour and minute that break-up will happen. In early spring, a 20 foot wooden tripod is built on the river with a cable running from the top to a small building on shore, and attached to a clock. When the tripod goes down, the cable is pulled loose and stops the clock; this is the moment of break-up. The person with the closest guess wins the pot, which is usually several thousand dollars.
Break-up often causes big jam-ups of ice that last for hours to days, and which can cause huge flooding problems. The river can rise ten feet or more in a few hours. In a land as flat as this, that means an awful lot of water. People living along sloughs or near the river start moving things to high ground well before break-up, just in case. Some years it is unnecessary and we have no flooding at all. Other years, many streets in Bethel are under three to four feet of water (some with a pretty stiff current) and you need a canoe or kayak to leave your house.
Fortunately, it doesn’t last too long. In a few days the river clears itself of ice, the water recedes to high-normal level, and the land begins to dry out. Most people have some kind of small boat, and the minute the ice is gone (sometimes before) boats are cruising the river. The joy of our short-lived summer has begun. The river will be frozen again by Halloween.
Labels: Life in Bethel