Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Gentle Break Up

Break up refers to the rapid transition of Alaskan rivers from ice to water. During the winter, nearly every one of Alaska’s hundreds of rivers freezes solid on the surface to a depth of several feet. When spring comes all that ice gets washed down the rivers and out to sea. It happens quickly, within just a few days’ time.

The event is often violent, with loud sounds like rifle-shot as the great plates of ice break apart into huge chunks. The plates bang against each other and pile up at the river bends, uprooting trees and generally scrubbing the banks clean as they bob heavily along toward their destiny as sea water.

The Kuskokwim River usually takes about three days to go from solid ice to flowing river. This year it happened gently, with very little of the ferocious display that Nature is capable of. Our early warm weather started the ice rotting, and it seemed more to melt away to than break up.

Dutch and I took a drive down to the river front on Thursday after work. The quad-pod for the Kuskokwim Ice Classic was still standing, though a little tilted, and the icepack it stood on was about fifty yards downriver from where it had been erected. The cable to the building on shore had been broken, and the moment of break up was declared as May 3rd at 8:35 pm, about five minutes before we got there. I was much aggrieved that I had left my camera at home. My closest guess was off by 42 hours, so I won’t win the jackpot.

By this morning, 36 hours later, the river was almost completely free of ice. This year there was no parade of huge icebergs down the river, no jumble of trees and logs, no dead animals caught by the ravaging ice. All of which means we have a low flood risk this year. Most of our flooding occurs when the big ice plates get jammed up together at the bends and shallow spots in the river. This year the ice softened up enough before breaking up that we had a river full of slush rather than one full of big ice cubes.

We are breathing a huge sigh of relief over this year’s break up. The flooding that often follows it requires a huge amount of work to move animals and property to high ground, and to clean up the muck left behind when the water recedes. Nobody minds the occasional year with no flooding.

With the river flowing freely, summer can’t be too far off (though we do have a snowstorm predicted for tomorrow). As always at this time of year, I can’t wait for my first taste of fresh king salmon!



Photos by The Tundra PA.

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