Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Fast Break Up

Break up is the big spring event here in Alaska that says that winter is finally, truly, honest-to-goodness, no-turning-back, absolutely over. Some say jokingly that it is the start of summer, but we are actually quite a way from that just yet. The temperature this morning was about 36 degrees; it did get up to 55 by mid-afternoon, and with the sun shining brightly it felt really warm to sit outside if you could get out of the wind.

Break up is when the cubic miles of ice move out of all the rivers. Lots of variables play into when it will happen, and there are several lotteries around the state where the closest guess, by day, hour and minute, wins the pot. Those are specific to a certain river at a certain location, and are usually named “Ice Classic”.

The Kuskokwim Ice Classic terminated yesterday morning, sometime around 10 AM. I haven’t heard the official time yet.

Dutch and I were in Anchorage this past weekend (to buy our wedding rings, among other things) and on the flight home, it was easy to see from the plane that break up was getting close. All the sloughs and small shallow lakes were free of ice; the main river, however, was still solid. But the ice had dark spots where it was thinning and the overflow stains at the edges were large. I knew it wasn’t going to be long.

Tuesday morning the buzz was going around the hospital that break up was happening. I wasn’t able to get away for lunch, and after work had to race home to feed the dogs and then race to get to the City Council meeting by 6:30, so had no time to check the river. It was mid-morning today before I was able to get there, and holy cow! It was all over! A few chunks of ice are still floating down, but the river is pretty much all water now. It usually takes a couple of days for all the ice to move out; this was a really fast break up. And it looks like we’ll have no flooding this year at all.

I’m kinda bummed that I missed it. Break up is an amazing thing to watch. I’ve written about it before, here and here and here and here. The physicality of the event is what is so awesome. Conceptualize a serpiginous block of ice, four feet thick, a mile wide, and 800 miles long. That's a lot of ice. Really. A lot. As winter retreats and the weather warms up, that block doesn’t just melt; it would take too long. It breaks into huge pieces and floats out to sea, like a huge crowd of people surging towards a subway, everyone wanting to get on. Bumping, grinding, bobbing ice, in chunks as small as cars and as large as houses, racing for the ocean. Dead trees, dead animals, and all kind of debris riding on top. It truly is an amazing thing to see. People gather at the river's edge and sit for hours, just watching it all go by.

So break up for 2008 occurred on May 13th. The most frequently occurring date for break up at Bethel has been May 18th; it can occur as early as late April, and as late as early June. It can occur at 4:00 in the morning or at 2:00 in the afternoon. The Kuskokwim is a tidal river, and the tides have as much effect on when the river breaks as the sun does. A rainy spring can make a difference; we didn’t have one this year. This was a lucky year; it was a fast and easy transition.



Blogger RunninL8 said...

Here in Eagle River, spring is finally- tentatively- peeking through the doorway. With our last 2 surprise snowstorms and ongoing ominous weather, she’s arrived late. I have a feeling those buds that usually are so slow and deliberate in unfolding are just going to explode into green all at once. A taste of springs past- childhood, back east. As we dinked around the yard today I was quite surprised to see tiny little signs of life. Little pink balls of rhubarb, the green tips of iris leaves, a couple lazy bumble bees and of course our friends the mosquitoes. I took some pics I’ll have to post.

Your description of the ice breaking up and heading out to sea brought back memories. My daughter and I racing , hand in hand , laughing, to the subway in NYC to make our play on time. My husband, then boyfriend, and I sitting against my kayak on the shore in Blackstone Bay, listening to the glaciers calve and watching their offerings float by. Navigating around them in our kayaks was such fun. I proposed to him that day out on the water.

We live in the most miraculous place. I hold a space of gratitude every morning when I wake up and look out our front windows.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 9:42:00 PM  
Blogger Doctor S. said...

Interesting article. I'm wondering how you actually time break up to the hour, say for one of these ice classics... how'd the city meeting go?

Monday, May 19, 2008 2:48:00 PM  
Blogger The Tundra PA said...

Good question, Dr. S. The moment of break up is determined by a "quad-pod", a ten foot (or so) tall structure built of two by fours out on the ice about 50 feet from shore. A wire bound to the top of it runs to a small building on shore and is attached to a clock inside. When the ice breaks up enough to move the quad-pod downriver, the wire snaps which stops the clock. That is the exact moment of break up for Bethel. It happens earlier upriver and later downriver. We can usually watch the quad-pod sail stately down the river on its ice boat until eventually it sinks in the river.

City Council meeting was more idiocy of the milder variety. I'll post more on it if (when?) they do something outstandingly lunatic.

Thanks for visiting...

Monday, May 19, 2008 10:15:00 PM  

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