Climate Countdown
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Will the Yukon River Reclaim the Alaskan Frontier?

One man's race against the water.

He casteth forth his ice like morsels:
who can stand before his cold?
He sendeth out his word, and melteth them:
he causeth his wind to blow, and the
waters flow.
—Psalms 147:17-18

Rick Swisher didn't see them at first. He'd been dispatched from Fairbanks at a moment's notice without exact coordinates for the chopper rescue, but any bush pilot worth his salt knows how to find Calico Bluff. Some 20 river miles downstream from the border with Canada, its craggy face has towered over the Yukon River for millennia. Still, floodwaters swelling over the banks and river ice slicing swaths through spruce turned the topography below into an alien landscape. Whole islands were submerged, lakes subsumed. Rick set to circling in search of the cabin where he had been told to expect a couple and their 24 sled dogs. (Before takeoff, his wife, Sharon, had warned, "If you don't bring back the dogs, don't you come back either.") As he banked, Rick spotted the cabin; a man in a bright red shirt balanced on top, waving his arms.

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Water surrounded the cabin. With no way for the Robinson R44 Raven II to put down, he planned to attempt a rooftop rescue—but would abort if he observed any hazards. Rick was pleased by what he saw: downed trees sawed off just above water level and floating, a clear path to the corrugated roof. And roped up to the porch beams was a makeshift raft—a canoe and two johnboats, their gunwales lashed together—loaded with sled dogs, tied in and waiting. This pontoon shook and skimmed the whitecaps rippling from the rotor wash, but the dogs sat firm.

Andy Bassich, the man in the red shirt, gestured to the southwest peak of the roof, where a ladder was permanently affixed for cleaning the stovepipe; it would make a ready foothold for stepping into the chopper. Rick lowered, testing the roof—tap, tap, tap—with his landing skid to make certain the structure was sound, then hovered with one skid resting on the roof. Andy called his girlfriend, Kate Rorke, onto the roof as the side door of the chopper swung open. Once safely inside, she pointed out a massive chunk of ice about 75 yards from the cabin. Andy had thought it looked flat enough to land on. Rick hovered over, tapped down, then up, then down again. The ice seemed steady. He lowered a third time and powered down. Andy paddled three dogs out in a canoe and hoisted them onto the ice and then into the helicopter—a trip he would repeat seven more times.

"Make sure they're in tight," Rick said, "because if they come up here we're all dead." Andy threaded the chopper seatbelts through the dogs' harnesses. The dogs rode quietly in the back. No yelping or shifting, quiet as they'd been on the water. As the helicopter rounded Eagle Bluff, Rick and Kate could see the airstrip alongside the headquarters of Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and a crowd of people waiting to help unload the dogs. They could also see the wreckage of the town of Eagle stretched along the south bank of the river, the colossal hunks of ice that had floated on the current and leveled dozens of buildings—the hotels and café, the general store, the historic customs house. The Yukon Queen river cruiser pitched and lodged atop the floes, far flung from the boat landing. And everywhere in between, scattered cabins and frame houses lay crushed and splintered open, their contents strewn along the shoreline.

 

ON MAY 4, 2009, house-size floes carried by the Yukon River formed a giant ice jam 10 miles downriver of Eagle, Alaska. Floodwaters quickly built up behind it. No one in Eagle had ever seen anything like it. The great floods of 1992 and 1937 didn't hold a candle to this. And Eagle is a town obsessed with its own history.

Spend any time there, and you'll hear: Jack London entered Alaska this way after the Klondike extinguished his dreams of easy riches; Wyatt Earp, his dreams still burning, floated through en route to the goldfields of the next big strike in Nome; young Lieutenant Billy Mitchell, before becoming a top American flying ace of World War I, was sent to Eagle's Fort Egbert to complete the telegraph line; famed Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen used that very line to wire the news that he had become the first man to traverse the Northwest Passage. From the beginning, Eagle was the kind of place that drew people seeking to accomplish the impossible, men—and more than a few women—who sought to test themselves against a place that would cut them no breaks, offer no mercy.

Eagle, AlaskaIllustration: John Hendrix.

Not surprisingly, such colorful characters made Eagle the kind of place that fired writers' imaginations. The town became an enduring symbol of small-town life in Alaska after John McPhee wrote his classic Coming Into the Country while living in Jim and Elva Scott's A-frame guest cabin along the river. James Michener was so enthralled by McPhee's account that he stayed in that same cabin a decade later while researching his epic Alaska. I, too, have published a book about Eagle—a collection of poems called Anna, Washing, an account of the life and death of the town's first commercial washwoman.

In researching my book, I traveled several times to Eagle. Elva Scott even offered to let me stay in the A-frame cabin—as if writing about Eagle weren't already daunting enough. After a decade of researching and writing off and on about Eagle, I thought I knew what I needed to know. I thought I was done and could move on. Then, on May 7, I read a tiny item about Sarah Palin pulling out of the White House correspondents' dinner. She had just declared a state of emergency in Alaska because of record flooding along the Yukon. "It's basically wiped out a town," her communications director, Bill McAllister, told CNN. That town turned out to be Eagle. Days later Palin was on the ground to assess the damage, but she told reporters that the "people who live in these remote areas, especially of Alaska, are quite self-sufficient, and they're not looking necessarily to government to come in and help."

She was half right. When I pulled into Eagle on May 27, it had been weeks since the floodwaters receded, but the school remained a state-run kitchen for families in need and had been turned into a command center for the alphabet soup of state and federal agencies on hand. To come through, the people of Eagle were not merely going to have to contend with the wreckage of their town; they would also have to navigate a wounded and defensive Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Alaska's mission-muddled Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and the touchy politics of needing aid from both Sarah Palin and Barack Obama. Andy Bassich had become the de facto leader of the recovery effort.

Andy Bassich rubs the belly of his sled dog Vixen Andy Bassich rubs the belly of his sled dog Vixen. Photo: Sam Harrel/Research assistance provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

In a town where everyone must improvise from what's at hand, it is Andy who's nicknamed MacGyver. He is lean and muscular with unruly shocks of white hair and frameless glasses, a kind of bespectacled Andrew Jackson. He speaks in soft, even tones but always with the ring of authority. When the rest of the community was still shell-shocked by loss, he was sketching out plans for how to build enough winter cabins to house the newly homeless. He had lists of necessary materials, price estimates, schedules.

As we talked, he was constantly interrupted by phone calls from contractors and state officials. He worked with the efficiency and ease of a big-city politician. I would never have guessed that normally, he lived as a relative hermit, with Kate and their sled dogs, miles away from another soul. It's a solitude they prefer and safeguard—but Andy offered to take me downriver to his cabin, to show me the exact spot where the Yukon they so dearly love had nearly killed them.

 

BEFORE THERE WAS an Alaska—before the state, its towns, before the territory, even before the tribes—there was the river. The river carried the salmon the people ate, the water they drank. It ran swiftly for travel in the summer and froze firm for easy crossing in the winter. Each spring, when the warming sun returned, the ice broke; it carved cut banks, exposing workable gold, and swept tall spruce and alders downriver to the treeless tundra.

By the 1890s, the river also brought stampeders dreaming of gold—and when there were strikes, it carried faro tables and good-time girls, domestics and missionaries. The river made the towns that made Alaska. Eagle was founded by a ragtag bunch of Klondikers from across the Canadian border in Dawson with names like Old Man Martin and One Thumb Jack. They floated downriver together to a Native village, set up camp near a soaring bluff, and were debating a suitable name when an eagle circled overhead. To attract settlers, they sent three men around the bars of Dawson with the sum wealth of the town in pokes of gold. Each walked in, brandished his poke, bought the house a round of drinks, and told everyone he was on his way back to his claim in Eagle. Within two days, some thousand gold-seekers beset the camp.

The gold rush petered out at the beginning of the 20th century, but Eagle continued to attract a certain breed—what Alaskans would come to call "river people." In 1937, Ernie Pyle profiled the foremost among them, the sourdough E.A. "Nimrod" Robertson, who, having been rendered toothless by scurvy, "killed a bear, took the bear's teeth and fashioned a crude plate for himself, then ate the bear with its own teeth." The point was clear: If you want to survive in Eagle, you have to be as wild as the wilderness.

Children in Eagle circa 1900. Children in Eagle circa 1900. Photo: Library of Congress.

Later, John McPhee valorized Eagle's residents as the last frontiersmen—people like Dick Cook, whom McPhee dubbed the "acknowledged high swami of the river people." A classic crank with a streak of anti-governmental paranoia, Cook fought the National Park Service over subsistence restrictions for more than three decades. In fact, in June 2001, Cook was en route from his cabin on the Tatonduk River to protest new restrictions at a meeting in Eagle when his canoe capsized in a rapid chute. His body wasn't found for days. When I attended the memorial service for him that summer, townspeople wondered openly if Cook had finally tempted the raging waters once too often or, weary of fighting, had simply let the river take him.

Such stories are enough to cow most men. Maybe that's why the Yukon remains Alaska's frontier, the unmistakable divide. To this day, along its 1,980-mile route, from Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory all the way to the Bering Sea, only four bridges span the river. The great empty Alaskan wilderness to the north encompasses nearly 300,000 square miles—roughly the landmass of Texas—but barely 20,000 people live there. Why would you? During the winter, the sun disappears. Temperatures have plummeted to 80 below. The only food is whatever you've flown in or stockpiled or can trap or hunt. Even during the long days of summer, all is preparation, a constant buffeting against winter's return. Life so close to death attracts a certain breed. Seekers of nature's terminal limit, the Ultima Thule of rugged individualism. Men like Nimrod Robertson and Dick Cook, men like Andy Bassich.

Yet for all its severity, the Yukon is a fragile frontier. The human footprint on Alaska's ice fields and tundra and boreal forests is significant—and growing. A greater menace still is the world community of fossil fuel consumers, mostly Americans, whose appetite is fed by Alaskan oil, drilled offshore in the Arctic and transported across the tundra via the pipeline. That oil is the lifeblood of Alaska. It is also, it now seems, a principal threat to their way of life—and every Alaskan has been made complicit.

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