Climate Countdown
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Will the Yukon River Reclaim the Alaskan Frontier?

One man's race against the water.

In 2008, each citizen was allotted $3,269 in payouts from state-invested funds ceded by oil interests—via the Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend and the Alaska Resource Rebate. Even households in the remotest areas, places where people think of themselves as outside state rule, receive state assistance and pay into an economy built on the very industry that is destroying the natural world they love and depend upon. For a generation, Alaskans have argued that their numbers are too small, the wilderness too wide for their drilling to have a lasting effect. But the real threat comes from the people they supply, people who may never see Alaska but whose carbon emissions are wreaking havoc at the poles. The May flooding was a mere foretaste of the destruction that global climate change could bring to the Upper Yukon.

Canada's Yukon Department of Environment has noted that spring breakups on the Yukon near Dawson, more than a hundred miles upriver but south of Eagle, trended a full six days earlier by the end of the 20th century—and other studies show fall freeze-ups trending equally late. Two weeks may not seem like much, but the effects are dramatic. Warmer fall and winter temperatures cause the river ice to freeze and thaw sometimes several times before final freeze-up; this produces "jumbled ice" as one layer piles on top of another. Around Eagle, Andy saw exactly this. "The river stopped at freeze-up time," he told me, "and then it broke, and it moved. It was like a minibreakup." It produced such rough ice that Andy and his neighbors couldn't use the river to travel this winter; they had to cut new overland trails.

The additional weeks of runoff have also noticeably raised the water level of the river. In 2007, Christopher Milly, a research hydrologist at the US Geological Survey, testified at a Senate hearing on the impact of climate change that a recent reading of the "flow of the Yukon River at Eagle, Alaska, was 3 percent higher than during the preceding 26 years...possibly related to warming-induced changes in snowfall and snowmelt." The elevated water level means that ice forms higher on the banks of the river. Under normal conditions, dirt and pebbles from the banks blow into the river during freeze-up and harden into the surface ice. The dark coating absorbs the sun's heat and thaws the ice more evenly and gradually. In 2008, Andy told me, Eagle "didn't have silt blowing around like we normally do. Because the river froze so high, the normal cut banks that are exposed where the silt would blow around and coat the ice, that didn't happen. So when the sun came out, it was reflecting off the snow, rather than hitting that dark silt."

On top of all that, Alaska as a whole experienced an unusually wet winter that dropped heavy snowfall in the mountains. In April, just three weeks before this year's breakup, federal hydrologist Larry Rundquist warned that scientific models were showing that a global warming trend could cause increased mountain snow to melt early and flood the rivers below. With the thick ice acting as a dam, the runoff would have nowhere to go but the surrounding valleys. Then, at the end of April, already unseasonably warm weather turned record breaking—setting new marks for four of five days between April 29 and May 3. In Fairbanks, the National Weather Service recorded temperatures 10 to 15 degrees above normal for a week.

It was even hotter near Eagle. "We had temperatures close to 80 one day," said Andy. "The mountains were clearing their snow really quick; that was pouring into the feeder streams of the Yukon." On April 29, the day the heat wave began, Andy went out to the river for water, set up an augur on an extension, and sent the bit spiraling five feet deep: nothing but ice. So he took a long pole with a chisel on one end and chipped away until he finally broke through to the river water below.

"This is going to be an interesting breakup," Andy thought. He went back to his property and started dragging everything away from the river's edge.

 

IT WAS ABOUT 8 p.m. on Monday, May 4, when Andy and Kate went down to the river to watch the ice start to move. After the long winter, breakup is treated like a holiday. When they arrived at the banks, they found the lower level of their property flooded. "When the ice comes in, it comes in in stages," Andy explained. "It'll come in and flood; then it recedes. Then it comes in higher; then it recedes." They were watching the river surge and ebb when, suddenly, water started pouring in from behind them. Andy realized that the Yukon had breached its banks and merged with Ford Lake behind their property. They were an island now, and the river was still rising. Andy and Kate watched as their picnic table floated away, then the salmon-egg-drying rack. And the water was coming in faster.

The Yukon flung the buildings of Eagle and the nearby Native village inland. The Yukon flung the buildings of Eagle and the nearby Native village inland. Photo: Sam Harrel/Research assistance provided by the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

Andy went out to his 12-foot johnboat and two canoes; he cut a few short spruces to serve as crossbeams, then lashed the boats together into a makeshift pontoon. They don't call him MacGyver for nothing. He called Kate to bring in the 18-foot flat-bottom johnboat and tie it off as he began unchaining his sled dogs. The surging water was now nearly waist-deep. Eight of the dogs made it to the cabin porch on their own; Andy loaded another eight in the boats. Nine others had been carried away by the current—missing and possibly dead. Through the trees, Andy could see one dog perched on blocks of blue Styrofoam insulation; another balanced on top of the barbecue grill until the current lifted and toppled it.

He waded over to the larger johnboat, tied it together with a canoe for stability, strung it behind the pontoon, then roped everything to a corner post of his pole shed. The water was bone-chilling, barely above freezing. It was pushing toward 10 o'clock, and the sun was starting to set. Andy's hip-waders were heavy and cold, but he felt a small sense of accomplishment knowing he had enough boats together to hold all the dogs, if he could just find them.

After sunset, the surge subsided, the missing dogs returned, and Andy was able to get into his shed. He gathered a length of half-inch rope and a long pole he had prepared days earlier. He tied the rope to the corner post of the shed and canoed across to the cabin and tied off the other end of the rope to one of the porch beams. He made his way back to the other boats, then pulled the whole flotilla, hand over hand, to the cabin.

The water level was now up to the floor of the elevated porch and still rising. Inside, Kate gathered sleeping bags, extra coats and socks. Even as they hurried everything together, water was starting to bubble up from the root cellar. It rattled the cellar door and finally blew the hinges off, sending water rushing knee-deep into the cabin. They pushed outside, water pouring in as if the house were a sinking ship. Andy pulled the dogs from the porch into the long johnboat and clipped them in. They would hunker low in the hull and ride this one out.

All night, they sat vigil in the boats—marking the level of the floodwaters by the light of their headlamps, watching as the surges finally rose above the knob of the cabin door. They watched as the sauna lifted and floated across the clearing, as their guest cabins bobbed away on the river ice, as Andy's toolshed pitched and jounced. They sat as the temperature dropped below freezing. After several hours, the sun started to peek out in the east. "Finally," Andy thought. "Finally, some daylight. Maybe some warmth." Suddenly, the current started picking up—rushing faster and faster, but this time in toward the river. Something had broken loose, and now all the dammed-up water was going out like water draining from a bathtub.

"It was like being in a Class 3 or Class 4 rapids," Andy said. "There were standing waves. Everything was just ripping by us—barrels of fuel, all our belongings. Our shed lifted up and pinned itself against the cabin." The current was rushing so fast that the canoes were vibrating, and the long johnboat started hydroplaning despite the weight of 14 dogs. Suddenly, Andy realized what was happening: The water level was dropping so rapidly that the tie lines were binding, lifting the boats' bows, and threatening to capsize them. He leaped onto the porch and tried to work the rope down the square timber beam, but the line was taut and bit into the grain. He didn't dare cut it—for fear Kate and the dogs would be swept away—so he stepped into the bow of the largest boat to try to leverage from below, but the nervous dogs shifted, and the whole johnboat flipped on its side.

Half the dogs were sucked into the current but, still tied in, were held underwater, drowning. The other half clung to the gunwale by their teeth, shrieking through clenched jaws. "The thing I will never forget is the screaming of the dogs," Andy told me. He straddled between the porch and another canoe, pulled a knife from his pocket, and started fishing dogs from the current, cutting their lines and heaving them—most 80 pounds and soaking wet—onto the porch. Then he cut loose the dogs still hanging by their teeth and tossed them to safety too. A canoe broke loose of its lashing, so Andy leaped back and cut it free before it could capsize Kate's johnboat. The current swept it away and wrapped it around a tree. Then another canoe, holding five dogs, broke loose; three jumped into Kate's boat as they rushed by. The other two, Iceberg and Ouzo, jumped and swam hard against the current but were sucked away and disappeared into the woods. "They're gone," Andy said, and Kate started to cry.

Another 45 minutes passed as their yard emptied. When the current finally slowed, Kate's boat began to wobble—"like it was on the head of a pin," she told me later. Andy thought a log had lodged underneath, but when he reached down to clear the obstruction he found it was the body of one of the dogs, Skipper. "He was the last dog at the back of the boat," Andy remembered, "and when he got sucked under, I just never saw him."

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