Climate Countdown
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Will the Yukon River Reclaim the Alaskan Frontier?

One man's race against the water.

Eventually, the water receded enough that Kate and Andy could see ground; the dogs jumped from the boat and frolicked as the last of the current trickled out. Andy started calling them to the dog picket line, each by name. "Remington, Donner, Snickers, Control," and on down the list. Then, by habit, "Iceberg, Ouzo," and the two lost dogs came bounding from the woods. Andy shouted for joy. All the dogs but Skipper had survived. "At that point, we thought, 'Okay, we've made it.'"

Kate went to call Eagle on the marine band radio while Andy relashed the remaining boats. With the town already decimated, no one answered her call. But Wayne and Scarlett Hall, their upriver neighbors, picked up Kate's signal and called the Park Service on their satellite phone. Andy had just roped the boats off when Kate called out: More water and ice were coming.

Andy worried that the woods protecting his property might not withstand a second wave of ice floes. He led the dogs, two by two, to the pontoon and clipped them back in. By the time he loaded the last of them, the water was up to the porch floor again. He got back on the radio to see if the Halls could call out to the Park Service for a helicopter. "It'll have to be off the roof," Andy told them. Soon Scarlett radioed back that all trees above roof level within a 50-foot radius of the cabin would have to be cleared. Andy waded into the icy waters and set to work.

As he remembered, he walked me around the property, pointing out the relics of his story. Here was the aluminum canoe folded and cracked where it had wrapped around a tree. Here the long johnboat, with the loops he had tied for the dogs and later cut. All the outbuildings clustered, pushed by the furious onrush of the river. The grass still laid flat, the turf in places rolled up like a rug. The square post of the cabin porch, scarred where a rope had bitten hard into the grain.

Last, Andy took me behind the cabin. All the trees had been sawed into chest-high stumps—by my count, more than 30, most about five inches in diameter. I marveled at the precision of it. "You did this in an hour?" I asked. "Are you sure?" Andy smiled broadly. He walked over to a makeshift toolshed where his bright orange bow saw—what Andy calls a Swede saw—hung on a peg. He took the saw in hand.

"You can cut a lot of trees when you have to," Andy said.

 

AS DRAMATIC as Andy and Kate's story of survival may sound, it is hardly unique. In my days in Eagle, I met Mark Malcolm, who literally outran the rising floodwaters in a furious footrace to higher ground; Slana Waller, who smoked one last cigarette looking out her garage before fleeing; Don Mann, whose family was in the midst of making a raft from the interior doors of their house when they were rescued by canoe. Story after story of near death, averted by ingenuity and collective effort.

But in the weeks and months that followed, the maze of government assistance and insurance paperwork grew. Marlys and Charlie House were informed by Great Lakes Reinsurance that the damage to their bed-and-breakfast would not be covered, because it was found to be the result of water, not ice. FEMA topped out funds for each family whose home had been destroyed at $30,300—and Christian relief organization Samaritan's Purse chipped in another $10,000. That money goes fast, and initially half of the displaced families chose not to overwinter in Eagle this year. Andy's efforts have reduced that number, but Eagle's survival is not yet assured.

I sat next to Andy behind the windscreen of his johnboat as he steered us back upriver toward Eagle. The sun was finally sinking toward the mountains, and on both banks chunks of ice split and calved, sizzling and rolling in the current. Andy was quiet; this day's tasks almost complete, I could practically see him making his list for tomorrow.

"Do you ever think of leaving?" I barked over the roar of the outboard.

"No," Andy said, his eyes never leaving the rippling surface. "This is where I belong."

He was mushing down the Yukon in March 1984, he explained, when he first followed an overland trail toward Ford Lake and glimpsed the place he now owns. He had stopped to give the dogs a rest there when he was overwhelmed by a powerful feeling of déjà  vu. "It's not something I can really describe," he told me. "I just felt that I had lived there before." He spent the next nine years working to buy the land, another ten clearing the property and building his cabin and sheds. He couldn't just leave now. And yet, he—and everyone else living along the Upper Yukon—may soon have to examine the viability of continued existence there. Their way of life will survive another winter, but who knows what the next spring breakup will bring?

When I posed this question to Larry Rundquist at the National Weather Service, he was reluctant to predict. "Was this record warm spell a temporary weather anomaly in 2009," he responded, "or is it an example of weather patterns that can be expected with either a cold PDO [Pacific Decadal Oscillation] or global warming? I do not have an answer to that." Only time will tell, but if the trend should continue it will mark a turning point in American expansionism. Since the westward expedition of Lewis and Clark, our nation's history—and identity—has been wrapped up in our ever widening reach. We steadily tamed new frontiers and bent them to our needs. Should the Upper Yukon turn uninhabitable, the frontier, for the first time in American history, will push back, reclaiming for a wounded wilderness what previously had belonged to man.

Andy's outboard buzzed.

"What will you do if the river floods next spring?" I asked. "You can't do this every year."

"Do you know who Dick Cook was?" Andy asked, and for the first time, he fixed me with his gaze. I nodded. Of course, McPhee's high swami of the river people who capsized and drowned in a rapid. "That's how I want to go," Andy said. "I don't want to waste away in some nursing home in Fairbanks. If I'm ever diagnosed with a terminal disease, I plan to build myself a raft and just float downriver. When my time comes, I hope the river takes me."

I stared out at the rippling current, the water rolling gently toward us but swiftly, carrying downed trees and other debris, the melting ice still releasing its wreckage into the river.

"It almost took you this time," I said.

Andy smiled. "Almost," he said.

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