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The real event of spring in Alaska is break-up–when the ice is driven from the rivers by the rapidly rising waters from snow melt.  In northern rivers, the ice reaches 5 or 6 feet thick at the depth of winter, and it is incredibly strong, so some rotting of the ice is required for even the rising waters to move the ice.  The Yukon is the largest of the Alaska rivers, one of the major rivers of the world, and this year the breakup has been very severe, flooding the villages of Eagle, Stevens Village, and several others.

Ben Huff asked me several weeks ago if I wanted to go to the Yukon Crossing for break-up–I said, sure, call me–the call came at 11AM on Saturday–time to go, the water is moving fast–and I and my family were on the road by 1:30, hit the river at 5:30 PM.  The ice had moved somewhat by then, but had stopped.  At 8:ooPM it began moving again, and we let up a cheer when it started.

Campfire and river, just before it begins to move, May 9, 7:52 PM

Campfire and river, just before it begins to move, May 9, 7:52 PM

The motion of the ice is mesmerizing, especially after the stillness of a long winter.  The ice makes a slushing sound as it passes, and when the ice is forced towards the banks, the willows rattle.  And there were ducks and other birds in mating flights over the river. Other friends showed up, a couple bottles of wine were opened, we sat in the twilight until 1:30 AM, until it was almost too dark to see, but I went to bed expecting to see open water in the morning.

But in the morning, the silence had returned, the river choked full of blocks of ice.  Ben and Dea and their friend Ed had a more nervous night than I–they were camped in a tent about 25 vertical feet above the river when they pitched it, but at about 2:30, Dea noticed the sound had stopped–the ice had jammed, but rose higher until it was within a couple vertical feet of their tent, almost to the campfire on top of the bank.

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Sunday brought more visitors to the river (not that many more–maybe a few dozen at most), but those who spent their lives on the river in fish camps said this was the highest the ice had ever been in their memory.  The currency of the day was rumors–if the ice went above the concrete sections of the bridge, they would close the bridge, the steel section was not designed to take the force of the ice–and the river was within ten feet.  And the size of the jam–the ice was stopped at a curve in the river either seven or eleven miles beolow the bridge, and continued to the top of the Rampart Canyon, another 2o miles upstream.  But all day long, the ice didn’t move, the water didn’t rise.  Another rumor, that it would take a rise of at least 6 to 8 feet to float the ice and clear the ice dam–but that much rise would flood the area around the truck stop where we were camped–and the road crossed lower lying areas before it went to higher ground to the north.  There was a remote possibility of being trapped by a closed bridge and rising waters.

But all day long, nothing happened–the wind blew, there were a few raidrops, but mostly the ice just sat there, silent.  Once an ice jam forms, it is hard to know how long it will take to break, maybe minutes, maybe days.  And there are jobs to go back to, doctors to see, and school…  So at 5 PM, we left the silent river and returned home.

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