The warm winter has made traveling on the river ice more hazardous than Bethel Search and Rescue ever remembers.
The word came out at Thursday night’s Bethel Search and Rescue meeting.
With the ice so thin and with more holes than anyone can remember, Bethel Search and Rescue is now recommending that all of its members wear float coats or life vests when traveling on the river. President Mike Riley announced the decision at the meeting.
The warning came just before the heavy travel of Slaviq begins, and a few days after a man died while driving his snowmachine into an open hole on New Year's Eve. As of the first week of January, the organization ran out of the blue reflective tape used to mark the holes.
Since December, Bethel Search and Rescue has worked to mark as many of the holes as possible around Bethel and has shared its blue tape with surrounding villages. Now, the number of holes has overtaken their supplies. They have ordered more online and will wait for delivery; one roll costs about $300.
In the past week, since the traveler’s death, surrounding villages have rallied crews to stake markers along the river. Napakiak marked a trail to Atmautluak and Oscarville, and a truck trail to Bethel. Akiachak, Akiak, and Tuluksak have set up markers. Kwethluk marked holes along Kuskokwak Slough, but is warning travelers to avoid the slough entirely.
Bethel Search and Rescue reports that the trail from Bethel to the tundra villages is solid, and that the creeks crisscrossing the path have frozen. Further downriver, open water begins at Tuntutuliak and continues to the Bering Sea. The group calls the extent of open water “unsettling.” Last year, a truck trail ran from the village to Bethel.
Bethel Search and Rescue and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service flew the river from Tuntutuliak to Kalskag on Friday, about 140 miles. The river looked mostly unchanged from when they flew the same route a month ago in early December. Since then, a few minor holes have frozen; others have partially frozen, creating several smaller holes. Most have shrunk a bit, but the large holes, and there are many, remain.
Bethel Search and Rescue asks travelers to remember that people follow trails, so be careful when making a new one and abide by trail markers. White means you’re on the trail. Blue is open water. Red signals danger or a rough trail. Green shows safe harbor.