Normally in December, the Bethel area is covered in snow and ice but it’s been unseasonable warm so far. In fact, Bethel broke a record Dec. 6 reaching 48 degrees. The Y-K Delta is known for winter warm ups but the amount of them lately has some folks scratching their heads.
By now, the Kuskokwim is often a frozen highway of activity for Kwethluk residents like Max Olick, who enjoys making the 15-mile trip downriver to Bethel.
“You know this time of the year, we’re going back and forth with trucks,” Olick says. “But this year, it’s kind of depressing.”
Olick, who has been a Yup’ik subsistence fishermen and hunter his whole life, says he’s never seen it like this before.
Last week, temperatures were above freezing for six days straight reaching into the 40s four of those days. It’s enough to melt the snow and turn everything brown, which is not a safe landscape for guys out checking their nets or traps under the ice.
“The open leads are hard to see right now and if you go down to the river, it’s all the same, you won’t be [able to] even notice open waters,” Olick says.
Olick has been the village’s Public Safety Officer for 31 years and hasn’t crossed the Kuskokwim to check his own net in a week. However, others others are risking it; those who have beaver traps or black fish traps set or white fishnets under the ice.
“They’re trying to put food on the table for their family and they’re risking their lives out there taking chances,” Olick says.
About 160 miles away on the Bering Sea coast, Brandon Aguchak works as Scammon Bay’s Tribal Council Director. He says a bunch of boats went out to go seal hunting recently. Subsistence seal hunting in December is pretty much unheard of. The season usually wraps up in late October… but everything has melted back to brown tundra.
“Like a fall, early fall,” Aguchak says.
A lot of hunters in Scammon Bay would normally be out checking their traps and nets this time of year but Aguchak says they can’t. He doesn’t know of anyone going hungry–most have stored salmon and moose and the freshly caught seal—but he says it’s still a hardship.
“A lot of people rely on white fish and black fish,” Aguchak says. “They can’t go out and get these things here for their families so I think some people do have a hard time without checking their traps.”
It is getting colder. Although there’s no snow in the forecast, freezing temperatures are. Until conditions improve, Max Olick advises against traveling on the river near Bethel. . .but if you have to he says don’t go alone and bring extra rope.