Village Shows Teamwork Breaking Up A Frozen River For Fuel Delivery

Fuel Barge pumping fuel by Kongiginak. (Photo by Roderick Phillip)
Fuel Barge pumping fuel by Kongiginak. (Photo by Roderick Phillip)

Residents from the coastal village of Kongiginak, in Southwest Alaska, rallied against nature to clear the way for a barge, carrying a load of heating fuel and gasoline earlier this week. Freeze-up has already started along the coast.

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Forty or so community members broke the river ice by lining five boats they used as a makeshift icebreaker. It took more than 24-hours to break trail so a barge could reach the local gas station with the delivery. Kongiginak resident Roderick Phillip was a part of the effort that had residents working from Sunday evening to Monday afternoon, he says it was…

A broken outboard prop with significant damage to tabs on the lower unit. (Photo by Roderick Phillip)
A broken outboard prop with significant damage to tabs on the lower unit. (Photo by Roderick Phillip)

“Cold and windy, it was frozen pretty good it had 3 inches of ice. We used Lund boats, the majority of boats were Lunds, and there was like ten 4-wheelers lined up in the river just to light up the river so the boats could see,” said Phillip.

Phillip says the broken ice also presented some hazards. The intrepid crew lost a few outboard propellers to the ice; dealing damage to many of the lower units.

Jerry Ivon manages the local tribal trading post, the Qemirtalek store. In late September he says they realized they wouldn’t have enough fuel to last through the winter, so they ordered more from a distributor in Anchorage. Weather delays and freeze-up looked as if they would prevent the delivery on Sunday.

“There was a north wind for a long time so the barge couldn’t make the delivery, then the river started freezing. Our elders asked for help so our corporation began by providing fuel for the small boats we used to to break the ice,” said Ivon.

Kongiginak is situated right along the coast, thirty miles from the mouth of the Kuskokwim River and is no stranger to high waves during the windy fall season.

Cold weather came early this year, and Phillip says without the vital fuel delivery, Kongiginak would have effectively shut down.

One of the icebreaker crews dozing through the pancake ice. (Photo by Elizabeth Otto)
One of the icebreaker crews dozing through the pancake ice. (Photo by Elizabeth Otto)

“No gasoline would mean no hunting during springtime or even, I wouldn’t have any gas for the winter and our main source of heat is diesel fuel,” said Phillip.

With no nearby source of firewood, residents also use gas to travel to the Kuskokwim fifty miles away, or even to the Yukon for bigger logs, well over a hundred miles away to get wood for their steambaths.

The barge was able to leave safely Tuesday night thanks to the community keeping the river ice flowing. For now Kongiginak residents are focusing on getting nutrition from the Bering Sea before the surrounding sea freezes over.