Dog team nearly killed by river erosion

Approximately 50 feet of land that eroded from Mike Williams’ backyard. (Photo courtesy of Mike Williams)
Approximately 50 feet of land that eroded from Mike Williams’ backyard. (Photo courtesy of Mike Williams)

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Just as it was getting dark Saturday evening, Akiak resident and dog musher Mike Williams Sr. stepped outside to see his dog lot falling into the Kuskokwim River and seven of his sled dogs being pulled into the water.

“They were beginning to choke,” Williams said, “but they’re alive, they’re okay now. They got them just in time,” Williams said.

Williams says the dogs were hanging by their chains, with their bodies dangling over the eroding banks.

“We had to pull them out, they were in they’re chains and they pulled them out,” Williams said.

Williams’ son-in-law went outside to check on Williams’ 60 sled dogs when he realized something wasn’t right— the lot was eroding into the riverbank, and quickly.

“This is about the most I’ve seen in recent times in Akiak,” Williams said.

Williams was able to rescue and relocate all of his sled dogs, but he lost a refrigerator that stored dog food.

What Williams experienced is called mass erosion.

“These are tough times for all of us, and hopefully a lot of erosion projects will be funded to help fix all of this stuff,” Williams said.

Areas along the Kuskokwim are no strangers to erosion, especially in the era of Alaska’s climate change. But in Akiak, erosion commonly occurs during breakup season, when the river flows faster, not in late September.

Chris Maio, an Assistant Professor of Geology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, studies coastal geography and says Saturday’s erosion is abnormal.

“I certainly think that is what I’d categorize as an extreme erosional event,” Maio said.

Maio says that high rate is a result of three elements: the river’s natural composition, warmer weather, and high rainfall.

“Forty-five, 55 feet in the matter of a couple of hours is certainty a really dramatic rate of erosion,” Maio.

The sediment in communities along the Kuskokwim is composed primarily of silt, a fine gradient, and it’s held together by permafrost.

When the temperatures rise, the permafrost melts, weakening the riverbanks.  When a heavy rain comes, it can tear the land away.

Williams says it had been raining a lot before the mass erosion, raising the river, but he says the weather Saturday night wasn’t particularly windy or intense.

In 2009, the U.S. Corps of Engineers conducted an erosion assessment of almost 200 Alaskan communities.

According to the assessment, Akiak is losing about an acre of land a year, and the village’s communications hub will be lost within 30 years to erosion.

Researchers conclude that the potential damages could cost more than $18 million.

Akiak City Administrator Ivan Ivan, says the city has developed a mitigation plan, and recently applied for a disaster relief grant through FEMA. If awarded, the grant will help relocate about nine homes that are close to the river.

Ivan says they’re still waiting to hear back.