On a bluebird fall day, it was the youngest residents of Aleknagik who took the first steps across the newly-opened Aleknagik Wood River Bridge as they raced one another across it.
Fitting, as it’s the youth of Aleknagik who have faced daily crossings for decades, just to get to school.
“I remember as a child in ’56 when I started school the only transportation we had was to walk across the lake,” recalled Aleknagik Mayor Jane Gottschalk during the ribbon cutting ceremony on Tuesday. “We walked through storms, below zero weather. And it seems like it took forever to cross by foot. And when breakup came, there was always somebody to take us across in the skiff.”
About 150 people turned out to celebrate the new 440-foot bridge, 40 feet above the Wood River, a mixture of Aleknagik and Dillingham residents and visiting dignitaries. Molly Chythlook said the two sides of the lake have been separated her whole life.
“But now with this bridge, the connection is going to be so prominent for both sides,” she said on Tuesday. “And like Mayor Gottschalk said, it’s going to be safe. Not only for school kids, but for everybody crossing.”
Chythlook moved from Aleknagik to Dillingham with her husband, Joe, and their two young children in the 1970s, in part because of concerns about crossing the water every day.
“We built our home here when we got married in 1967, but with our two young kids and Joe working in Dillingham, there was no way for us to just go back and forth crossing the lake with the boat during summer and snow machining around the lake, it was just, no way.”
The town has long been divided between the north and south shores of Aleknagik, water or ice between. Elementary students crossed to the north to get to the Aleknagik School. Older students crossed to come south and bus to Dillingham.
At times, the crossing can be deadly; more than a dozen lives have been lost.
And so, for years, there has been talk of a bridge.
In the early 2000s, an earmark from then-Senator Ted Stevens helped spur action on the project, said state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marc Luiken during Tuesday’s ceremony. Local lawmakers Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham, and Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel, kept pushing the project forward according to those who spoke Tuesday, resulting in a $20 million appropriation from legislature in 2008 that funded much of the actual construction.
“This is a great example of the coordination and consistency and collaboration, and really the tenacity, between the city, the tribes, the Alaska native corporations, and probably most importantly, these two gentlemen over here, who have been really strong advocates for this bridge,” Luiken said, referring to Edgmon and Hoffman.
Left unsaid during the ceremony were concerns about what new problems connectivity could bring to the small town. But afterward, watching first traffic jam on the north shore of Aleknagik, some said they had been told to start locking their doors, that there are worries about trespassing. But for the most part Tuesday, those concerns largely took a backseat to the celebration that at least the daily crossings would be safer.
In her remarks, Gottschalk also thanked those involved in the project locally over the years – from a long list of former Aleknagik mayors and residents to DOT Engineer James Amundsen, who designed the span, and project manager Tim Hutton who saw it through construction this summer and fall, as well as other individuals and entities involved along the way.
Then, after a blessing, Edgmon and Hoffman, Gottschalk and Luiken, all stood together to cut the ribbon on the new bridge. And after posing for a photo, the youth crossed first, some walking, some sprinting, leading the way back to the school gym to celebrate.