Kuskokwim Elders React To This Year’s Breakup

Kuskokwim and Gweek Rivers on 5/2/14 . (Photo by Ben Matheson/KYUK)
Kuskokwim and Gweek Rivers on 5/2/14 . (Photo by Ben Matheson/KYUK)

This year, residents along the Kuskokwim River experienced a rare breakup when the river seemingly broke up in reverse.

While elders say this year was a unique event they also believe it could be sign of things to come.

Download Audio

The Kuskokwim River serves as the main transportation route for the Yup’ik living along it.  People use it to reach other villages and gather their food. So predicting its behavior is an essential part of survival.

Atmautluak elder Henry Tikiun says this break-up was unlike any he’s ever seen.

“They said the weather would change with the people, I never thought I’d ever reach this in my lifetime,” Tikiun said.

Originally from Bethel, Tikiun recounts his childhood memories when seasons were more predictable.

“In my first memories in Bethel, upriver areas like McGrath and Aniak would always break up first,” Tikiun said. “After that, downriver would break up even though it’s closer to the ocean.”

Tikiun says the ice would be much thicker in those days. Breakup would be signaled by loud rumbling from the river caused by ice grinding and breaking against each other. He says the climate is changing because of the way people treat the land.

“All of us just the same are polluting our land with no respect,” he said.

Tikiun points to trashed fuel drums along riverbanks as just one of numerous examples.

At the mouth of the Kuskokwim, Tuntutuliak elder and pilot James Charles says the early downriver break-up is attributed to the lack of snow and thin ice.

“The lower area had no snow and the ice was thin so it broke up first,” Charles said. “It usually breaks up last when there’s snow.”

Charles says he’s noticed reports of melting glaciers and permafrost and believes this is attributed to global warming.

“People say our land is thawing and getting warmer and I believe what they call ‘global warming’ is happening,” Charles said.

On the south side of the Kuskokwim Bay, elder John Alexie says breakup near Eek was similar to just one other that occurred about a decade ago. He says warming temperatures were predicted by his ancestral elders.

“I used to hear from people who came before me that the weather would change,” Alexie said. “It wouldn’t be as cold as it used to be and the winters would be different.”

Alexie also heard some of the elders mention that while this area gets warmer, other areas in the Lower 48 would get colder with harsher winters.

While break-up was unusual this year, the elders say similar break-ups may not be uncommon in the future.