On the evening of May 5, Bethel residents caught the peculiar sight of an unmanned barge floating down the Kuskokwim River. The barge, filled with gravel and owned by Alaska Logistics, froze in the river near Aniak last October. With the river’s breakup freeing the vessel, it has drifted over 100 miles and looks to be heading out to sea.
Alaska Logistics General Manager Allyn Long explained that the barge was headed to Red Devil in October, but then the river started to freeze up.
“The ice kind of caught us off guard, and it got stuck in the channel,” Long said.
He said that the company tried to free the barge with another boat armed with an excavator, but to no avail.
“It was just too late. There was too much ice in the river and everything else,” Long said. “And so it sat there all winter and really did good for the most part.”
In early May, residents in upriver communities reported that the barge had come loose as the river broke up. Long said that in anticipation of breakup, the company had filled the vessel with hundreds of tons of water, hoping it would be more likely to beach itself on a riverbank.
“We thought that it would go around and hit, basically, one of the first or second banks, you know, because there’s hairpin turns going up and down the Kuskokwim,” Long said.
Instead, Long has been amazed to hear of the barge traveling past community after community.
“I mean, it’s a surprise to everybody in the, you know, it’s become, it’s like a life of its own. Gosh, it’s crazy,” Long said. “I’ve talked to more people in the marine industry, and people are just amazed that it’s made it even five miles, let alone 140 miles.”
Long believes that the ice has acted like a bumper for the barge, allowing it to bounce off the riverbanks on its way down. He says that the ice chunks in the river have also prevented any reconnaissance missions so far.
“It’s too dangerous. There’s no sense in trying to do anything silly,” Long said.
Long expects that the ice will be gone in a few days, and the company will go into the water to retrieve the barge. If it reaches the mouth of the river before then, Long said that the company has a plan for that as well.
“We have ocean boats as well, that can go out and get it,” Long said.
Long said that once Alaska Logistics is able to reclaim its barge, the company will drain the water, inspect the boat, and maneuver it back up the Kuskokwim River, through the hairpin turns, and back to its original destination of Red Devil, just a few months late.