Break Up: A Look Back

About a year ago, on the 27th of April, the ice went out and water traveled freely down the Middle Fork of the Koyukuk Valley once again.  The following story details that event a few days past. This year, the rivers and creeks remain frozen, while than a foot of snow lingers on.  With true night past, summer seems within grasp despite the temperatures still dropping below freezing in the evening.  Here’s to a quick transition and with it the arrival of summer.

After nearly seven months of frozen waters, the rivers were finally flowing again.  It was the first of May and spring time was in full swing in the Arctic.  The sun was up nearly all day, snow was melting rapidly off the mountains and as of four days ago, the ice had gone out in the river.  I had been fantasizing about summer packrafting for months. In March, the sun passes the 12 hour mark and keeps going, quickly gaining light each day.  The long days of March and April bring to mind thoughts of summer, but in the Arctic winter hasn’t fully released its grasp.

With the ice out, I was more than willing to end my waiting and hit the water.  In the first few weeks after the ice breaks up, the water is high and silty.  Streams flow through the forest picking up sediment and tannins, searching for the quickest path to the river, as the melting snow on the mountains flows to the valley floor.  After setting off, I navigated among the small ice pans floating down from further upstream.  Large ice chunks remained on sandbars and gravel banks, left behind in the rush to sea.  Making a journey downriver so early in the season was not without its obstacles.  A few miles after putting in, I rounded a bend to find a wall of ice, stretching from bank to bank.  After taking out on a gravel bar, I was able to see that the ice jam stretched a few hundred yards in length.  I put on my pack, brought the raft to my shoulder and set off to go around.  Almost immediately after moving, there was a large thump from the vicinity of the ice jam. The ice moved together in the main channel, continuing down river.  Water began to funnel towards the main channel with the natural dam removed.  Ice chunks on the side, having lost their support with the water draining out, collapsed and resettled.  I waited for the pack to pass and gave it additional time as a precaution, before moving on.

Back on the water I was among the ice once again.  Paddling at a normal rate, the ice pans soon became ice chunks.  The chunks soon took up much of the channel.  I convinced myself that I could pass the pack, as it had likely spread out.  Yet as I continued on, I found my movements increasingly restricted.  Shortly thereafter, I was unable to move at all.  With my impatience and poor judgment, I had paddled right into the center of the ice pack.  Locked in and with almost no control, I was at the whim of water and ice.  The river funneled the water towards large boulders at a bend in the river.  I watched large ice chunks ahead smash up against the sides.  I pictured the same thing happening to my boat, with me being tossed from it and leaving me in an even more undesirable situation.  Moving as much as I could, I scooted on top of the ice away from the rocks, trying to push off with my paddle towards the center of the channel.  It was enough of a buffer.  The ice to my left crushed against the rocks, while the rest of ice plus my boat and I swung safely around the bend.

That was enough to convince me of the risks involved in staying with the pack.  Inching forward on top of the ice, I made it back to open water and onto shore.  After waiting for a much longer period, the rest of my float was continued without incident.  Riding the pack was thrilling, but it wouldn’t be something I’d be seeking out again in the future.


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