Life in Alaska
Outdoors & Recreation

Close Call on the Kuskokwim

Written by
Jesse Cole
God and nature may conspire to send you the
tender mercy of rescue

When our family returned to Alaska in 1980 we moved straight to “The Bush.” In Alaska, this term refers to quite a bit of the state. The highway system is limited and many towns and villages are not connected, so we lump them together in this vast and varied geographical basket.

Stony River, an Athabascan village on the banks of the mighty Kuskokwim River, was our new home. The town lies on an hourglass shaped island with the Kuskokwim flowing around the south and west sides. The north and east sides are also surrounded by water—“sloughs” or secondary channels off of the Kuskokwim.

To the south, a ridge of hills and mountains runs for hundreds of miles, separating the Kuskokwim drainage from the Yukon River drainage. The surrounding forest flourishes atop a thick layer of rich black soil formed from a millennia of decomposing leaves, moss, and lichen.

During the winter the river freezes over, often getting several feet thick. As the meltoff begins in the spring, the river ice breaks with a series of mighty cracks. The water level can rise several feet overnight, sending tremendous sheets of ice floating towards the Bering Sea. The country for several miles is constantly shaped and reshaped by the Kuskokwim.

The river takes the form of a slithering snake, wriggling through the forests and hills, alive with grinding, driving ice at a steady flow of 6 or 7 miles per hour. When the river makes a hard turn, the ice sheets tend to keep going straight and so they plow into the river bank, often gouging huge chunks of earth into the river.

The river slowly shrinks back to its normal flow, exposing numerous sandbars, many of them littered with trees that were torn out during breakup. These trees provide the firewood which heats many homes along the Kuskokwim. Some of the trees sink into the deeper parts of the river, their branches reaching up through the chocolatey colored muddy water, like the outstretched limbs of a massive submerged river monster.

These powerful forces of nature converged in the following story of Uncle Will’s close call.

Will and I were checking our trapline using our Yamaha snowmachine and towing a trusty toboggan, full of gear. It was cold out—probably around 20 below zero. We had been south of Stony River and were coming back home, traveling the well-packed trail on the river ice which most people used. The more experienced and intrepid snowmachine drivers start to make these trails in early winter, traveling up and down the river for various purposes: visiting, trapping, fishing, going to Red Devil where they might find some entertainment, or just getting out and going for a ride.

Those of us with less experience stick to the main, well-packed trails, because we know that off the trail there’s a risk of finding a spot where the relatively warmer river water flowing beneath could erode the ice and create an area thin enough to fall through. These treacherous spots can be deadly, because if you fall into the flowing water, it will suck you right under the sheet of ice which, for the most part, covers the entire river. This would be certain death.

The chances of finding another opening, and then having the strength to climb out, are extremely slim. The water is literally as cold as fresh water can be without actually freezing; only the movement of the water keeps it fluid. In that water you have the double danger of drowning and hypothermia. It would be a dark, cold way to go.

So, you don’t want to go through a hole in the river ice!

Now just picture Will and me, cruising along, basically on autopilot, feeling safe on the hard-packed snowmachine trail, and almost home after a long day out on the trapline. I was sitting on my bottom in the sled, my legs stretched out in front of me, leaning back against the plywood which formed the rear wall of the toboggan. Will was driving the Yamaha, dressed warmly in his tan Carhartt coveralls. We were tired and looking forward to warming up and having some hot food. 

Usually the trail stays away from the cut bank, but we’d reached the point at which the trail left the river ice. Will was slowing down, just 20 or 30 feet from the gravel and dirt pathway sloping up onto the island, but probably still traveling at 10 or 15 miles an hour. 

In the space of a single heartbeat, the front end of the snowmachine broke through the ice and a patch of coffee black water surged up like the tongue of a massive beast. The force of the abrupt halt, combined with the licking motion of the tongue of water, took Will right off the seat of the snowmachine. 

The force of the abrupt halt, combined with the licking motion of the tongue of water, took Will right off the seat of the snowmachine. 

I am not sure how he thought so quickly, or responded so marvelously, but quick as a whisker he was into the water, right up to his neck, and holding the front end of the snowmachine out of the water. For a tenth of a second I thought he was holding onto the machine to keep from going under, but then I saw that he was in fact standing and holding the snowmachine up. 

He was in terrible danger. If he lost his grip on the machine and was swept under the ice, I knew I'd never see him alive again.

I gasped in an icy breath and blasted out of the toboggan like I’d been shot from a gun! I leapt forward and around the side of the bubbling hole in the ice and grabbed for the metal loops on the front of the Yamaha’s skis. With an adrenaline-powered surge of strength, I hauled upwards and backwards on the machine, pulling with all my might! 

I kicked and pulled and managed to pull the nose of the machine up and out of the hole, and then the track, with Will clinging onto it. I was up on my feet then, leaning back, pulling as fast as I could until Will was clear of the hole. He started helping me pull and in just a moment we hauled the whole machine and the toboggan through the hole and back onto the snowmachine trail. The engine never stopped idling, and was putting away as calmly as could be. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, never even having had a chance to fully absorb the danger held in those few moments.

I told Uncle Will to hop in the toboggan. He was soaked through and already starting to freeze. He was afraid he would freeze solid in the short span of time we needed to get home, so he took off at a lope, headed for the heat of the house.

I followed along on the snowmachine, my heart rate calming, marveling at how narrowly we escaped tragedy. 

It took Will just a couple of minutes to jog home. By the time he got there, he could barely move. The Carhartts had iced up to the point that he was waddling rather than running. He got through the front porch and into the warmth of the house and I came in right behind him. It took some thawing before he could undo the zippers on the Carhartts and work his way out of them.

I stood by, and marveled out loud how lucky we were that we were close enough to the bank so Will happened to break through in such a shallow spot.

That’s when Will explained that he was sure he was not on the bottom. He had fully expected to go all the way under, but one of his feet had lodged upon something, not the bottom, but something strong enough to hold him up. Perhaps the uplifted branch of a fully submerged tree? If his foot had gone down a couple of inches to the left or right, or to the east or west, he would have missed that branch and almost certainly gone completely under the water, dragging the snowmachine with him.

I stood there in the warmth of our home, taking in the idea that Will had narrowly escaped almost certain death. I couldn’t believe it.

I went back out to the snowmachine and drove to a stand of tall willow trees. With the hatchet from our survival kit in the toboggan I cut down a tree that was 18 or 20 feet tall and just a few inches around at the base. Then I went to the spot below the bank where Will fell in the water. The hole had already lengthened a few more feet under the steady juggernaut of water. I crawled gingerly up to the hole, checking carefully that the ice I was on was able to hold me safely.

Slowly I made my way to the edge, where just minutes before Will was standing up to his neck in the rushing water, holding up the snow machine. I took the long willow pole and began to probe downward into the water, still half expecting to find the bottom of the river about 5 feet down.

There was nothing.

I probed downward, over and over, several times, trying to find the bottom of the river. It was not to be found. The bottom at that point was more than 18 or 20 feet down. 

I did manage to find the limb, protruding up from the depths; the limb that had almost certainly saved Will’s life. I drove back home and soberly related my discovery to Uncle Will and the rest of our family.

Sometimes even when you believe you are on the safest path, there are unexpected pitfalls. And other times, even when you face certain death, God and nature may conspire to send you the tender mercy of rescue. Be grateful.

No items found.

Close Call on the Kuskokwim

Life in Alaska
Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Jesse Cole

Mom and Dad traveled to Bush Alaska in 1965 with my two older siblings to teach school in remote villages. I was born in Bethel during that part of their adventure. I went to high school in Stony River, a small town at the confluence of the Stony River and the Kuskokwim River. Our family packed a lot of excitement into those years. I went on to serve a Chinese (cantonese) speaking mission for the LDS church, get an engineering degree from Brigham Young University, marry a lovely girl, my wife Holly, and we have six amazing children. When the Dot Com bubble burst I decided to get out of the tech industry and went to dental school. After graduating with my DDS, we moved to northern Idaho. We've been here nine years now enjoying a lot of adventures, raising our family, and loving life.

God and nature may conspire to send you the
tender mercy of rescue

When our family returned to Alaska in 1980 we moved straight to “The Bush.” In Alaska, this term refers to quite a bit of the state. The highway system is limited and many towns and villages are not connected, so we lump them together in this vast and varied geographical basket.

Stony River, an Athabascan village on the banks of the mighty Kuskokwim River, was our new home. The town lies on an hourglass shaped island with the Kuskokwim flowing around the south and west sides. The north and east sides are also surrounded by water—“sloughs” or secondary channels off of the Kuskokwim.

To the south, a ridge of hills and mountains runs for hundreds of miles, separating the Kuskokwim drainage from the Yukon River drainage. The surrounding forest flourishes atop a thick layer of rich black soil formed from a millennia of decomposing leaves, moss, and lichen.

During the winter the river freezes over, often getting several feet thick. As the meltoff begins in the spring, the river ice breaks with a series of mighty cracks. The water level can rise several feet overnight, sending tremendous sheets of ice floating towards the Bering Sea. The country for several miles is constantly shaped and reshaped by the Kuskokwim.

The river takes the form of a slithering snake, wriggling through the forests and hills, alive with grinding, driving ice at a steady flow of 6 or 7 miles per hour. When the river makes a hard turn, the ice sheets tend to keep going straight and so they plow into the river bank, often gouging huge chunks of earth into the river.

The river slowly shrinks back to its normal flow, exposing numerous sandbars, many of them littered with trees that were torn out during breakup. These trees provide the firewood which heats many homes along the Kuskokwim. Some of the trees sink into the deeper parts of the river, their branches reaching up through the chocolatey colored muddy water, like the outstretched limbs of a massive submerged river monster.

These powerful forces of nature converged in the following story of Uncle Will’s close call.

Will and I were checking our trapline using our Yamaha snowmachine and towing a trusty toboggan, full of gear. It was cold out—probably around 20 below zero. We had been south of Stony River and were coming back home, traveling the well-packed trail on the river ice which most people used. The more experienced and intrepid snowmachine drivers start to make these trails in early winter, traveling up and down the river for various purposes: visiting, trapping, fishing, going to Red Devil where they might find some entertainment, or just getting out and going for a ride.

Those of us with less experience stick to the main, well-packed trails, because we know that off the trail there’s a risk of finding a spot where the relatively warmer river water flowing beneath could erode the ice and create an area thin enough to fall through. These treacherous spots can be deadly, because if you fall into the flowing water, it will suck you right under the sheet of ice which, for the most part, covers the entire river. This would be certain death.

The chances of finding another opening, and then having the strength to climb out, are extremely slim. The water is literally as cold as fresh water can be without actually freezing; only the movement of the water keeps it fluid. In that water you have the double danger of drowning and hypothermia. It would be a dark, cold way to go.

So, you don’t want to go through a hole in the river ice!

Now just picture Will and me, cruising along, basically on autopilot, feeling safe on the hard-packed snowmachine trail, and almost home after a long day out on the trapline. I was sitting on my bottom in the sled, my legs stretched out in front of me, leaning back against the plywood which formed the rear wall of the toboggan. Will was driving the Yamaha, dressed warmly in his tan Carhartt coveralls. We were tired and looking forward to warming up and having some hot food. 

Usually the trail stays away from the cut bank, but we’d reached the point at which the trail left the river ice. Will was slowing down, just 20 or 30 feet from the gravel and dirt pathway sloping up onto the island, but probably still traveling at 10 or 15 miles an hour. 

In the space of a single heartbeat, the front end of the snowmachine broke through the ice and a patch of coffee black water surged up like the tongue of a massive beast. The force of the abrupt halt, combined with the licking motion of the tongue of water, took Will right off the seat of the snowmachine. 

The force of the abrupt halt, combined with the licking motion of the tongue of water, took Will right off the seat of the snowmachine. 

I am not sure how he thought so quickly, or responded so marvelously, but quick as a whisker he was into the water, right up to his neck, and holding the front end of the snowmachine out of the water. For a tenth of a second I thought he was holding onto the machine to keep from going under, but then I saw that he was in fact standing and holding the snowmachine up. 

He was in terrible danger. If he lost his grip on the machine and was swept under the ice, I knew I'd never see him alive again.

I gasped in an icy breath and blasted out of the toboggan like I’d been shot from a gun! I leapt forward and around the side of the bubbling hole in the ice and grabbed for the metal loops on the front of the Yamaha’s skis. With an adrenaline-powered surge of strength, I hauled upwards and backwards on the machine, pulling with all my might! 

I kicked and pulled and managed to pull the nose of the machine up and out of the hole, and then the track, with Will clinging onto it. I was up on my feet then, leaning back, pulling as fast as I could until Will was clear of the hole. He started helping me pull and in just a moment we hauled the whole machine and the toboggan through the hole and back onto the snowmachine trail. The engine never stopped idling, and was putting away as calmly as could be. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, never even having had a chance to fully absorb the danger held in those few moments.

I told Uncle Will to hop in the toboggan. He was soaked through and already starting to freeze. He was afraid he would freeze solid in the short span of time we needed to get home, so he took off at a lope, headed for the heat of the house.

I followed along on the snowmachine, my heart rate calming, marveling at how narrowly we escaped tragedy. 

It took Will just a couple of minutes to jog home. By the time he got there, he could barely move. The Carhartts had iced up to the point that he was waddling rather than running. He got through the front porch and into the warmth of the house and I came in right behind him. It took some thawing before he could undo the zippers on the Carhartts and work his way out of them.

I stood by, and marveled out loud how lucky we were that we were close enough to the bank so Will happened to break through in such a shallow spot.

That’s when Will explained that he was sure he was not on the bottom. He had fully expected to go all the way under, but one of his feet had lodged upon something, not the bottom, but something strong enough to hold him up. Perhaps the uplifted branch of a fully submerged tree? If his foot had gone down a couple of inches to the left or right, or to the east or west, he would have missed that branch and almost certainly gone completely under the water, dragging the snowmachine with him.

I stood there in the warmth of our home, taking in the idea that Will had narrowly escaped almost certain death. I couldn’t believe it.

I went back out to the snowmachine and drove to a stand of tall willow trees. With the hatchet from our survival kit in the toboggan I cut down a tree that was 18 or 20 feet tall and just a few inches around at the base. Then I went to the spot below the bank where Will fell in the water. The hole had already lengthened a few more feet under the steady juggernaut of water. I crawled gingerly up to the hole, checking carefully that the ice I was on was able to hold me safely.

Slowly I made my way to the edge, where just minutes before Will was standing up to his neck in the rushing water, holding up the snow machine. I took the long willow pole and began to probe downward into the water, still half expecting to find the bottom of the river about 5 feet down.

There was nothing.

I probed downward, over and over, several times, trying to find the bottom of the river. It was not to be found. The bottom at that point was more than 18 or 20 feet down. 

I did manage to find the limb, protruding up from the depths; the limb that had almost certainly saved Will’s life. I drove back home and soberly related my discovery to Uncle Will and the rest of our family.

Sometimes even when you believe you are on the safest path, there are unexpected pitfalls. And other times, even when you face certain death, God and nature may conspire to send you the tender mercy of rescue. Be grateful.

No items found.

Author

Jesse Cole

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