It’s been a warmer than usual winter in Alaska – granted, it’s a balmy 9 degrees in Anchorage as I type this – but shaky ice formation in several Alaska rivers are cause for concern considering the number of subsistence hunters that cross usually frozen-solid waterways throughout the state.
The unseasonable warmth in parts of Alaska is a factor in making last month the warmest December on record for the entire state, experts say. The statewide average temperature for the month was 19.4 degrees, far higher than the historical average of 3.7 degrees, according to Rick Thoman, climatologist for the National Weather Service’s Alaska region.
Open water also marks a 22-mile (35-kilometer) stretch of the Kuskokwim that’s part of Alaska’s famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, prompting concerns among organizers about the route between two rural communities. The race starts in March.
“I don’t think right now — today — that we could run the Iditarod between Nikolai and McGrath on the normal river trail,” race marshal Mark Nordman said. “But we have a secondary route.”
To the south, the soggy trails complicated travel for many recently wanting to visit relatives and friends in other villages to celebrate Slaviq — a hybrid Russian Orthodox Christmas and Alaska Native spiritual tradition that developed generations ago in parts of the state from deeply rooted ties with Russians, including missionaries.
The splotchy ice highways also are creating challenges in reaching traditional hunting grounds. Most area residents rely on a subsistence lifestyle and normally would be out looking for caribou, beaver and otter this time of year to supplement their cache of salmon and moose meat.
But some hunters are waiting for better conditions, said Boris Epchook, who has lived most of his 54 years in the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Kwethluk, east of Bethel. He added glassy ice has replaced snow in places, which is hard on snowmobiles and four-wheelers.
Epchook said he has seen dramatic environmental changes in the past two decades, but never to this degree.
“These are a lot more holes on the river (than) I’ve seen and heard of over the years,” he said. “The weather patterns have definitely changed this year.”