2016 Kuskokwim Break Up – Earliest on Record: The Life in the Ice (reprint from the Delta Discovery)

Freeze Up at Napaiimute

Freeze Up at Napaimute

The Life in the Ice

It was a cold, clear, calm night in the Middle Kuskokwim. I sat there alone cooling off in the dark porch of the maqivik listening to the talk….but the talk wasn’t coming from People.

Sharp cracks. Loud booms. Low rumbling. Echoes in the stillness against the hills and up into the valleys. Sometimes it sounded like furniture being moved in an upstairs room or even distant thunder on a summer evening. All along the River in front of me, down around the bend, and up above at the islands the Ice was talking.

Even though I was the only person around for miles, I didn’t feel alone. There’s life in that Ice I thought to myself. I sat there and kept listening to the story – figuring out the language.

The Ice was growing thicker and the water that it’s born from was getting lower. As water freezes it expands outgrowing the River’s cradle while at the same time with the water dropping its bed is getting smaller. That’s where all the cracking, groaning, and rumbling comes from – growing pains.

It sounds scary, but really the noise is comforting – reassuring – the Ice is getting thicker – safer.

Each year we watch the life of the Ice. We witness its conception, celebrate its birth, enjoy its maturity, and then rejoice in its death.

The Conception: In the fall we watch the water in the River get thicker. We see the mud puddles freeze, then the lakes freeze, then we start to see a little Ice along the shore, and the sloughs and calmer areas freeze. In the clear water tributaries we see Ice forming on the bottom around rocks and branches. Some of it popping loose, rising to the surface and flowing downstream – getting thicker each day if the temperatures are right.

The Birth: I remember watching the Ice form in the main River years go on a moonlit mid-October night as we were coming down with the barge. It was in that long stretch between Terry Hoffman’s fish camp and Carl Morgan’s.

The water was very thick. Then suddenly Ice started forming like thin spider webs across the calm surface. It was amazing to watch. We tied up to rest along the cut bank right above Carl Morgan’s. During the night you could hear the Ice thickening and hitting the side of the barge with increasing loudness. By day light those spider webs of Ice had turned into 1” thick sheets. The Ice was born!

The Ice in the Lower River stops first – there’s less current and when the tide comes in the current slacks off to nothing making it easier for Ice to be born.

A low water freeze up is considered to be best for safe winter travel. A high water freeze up has the danger of shell Ice as the water drops throughout the winter.

Once the Lower River freezes up the Ice coming down from upriver starts backing up – usually from somewhere below Akiak. Sometimes the flowing Ice can run for a month, but in a good year maybe just a couple of weeks. Slowly back filling its way up the River. In some narrow, shallow parts the Ice sheets will jam leaving long stretches of open water below that can remain open throughout the winter.

The Upper end of Kuskokwaq, Coffee’s bend, and Birch Tree Crossing are common places for this – but not always. Sometimes the open holes are in places we haven’t seen before. And sometimes these famous open spots are frozen up tight.

If the temperatures are cold the sheets of Ice grow each day and the shore Ice builds out. In some parts of the River you can safely travel on the shore Ice for miles while the main channel is still running. At Napaimute we can travel 20 miles down to Chuathbaluk on the shore Ice in a good year.

As the Ice stops the water raises filling in some of the roughness especially along the shore. As the running Ice packs in its like break up in reverse. The running Ice slows down, finally stops, but then shifts around again packing in tighter before finally coming to rest for the winter. Listening to stories from our Elders we learn that in the right temperatures you can cross the River on the same or next day – checking ahead of you with an ice pick. It’s true I’ve done it at Napaimute even with 10 open holes with in sight. That Ice packs in tight and is safe to walk on. But you have to have that Ice pick out there in front of you! I always tell my kids that my Ice pick is one of my most valuable possessions.

Maturity: As the Ice fills in the Kuskokwim we begin venturing out on it. A little bit out from each community – manaqing, setting nets, taluyaqs, or traps. Those that are out on the ice early are observing what’s going on and understand when they can venture further. The trails start radiating out, getting longer and longer as the Ice grows. Eventually we are all connected again and the winter traveling season opens up. It’s a great time of the year. Crews mark trails and open water. At first these are just snow machine and ATV trails. But with thickening Ice and some warm spells to smoothen the Ice they eventually become a network of Ice roads for trucks. In 2016 we had over 250 miles of truck road on the Ice of the Kuskokwim River – from the Johnson River Villages to Crooked Creek.

We spend the next several months enjoying the nice hard platform that the Ice has given us. I think the travel we do on the Kuskokwim River in winter rivals some of Alaska’s major highways. With safe trails and ice roads established we are probably the most mobile, social people there are. I always wonder when they say we are “remote and isolated” From who? Certainly not from ourselves. Thousands of Kuskokwim River People move everyday over the Ice for: meetings, fiddling, dog races, carnivals, funerals, basketball games, medical appointments, shopping, getting wood, subsistence activities, and many other reasons. I counted over 70 trucks manaqing at the mouth of Johnson River one nice day in March!

While we enjoy these good months of winter travel, the life in the Ice is maturing – growing up – and we are watching it. We share our observations with other travelers up and down the River.

Even in these mild winters we’ve been having the Ice thickens – though not like it did in previous years. And the water level in the River drops bringing the Ice down along with it.

We watch this and adjust the way we travel accordingly. I always tell people that ask me about the channel:

“If you want to see the channel travel up the River at the end of March/early April. This is when the River is at its lowest level of the whole year. You’ll see the channel clearly.”

In some parts of the River the dropping Ice breaks away from the banks and sandbars leaving dangerous open water long before the spring break up starts. In other areas even though there’s a thick layer of Ice the current continues to eat away at the cut banks leaving hollow areas underneath where the Ice eventually falls down leaving open water. In other parts of the River where there are swift channels with broad shallow areas downstream, the thickening and dropping Ice can cause a restriction in the River flow building up pressure that eventually blows out the channel even though the Ice is nearly 3 feet thick! This happened at Aniak and Napaimute this winter.

These are some of the things to be aware of while traveling on the frozen River. That’s the Life in the Ice -it’s always changing.

Like Took says “The River changes every day”. And if you’re on it enough you’ll see the changes. Sometimes the day to day changes are very small: the Ice dropped just a little more. The Ice got just a little thicker. Those snow drifts got a little taller or longer.

The Death: Sometimes the changes are great and fast – in less than an hour with warm temperatures, wind, rain, and tide the overflow can be much deeper than it was. Or in the spring with hot weather, strong current, and a little sand the Ice can be much more rotten.

Or a part of the River that was flooded with overflow from bank to bank can be dry a few hours later if the water finds a place to drain through and the main Ice decides to lift up.

There are the signs that the Ice is tired. It starts to get sick and slowly die. Each day it lifts up a little higher. Each day it gets a little darker. Each day open water takes up more room along the edges, eventually breaking the shore Ice free from the main channel Ice. Once the main Ice is floating free the end of its life is imminent. But just like our own lives we don’t know exactly when it will end. That’s why I don’t buy Ice classic tickets. I know that the River is smarter than me and I don’t feel like I should try to play like I’m smarter.

But eventually the Ice breaks up, moves out and dies.

Sometimes its death is fast and violent threatening every living thing along the River bank. After a bad break up the land beyond the River can be flooded for miles and miles – all the way out into the tundra. Every kind of drowned animal can be seen from moose and bears all the way down to rabbits and mice. We once saw a drowned moose hanging by its neck way up in the fork of a tree. That time there were many more moose still alive laying or standing on stranded sheets of ice waiting for the land to drain. There was no place else for them to go.

Sometimes its life ends slowly and quietly mostly melting out in a reincarnation of the water it was born from. Maybe that’s what’s happening this year.

We rejoice in the death of the Ice, the new freedom of the open water, and all the good things the summer season along the River has to offer.

I love being on the River and especially on the Ice. There’s Life in the Ice.

I guess it comes from a combination of listening to the People who lived in the dog team days tell stories about traveling on the Ice, over a quarter of a century of watching freeze ups and break ups in Napaimute where the River is right there in front of you all day long every day, or maybe just from a lifetime of living and working on the River. There’s still much to see and learn. Different things every day and every year is different in some ways.

Happy Spring.

Getting a boat in the water after a bad break up can be challenging. This was Napaimute in 2004.

Getting a boat in the water after a bad break up can be challenging. This was Napaimute in 2004.






Open Letter from the Napaimute Traditional Council President to Our Fellow AVCP Region Tribal Leaders

9 March 2016

Fellow Tribal Leaders & Interested Parties:

There is considerable effort by some tribes to convene a special convention of tribes within the Association of Village Council Presidents membership. Now, comes contrary information about a minimum threshold of tribal participation (by resolution) of 37 tribes versus 20 to convene a special convention.  No matter which number is correct, the Native Village of Napaimute Traditional Council has not tendered or submitted a resolution supporting a special convention.

Napaimute Traditional Council has discussed ideas about how to improve the operations and service delivery of programs administered under compact with AVCP.  We plan to share our suggestions with all member villages in the hopes of garnering support and eventual passage of the resolutions at a near-future convention.  The Bylaws clearly state changes to corporate bylaws require a 30-day notice to all member villages before they are brought to the floor for discussion, debate and vote. We believe that a constitutional convention is the proper way to start the process, and also believe that a protocol should be established that clearly identifies a path and funding sources for instituting changes to the AVCP bylaws. Yes, AVCP management also has a responsibility to offer concrete and measurable steps to improve its fiscal house, relationships with member tribes and funding agencies.

We would like to suggest a different playbook, one that will have longer ranging impacts to the overall health of AVCP and member tribes. Together we can work to review and update the governance structure of AVCP to better fit the intent and mission of the organization and to provide the platform of unity and service delivery that we, the Tribal Leadership desire.

It is important that AVCP be prepared to address recent (and historical) fiscal policies and practices through written and oral reporting. It is supremely important that AVCP “come clean” and that AVCP leadership responds to the delegates of AVCP as we are the true tribal leaders of AVCP.  AVCP has a responsibility to the tribes to carry out the mission of AVCP and to act on all resolutions passed by the whole delegation.  This is an area that we have found lacking under this administration.

Native Village of Napaimute believes that changes to AVCP Bylaws regarding the recruitment, selection, and hiring of President, AVCP is critical to success of the organization. AVCP has stewardship responsibilities for millions of dollars and as leaders, we must recognize that who we have sitting at the helm of this multi-million dollar organization must have the requisite skills, knowledge, proven abilities and education to manage an organization of AVCP’s size and reach.  To state it simply, we cannot continue to seat this position on what really is a popularity contest.  Time marches on, we have grown as an organization, we have grown capacity; it is time for AVCP Bylaws to reflect that growth.

All our funding is limited and we strive to operate within budget constraints. Please join us in asking AVCP to convene a convention before May 9, 2016. This date will provide AVCP with sufficient time to prepare for a regular convention where it will answer all those questions tribes have regarding lawsuits; layoffs; cessation of programs; sale, closure or purchases of capital equipment or property; financial reporting that is current and historic, as needed; clear and measureable performance evaluation benchmarks for each program, etc. This date will allow AVCP not only to clean its house, but to reflect on its mission and service to all its members without bias or partiality.

Join us in tangibly helping to address those areas of our AVCP that require reasoned thought, hard work and hard decision-making, and planning for a better tomorrow for all tribes within the AVCP member footprint.


Devron Hellings, President

Native Village Napaimute


Middle Kuskokwim Borough Summit

Borough consultant education representatives on the cost/benefit of borough formation for the Middle Kuskokwim

Lamar Cotton, borough consultant educating representatives from the Middle Kuskokwim on the cost/benefit of borough formation for our region at the recent Middle Kuskokwim Borough Summit

On February 22nd through the 25th, 20 representatives of the 10 Middle Kuskokwim villages met to learn about the cost/benefit of borough formation for the region centered around the potential development of Donlin Creek.

This Summit was sponsored by the Kuskokwim Corporation. For more information on the key results of this meeting please click on the PDF below.

A sincere thank you to the Board of Directors, Management, and Staff of TKC for their efforts to educate the People of the Middle Kuskokwim on the cost/benefit of borough formation for our region.

Middle Kuskokwim Borough Summit 2 (CLICK HERE)


Ice Road Marking Between Chuathbaluk & Napaimute Completed

January 29 trail marking near the Kolmokofsky River

January 29 trail marking near the Kolmokofsky River

Our trail crew completed the marking of the 20 mile stretch of ice road between Chuathbaluk and Napaimute on February 1st.

Point-of-Beginning is at the spruce tree marker at Jim Smith’s place above Chuathbaluk.

Markers are willows with WHITE reflectors spaced 1/10 of a mile apart.

Point-of-End is the dump road landing at the lower end of Napaimute. Stay on the beach road from this point upstream until we get some colder weather.

No large vehicle traffic (trucks) is recommended on the River above the dump road landing due to open water and uncertain conditions from the earlier blow out of the channel in front of the original village.

Thank you to those that made contributions to this work: Harry Faulkner/Top Fuel, Megan Leary, Brandon Leary, Buddy Herron, Randy Turner, and Ron Hoffman.

We hope that other users of the road will make contributions to help cover the expense of this work.

Point-of-Beginning: the spruce tree marker at Jim Smith's

Point-of-Beginning: the spruce tree marker at Jim Smith’s

Dakota Phillips saws slot in the ice for trail markers

Dakota Phillips saws slot in the ice for trail markers

Ben Leary installs one of over 200 markers and reflectors between Chuathbaluk & Napaimute

Ben Leary installs one of over 200 markers and reflectors between Chuathbaluk & Napaimute

With temperatures rising to the low 40's during this work - the mosquitos were out!

With temperatures rising to the low 40’s during this work – the mosquitos were out!



NVN Seeking Public Input for 2016 Social and Economic Development Strategies for SEDS or SEEDS Proposal

The goal of this proposal is to increase employment opportunities for young People in the Middle Kuskokwim Region

The goal of this proposal is to increase employment opportunities for young People in the Middle Kuskokwim Region

The Native Village of Napaimute is interested in applying for the:

2016 Social and Economic Development Strategies for Alaska-SEDS-AK or 2016 Sustainable Employment and Economic Development Strategies (SEEDS).  Both funding opportunities are administered through the Administration for Children and Family Services: Administration for Native Americans.

It is our goal to shift away from programs that create dependency and apply for programs to promote economic development thereby developing self-determination and self-governance.  Through this application we are striving to increase employment opportunities for young People in the Middle Kuskokwim Region through the stabilization and expansion of our current firewood distribution business.
We are seeking public input and encourage anyone to voice their concerns or support.
Written comments can be submitted to napaimute@gci.net
Thank you.

Middle Kuskokwim Communities Work Together to Establish Safe Ice Road System to the Lower Kuskokwim:

Lower Kalskag, Napaimute, & Crow Village Crew at Mile Post 0 of Upriver Route 1 near the mouth of the Tuluksak River L-R: Joe Simeon, Ludwig White, Ben Leary, Andrew Kameroff, Jr., Nikolai Savage, Mike Evan, Jr., Nick Levi, & Dakota Phillips

Lower Kalskag, Napaimute, & Crow Village Crew at Mile Post 0 of Upriver Route 1 near the mouth of the Tuluksak River L-R: Joe Simeon, Ludwig White, Ben Leary, Andrew Kameroff, Jr., Nikolai Savage, Mike Evan, Jr., Nick Levi, & Dakota Phillips


Copy & paste this address to your browser for a full report:


Alaska Board of Fish Weighs in on Regulatory Proposals

At the January 12th meeting in Fairbanks the Board of Fish reviewed 16 proposals to change regulations in how Fisheries are managed on the Kuskokwim River.  The Board listened to hours of public testimony, reviewed recommendations from ADF&G Advisory Committees, the Kuskokwim Salmon Management Working Group, Tribal Councils, their own Staff, and even an “ad-hoc” BOF Kuskokwim Committee formed at the meeting: before reaching any decisions.

At the meeting, I was impressed by not only the level of representation from Kuskokwim stakeholders, but also by their thoughtful comments, and willingness to find solutions to the problems facing us.

We have provide background on each of these proposal over the last few months so I won’t go into detail here, and instead just provide the results of the meeting on the key proposals we have been discussing.

For Proposals – 92, 93, 94, and 96 the Board found a common solution in RC-83 (RC stands for record copy) to address the “intent” of each of these proposals; which was to pass more Chinook salmon through the Bethel area: thereby providing greater escapement into headwater tributaries, and more reasonable fishing opportunity for folks in the Middle and Upper River.  The seemingly simple change to the Departments Kuskokwim Salmon Management Plan identified in RC-83 (see attached); to not allow subsistence salmon fishing to begin until June 12th could potentially make all the difference for conservation, and fishermen up-river with the least amount of impact on all subsistence fishermen.

The graphic below (prepared by ADF&G) shows the June 12th opening date relative to Chinook passage at the Bethel Test Fishery. On June 12th, in an average run timing year approximately 14% of the run has passed; on a late year only 5%; and on an early year as much as 31%.  This closure protects those early run fish that we now know are migrating to headwater tributaries to spawn, and may be contributing more to the total run than previously thought.


On the issue of permits (Proposal 95 and 222) – the Board chose to table the two proposals, to be taken up at a later date. The Board recognized the lack of agreement between the various Advisory Groups and in the public testimony regarding the need for, and if necessary the type of permit system that would work best for everybody.  The Board requested that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Subsistence Division work with stakeholders throughout the region in the coming months to see if any agreement could be reached. So…stay tuned there will be more discussions on this matter in the near future.

Personally, from this observers perspective the meeting was a success for everybody up and down the river. With the biggest beneficiary being the remarkable resource we have in Chinook salmon: one that with only sound, conservative management will be available for future generations.

Dan Gillikin


Final Review of Kuskokwim River Board of Fish Proposals and Advisory Groups Recommendations.

Now that all the Kuskokwim Advisory Groups have weighed in on the fisheries proposal I am providing a brief summary on key fisheries regulatory proposals that will be before the State Board of Fish (BOF) for their consideration to be adopted into state regulations in 2016. Again, these regulations will have far reaching consequences for the people and fisheries resources in our region, if adopted. These proposals not only address the how and when State Managers should conduct fisheries, they also establish management objectives. We strongly encourage all fishermen to become involved. The text of the full proposals, ADF&G staff comments, and guideline for submitting comments to the BOF are available at the BOF website:  http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.main.

Key fisheries proposals:

92 – Modify the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Plan to manage the king salmon subsistence fishery based on the Bethel Test Fishery.

93 – Modify the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Plan to establish an In-river run goal of king salmon above the Bethel Test Fishery.

94 – Establish an In-river run goal for the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Plan.

95 – Create a Tier II subsistence king salmon fishery in the Kuskokwim River.

96 – Separate the amounts necessary for subsistence use of king salmon into three parts on the Kuskokwim River.

97 – Create a permitting system for king salmon subsistence fishing in the Kuskokwim River.

222 – Establish a permit system for regulating the king salmon subsistence fishery during times of low king salmon runs.

A summary of the positions on key proposals by state sponsored fisheries Advisory Groups is provided in Table 1. The Advisory Committees (AC) and the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group (WG) represent different segments of the Kuskokwim River and various interest groups, they are: the Lower Kuskokwim AC (LKAC), Bethel AC (BAC), the Kuskokwim River Salmon Management Working Group (KRSMWG or WG), the Central Kuskokwim AC (CKAC), and the Stony Holitna AC (SHAC). These Advisory Groups have been reviewing and developing recommendation on Kuskokwim fisheries proposal for consideration by the BOF at their January 12th meeting in Fairbanks. These proposals, if adopted will have a significant impact on how fisheries are managed on the Kuskokwim in the coming years. I have briefly summarized the positions of each Advisory Group, and ADF&G Staff’s preliminary positions on key proposal in the table below. This summary is based on my personal notes from each meeting; I apologize in advance for any discrepancy.

Table 1. Summary of Advisory Groups position on BOF proposals.

92 ND* Support Support Support Support Opposed
93 ND* Tabled Support Support Support Opposed
94 ND* Tabled Support Support Support Opposed
95 Opposed*** Opposed Opposed Tabled Opposed Neutral
96 ND* Opposed Support Support Support Opposed
97 Opposed*** Tabled Support Support Opposed Neutral, support in concept
222 Opposed*** Support Support with modifications Support with modifications Opposed Neutral, support in concept

* ND = Not Discussed or Information not available, will be updated once it becomes available. ** Preliminary remarks by ADF&G, final position will be made available prior to BOF meeting. *** Information from KYUK website.

Proposal Summary Comments:

Proposal 92-94: In general, all of the Advisory Groups supported these proposals, or chose not to weigh in on them.  This suggests to me that all groups recognized the issues identified in the proposals and are seeking a management option to resolve them. ADF&G (Department) questions the feasibility of implementing these proposals (as stated) due to technical challenges with the data; they remain neutral on all allocative aspects of the proposal. Interestingly, AF&G does offer a preferred approach to address the issues raised by the proposals in their comments, see highlighted text below.

Excerpt from ADF&G Staff Comments, see BOF website for full text:

ADFG comments

This proposed approach by Department could potentially achieve the “intent” of proposal 92-94, and according to them is technically feasible.  An area of concern however would be the lack of a “codified” objective (something written into the Management Plan) that would direct ADF&G to implement this solution, and under what conditions they would do so.

Proposal 95: The Advisory Groups were united in their lack of support to establish a Tier II permitting system for Chinook Salmon. The Department remains neutral on the allocative aspects of this proposal.

Proposals 96-222: Support was mixed between the various Advisory Groups or they were not discussed. Those groups that supported the permit proposals had a preference for proposal 222 which they provide amendments to. The precise language of the various amendments is in draft and will in all likelihood not be available until the BOF meeting for public review. The Department remains neutral on the allocative aspects of these proposals, but does support the intent of the proposals requesting a permit system be put in place.

The BOF will be taking written comments (less than 5 double sided sheets) up until the meeting date, see the BOF website on how to submit your comments. You may also contact Napaimute at: napaimute@gci.net if you wish assistance.

Posted by: Dan Gillikin