A company is once again leaving its barges in the frozen Kuskokwim River over the winter. Two years ago, Alaska Logistics abandoned a gravel barge near Aniak during freeze up and retrieved it after breakup in the spring. The company is preparing to do the same with two more barges this year.
In late October, a barge called the Madison Rose was heading to Eek, a community of about 400 about 10 miles up the Eek River, a tributary of the Kuskokwim. It was supposed to be the last barge delivery of the year for Alaska Logistics. General Manager Allyn Long said that the weather changed suddenly once the barge entered the Eek River.
“It got very cold the day we got there. It got down to, like, single digits, and ice came out of the mountains and rivers and sloughs everywhere,” Long said.
He said that Alaska Logistics has moved barges through the Kuskokwim into mid-November for the past decade. The early freeze-up this year caught the company off guard.
“It was a cold year. North wind for three weeks straight, and it just froze things and it froze things fast,” Long said.
The crew of four operating the barge in Eek found themselves surrounded by ice on all sides.
“And we just needed to, we had to get out of there,” Long said.
The crew detached the tugboat from the barge to break ice and forge a path back toward the Kuskokwim River. Long said that the crew has made it safely to Naknek in the Bristol Bay region. However, the barge and its cargo remain stuck in the ice near Eek.
“We wanted the safety of our crew to come first, obviously,” Long said.
The barge was carrying school construction supplies to Eek and Scammon Bay when it got stuck two miles from Eek. Long said that the company is looking at transporting the construction equipment to Eek by helicopter, but he said that the supplies that were headed to Scammon Bay will likely sit on the barge until spring.
The Lower Kuskokwim School District said that even if materials are delayed, it would not slow down construction of a new school in Eek. However, new teacher housing units in Scammon Bay would be delayed by several months for the Lower Yukon School District.
There’s another Alaska Logistics barge that’s stuck near Georgetown, far up the Kuskokwim River. Long said that it was empty, on its way home from a project near McGrath. The company abandoned this barge in early October, before the ice became a major factor.
“The water levels were starting to go down a little bit and one of our engines was overheating, and we just didn’t want to push it,” Long said. “So we just decided to park it, basically, or moor it up there.”
The U.S. Coast Guard is investigating both of these incidents. If they find wrongdoing on the part of Alaska Logistics, they could fine the company for obstructing waterways.
Long is hoping to retrieve both of his company’s barges in the spring, and this time without issue. In 2020, Alaska Logistics left a barge unsecured near Aniak over the winter. In the spring, it floated over 100 miles down the river before the company was able to retrieve it.
“You live and learn a little bit. So we’re gonna have a snowmobile or something, drop an anchor on there and tie it off to the barge, and hopefully that secures it,” Long said.
He said that the lesson that he’s learned this year is that the company should consider ending its barge season earlier.