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Indian Country Today

In western Alaska, seven Yup'ik hunters, including a teenager, were stranded for a week after the Yukon River suddenly froze making boat travel impossible. A 3-day hunting trip ended up taking 12 days. They were rescued by a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter airlift.

The hunters planned to make a 120-mile trip from their home village of Pilot Station to the Bering Sea in one day, spend a day hunting, and return on the third day. They were all experienced hunters and had made the trip many times.

Initially all went as planned. The group had traveled through open water to the mouth of the Yukon River, camped overnight, and gone hunting. They camped a second night, and that’s when the trouble started, hunter Rex Nick, Yup'ik said.

“When everybody woke up, when we started moving around, I went to check, start up my motor. And I noticed my boat didn't even, you know when you step in a boat, it moves around. It didn't even move around. I tried bouncing on it. Nothing happened,” Nick said.

“Then, later on, I got a couple of guys to get in the boat and we tried moving it around. It still wouldn't budge. It took four guys to go in the back of the boat and two of us up in front to finally break it free. I had to chop a little bit around the boat, chop the ice up and finally get them [the two boats] to move a lot better,” he said. “It just happened so fast…I never seen a sluice and smaller rivers freeze up so fast…”

Alex Nick

It took them hours longer than usual to travel to another village, where they spent the night. After they got back on the river, ice chunks began crashing into the boats.

Nick told Anna Rose MacArthur of KYUK, “That's the first time I really got scared,” Nick said, “when I thought the ice was going to either damage my boat and sink my boat, or flip my boat over. I've never been scared like that by ice before.”

The group had warm clothes, a GPS, satellite communications, and extra food. “We were prepared. We just weren't prepared to be there as long as we did,” Nick said.

“You could plan anything. You don't know what to expect out there. Anything can happen out there. One thing is for certain, nobody plans to spend an extra nine days. You might plan one or two days extra, but you know, who plans for that [long an extra stay]?”

“There’s a difference between wanting to be there, not wanting to be there, needing to be there, not needing to be there. In this case, we didn't want to be there and we didn't need to be there. You know, we just wanted to get out of there. It just was frustrating for how long it took [to get rescued],” Nick said.

Officials say planes and helicopters were held up due to weather conditions and mechanical problems.

Trooper spokesperson Austin McDaniel told KYUK, “We had our search and rescue coordinator, who was a lieutenant here in Anchorage, working on this day in and day out. We had a trooper out in Emmonak working on trying to find solutions to get these folks out of there every single day.”

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An Army helicopter was due to arrive Friday. Then the Coast Guard was able to airlift them out Thursday evening.

Map showing location of Emmonak and Pilot Station
Emmonak, Pilot Station

Usually ice freezes in the near-shore shallow areas and a thin skim of ice forms and floats on top of the deeper faster-moving water. As the ice gets thicker, the current breaks it up into smaller pieces. Boats can get through the ice chunks until the chunks get so big they can crush or tip over a boat.

About 20 miles outside Emmonak, the group knew it was time to stop and get off the river. Nick said the group was saved by the food, fresh water, and wood for a fire at a fish camp cabin.

“The owner's daughter was there on the VHF radio telling us what they had in camp, where things were, what's good to use – you know, things like that. They were really generous. They were helping us out. We told them we didn't want to use too much of their stuff or things like that. They said, ‘oh, that's why we left them there, in case something like this happens.’”

The military dropped off food, first snacks, then more substantial supplies, and finally MREs, or meals ready to eat but the food was diminishing.

The group had used wood sparingly to stay warm, but, “We were on probably our last, last day's worth [of firewood]. We scrounged up everything that we could find that was good to burn.”

When asked if he had advice for others, Nick said people need to “be safe, be prepared, and make wise decisions.”

“If there's a bad situation in front of you, you know, find shelter or do something, you know, don't try to make it worse. I think we made the right decision by staying back and waiting for help to come around,” he said.

Still, “just go live life, enjoy the wilderness. Don't let things like this stop you. I'm still going out. I'm just waiting for winter,” Nick said.

In winter, rivers freeze a solid 12 or more feet, thick enough to drive a car or truck on. The ground freezes too and is covered with snow, making it possible to travel by snow-machine or dogsled.

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