Alaska’s different types of rivers
In Alaska, there are many rivers with a lot of sloughs and bogs. The latter flood occasionally when a river has high waters. Alaska has two types of rivers. Those that are glacier-fed like the Tanana River carry a lot of silt and look like latte. They have their highest water in summer when the glaciers release a lot of water. The other rivers are rain fed. Typically, rain fed rivers like the Chena River in the photos of this post have relatively clear water in the Interior.
Rain-fed rivers have high water in spring during snow melt. In the Interior, they often have low waters in mid May to June. During that time, precipitation is still relatively low. Once the summer thunderstorms become active, they may get temporarily high waters when there are many thunderstorms or a mesoscale convective system in their catchments. High waters are also caused when several Aleutian lows make it into the Interior over the Alaska Range or come in from the Bering Sea. In August, many storms reach the Interior. This rain season is called the “Alaska monsoon” by the locals. Thus, in August, the rain fed rivers in the Interior of Alaska peak too.
In the old times rivers were used for transport in summer
In the old times, the Chena, Tanana and Yukon were all used for transport of supply, gold miners, trappers, lumberjacks, mail, and travelers. These rivers are all flowing thru the Interior of Alaska and belong to the Yukon River catchment. Since the Interior is a taiga landscape, there is a lot of wood. Thus, in the old times, the stern wheelers were wood fired and required a large lumberjack economy.
Interior Alaska’s rivers are not developed
Today, there is hardly any shipping on these rivers. The rivers are not developed an bear a lot of risk for modern shipping as well as motor boats. Being frozen for 6 to 7 month a year, shipping is not an attractive business anymore in times of air traffic. Thus, the only “shipping industry” that can work with the short open water season and the often low waters is the river cruise industry that lives of the tourism season.
Use of rivers in the Interior today
Nevertheless, rivers in the Interior are used widely by the locals for travel to communities that are off the road network. Except for Circle, all communities in the Yukon Flats between the Brooks Range and the White Mountains, for instance, can only reached by motor boats in summer and by small air crafts that can land on grass landing stripes, water or snow in winter.
Frozen rivers serve as ice roads and/or ice bridges. In November and April, one always finds in the newspaper that a car went into the river. One spring, I asked one of the waitresses at a restaurant close to an ice bridge how many cars broke in. Guess what her answer was? Three cars were down in the Chena. They can’t be towed out before all ice is gone. In my opinion taking the ice bridge was a pretty expensive shortcut for those three drivers!
Another use, is recreation. Many locals have kajaks, canoes or waterbikes. There is even a place at Nordale Bridge in the Pioneer Park where locals and tourists alike can rent swim vests, canoes, kajaks or boards to paddle down the Chena to the Pump House where they and the equipment will be picked up. They will be driven back to the Pioneer Park in a van after the floating equipment is placed on a hitch. At Pioneer Park, the floaters re-unit with their cars or rental cars.
Many locals also use the river for fishing for grail and alike or just catch and release. Some locals even swim in the river. However, I won’t recommend doing so without a swim vest even when you are a good swimmer. Alaskan rivers are dangerous. One can get into a strong underwater current that one can’t escape from.
The dangers of Interior’s rivers
Every year, you hear about people who became victims of Alaska’s rivers. A couple of years ago, two half brothers jumped from Wood Bridge into the Chena near Barnette’s Landing in downtown Fairbanks. One of them dipped into an underwater current and drowned. In another year, a 17-year old high schooler found himself with a sudden on an ice float during break-up. He and his friend had played on the Chena’s ice when the piece he was on broke off. He finally was rescued by firefighters and police. This year, a midlife couple and a young woman went down the Yukon with a motor boat. People assume that they hit some obstacle under water that was not visible to them. Such events can lead to toppling of a small motor boat like they are used in Alaska. Reportedly the boat did so. Due to the many sloughs and since there is no walking path along the Yukon River, it took the young woman to get back to the village for help. She was the only one wearing a swim vest. Note that the Yukon is very milky as you can see in the post at the link.
Silt settles into the pores and between the yarn of clothes thereby adding weight. Furthermore, the clothes take up water as well. This additional weight pulls down people who fall into silty water without a swim vest. For comparison the specific weight of silt is about 51 – 73 lb per cubic foot (817-1169 kg/m3) while that of water is 62 lb per cubic foot (1000 kg per cubic meter) at 39 F (4oC). The specific weight of a human body is about 61.5 lb per cubic foot (985 kg per cubic meter). The specific weight of the styrofoam of swim vests is about 1-2 lb per cubic foot (16-32 kg per meter cube). Thus, a swim vest chosen appropriately for a person’s weight, can offset the additional weight of silty water and keep the person floating.
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Photos: G. Kramm
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