“Believe It or Not”

Bad freeze up for barges in Nanvarnaq Lake! Photo by BSAR


The following is the BSAR Kuskokwim River Aerial Survey Report for 2023-24 – 01*.


For the past several years BSAR has been scheduling our first Aerial Freeze Up Survey of the Kuskokwim River on November 18th. Flying the same day each year allows us to look back at previous years for comparison.

The route flown on this first flight of the season covered the area west of Bethel to the Tundra Villages, down the Johnson River to the Kuskokwim, the Kuskokwim as far downstream as the Kialiq River then upstream to Aniak where we were forced to turn around due to freezing rain.

Believe it or not: despite all the recent warm wet weather there is less open water in the Bethel area than previous years. There are however, many areas of thin ice and some smaller areas of open water.


Highlights of the 11.18.23 BSAR Aerial Survey include:

• As of the day of our flight there has been no traffic on the trail west of Bethel to the Tundra villages

• The Johnson River appears to be well-frozen with no open water observed along the main channels

• The lower edge of the Kuskokwim River ice is about 8 miles below the mouth of the Johnson River

• The main channel of the Kuskokwim below this area is still open with a lot of flowing ice

• The main channel of the Kuskokwim is very rough from the Johnson River up to just below Napakiak

• There is large area of open water and thin ice between Oscarville & Napaskiak

• Joe Pete’s Bend is well frozen

• The lower end of Straight Slough has a large area of thin ice that has just recently frozen

• There are at least two small open holes in Straight Slough

• There are at least two open holes in the Kuskokwim Channel just outside of the lower end of Church Slough

• Church Slough still has open water scattered throughout

• Kwethluk has a large open water & thin ice area in front and upstream of the village

• Kuskokuak Slough is well frozen except for a couple of small holes near Wassilie B. Evan’s Camp

• The Upper End of Kuskokuak Slough and the main channel toward both Akiak and Akiachak is a major DANGER ZONE! There are at least 3 large open holes in this area

• Akiak to Tuluksak has many large open water areas – at least one is bank to bank

• Tuluksak to Kalskag also has many large open water areas – at least two are bank to bank

• Kalskag to Aniak has more snow cover. There are hundreds of small open holes scattered throughout the rough ice. The river is wide open bank-to-bank from Steven Nicolai’s Island 4.5 miles above Kalskag. This open water stretches upstream 4 miles to 1.5 miles below Sonny Kameroff’s Fish camp.

• There is another long open water area from just above Allen Simeon’s fish camp to the gravel pit – 2.5 miles long

• Near each community there were People out on the ice setting nets and manaqing


Freeze up has come to the Kuskokwim River. We are a little behind this year but a little cold weather can catch us up quickly. It’s a quiet time where people stay close to home doing little chores to get ready for winter. Many make daily trips down to the River to observe the ever changing conditions. Everyone waits patiently for the ice to thicken up so that safe travel in our region can begin again. We have to be patient.

Knowledgeable people sharpen their ice picks and begin testing the ice near their communities. The first ones out on the new ice are the fishers – those that want to manaq or set nets. Blackfish hunters venture out on the back trails around or behind their villages to set their taluyaqs (traps) in the countless little creeks between the tundra lakes.

It’s through these late fall/early winter subsistence activities that People observe the thickening of the ice and determine when it is safe to travel further.

Little by little trails from each community will begin branching out further and further until eventually one community’s trails meet up with another’s and we all become connected again.

Once safe trails are established, local search and rescue groups will head out to make sure that all remaining open water is marked in the traditional way: with rows of willows planted in the ice and BLUE reflectors.

Hopefully this all comes together and safe travel is established on our River before start of the busy holiday season.

We have pictures of every part of the River from this first aerial survey. If you want to see other parts of the River let us know.

Thank you to Fox Air and pilot Brad Peterson for the good flight.

Happy Holidays from Bethel Search Rescue!

*Please Note this report is for informational purposes only. It is not an advisory that it is safe to travel