Further Fetchins: Winter's not over in AK
By Mike Mannelin, Explorebigsky.com Columnist
It’s almost midnight in Port Moller, Ala., and the wind has been blowing a steady 40 knots for a couple days straight. The small window in the bedroom overlooks what should be a busy fish cannery this time of year.
Instead, through the dusky light, I see ice. This isn’t your average hockey rink ice. It looks more like we accidentally landed the plane, a DeHavilland Beaver, somewhere in Antarctica.
The large dock that is usually lined with 40-foot gillnet fishing boats is trying its hardest to hold its ground against the icebergs. Broken pilings and missing timbers seem to suggest that it’s not faring too well.
When we left Kodiak last week, we had heard stories about the recent ice conditions. After spending ski season in Big Sky and Haines, Ala., we were ready for the winter temperatures and the wind.
We took off from the Kodiak airport with cloudy skies and headed to the opposite end of the island to look at the weather. Crossing the Shelikof Strait in a single engine plane is a bit nerve wracking. We had clouds down to about 800 feet, not so good to make the crossing.
Our pilot Paul considered turning around and heading back, but he wanted to climb to see if we could get above them. We started circling near Karluk, a village on Kodiak’s southwest corner. Up we went, to 3,000 feet, 5,000 feet, 7,500 feet—still solid clouds. We finally saw blue at 11,500 feet, so we headed across.
As we flew down the southern shore of the Alaska Peninsula, the skies cleared a bit, giving us a view of the mountains and volcanoes that make up the terrain.
We flew over the airstrip to check the conditions in Chignik, a small fishing village. There was still snow on the runway. We cut across the peninsula, traveling down the shore of the Bering Sea the rest of the way.
The clouds on the north side were low, so we flew at around 1,000 feet. Below, we began to see ice covering the Bering Sea. As we passed by Bear Lake, our final destination later this month, it was completely frozen over. We landed in a few inches of snow on the gravel runway at P ort Moller.
Soon after we unloaded the plane, a couple of four wheelers with trailers showed up to pick us up. We drove down the beach, staring out at the Bering Sea and the 60 miles of ice that stretched out to the horizon. The Department of Fish and Game has four houses at the cannery, and they serve as the headquarters for the areas commercial fishing opera - tions. With everything still frozen, we used small generators for power and began collecting runoff water to filter for drinking and cooking.
Now, with each tide change, the ice breaks up a little more. The winds are blowing out of the southeast, so we may be seeing the ice push off shore soon.
We’ve missed at least three supply barges so f ar. With fishing season just around the corner, the fishermen have been missing shipments, too. They will be waiting for critical supplies like new engines and nets to make their seasons profitable.
The locals are saying that they haven’t had sea ice like this in more than 75 years. When the weather finally heats up a bit, we will be happy to get to our camp and start counting fish. F or now, we’re happy to be able to be here f or such a rare event. It’s a beautiful, amazing spectacle that we feel lucky to watch every day.
Mike Mannelin is a skier with roots in Minnesota, Montana and Alaska. He gains his inspiration in life by spending time in the mountains with friends.