EAGLE — As the afternoon sun streamed in from the northwest, a dozen residents of Alaska’s furthest upriver city on the Yukon River watched their winter run go by on floating chunks of ice.
Swallowed by the warm spring air, the solid sheets of the Yukon River were breaking into smaller pieces. The great river was responding to the flow of frothy brown meltwater that was pumping up from the creeks and side rivers.
Chunks of dirty white ice raced downstream at 10 miles per hour, crashing into the steel levee protecting Front Street. Through their rubber boots, the people standing on the wire railing felt the earthquakes with their toes.
The plug in the ice jam downriver from the city had burst an hour earlier, allowing the great river to move as it pleased. This was far more preferable than ice blocking the entire channel. When that happened, water could spill over the banks, pushing schooners of ice onto buildings and heating oil tanks.
That beautiful night, May 12, a person could feel a collective exhale on the boardwalk, its air chilled by the passing mass of ice. The townspeople, many of whom remembered the damaging floods of 2009 and 2013, seemed happy and relieved on that cool spring afternoon.
But as they locked the doors of their cars and trucks to return home at night, the longtime residents knew that things could change; they had all heard of an ice clog on the river that had created a 20-mile-long meandering white pile in Canada, about 50 miles upriver from Eagle.
That jam had pushed water back toward the Fortymile Historic Site, where the Fortymile River empties into the Yukon. An aerial photo showed that the “Sebastian’s Cabin” had ice up to the level of its metal roof. The functional wood stove inside was 6 feet under cold dark water.
Those who took that photo of Fortymile—observers in a fixed-wing aircraft flying for the River Watch team of the National Weather Service and the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center—had predicted that the gridlock just across the border in the Yukon Territory would soon fail. When it did, that pulse of standing water would roll like a freshwater tsunami down the river for Eagle. Following close behind would be the 20 mile pile of ice that had stopped.
No force had arrived when Eagle’s people made their way to their beds as the sun dipped behind the mountains for the night of May 12.
At the time, things seemed pretty peaceful. The quarter-mile-wide river was almost liquid at that point, moving smoothly and dimpled and wide enough to accommodate the city’s passing blocks of ice with a few sharp bumps on the sea wall.
At 11 p.m., when the river was almost ice-free, I would go to sleep on a high point on the riverbank where the Han Athabaskans had lain among the fragrant reeds hundreds of years ago. After brushing my teeth, I looked at my satellite text message. A green light blinked.
“Automatic reading shows the water (rising) receded 4 feet in the last hour,” wrote Crane Johnson of the Alaska-Pacific River Forecast Center, who flew the river during the day and slept in Fairbanks at night. “Could it be an indicator malfunction?”
I told him I would walk a few hundred yards down the hill to check the river level manually by reading a yardstick built into Eagle Dam on Front Street.
The sky was darkening and cooling, casting the vast open space in this elegant curve of the Yukon a purple hue. I lowered the stepped part of the breakwater that held the scale indicator, which resembles a measuring stick attached to the metal wall. I was surprised by what I saw.
“The river rose!” I sent Johnson a text.
The Internet-connected US Geological Survey automatic indicator suspended just above the muddy river bottom (later rendered inaccurate by violent ice) was still working properly at the time. In fact, the river had risen 4 feet since most people had gone home.
Then I walked to the boardwalk to join the only person standing on the levee, a seasonal ranger who was there to work the summer at the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. He and I watched in silent amazement as chunks of ice bigger and heavier than pickup trucks pounded against the retaining wall of interlocking steel piles that workers had driven like nails into the floury soil long ago.
“Makes you wonder how long this wall can hold,” the ranger said.
After absorbing the spectacle for another half hour, he walked away to look down the road to Eagle Village, a few miles upriver.
I walked back to my high point and got into the sleeping bag. I fell asleep to the meaty thuds of the ice colliding and the sound of frying bacon that was the constant mix of smaller ice particles sailing down the river.
I woke up a few hours later in the dim morning light. As I stood up and squinted upstream, I blinked a few times. Where was the boardwalk?
A look through binoculars showed a ridge of ice where the wall used to be. The river had continued to rise and overflowed the wall (later determined to have happened around 2 am). It oozed over the metal, carrying ice from the jam up the river toward Front Street, to the steps of the Falcon Inn.
The river had receded a few feet since then, leaving boulders of ice strewn across Front Street. There was some damage: ice had lifted and pushed in the bank with a million dollar view just above the boardwalk. The view from him, now leaning over his back, was of the clouds above his head spitting rain.
The ice had also crushed the street sign marking the corner of Lincoln and Front streets. That’s where Eagle’s teacher, Ryan Becker, had taken pictures with his students every school day since January as they headed to take ice measurements.
In the dead of night, the river had delivered its strongest blow. The ice-cut steel poles of the boardwalk. The swollen Yukon crammed the upstream jetty with Sherman tanks of ice that won’t melt until June, if then. The road to Eagle Village was completely impassable with similar blocks, although there was an alternate road for four-wheelers that connected the village to Eagle, the Alaska Highway system, and the rest of North America.
The river hit in 2023 was a glancing blow for Eagle, not the floating cabins tethered by power lines like dogs on leashes of 2009 or the seven houses toppled off their foundations in 2013.
Late on the morning of May 14, the river in front of Eagle was moving fast and free. The pulse of water that damaged the levee was sailing 160 miles downstream to the next Alaskan community, Circle. There, combined with another traffic jam, it would cause extensive flooding, including loss of power and extreme water and ice damage to homes. (At the time of writing, officials didn’t know if it was the worst flood ever recorded there.)
Eagle, however, slipped through another break, this one of the sorts that came with increased risk of dynamic flooding due to a late spring that locked the landscape in winter chill as the days wore on.
As it warmed to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, neither the townspeople nor professional hydrologists knew what the river was going to do at Eagle. But Johnson had seen enough on his flights up the river to tell residents to “get ready for 2009.”
By the night of May 14, two days after the real action began, most of the unimaginable tons of ice on the river had disappeared downstream. That was except for icebergs stranded on roads around town and a high ring of ice encircling Belle Island that would crumble like a glacier over the next week.
The ducks and songbirds who seemed unfazed by all the action continued to prepare for their summer of making babies in the North. The people of Eagle thought ahead of time to remove soil from their gardens so that the brown soil could be warmed by sunlight. They had made it through the Yukon River’s transition from winter to summer once again.
“This was a good one,” Eagle’s Village public safety officer Nate Becker told Crane Johnson near the Falcon Inn on the afternoon of May 14. “We had a lot of emotion, but no one was hurt.”
Since the late 1970s, the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has provided this column free of charge in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.