Yukon River flood leaves Eagle in ruins

Crews haul in generator for power at camp; people have fresh water

Posted: Monday, May 11, 2009

EAGLE VILLAGE - A blue and white vacuum hung 20 feet from the ground in a spruce as the trail turned to caked mud. A fine, gray silt deposited by raging river water coated plants and rocks.

Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Sam Harrel / Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

There were signs of life - parts of a picket fence wedged between saturated tussocks, a rusted, six-cylinder engine block, the shoulder blade of a moose that was butchered for meat.

But the woods were silent.

The stench of diesel, thick enough to burn nostrils, was the first indication the village was near. Obscured in a ravine between ice boulders, a fuel tank emitted a slight hiss.

What's left of Eagle Village came into view, pieces of cabins and fuel tanks and splintered tree trunks poking up from blocks of ice as large as homes.

The area looked as if a giant hand scooped up the village, shook it like dice and flung it out, then cast a storm of ice on it.

Massive chunks of ice jammed the Yukon River last week, where the village sat on the banks. What flooding didn't destroy, ice engulfed.

Where did the clinic go? The village church? The homes?

"It's hard for me to tell - everything has changed so much," said Bill Goebel, as he surveyed the chaos. "It's just so, so messed up. ... There used to be a house right there. The road went there by those poplars."

All that remained was endless ice, ragged and rough and unstable.

Goebel took a chance and hauled himself up a 6-foot ice boulder for a better view as the end of a thin cigar dangled from his lips. He was married 32 years ago in the village church and now hangs his hat a few miles up a rough road where he traps the Fortymile range when he's not fixing pump stations along the trans-Alaska pipeline system.

"You don't see a white cross, a steeple somewhere down there, do ya?" he asked. "I got married in that church."

The barn-red medical clinic landed far from its foundation, yet a potted green plant perched unharmed in an unbroken window. An orange basketball was caught in a crevasse between ice boulders with a bunny boot nearby. A search revealed the other boot several hundred feet away, near a toppled mast bearing the U.S. and Alaska flags, which were limp but whole.

Village Public Safety Officer Tim Beaucage said about a dozen people lived in Eagle Village before the flood and have moved a few miles up the road to a temporary camp.

Tanana Chiefs Conference crews hauled in a generator for power at the camp, and people have fresh water.

Some supplies were flown into the camp earlier this week by National Park Service crews, while other supplies came from crews on four-wheelers. A 100-pound bag of food sat ready to feed five dogs that were rescued with residents.

Thin birch poles supported canvas and tarp tents, which were set up around a fire pit. Ben Juneby was among those who call the shelter home, for now.

Born and raised in Eagle Village, Juneby left in December to help an ailing aunt in Fairbanks. He returned moments before flooding choked access and closed the road. He never made it to his house before ice ravaged the cabin.

As with many, the shock of the complete loss was apparent in Juneby's face.

"All my life, off and on, I lived here," he said. "I was raised here."

He made it to the end of the road, where the old village used to welcome travelers home. As he climbed a massive iceberg, Juneby spotted the roof of his house and an old fish cache among the jumble, but that was all he could identify.

Now, it's time to start over. No one was sure what that would mean with ice that possibly is months from melting.

"We gotta help each other," Juneby said. "That's what it comes right down to."

TCC President Jerry Isaac flew into the town of Eagle, then bounced along on a four-wheeler through the Bush to reach the temporary camp. Eagle Village is among those served by TCC.

Isaac greeted old friends, shook hands, commiserated in the loss and let folks know they aren't on their own.

"I'd like to encourage a spirit of cooperation," he said. "There's no way you can separate people out here. Everybody lost. ... A sudden occurrence like this tends to play with your mind. It just wreaks confusion, fear. I want to encourage them to stick it out."

TCC staff explained some relief programs available to Natives, and helped with application forms.

"We're here to help," Isaac said. "To help those affected rebuild their lives."

He hoped state aid wouldn't stop at the town of Eagle, where flooding and ice jams severely damaged or destroyed about three dozen buildings, and would extend to the Native communities now isolated by boulders of ice.

"They need to come over here and meet with the leadership and go from there," he said.

More aid is coming to Eagle. Joanne Beck and her boyfriend, Will Vanderpol, drove a truckload of supplies Friday morning to the city's shelter. They'd received a list of requested items but couldn't access the refugees of old Eagle Village. Hungwitchin Corp. and Vanderpol shouldered the bill for the supplies that joined other donations in the Eagle Community School gym.

Beck, a culinary arts major in Fairbanks, grew up in Eagle village and lamented the loss. She was especially hard-hit by the destruction of the church where she'd served as an Episcopalian lay leader.

"I've had lots of tribal elders asking about our church," she said as her eyes brimmed with tears. "It survived the last two floods. ... I still haven't cried yet. It isn't real.

"We all fight like family, but when we need to pull together, we're there," she said. "I love saying I'm from Eagle. My heart aches, because I know I can't get out there."



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