Koyukuk gets break after flooding

Half the village was evacuated by helicopter as the Yukon River rose

Posted: Thursday, May 31, 2001

FAIRBANKS - Spirits soared Tuesday in the Athabascan village of Koyukuk as Yukon River levels slowly receded, giving welcome respite after nearly a week of flooding.

Blue skies after several days of blowing snow and rain also cheered the town's remaining 35 inhabitants. On Friday and Saturday, about an equal number of children and elders were evacuated by helicopter upriver to Galena.

"The women are out stretching their legs after being inside so long," Ben Jones Sr. said from the village 290 miles from Fairbanks.

Village volunteers also were out on the newly exposed roadways, laying down absorbent pads to clean up heating fuel spills.

Koyukuk residents were on the brink of abandoning their town early Sunday morning as floodwater threatened the power plant. Villagers had decided to evacuate if the power was shut down.

But then ice jams that caused the flooding broke, and the floodwaters began to pull back.

The week-long standoff with the mighty Yukon left the townspeople fatigued, said Jones, 67, whose property was inundated. A new snowmachine was still under water Tuesday and his dog team remained on high ground in the village cemetery.

The old town site and the village runway are still covered with water, Jones said. He said a moose had taken over the one dry area of the runway and held its own, refusing to move Monday when a state helicopter tried to land.

Jones is concerned about the fate of the area's game and wildfowl nesting grounds. He said some village men went by canoe up the nearby Koyukuk River on Monday to rescue two trappers, but had to turn back at an ice jam about eight miles upriver. The searchers then went 20 miles east via a slough before turning back.

"They didn't see any sign of land anywhere," Jones said. "I don't know what has happened to all the moose or bear or rabbits."

The trappers made their way home safely via a canoe.

Karen Kriska and Ben's wife, Eliza, have been cooking for many in the village. Monday night, villagers got together on one small patch of dry ground and held a covered-dish gathering.

Jones said the usual Memorial Day custom is to have a picnic at the cemetery.

"We paint the fences and crosses and spiritually we burn food to feed the deceased. Then we have a picnic," Jones said.

With water still surrounding the cemetery, the picnic is temporarily on hold.

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