The weather was cooling in wild and remote Western Alaska when the body of 37-year-old Mark Kasayulie was pulled from the Kuskokwim River on New Year’s Day.
His death came only days after Bethel Search and Rescue Group marked the loss of a revered elder in a similar death years ago. The rescue group was warning people across the 75,000-square-mile Yukon-Kuskowim Delta to be alert to the realities of a season that has been less than winter-like across much of the 49th state.
Bethel ended the month of December with an average temperature 14.1 degrees above normal, according to the National Weather Service. The temperature hit a record high of 41 degrees only two days before Christmas.
The region hasn’t seen this sort of weather for almost two decades. It was deadly then, too.
On Dec. 22, 2000, 63-year-old Pavilla Bayayok of Bethel disappeared into the river. He wasn’t found until Christmas Day that year.
“On Christmas Eve, an initial search began by air along with a couple of small ground teams,” BSAR later posted on its website. “The hope was that he was disorientated (sic) or broke down on one of the back (overland) trails. Some of us didn’t go to church that night. Instead we watched from the Bethel riverbank, while Earl (Samuelson) flew the Alaska State Trooper plane back and forth in the dark east of Bethel looking for any campfire Pavilla might have lit.
“Nothing was spotted.
“Christmas morning BSAR members were able to spend a few hours with their families before mobilizing. We went straight to the only place Pavilla could be—the unmarked open hole on the main channel side of the Gweek Island. It was heartbreaking to follow his trail into the open water, and to think about what he went through all alone there in
the water in the dark. We were all thankful that his body was recovered in just a few hours.”
Bayayok had been on his way home from a funeral in Kwethluk, a village of about 750 people only about 20 miles upriver from Bethel. The belief is that he lost the trail home in the dark on glare ice, made a wrong turn, and drove headlong into open water.
Fifty years ago, these sorts of deaths were uncommon in the region. Back then, people still traveled on foot or with dog teams. The dogs knew to avoid open water, and people on foot were travelling slow enough to spot water before it became a danger.
Everything is different now. Technology in the form of snowmachines and four-wheelers has connected villages in winter in a way that the Yup’ik Eskimo ancestors of the people now living on the Delta could never have imagined.
All across the state, this technology has turned the a spiderweb network of northern rivers into a snow-covered wonderland of winter highways. On the smooth ice of the Kusko at the moment, it’s not hard to cruise at 50 or 60 mph or more on a snowmachine.
Kasayulie was with a group of six on a high-speed run from Bethel to Akiachak, another Kusko village, on New Year’s Eve when they hit open water, according to Alaska State Troopers. Five made it out alive. Kasayulie did not. Troopers said alcohol might have been involved.
Alcohol only compounds the problem of being able to stop in time if open water suddenly appears in front of a snowmachine roaring along an Alaska river.
Speed and convenience of travel have brought risks with them to rural Alaska. Rural residents now take for granted cross-country journeys by snowmachine or four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle. And like most everyone in America, people here are often in a hurry to get where they’re going even if there’s no real need to hurry.
“It’s like a car in Anchorage,” Mike Riley, the president of Bethel Search and Rescue said Tuesday.
Like a car, but without the safety features of a car from seatbelts and airbags to well-maintained, often well-lighted, always well-marked highways where, despite all the safety precautions, Americans still die at a high but largely unnoticed rate.
Motor vehicle deaths have been trending slightly downward since the late 1960s in the U.S, but the latest death rate remains among the highest in the Western world at near 12 per 100,000. There is about a four-times greater risk someone will kill you with his or her car than with a firearm in the U.S.
Record-keeping on accidents involving snowmachines, or snowmobiles as they are called in the Lower 48 states, and four-wheelers in Alaska is poor, but the Alaska Native Injury Atlas notes an extraordinarily high rate of unintentional injury deaths – more than 105 per 100,000 – in the state, and attributes 9.4 percent of them to “off-road vehicles” of one sort or another.
The Native injury rate generally reflects death in rural Alaska where the population is predominately Yupik, Inupiat and Athabascan. The Bethel Census Area is 83 percent Native. The injury atlas would indicate an off-road vehicle death rate statewide of about 10 per 100,000 – a rate near that for motor vehicle accidents on U.S. highways.
But the Alaska rate is probably significantly higher given that another 16 percent of the unintentional deaths are drownings. The atlas records 28 off-road vehicle deaths and 57 drownings in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region of the state for the 10 years from 2002 to 2011.
If even a third of the drownings were due to people going through ice or into open water in winter – and the Y-K is a region that has historically spent more time buried in ice than ice-free – the annual death rate would rise to approximately 20 per 100,000.
Riley used two words to summarize the death rate at the moment: “really bad.”
With the weather warm and ice conditions on the Kuskokwim unlike anything people have seen in Januaries past, travel is dangerous. The weather in the Bethel area did cool post-Christmas, but another low-pressure weather system was Tuesday pushing more warm air off the Gulf of Alaska toward the Delta.
The National Weather Service was calling for temperatures to rise into the high-30s by Friday with a chance of rain by Friday night. Showers and 38 degree temperatures were slated to mark the start of the weekend.
Such weather does not help to make ice on the river.
“We have 14 inches now,” Riley said. “It’s half of the thickness it’s ever been. It’s just not a normal winter at all. We’ve got holes and holes and holes in the river.”
Cash-strapped, search-and-rescue volunteers from Bethel and communities along the river have been taking it upon themselves to mark the many dangerous, open water areas. And BSAR has been keeping its webpage updated with maps of open water dangers.
“We’re trying to make it as safe as possible for people,” Riley said, recognizing everyone can’t just sit at home and wait for a better freeze which will inevitably, hopefully, come.
“It’s really frustrating for a lot of people,” Riley said. “They want to go on their annual caribou or moose hunt.”
Hunting isn’t just a way of life in the region. Hunting feeds people along the river. More than a fifth of the region’s population lives below the U.S. poverty level, according to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation.
A moose can provide a poor family meat for the entire winter. Hunting this time of year is for some people survival.
“I hope they live through it. That’s all,” Riley said.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story had the date of Pavilla Bayayok’s death wrong.