Kuskokwim safety experts explain how to stay safe on the river

The BSAR search boat "Yuarta" or "the searcher." Photo by Charles Enoch, KYUK.
The BSAR search boat “Yuarta” or “the searcher.” Photo by Charles Enoch, KYUK.
As fall time rolls in and the air takes on the familiar chill, Kuskokwim residents begin their subsistence activities, and that requires traveling in conditions that can turn hostile. Two Bethel Search and Rescue members have tips for those traveling the rivers as the weather becomes rainy, windy and often more unpredictable. Bethel Search and Rescue Chief Mike Riley gives hunters and travelers some tips.

“Make sure you do a float plan or tell someone where you’re going at all times, when you’re supposed to be back. Take enough supplies, enough gas to make a round trip, plus an extra in case you run into any problems or anybody else out there that needed help. Also, always, always, always make sure you wear your life jacket out there, when you’re out there. Try not to be traveling during dark hours. It makes it dangerous not just for you but also for other people out there,” said Riley.

Listen now

Riley adds that travelers should also bring extra warm clothing in case someone has to spend a night in the cold.

BSAR is a volunteer group that searches for missing persons in the region. They are based in Bethel and its members include avid hunters and travelers from different villages the region.

Daylight decreases dramatically during fall. Many people find themselves running out of light before they head home. Riley says it is easy to get lost traveling by boat at night.

“Problems we see in the past is people being out boating at night, they don’t know where they’re at during the dark time. They’ll be traveling and they’ll try to remember where they’re going and sometimes it makes it a little bit harder for us to find them cause they’re not where they’re supposed to be,” said Riley.

Riley says time is an issue when you’re looking for someone who hasn’t made it home from a trip. The shores on the Kuskokwim are slate colored and are often impossible to see in the dark, even for the most experienced travelers. There are also hazards like submerged logs, shallow areas, and debris that can be hidden even without darkness.

Former Bethel Search and Rescue Chief Peter Atchak of Bethel says anybody can find themselves in a tough spot in the wilderness.

“A lot of people think that these tragedies or accidents may never happen to them but tragedies and accidents happen to anyone,” said Atchak.

Riley says a recent deadly accident hit close to home last month when his 25-year-old nephew from the Yukon village of Pitka’s Point, Thaddeus Riley, ran into a submerged log with two others in the boat. The two swam to shore but Thaddeus Riley swam for the boat and drowned. He was not wearing a life preserver.

“This is something that anybody that knew him, they didn’t think anything like this was going to happen to him but that tell you, be prepared always [because] things can happen to the most experienced people out there,” said Riley.

As Kuskokwim residents gather food for the winter, travel to Bethel to shop in a bigger store, or are just out enjoying the autumn, Riley says be safe and always, always, wear your life jacket.

Charles Enoch is a reporter at KYUK in Bethel.

Previous articleNew federal predator hunting restrictions to face state legal challenge
Next articleErosion fix will hold, but residents worry not for long