On April 29, 59-year-old Nicky Myers of Pilot Station fell through the ice on the Yukon River on his snowmachine and died. He was the mayor of Pilot Station, proto-deacon of the Russian Orthodox church, a crew boss for local wildfire firefighters, a member of search-and-rescue, and a family man.
It’s the first river death in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta this year.
Myers set out on the Yukon River from Pilot Station to St. Mary’s by snowmachine on the afternoon of April 26. His son, 30-year-old Nikiefer Myers, had just landed after a vacation. Nikiefer thought a friend was going to pick him up, but instead it was his dad.
“It was a surprise. I was surprised to see him there,” Nikiefer said.
The two headed upriver towards Pilot Station for what is normally about a 40-minute snowmachine ride. His dad told him that the ride downriver had been good. But by evening on the way back, it started to get bumpy.
“There was lots of dark spots, lots of water,” Nikiefer saud.
Then, suddenly, the ice turned needle-y. The snowmachine stopped and started to sink. They jumped off and started to swim.
“I looked back. I saw my dad struggling to swim. He had all his winter gear on. I grabbed him and helped him swim,” Nikiefer said.
Nikiefer was holding onto his dad and trying to find solid ice to hang onto. The first piece broke off, but he finally found a solid patch and pulled his dad onto it. His dad was weak and cold. He wanted his son to stay safe. His dad told him to leave.
“I heard my dad: ‘You gotta go, you gotta go, just go without me,’” Nikiefer said.
His dad was starting to slide back under the ice. Nikiefer pulled him out again.
“His eyes were closed. He wasn’t moving. I still stayed there for a little bit with him. And in my head I heard another time, ‘You gotta go, you gotta go, you gotta go without me.’ I really didn’t wanna leave,” Nikiefer said.
But he left to go get help. He made it to shore and shed his wet clothes. He was amazed when his phone still worked. But he had to walk, possibly a couple miles, until he found service.
He called for help and the local search and rescue mobilized. Someone called Nikiefer’s mother, Judy, and told her that her son and husband had fallen through the ice. They asked her to gather warm blankets for the rescue effort.
“So I got everything ready,” Judy said.
She prepared two of everything, but only her son walked through the door.
“And he came in and dropped to the floor crying and said he couldn’t wake up papa,” Judy said.
Myers was dead by the time search and rescue pulled him out of the river. The Alaska State Troopers came the next day to take his body to Anchorage for autopsy. Now his family will wait for his body to return so they can hold a funeral.
In the meantime, they’re spending time with one another, sharing memories.
Myers was born almost 60 years ago in Pilot Station on May 12. He was the third youngest of eight children in a big Russian Orthodox family.
“We had a real good childhood. It was fun. We didn’t have much toys. But we had food, we had shelter, clothes, we had each other. We lived a subsistence lifestyle. We would go out with our parents, or fishing or berry picking, logging,” Wassillie Myers said.
Wassillie was always close with his older brother.
“He was my best friend,” Wassillie said.
Wassilie followed Myers into firefighting. The two traveled all over Alaska and the lower 48 fighting fires together. Nicky was the crew boss, and Wassilie was the squad boss. The two looked and acted so alike that the other firefighters would get them confused.
Myers had lots of adventures at home on the Yukon too. His wife Judy was often by his side. They’d go boating or berry picking together. They’ve known each other their whole lives and had been together since high school. They married nearly 40 years ago, in 1984.
“I don’t know how he asked me out. We knew each others as we grew up. Just kind of happened. Yeah,” said Judy.
Judy said that life with Myers was a happy one. He was a good husband and father. He played lots of other roles in the community, too. He served as the mayor of Pilot Station on and off for years. He was mayor when he died.
Myers also served as Pilot Station’s Russian Orthodox deacon for 15 years. He went to college, and later attended Saint Herman’s Seminary in Kodiak. He spoke fluent Yup’ik and helped conduct the liturgy in Yugtun, in English and in Church Slavonic. His family says that his talent for languages came from his love of talking with people.
Myers died at the end of Bright Week. It’s the week after Orthodox Easter, or Pascha. His brother Wassillie said that in a way, it’s a blessing for an Orthodox person to die during this week.
“We’ve spoken several times where, if it’s ever our time to pass away, that we hope to go during Pascha, or during the season, so that we will be accepted into heaven quickly,” Wassillie said.
Wassillie said that the whole family is still in shock. Myers was a mayor, a deacon, a father, a grandfather, a husband, a firefighter and a search and rescue member. A death like Myers’ leaves a hole in a community that can’t quite be filled.
A spokesperson for the National Weather Service said that the Yukon River River Watch team is expected to start flying the upper Yukon around May 6 to look at ice conditions.