Each spring—after a long, cold, dark Alaska winter—the ice on the massive Yukon River breaks up. It is a major meteorological/hydrological event. Tabitha Ramos, wife of Koyukuk and Nowitna National Wildlife Refuges deputy manager Keith Ramos, has lived in the village of Galena for three river breakups.

“Anyone watching the mighty Yukon break up can see the power and force of water,” she says. “Watching mile–wide sheets of ice float by can truly make you feel small. When you feel the giant ice hit the bank and thunder and shake the earth beneath, it can make you feel very small.”

This year, in late May, the breakup went terribly wrong.

Ice jammed at an S–curve about 20 miles downstream of Galena, stopped the flow and, over three days, caused the river to back up to flood levels elders had never seen. By the time the waters receded, approximately 300 of Galena’s 500 residents had voluntarily evacuated; scores of houses and buildings had been destroyed or damaged; meat and fish in residents’ freezers had spoiled; snowmachines, ATVs, cars, trucks, wood splitters and fuel tanks had been ruined or lost. But, thankfully, nobody was hurt or injured.

Ever since then, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees have been there for the people of Galena.

Seven of Koyukuk and Nowitna Refuges’ 13 employees—Kenton Moos, Wayne Strassburg, Brad Scotton, Frank Harris, Aimee Rockhill, Ben Pratt and Ben Koontz—stayed as waters rose rapidly. They watched over eight federal government–owned houses and the refuge office, and helped the community. Keith Ramos and refuge information technician Myra Harris coordinated emergency equipment purchases from Fairbanks. State evacuation planes were slow in coming, and refuge ranger Karin Bodony pushed for more of them for stranded residents.

Photo of Thomas Siekaniec, Bradley Storm, Mike Spindler, and Paul Banyas.
Alaska Region heavy equipment coordinator Thomas Siekaniec; Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge wage–grade employee Bradley Storm and refuge manager Mike Spindler; and Arctic Refuge wage–grade employee Paul Banyas went to Galena promptly to help with initial cleanup. (USFWS)

Kanuti Refuge manager Mike Spindler, a pilot stationed in Fairbanks, flew a satellite phone in for Moos. Spindler was joined by regional heavy equipment coordinator Thomas Siekaniec, regional facility manager Troy Civitillo, and wage–grade employees Bradley Storm and Paul Banyas of Kanuti Refuge and Arctic Refuge, respectively, to help with initial cleanup.

Throughout this crisis and its aftermath, Moos has demonstrated true leadership. He has made staff and family safety the priority. He made sure those who stayed were okay emotionally and physically. He tirelessly orchestrated the pulling of wet insulation, plywood and sheetrock to avoid mold and rotting. He went house to house, running generators trying to save food. He has balanced caring for our assets with helping neighbors. With houses unlivable, staff families have been separated. Still, Moos has salvaged a couple of refuge projects, in part to provide staff with a break from the flood.

Interns Traven Apiki from Alaska Maritime Refuge and Alfredo Soto of Arctic Refuge and almost two dozen Service employees from elsewhere voluntarily have come to Galena for stints to help the refuge and the community.

Through it all, everyone’s can–do attitude has been amazing.

“I have always felt that those who live in bush Alaska are a special breed,” says Bodony, a long–time Galena resident. “This became quite evident throughout the flood. Without exception, everyone I was with acted calmly, carefully and selflessly to make sure that everyone was taken care of.”

Apiki echoes that sentiment: “The event that took place in Galena was a complete tragedy, and yet all the residents were in high spirits.”

Residents have spent the summer rebuilding houses and acquiring provisions needed to make it through a winter where there are no restaurants or box stores. Fall starts in September. Winter comes right on fall’s heels—and winter in Interior Alaska is not for the weak. Flying or barging in supplies is not cheap. But with the help of state and federal disaster aid, emergency managers, volunteers and our dedicated employees, Galena is rebuilding.

Soto says more than one resident told him: “I didn’t think it was possible to come back and rebuild the home and the life I used to have. You all have given me great hope.”

Tracey McDonnell is Alaska Region refuge supervisor.