Heather Best (in water), a USGS hydrologist, prepares to toss a road-grader blade with a river-measuring device attached into the Yukon River near Eagle, Alaska. USGS hydrologic technician Liz Richards watches for icebergs. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Heather Best (in water), a USGS hydrologist, prepares to toss a road-grader blade with a river-measuring device attached into the Yukon River near Eagle, Alaska. USGS hydrologic technician Liz Richards watches for icebergs. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Alaska Science Forum: Wading into the icy Yukon River for science

EAGLE, ALASKA — Snow geese flew in a ragged V overhead, rasping as they looked down upon Alaska’s bumpy face for the first time in 2022.

Nine hundred feet below, the Yukon River flowed by quietly, except for the dull thuds of icebergs skidding along the river bottom near the shore.

Sensing a break in the ice traffic, U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist Heather Best — wearing chest waders with a hole she would soon discover — stepped into the river. In both hands, she held a 3-foot portion of grader blade. Running along the blade was river-measuring tube secured by hose clamps.

That hunk of steel held the business end of a device Best and others use to measure the flow of the Yukon River at Eagle, a town of about 110 people just downstream of the Canada border.

A few days earlier, ice formed by the cold air of winter had knocked the river-measuring instrument offline. During river breakup at Eagle, rising meltwater lifted a sheet of ice that had been in place most of the winter.

Brown water then ferried immense shards of ice downstream at about 5 miles per hour. Some of it crashed into the bank on an outer river bend just down from Eagle. Those icebergs ripped the river-measuring hose from the shore where it entered the river, shearing it in a few places.

Best and USGS hydrologic technician Liz Richards had driven from their office in Fairbanks to see if they could fix the river-measuring instrument. They stopped at other waterways during the 10-hour journey, to see if stream information being sent to the internet was accurate and fix things that got dinged up as winter’s ice turned to water.

On the shoreline of the Yukon River, after an hour’s work that included scrambling over ice chunks large as pickups, Best and Richards had spliced the measuring tube where the ice severed it. They reattached it to the grader blade. Then came the trickiest part — the redeployment of the tube beneath the surface of the Yukon.

Trying to keep her time immersed in ice water to a minimum, Best sidestepped out on rocks she couldn’t see beneath the surface. Once the river reached the belt around her waist, she stopped.

Best heaved the grader blade as far as she could into the water. She then retreated toward the shore.

“Nice work,” Richards said from a sliver of gravel shoreline in front of a pile of ice.

“I hope it’s deep enough,” Best said.

The submerged end of a hose would release bubbles of nitrogen into the river in a complicated, somewhat magical system that converts sensed water pressure at the opening of the underwater hose to river depth.

Best said the underwater end had to be deep enough to stay submerged in the coming weeks. If not, she or someone else would have to come back in midsummer, after the river level dropped, to throw the grader blade a little deeper.

“We need it to be at least 4 feet deep,” she said.

Carrying bits of broken hose and a cardboard box of equipment and tools, Best and Richards toed into a steep slope, reaching a small cedar cabin on a grassy bench near the National Park Service field station in Eagle.

Inside the structure were the plastic pipes, glass bulbs and nitrogen tanks that make up the “Conoflow gas-purge system,” a staple of USGS river-and-stream measuring sites around the country.

After a little fiddling with the system, Best had good news.

“It looks like it’s in 5 feet of water,” she said.

“Yay,” Richards said.

The women then tidied the little shelter. Best shut the door and padlocked it, and the pair walked to their car, which would take them a few hundred feet to their room with a view of the big river. They would drive out of Eagle on the Taylor Highway the next day, doing a bit more fieldwork on the way home.

As for the town of Eagle, the geese kept passing over in mixed flocks, songbirds flooded the local aspens and people mentioned seeing the first returning swallows.

The river, almost free of ice but soon to swell with meltwater from winter’s snow still in the mountains of Canada and Alaska, once again had its level visible to people far from Eagle, on the USGS website at https://on.doi.gov/3lkbjTL.

• Since the late 1970s, the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute has provided this column free in cooperation with the UAF research community. Ned Rozell is a science writer for the Geophysical Institute.

Liz Richards, a hydrologic technician for USGS, pulls in an anchor attached to a river-level measuring device from the Yukon River just downstream of Eagle, Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Liz Richards, a hydrologic technician for USGS, pulls in an anchor attached to a river-level measuring device from the Yukon River just downstream of Eagle, Alaska. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Liz Richards, left, a hydrologic technician for USGS, and Heather Best, a USGS hydrologist, repair a river-level measuring device that ice damaged during Yukon River breakup a few days earlier. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

Liz Richards, left, a hydrologic technician for USGS, and Heather Best, a USGS hydrologist, repair a river-level measuring device that ice damaged during Yukon River breakup a few days earlier. (Courtesy Photo / Ned Rozell)

More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 8

Here’s what to expect this week.

Bill Thomas, a former Republican state representative from Haines, announced Friday he is dropping out of the race for the District 3 House seat this fall. (U.S. Sustainability Alliance photo)
Bill Thomas drops out of District 3 House race, says there isn’t time for fishing and campaigning

Haines Republican cites rough start to commercial season; incumbent Andi Story now unopposed.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, D-Alaska, speaks at the Alaska Democratic Party’s state convention on May 18 at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Peltola among few Democrats to vote for annual defense bill loaded with GOP ‘culture war’ amendments

Alaska congresswoman expresses confidence “poison pills” will be removed from final legislation.

A celebratory sign stands outside Goldbelt Inc.’s new building during the Alaska Native Regional Corporation’s 50th-anniversary celebration on Jan. 4. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Medical company sues Goldbelt for at least $30M in contract dispute involving COVID-19 vaccine needles

Company says it was stuck with massive stock of useless needles due to improper specs from Goldbelt.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, June 12, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A yearling black bear waits for its mother to return. Most likely she won’t. This time of year juvenile bears are separated, sometimes forcibly, by their mothers as families break up during mating season. (Photo courtesy K. McGuire)
Bearing witness: Young bears get the boot from mom

With mating season for adults underway, juveniles seek out easy food sources in neighborhoods.

A chart shows COVID-19 pathogen levels at the Mendenhall wastewater treatment plant during the past three months. (Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System)
Juneau seeing another increase in COVID-19 cases, but a scarcity of self-test kits

SEARHC, Juneau Drug have limited kits; other locations expect more by Saturday.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy speaks to reporters during a news conference Feb. 7. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
Gov. Dunleavy picks second ex-talk radio host for lucrative fish job after first rejected

Rick Green will serve at least through Legislature’s next confirmation votes in the spring of 2025.

A used gondola being installed at Eaglecrest Ski Area may not begin operating until 2027, according to Goldbelt Inc. President and CEO McHugh Pierre, whose company is providing $10 million for installation costs. (Eaglecrest Ski Area photo)
Eaglecrest Ski Area gondola may not open until 2027 due to CBJ delays, Goldbelt CEO says

Agreement with city allows Goldbelt to nix $10M deal if gondola doesn’t open by May 31, 2028.

Most Read