Melting Ice Threatens Holiday Shopping In Alaska

fromKYUK

In the southwest corner of Alaska, there are few roads to connect towns or villages. Instead, rural Alaskans must travel across a frozen river to buy gifts. That's become a challenge this year as warm temperatures have melted river roadways.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as you race out to the mall for last-minute Christmas gifts, spare a thought for holiday shoppers in the remote southwest of Alaska. Forget about highways. These shoppers navigate frozen rivers, and traffic jams are the least of their worries.

Reporter Shane Iverson from member station KYUK has more.

SHANE IVERSON: It's a sloppy winter day on the Kuskokwim River. Balmy weather from the Bering Sea is blowing in. Peter Atchak(ph) looks concerned as he examines the river ice. It's submerged in giant puddles known as overflow.

Mr. PETER ATCHAK: Some of them are deep enough to swallow a snow machine and a driver.

IVERSON: Atchak is president of the local search and rescue team. He's advising the public against travel, but he knows that for many the call of Christmas is overpowering.

Mr. ATCHAK: They tend to put safety behind them. Their priority is they want to get that nice gift for their loved one.

IVERSON: They're coming from remote Yup'ik Eskimos villages strung along the Kuskokwim. There, small stores sell just the basics, so with the holiday season bearing down, villagers are taking risks to travel to the regional hub of Bethel, the only shopping destination for hundreds of miles. Brian Bosco(ph) just made the 10-mile trip on a four-wheeler.

Mr. BRIAN BOSCO: I was just praying to God, hope everything will be all right and here we are. We made it.

IVERSON: Several others have not been so fortunate. At least seven snow machine riders have made distress calls to authorities. Shopper Joel Andrew(ph) made it through the overflow and helped someone else to escape.

Mr. JOEL ANDREW: Their snow machine was swamped so I had rope and I lend them rope and we pulled out his snow machine.

IVERSON: When asked why he would take such a risky trip for a present, Andrew responded with the same answer every holiday shopper gave: they're doing it for their kids.

For NPR News, I'm Shane Iverson in Bethel.

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