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Late thaw makes weir installation a challenge

Posted: May 23, 2013 - 10:06am
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Photos by Ben Schubert  An inter-agency team (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service & Alaska Department of Fish and Game) removes ice from the river bank to make room for the fish weir. Pictured from left to right: Jim Boersma, Ken Gates, Jordan Head, and Lisa Schomaker.
Photos by Ben Schubert An inter-agency team (U.S Fish and Wildlife Service & Alaska Department of Fish and Game) removes ice from the river bank to make room for the fish weir. Pictured from left to right: Jim Boersma, Ken Gates, Jordan Head, and Lisa Schomaker.

The chinook salmon escapement monitoring project on the Killey River is in its sophomore year, which fortunately means that the weir is already built and stored on-site for this season’s fish run. Our project site sits 24 miles by helicopter from the Soldotna Airport, deep in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Even with the weir already built and awaiting reinstallation, we needed to do small repairs and move the equipment 50-meters downstream. Those minor and inevitable tasks turned out to be the least of our 5-person crew’s trouble as unfavorable winter weather conditions lingered.

The continued presence of ice and snow several weeks into May has added challenging labor to this study being conducted by the Kenai Fish & Wildlife Field Office (KFWFO). This season’s installation should have been quick, demanding only slight modifications and repairs to the preassembled panels and bulkheads. However, removing several thousand square feet of ice from the river channel nearly doubled our workload of what could have been a 2-3 day project. Without the foresight and timing of the project’s leaders, this job would have been even more difficult.

In the week prior to the weir’s assembly and installation, KFWFO Fishery Biologist Ken Gates and Biological Science Technicians Jim Boersma and Lisa Schomaker scouted the Killey’s conditions high in the Kenai Mountains to determine a plan of action. Given this year’s late winter conditions, it came as no surprise to the crew that the landscape surrounding the Killey Field Camp had not welcomed spring as quickly as needed. So inevitably, the obstacles that followed required the crew’s most diligent efforts.

Once on-site, our first task was the removal of the weir’s original substrate rail, located on the river’s bottom. In order to remove the rail, we loosened the anchoring rebar pins by hand. Unfortunately, some pins required a brief dive to be loosened from the ground, meaning somebody had to submerse their entire body and head in the ice-cold water. Luckily, our brave ADF&G crew member Jordan Head happily volunteered for the figurative and literal plunge, while the rest of us stood by to assure his safety and to view his disoriented grimace upon resurfacing from the brain-freeze-inducing waters.

The second major task was to remove several tons of ice blocking the reinstallation of the now-removed substrate rail. Two people operated large rock drills for many consecutive hours while the other three crew members attempted to keep up by moving freshly broken ice with rakes, shovels and their hands. This task was strenuous, repetitive and unrewarding since the melting ice and persistent rain caused the water level to increase as we worked, covering our visible progress by the hour.

As a newcomer to Alaska’s spring season, it was difficult for me to understand why this project was happening now when, by the third day of work, we still hadn’t touched a single weir panel or moved either bulkhead into position near the riverbanks. This brought up the important question of why we weren’t waiting until the ice had further thawed to continue with the weir’s assembly. The answer was not as simple as I had hoped, but I knew our preparation and planning was not at fault.

As the week unfolded, it became clearer to me that KFWFO field biologists had done this before and they knew to expect adversity in the field. To the stubborn and untrained eye this amount of ice extraction would seem unnecessary, ridiculous and even comical, but here’s the conundrum. By waiting to reinstall the weir, the strengthening river currents would have significantly changed work conditions with each passing day. Similarly, the water level would have been too high to install the weir’s foundation.  The tasks we did on the second work day would have been far less feasible by the fourth or fifth day. So, as unfortunate of circumstances as the project faced, it was executed in an effective and insightful manner. The timing of snowmelt events during our workdays was uncanny, certainly helping our progress.

From the start, the Killey River’s ice-covered channel indicated that this project had not been graced with ideal conditions. Regardless, the best possible decisions ensured our safety while completing the task at hand, even if it meant spending additional days on-site or a work schedule that would make one think we were starting the project from scratch.

Even if this year meant more blistered hands from raking ice chunks, more hours in the nearly frozen waters, and more sore muscles from drilling the rail’s pins into frozen ground, the small crew took to the river until it was done. Call it a dedicated conservation effort, an act of teamwork and camaraderie, or the simple fact that the helicopter wouldn’t return until we finished, the crew pushed on until the very end. The Killey River weir is now open for business.

See last year’s story at http://peninsulaclarion.com/outdoors/2012-10-11/counting-kings-on-the-ki... for more on why we’re monitoring this population of king salmon.

Ben Schubert just completed his SCA/AmeriCorps Environmental Education Internship at the Kenai Fish & Wildlife Field Office in Soldotna (http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/fieldoffice/kenai/index.htm). When he’s not working for free he can be found begrudging himself for leaving Alaska at summer’s beginning.

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