Debris from ripped-out docks and fishing platforms litters the ice jammed at the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna on Sunday afternoon. The ice jam could give way at any time, likely causing flooding in low-lying areas downriver.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
A massive ice jam plugging the Kenai River broke loose from Swiftwater Park and made it as far as the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna on Sunday, giving curious onlookers a sense of how powerful and destructive the ice has been.
“There’s some stairs with a handrail. Of course they’re not in the right order,” said Tony Lajeunesse of Funny River, pointing to twisted metal steps that had linked someone’s property to the river just a day or two before, but now were swallowed by the heaps of ice below the bridge.
The ice carried with it the debris it has been scouring from riverbanks, including the stairs, fish-cleaning tables, broken lumber from docks and fishing platforms, uprooted trees and a buoy.
A lake behind Skilak Glacier began to drain Jan. 16. The estimated 4 feet of excess water flushing through the lower Kenai River caused the winter icepack to shift and move downriver. On Thursday night it clogged in three places at Swiftwater Park, about 3/4 of a mile up from Soldotna Creek and just below the bend in the river at Big Eddy. Water levels and pressure rise above the jams until finally they break lose and continue downriver.
Lajeunesse and Dwight Hauptman of Funny River were part of a steady trickle of people who disregarded caution tape at the head of the stairs leading to a river viewing platform at the Soldotna Visitors Center on Sunday afternoon. The two joked that they had come to look for a friend’s dock.
There was more to see than the splinters poking up from the river. Even the platform, that sits well out of the water in the summer, had water and ice spilling onto it Sunday.
“This is usually way out of the water,” Lajeunesse said.
The water level at the bridge rose more than 7 feet in a few hours early Sunday morning as the new ice jam formed, according to the Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management. The Department of Transportation and Public Facilities is monitoring the temporary bridge over the river, and it remained open to traffic Sunday.
Elevated riverbanks make road and property flooding at the bridge unlikely, but low-lying areas below the bridge still face significant flooding risks.
When the ice jam at the bridge lets go, the excess water will surge downriver and could cause a rapid and significant rise in the water level in low-lying areas, including Big Eddy, Poacher’s Cove and River Quest.
On Sunday Big Eddy residents got a reprieve from the several feet of icy water that covered roads and invaded houses Saturday.
“The water has gone down considerably,” said Barb Roper on Sunday. She and her husband, Dennis, were able to drive to their home in the Big Eddy area Sunday with water up to their hubcaps, whereas Saturday their truck couldn’t make it all the way.
“There’s still definitely water on the road and lots of ice underneath but it has dropped considerably. Now we’re just waiting to see what happens with the ice jams at the bridge,” she said.
The Ropers spent about three hours at their house Sunday afternoon moving about 8 inches of water out from under their home’s crawlspace.
Tony Lajeunesse and Dwight Hauptman of Funny River survey the ice jam that has formed at the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna on Sunday.
Photo by Jenny Neyman
They stayed in a hotel last night and planned to again Sunday, but with every trip they make to check on their house they’ve grown increasingly worried about excess people in the area.
“What’s got a lot of property owners down there nervous is there’s a lot of people who don’t have any business down there walking around, whether it’s curiosity or taking advantage of a sad situation,” she said.
The Ropers haven’t noticed any looting but they and their neighbors have been keeping an eye out for suspicious behavior when they check on their homes. Some residents were blocking roads to their homes Sunday to keep out anyone who didn’t belong.
“If you don’t have any business, stay out of the area because it’s dangerous,” Barb Roper said. She said if water does rise rapidly residents will need to get out quickly, and they might not be able to if extra traffic is clogging the slick, hazardous roads.
“If you have to leave your home because of a flooding situation, you come back and don’t know what you’re going to find and you see all these strange people down there, that makes you nervous,” she said.
The National Weather Service reports that the Skilak Glacier Dammed Lake has emptied, and water levels in the lower Kenai River will recede this week. But flood danger remains as long as the ice jams do. Property owners in low-lying areas are encouraged to remain on alert for rising water and to have an evacuation plan in place.
For more information, contact the borough Office of Emergency Management at 262-4910 or online at www.borough.kenai.ak.us/emergency; or the National Weather Service at www.arh.noaa.gov.
Jenny Neyman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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