When I returned to my place of employment a bit more than a week ago there was still a fair amount of snow covering the ground. A few days of high temperatures in the 70s, and as much as 80 degrees (F) changed that in a hurry. Now there isn't any snow to be seen at the work camp in the White Mountains. The Tanana River broke up on May 3rd, one day sooner than my earliest Ice Classic guess.
At the Yukon Response Base, a facility on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline just above the Yukon River, the security officer on duty reports that the ice is rotten and thinning, but thus far is holding fast. Unfortunately the situation is not the same up in Eagle. A large jam of jumble ice has dammed the river, causing massive flooding with huge blocks of ice flowing into both the old village and the new city, wreaking havoc. It is a disaster of unprecedented proportions. There haven't been any reports of lost human lives, but at least one sled dog has been lost, and numerous buildings have been destroyed. Some of those buildings were of great historical significance, and of course can't be replaced.
People living downstream of Eagle, especially in Circle City and Fort Yukon, have been warned to expect a huge surge of water once this big ice jam finally cuts loose.
I've stood on the banks of the Yukon during break-up, and the force of the ice, being driven by the current of one of North America's largest rivers is one to be reckoned with. Chunks of ice the size of large buildings crash into the banks, gouging out huge chunks of frozen earth, ripping trees out by the roots, and generally wreaking havoc and mayhem. I'm afraid the folks in Eagle and perhaps other up-river villages are going to be in for a tough time until the ice jams free, the river flows normally, and the damage is repaired.
Some of the buildings lost in Eagle were brand spanking new back when Robert W. Service was writing stories of the Great Land in rhyme, at the turn of the 20th century. One such ballad was set among the crashing ice of break-up, and it seems appropriate tonight to share that story with you - from Robt. Service's collection "Rhymes of a Rolling Stone" - Barb Wire Bill.
At dawn of day the white land lay all gruesome-like and grim,
When Bill Mc'Gee he says to me: "We've got to do it, Jim.
We've got to make Fort Liard quick. I know the river's bad,
But, oh! the little woman's sick . . . why! don't you savvy, lad?"
And me! Well, yes, I must confess it wasn't hard to see
Their little family group of two would soon be one of three.
And so I answered, careless-like: "Why, Bill! you don't suppose
I'm scared of that there `babbling brook'? Whatever you say -- goes."
A real live man was Barb-wire Bill, with insides copper-lined;
For "barb-wire" was the brand of "hooch" to which he most inclined.
They knew him far; his igloos are on Kittiegazuit strand.
They knew him well, the tribes who dwell within the Barren Land.
From Koyokuk to Kuskoquim his fame was everywhere;
And he did love, all life above, that little Julie Claire,
The lithe, white slave-girl he had bought for seven hundred skins,
And taken to his wickiup to make his moccasins.
We crawled down to the river bank and feeble folk were we,
That Julie Claire from God-knows-where, and Barb-wire Bill and me.
From shore to shore we heard the roar the heaving ice-floes make,
And loud we laughed, and launched our raft, and followed in their wake.
The river swept and seethed and leapt, and caught us in its stride;
And on we hurled amid a world that crashed on every side.
With sullen din the banks caved in; the shore-ice lanced the stream;
The naked floes like spooks arose, all jiggling and agleam.
Black anchor-ice of strange device shot upward from its bed,
As night and day we cleft our way, and arrow-like we sped.
But "Faster still!" cried Barb-wire Bill, and looked the live-long day
In dull despair at Julie Claire, as white like death she lay.
And sometimes he would seem to pray and sometimes seem to curse,
And bent above, with eyes of love, yet ever she grew worse.
And as we plunged and leapt and lunged, her face was plucked with pain,
And I could feel his nerves of steel a-quiver at the strain.
And in the night he gripped me tight as I lay fast asleep:
"The river's kicking like a steer . . . run out the forward sweep!
That's Hell-gate Canyon right ahead; I know of old its roar,
And . . . I'll be damned! the ice is jmmed! We've GOT to make the shore."
With one wild leap I gripped the sweep. The night was black as sin.
The float-ice crashed and ripped and smashed, and stunned us with its din.
And near and near, and clear and clear I heard the canyon boom;
And swift and strong we swept along to meet our awful doom.
And as with dread I glimpsed ahead the death that waited there,
My only thought was of the girl, the little Julie Claire;
And so, like demon mad with fear, I panted at the oar,
And foot by foot, and inch by inch, we worked the raft ashore.
The bank was staked with grinding ice, and as we scraped and crashed,
I only knew one thing to do, and through my mind it flashed:
Yet while I groped to find the rope, I heard Bill's savage cry:
"That's my job, lad! It's me that jumps. I'll snub this raft or die!"
I saw him leap, I saw him creep, I saw him gain the land;
I saw him crawl, I saw him fall, then run with rope in hand.
And then the darkness gulped him up, and down we dashed once more,
And nearer, nearer drew the jam, and thunder-like its roar.
Oh God! all's lost . . . from Julie Claire there came a wail of pain,
And then -- the rope grew sudden taut, and quivered at the strain;
It slacked and slipped, it whined and gripped, and oh, I held my breath!
And there we hung and there we swung right in the jaws of death.
A little strand of hempen rope, and how I watched it there,
With all around a hell of sound, and darkness and despair;
A little strand of hempen rope, I watched it all alone,
And somewhere in the dark behind I heard a woman moan;
And somewhere in the dark ahead I heard a man cry out,
Then silence, silence, silence fell, and mocked my hollow shout.
And yet once more from out the shore I heard that cry of pain,
A moan of mortal agony, then all was still again.
That night was hell with all the frills, and when the dawn broke dim,
I saw a lean and level land, but never sign of him.
I saw a flat and frozen shore of hideous device,
I saw a long-drawn strand of rope that vanished through the ice.
And on that treeless, rockless shore I found my partner -- dead.
No place was there to snub the raft, so -- he had served instead;
And with the rope lashed round his waist, in last defiant fight,
He'd thrown himself beneath the ice, that closed and gripped him tight;
And there he'd held us back from death, as fast in death he lay. . . .
Say, boys! I'm not the pious brand, but -- I just tried to pray.
And then I looked to Julie Claire, and sore abashed was I,
For from the robes that covered her, I - heard - a - baby - cry....
Thus was Love conqueror of death, and life for life was given;
And though no saint on earth, d'ye think -- Bill's squared hisself with Heaven?