By Melinda Munson

Flooding from multiple atmospheric rivers forced the closure of the Dyea Flats Road and severely impacted sections of the Chilkoot Trail, which is currently not open to the public.

While the road should be passable in the near future, according to Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park (KGR) Superintendent Angela Wetz, “We don’t have a full damage assessment yet on the trail.” 

According to Wetz, Steel One Bridge (mile 1.53) washed downstream 60 yards on Oct. 13. 

“It doesn’t span the river anymore,” Wetz said. “In addition, there was damage to Boomerang Bridge (mile 1.05), a major washout at South Ditch (mile 4.43) that will require a trail reroute, Dry Fork Bridge collapsed (mile 2.36) and various split log bridges (miles 4.43-4.94) have been damaged.”  

She described the beaver ponds as partially drained with damage to the boardwalks. 

“Rain events prevented anyone from checking on Sheep Camp to access the upper trail, where we were still repairing damage from the August 2021 storm,” Wetz added.  

“We will work through the process as fast as we can to get the trail back to normal operation, but the damage is intense and widespread,” she said.

Atmospheric rivers are described by NOAA as “relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics. These columns of vapor move with the weather, carrying an amount of water vapor roughly equivalent to the average flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. When the atmospheric rivers make landfall, they often release this water vapor in the form of rain or snow.”

Atmospheric rivers, referred to as ARs by climate scientists, can be beneficial, such as ending a drought. Skagway’s ARs caused flooding, prompting a voluntary evacuation of Dyea on Oct. 13. 

John and Lorna McDermott left their property via boat. It’s the second time in two years their house received damage from flooding. A work party on Oct. 15 of 45 people helped the couple clean up the aftermath.

“We had so much help from wonderful family and friends that we were overwhelmed,” McDermott said.

The Taiya River reaches flood stage at 16.5 feet, according to the National Weather Service. On Oct. 1, the river reached its third highest historical level at 19.3 feet. In the past two months, the Taiya has exceeded flood levels five times.

At the Oct. 6 assembly meeting, Courtney Ellingson, Dyea resident, addressed the body.

“We’ve had a lot of weird weather situations in the last few years,” she said. “Last weekend and the weekend before, flooding. It ran across the road by McDermott’s. And it took out a big chunk of the road … I have a growing concern about a lack of mitigation plan for fire, and also for weather and communications.”

Ellingson, a member of the Dyea Advisory Board, said the board has spoken with the Park Service, Skagway Fire Chief Emily Rauscher and Skagway Traditional Council (STC). She hopes for some solutions to improve safety in Dyea.

Mayor Andrew Cremata agreed with her concerns, noting that flooding in Dyea is likely to continue due to global warming.

“I’d like to know that we have at least an escape plan for people who live in Dyea if there’s some kind of major natural disaster,” he said.

The team from the Sitka Sound Science Center (SSSC) hosted their second event in Skagway on Oct. 24 and 25, educating the community and gathering residents’ concerns about local geohazards. The group received a five-year grant which it hopes to use to aid Skagway in identifying and managing natural disaster risk.

“We have spent the last few years developing this great team of scientists and researchers who have experience now working in a rural community. We would love to share that with you and your community…” said SSSC Executive Director Lisa Bush. 

Individuals interested in learning more about SSSC’s involvement in Skagway can contact Reuben Cash, STC environmental coordinator.