Break up

Spring break up was the most violent, dramatic and spectacular we’ve witnessed so far. And thank God it was, as all the other bush things I can tell you about are now commonplace. Everyone’s living in isolation, doing home haircuts, baking bread and frying up chilli and lemon basted squirrel legs (or maybe that’s still just us.)

Sunday May 3rd

We nearly missed it as we opened the beers too early on Sunday night. We’d heard a hissing, rushing sound all day. The noise swelled and dropped with the breeze and the water rose like mad, 10 feet or more, in a few hours.

Although the river ice still held fast, deep channels were running near the banks on either side, where tributaries and creeks pour melt water onto the frozen Yukon in great, tea-coloured torrents.

River rising

Late afternoon, I noticed a tongue of grey-blue, churning water rounding the bend above us, cutting an open channel down the river. It would run for a while then jam, and flood. Frustrated, it would gnaw at the river ice in a great, swirling whirlpool of foam and ice blocks, until it could gouge its way forward again, and dive back down under the ice, leaving a rubble of beached bergs as it receded.

The process repeated itself and, gradually, the open water worked its way downstream towards us. We thought that was it and cracked open the beers to watch.

Here’s a little film of it- 

By 10pm I was having trouble holding the GoPro straight and we went to bed, confident that break up wouldn’t get more exciting than this.

I was woken around 3am by a resounding crack that shook the log walls of our house. I thought Neil had nutted the headboard in his sleep.

People here describe the river as “letting go.” I assumed it was a metaphor rooted in a personification of the river, one of those hippy things. When I woke a short while later to the gushing roar of thousands of tons of ice moving just beyond the porch, I realised the crack was the river “letting go,” and it is not a metaphor.

Anchor ice at the river's edge

The “anchor” ice, that holds the frozen river fast to the banks from November until May, had been thrust upwards by the surging melt water and released its vice-like grip on the land. That massive ribbon of white, that has stretched as far as we can see for the past 6 months, and on which we travelled for 300 miles between Dawson and Circle, was beginning to move.

Bleary eyed, we stumbled out to the yard. The ice was higher than we have ever seen it and, from the vegetation on our banks, it was higher than it has been for many years. It rose another 10 to 15 feet in the time we’d crashed out and was now moving, very slowly, with a tremendous rushing of water and deep rumbling as it scoured the rocks.

This is the start. You can see it moves and then almost comes to halt for a few minutes. There are massive floating ice sheets that will soon get shattered.

It’s soon off again and from these 2 clips taken within 20 minutes of each other, you can see it pick up speed to full, terrifying surge force.

We’d never seen it move so damn fast and, half drunk, stood mesmerised by the rolling, crashing and thumping going on not more than 15’ below the top of the bank. We ran to our ramp down to the beach and found it blocked halfway by a wall of ice. We watched mesmerised there for a bit too, until I noticed the moving water was actually higher than the spot we were standing, but was being held back by a dyke of ice rubble that had built along the banks.

Our ramp throughout 3 days of break up, start to finish

We took a few videos but, feeling rancidly hungover, by 5am we went back to bed, thinking it would soon be finished.
I woke a couple of hours later to an eerie silence. The river was a field of shattered ice, still as a photograph.

A jumble of silt greys, soap powder whites and brilliant sea blues stabbed here and there by trees, stripped naked of their limbs and bark, and shining raw yellow in the morning sunlight. It was utterly still. No water seeped or sucked at the edge, just an occasional “shh” as a rotted ice stack collapsed and fell somewhere. By now it was 10 feet from the top of our bank. I can only guess at this, but when the river stopped in November it was maybe 30 feet lower.

View from the yard

It had risen a very, very long way. I peered upstream wondering how much water was building behind this massive jam, but could see and hear nothing except the hee-haw of newly arrived geese. We went over to the creek. With nowhere to go, it had risen about 20 feet and was backing up into a copper-red swamp that pooled amongst the trees at the edge of our property.

Might as well get water whilst it's nearby

“Perhaps we should get the snow machines up on logs and, um… grab the tools that are lying around and… perhaps the new rule is, we won’t start drinking until break up is over next time,” I said.

Drinking tea this time

We raced around putting stuff up as best we could. We took down the satellite dish from the edge of the bank. The river was exactly 10 feet below it. I measured. Without the dish and tria, we have no internet. Not until we get to town, and potentially not until Covid-19 restrictions lift and we can get another.

But with no internet, we had no idea if a massive flood was building upriver, waiting to bust through and sweep us away, or whether the water was just flowing under the ice and would leave us with a 400 yard, 30’ high sweep of ice concrete to get the boat through.

All day, aside from an occasional hissing as the water level seeped a few inches up or down, nothing happened. We couldn’t focus, couldn’t breathe deeply and stayed out doing yard chores, watching, listening, waiting. Nothing.

By 3.45pm the following day, Tuesday May 5th, I was on a ladder inserting blocks of wood into the ridges of the roof tin on our new cabin to keep squirrels out, and wondering if the building might now be under a more existential threat than rodents. I glanced at the river every couple of minutes. Slowly and in front of my eyes, the ice shifted as if shimmering in a heat haze. “It’s moving!” 

The rumbling, roaring sound was building. The earth thumped under our feet as this great expanse of ice rubble began to roll forward once more.

Took these vids from our porch and bank to give an idea of how close the river is to the house and how high. Homer hints he might have dinner now too. 

There were no more vast sheets, everything was crumpled and what seemed like a forest’s worth of ravished trees were twisting in the rolling ice. Some place upstream had been flooded and scoured. After an hour and a half, the ice chunks thinned. Patches of open, mud-green river appeared in the flow and the level began to drop.

By the next morning, we were left with just a few impressive bergs piled on the beach. The water has risen again since and lifted those away.

The river is almost clear of big trees and floating ice now. Soon we will launch the boat, and motor back into the world. We’ll visit family and friends, buy stuff, go for pizza and beers and re-join the rushing torrent of human life.  

That’s what we’ve done in other years but this spring, I wonder what we are going back to?

The event that kept us in self isolation for the past month, has happened. It is part of a natural, annual cycle.

Outside, people are in lockdown awaiting an event that may not come, may not be over for a very long time and, most bizarrely, exists only for humans. 

Took this pic from the usual water level. It shows just how high the river rose

People in London tell me the city is full of birdsong and foxes are sitting out in the roads. With the noise and clutter of human life stilled, nature is expanding. Not many birds arrived here this year and, so far, no bear or moose. Maybe they’re checking out the cities?

We have a foot in both the human and natural worlds but never have they felt so far apart. What do we do if someone we love gets ill? We can travel but we can’t go anywhere.

First crocus

We don't know, but our days are filled with soft, golden sunlight. The birch trees burst into lemon-green life. Poplar buds are just unfurling, spruce tips glow and the first grass shoots push through the earth. The hillsides are washed with green that gets more vivid by the day until it is almost neon. The world goes on, oblivious.


  1. Brillo pics and vids! :) x

  2. That was me Peter T by the way! x

  3. Astoundingly beautiful and absolutely terrifying! And pics of Homer against the snow just stunning. X

  4. Having been away two winters now, I can see my perspective is changing. Watching breakup two years ago was visceral and emotional. It's the "road" of life in winter. Watching my road dissolve was magical, serene, and somewhat sad at the same time. Now, two years later, with my memories faded more, I look at it a bit more mundanely. Far less emotional. But if I say, "what if this was the road I drove my car on every day, dissolving in front of me?", then I get the more emotional feeling. Fascinating.

    1. Yes it's very disconcerting to know we don't have a way in or out over spring and autumn, but there is a tremendous joy and freedom in that too. keep running your road!

  5. Thanks for sharing your vids and pics. Impressive. Cheers from Werder, 60 miles southwest of Berlin, in self isolation for 8 weeks now, hope we can get out again soon. Take care, Uwe

    1. You're welcome - thanks for the comment. Hope you're doing well in Werder. Wir hoffen, 'the new normal' wird bald ankommen! Alles Gute und pass gut auf euch auf, Louise & Neil.

  6. Such an interesting post with videos


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