Return to the River: Going Nowhere

Tanana Chiefs Conference of Fairbanks, Alaska, faces another summer on the rivers of Alaska. In Part 1, the surveyors learn they will be subdividing 70 townships along 1,000 miles of river by proportioning monuments of unknown reliability. This challenge soon fades into the background as the crews launch their homemade barge and find there are more immediate problems to deal with…


It wasn't nearly as impressive as a fireboat escort in New York harbor, but Fairbanks, Alaska, has only so many options available for launching a ship with the appropriate pageantry. We made do by hiring the driver of a local water truck to fill our tanks. After doing so, the operator had several hundred gallons left over, so he attached a fire nozzle to the fill hose and shot the remaining water in a hundred-foot-high arc over the barge. This had the more practical effect of blasting all the crud off the roof, but the glistening spray added a touch of class for the brief launching ceremony. A micro-brewery located at the launch site donated a pint of beer to be broken over the bow. Our nameless barge was about to be named. "I christen ye Seloohge, Survey Barge of the Arctic!" Seloohge (Seh-loo-gah), an archaic Russian/Eskimo name meaning very large boat, was chosen from a short list of suggestions compiled over the length of the winter, beating out "The Epoxy Queen," "Arktic," "The Guido Sarduci," and "My Pleasure, No. 9."

Ceremony over, it was time to weigh anchor and push off, inaugurating a 100-day, 2,000-mile voyage along the Yukon River that would serve as the basis for the largest survey contract ever undertaken by our company, Tanana Chiefs. The work included the subdivision of 70 previously surveyed townships, marking the final land entitlements for a number of ANCSA village corporations, as well as numerous contracts for private clients along the river. The barge was equipped for the field season with all the food, supplies, and equipment needed for three survey crews, a cook, and a helicopter pilot.

Major Upgrades
The Seloohge was considerably changed from the vessel which had plied the waters of the Yukon only two years before, a trip that nearly ended in disaster following a collision with a submerged cottonwood stump. The following winter we made major changes to the vessel to make it stronger and faster. The entire barge was jacked up onto piles and the five surviving hulls were unbolted and trucked over to a warehouse, where we crafted a new bow shape and added thick layers of plywood, Kevlar, and epoxy to the bottom. A new sixth hull was built. On the upper deck, and high on the request list, private staterooms were constructed for the crew which included built-in beds, desks, cabinets, and shelving using more of the Bosch aluminum profile. The upper deck was also bug-proofed, the roof was insulated, and the bow and stern areas were rebuilt for better storm protection. A rainwater collection system was set up to save wear on the filters, a woodstove was added to the galley, and, most important in some people's minds, we ditched the composting toilet in favor of a simple five-gallon bucket with an oxidizing compound.

The remaining cargo was loaded and stowed aboard, goodbyes were said to loved ones, and with a loud blast on the horn we cast off into the calm waters of the Chena River on a brilliant sunny day. The Chena empties into the Tanana River, which in turn empties into the Yukon River. A five-day, 500-mile journey would bring us to the town of Galena, where our crews were scheduled to meet a helicopter and begin work on the first of the surveys.

Disaster Strikes
Unfortunately, the most difficult portion of the entire journey lies just below Fairbanks along the swift and shallow Tanana River. This challenge was not made easier due to the fact that the crew and captain were still a bit groggy from the bon voyage celebrations that had taken place the night before. Downriver travel is far more complicated than going upriver as there is little time for decision making and every decision must be correct. For this reason we used our pilot boat full-time to sound the channel about a half-mile in front of the barge and help eliminate any surprises. Every hour or so the crew is rotated to keep everyone fresh and alert.
It was during the first shift change, only two hours below Fairbanks, that disaster struck. Victor, who was sounding in the pilot boat, decided to swing back to the barge for a moment to grab his coffee thermos, which had been inadvertently left in the galley. At about the same time I turned the helm over to Albert and disappeared into the office on the upper deck to begin preparations for the upcoming survey work. Our new cook was banging away in the galley, reorganizing the hastily arranged store of food and supplies, and the rest of the crew was lounging around on the deck listening to Freddy Fender on a boombox and enjoying the sights. We were cruising at about 12 knots in the middle of the river when a sudden, hard jolt aroused us out of our complacency. The depth gauge went from eight feet to two feet in a heartbeat, then blanked out altogether. Thence followed the sickening sound of the hull grinding against gravel and rocks. A 40,000-pound, fully-loaded barge traveling downriver at full throttle does not stop on a dime, and for the next 30 seconds we bumped, banged, and plowed our way onto a submerged gravel bar before finally grinding to a stop.

It required no time at all to realize the situation was desperate, the barge was stuck in the middle of the river in water that was not much more than ankle deep. Plan A in such cases is to run the anchor out about 100 feet with the skiff and pitch it out, where it burrows into the sand or mud of the river bottom and serves as a deadman to winch against, but the bottom here was cobbles, and an anchor would not hold. Plan B is to run a winch cable out to the shore and tie-off on a stout tree, but the closest bank looked about 400 feet distant, farther than our steel cables would stretch. Plan C is to sit tight until a big river tug happens along and beg for some help to pull us free, but unfortunately there is no commercial traffic on the upper Tanana. With water levels dropping daily at the end of spring runoff it was starting to look like Plan D would win out, the one in which the barge is stuck on the bar for the entire summer, then destroyed by river ice the following winter.

Plan B Wins Out
Our only hope was Plan B-somehow reaching that tree on the riverbank. We dug out all the cables and spooled them up on the rear deck, then secured the winch with some heavy chain. Todd Jantzi, one of our party chiefs, and Doug Jimmie, our cook, jumped into the skiff with the end of the cable and did their best to pull the heavy line over to shore. We spliced together the various cable sections as the line paid out and then shackled the last one onto the end of the winch cable, which had an additional 100 feet spooled up. Defying all odds, Todd and Doug just managed to reach a big spruce tree on the near bank and made a single wrap, leaving only two feet of cable on the winch spool. Our hand-powered winch was stout but also very slow, geared such that one revolution on the handle advanced the cable about one-eighth of an inch. I never supposed that one could pull a 400-foot length of steel cable so tight that all sag could be eliminated, but this condition was achieved after about 15 minutes of arduous cranking. There was not even a millimeter of sag and you could pluck the cable like a guitar string, but the barge still refused to budge. By now both winch and cables were nearing their breaking capacity and nobody had enough strength to advance the crank another notch. It was beginning to look like Plan D would prevail after all. Refusing to give up, however, and allowing ourselves a 10-minute rest, we marshaled all our strength to advance the winch another notch or two. With one final heave-ho the barge shuddered and slid forward about two inches. This was all the encouragement we needed, and with renewed vigor everyone attacked the winch handle and the barge slowly inched across the gravel bar.

Enough progress was eventually made that a discussion started among the crew regarding how we were going to disengage the Seloohge from the winch cable once the barge regained floatation, when suddenly and without warning, the barge indeed broke free and began to drift. The swift current of the Tanana pulled the barge downriver against the cable like a mad dog on a tether, making it impossible to disengage the shackle pin. At the same time, the dynamics of being tethered from the shore were pulling us into the riverbank, a place to be avoided at all costs, as it consisted of a steep cut bank with a tangled mess of 100-foot long sweepers, trees undermined by erosion that angled into the river ready to destroy anything within their reach.

Immediately Todd and Doug jumped into the skiff with an ax in a rush to cut the cable where it was wrapped around the tree. Victor, at the helm, tried in vain to turn the Seloohge back against the current but this only resulted in a severe whiplash that sent everyone diving to the deck as the taut cable snapped off pieces of heavy metal railing like toothpicks. Steering was useless as the sweepers loomed closer. I judged we had about 20 seconds left before everyone would have to abandon ship. Victor then jammed the transmission into reverse and revved the engines to full throttle, causing the barge to swing wildly around.

Fortunately, there was a brief second of slack cable that gave Albert a quick chance to pop the shackle pin holding the cable, just a few feet from the sweepers. I looked up to see that Todd had managed to disengage his end around the tree at the same moment, and our entire set of winch cables disappeared into the river. Oh well, this was a small price to pay for our freedom, and the adrenaline rush of the last two minutes certainly cleared any remaining vestiges of the night before.

That evening we tied up at the village of Nenana, our last contact with anything that passed for civilization. Nenana is located on the highway system and is thus home to the usual amenities, including hotels, restaurants, and bars. The crew gathered at one of the latter, though the last thing we needed was a drink. The draw was a wide-screen TV showing the sixth game of the NBA semi-finals between the Lakers and the Kings. The entire crew being dedicated basketball fans, this was the last chance of the summer to see a game. Two days later, as we entered the Yukon River at the village of Tanana and tied up for fuel, most of the crew scoured the village for a house with a satellite TV to check the score on the seventh game. It took three blasts of the Seloohge's horn to get everyone back to the barge when it was time to shove off.

"What's the score?" someone shouted.

"Tied, it's going into overtime!" was the reply. It was another week before we learned that the Lakers had won.

First Stop
Eventually the Seloohge arrived at Galena, the site of our first survey project. It was in Galena that we met our new helicopter pilot, Ophir (rhymes with No Fear). We had been informed in advance that Ophir was a former tank commander in the Israeli army and was also a top-notch pilot. Whatever one may think of Israeli politics, one must admit they have one of the most capable and well-trained armies in the world. Thus, we had visualized a younger version of Ariel Sharon, perhaps someone wearing khaki battle fatigues and carrying himself with authority and swagger. However, we were surprised to find a quiet and thoughtful young man with long hair tied up in a ponytail wearing a Grateful Dead t-shirt. Ophir had been training in Alaska for about a month and was eager to get started.

The BLM plan of survey indicated that all interior section corners would be set by either single or double proportionate measurement based on the recovered positions of existing monuments on the township exteriors. Thus, the first order of business was recovery of needed monuments. Our plan was to leapfrog three two-person crews from corner to corner, armed with Leica GPS receivers, and using dual base stations to anchor the differential network. This would be a fairly easy task for the crews were it not for the fact that the monuments to be located were rarely anywhere near where a helicopter could land. A handheld GPS was used to navigate the long hike required for each recovery. This hike generally included wading swamps, fording creeks and rivers, or clawing through brush thickets. When found, the GPS antenna was plumbed over the monument atop a 20-foot sectional range pole to reach above the brush and secure a fast static, differential solution while the crew tied or replaced the accessories.

The first day of each field season is normally spent getting kinks out and is not usually very productive, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn from our occasional radio contact that the crews were blazing along and that Ophir had mastered the system. The VHF radio we used to contact the helicopter is the same one used for navigation, and is located on the main deck at the helm. We could generally talk to the helicopter, as long as it was airborne, up to a distance of about 40 miles. Doug, our cook, would bang on the office floor with a stick to get my attention anytime there was a call from the crew. Just before quitting time Doug came running upstairs into the office instead, frantic and out of breath. "It's Albert, he's yelling on the radio! He says the helicopter is on fire!"
I ran down the stairs and grabbed the radio microphone, "Albert, Albert, do you have a copy?" There was no response. We looked out the window at the horizon and discovered an appalling site, a column of thick black smoke rising from forest. It was coming from the same area where the crews were working.

To be continued…


Eric Stahlke is Survey Manager for Tanana Chiefs Conference, in Fairbanks, Alaska.

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