The Final Voyage—Part 1

A 5.042Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Ah, retirement… how sweet the thought! Goodbye forever to leaky tents and midnight survey calculations. So long to mosquitoes, no-see-ums and wasps. Adios to showers from a plastic bag, smelly sleeping bags and the same pair of unwashed socks. Sayonara to five month stints away from my wife and family, to finicky satellite phones, bad food and makeshift outhouses, to high anxiety helicopter flights and boring weather days, to chain saw fumes and suicide trees, to pucker brush, muskeg and talus slopes.

No, I’m not going to miss this, not in the least. Fortyfour years as a surveyor is plenty. I am tired, worn out and in serious need of change. In only a matter of weeks I’ll be a new man, enjoying bug free sunshine and cold drinks from a comfortable chair in eastern Oregon, riding my bike on actual roads and hiking on real trails with nothing in my backpack except a camera and lunch. It’s tantalizingly within reach, I’ve given notice, the house is up for sale and the office going-away party is next week.

Then, poof…just like that…it all disappeared.

It was a simple phone call that erased the vision. I was cleaning out my desk when it rang. "Don’t answer," I was thinking. Nevertheless, I couldn’t fail to notice that caller ID spelled out Roger Blouch, who was the Alaska director of BLM Cadastral Survey Contracting. Oh well, Roger knew my plan; obviously he was calling to wish me good luck.

"Hey Roger, what’s going on…"

"Well," he replied, "about that retirement thing…don’t pack your bags just yet. We’ve just received a sizable chunk of funding and have to throw something together ASAP. The decision has been made to complete the survey of Doyon Ltd. boundaries (you’re still doing their boundary surveys, right?)…well, Tasha is putting together the maps as I speak, but roughly I’d say we’re looking at the survey of about 150 townships, perhaps 500 recoveries and 1500 new primary monuments. It’s spread out and remote… even for you guys. I’ll email the quads and plans of survey as we pull them together and see if we can refine things a little better in the next week or two. Sorry about your retirement plans, I know you were looking forward to it…anyway, good luck…"

Roger, perceptive as always, knew I wouldn’t, or couldn’t say no. Everyone knows the first commandment of surveying is "Thou shalt not turn down work", so there was that. Second, the company was still looking, unsuccessfully, to find a replacement for my position, so how could I walk out now? Even with all hands on deck we would be stretched to the max. Retirement? Poof.

To put things into perspective, Doyon Ltd. is by far the largest Native Corporation in Alaska. Its outer boundary is roughly the size of Texas. Within this footprint is a checkerboard of in-holdings totaling over 12.2 million acres. Tanana Chiefs Conference, the company I work for, is the nonprofit cousin of Doyon. It consists of a group of 44 interior Alaskan villages that have joined together to optimize medical, dental and realty services, among other things. The surveying program, an offshoot of the realty services, was authorized by the Doyon board of directors to provide boundary surveying services for PL-638 contracts under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA).

Of all the many hundreds of monster sized, multi-million dollar contracts for survey of ANCSA lands within Alaska in the last 40 years, the likes of which are unparalleled in the contiguous US or even worldwide, this would be the largest and most logistically difficult.

Under terms of ANCSA, Native lands in Alaska cannot be patented until they are surveyed. Given the immense size of Doyon’s footprint in Alaska work had begun surveying the corporation’s boundaries as early as 1975, but the work could only proceed so far. This was because the shape of Doyon’s overlay of fixed acreage was affected by the in-holdings of the 44 interior Alaskan villages and associated village corporations, more than 10,000 Native allotments, state and national interest lands, as well as private in-holdings, all which had to be surveyed first. Only then could the final boundary checkerboard of Doyon’s 12.2 million acre selection be determined. After 40 years of surveying and platting the in-holdings this point had been reached and passed. The problem was there had been no funding to deal with Doyon’s gargantuan final boundary survey, that is, until now.

The emails began and our printer churned out piles of maps. We scissored off the borders and assembled them together on a layout table with Scotch tape. The project was overwhelming. To simplify things we decided to focus on the west half of Alaska where the plans were "shelf ready". This pile consisted of 6 major subgroups of surveys that included an uninhabited 200 mile stretch off the upper Koyukuk River near the Arctic Circle, and two 150 mile stretches off the Yukon River. Then there was a group of 7 townships near the upper Kanuti River and, 400 miles distant, another sizable group east of the village of Holy Cross, near the Innoko River.

By coincidence, all these townships happened to be located near river systems (as opposed to the remainder which were located in distant mountain ranges). Therefore, we immediately considered using our barge, the Seloohge (pronounced Seh-LOO-gah). After all, this venerable vessel of the north had, at one time or another, successfully navigated the majority of the rivers in the Doyon region. The challenge was to bind these scattered projects together into a single voyage. We transferred the project areas to Google Earth, computed the distances and worked up travel and survey schedules. The bottom line was an eye opener, it would be necessary to pull off a 2500 mile, 5 month long river trip to make this work. This would be an odyssey of epic proportions for our aging boat and crews.

The Seloohge, which fully loaded displaces about 45,000 lbs., is actually more of a large houseboat than a barge. Two stories high, with 9 sleeping rooms, a field office, a galley and shower room, it was hastily designed and built by our surveyors in 2000 for a project on the remote Innoko River in southwest Alaska. The boat was never intended to be a long term solution to address future survey projects, but time after time we found ourselves patching things up, making improvements and heading out for yet another trip. During the last 12 years it has logged many thousands of miles on Alaska rivers, but was retired in 2009 after a near disastrous trip to Fort Yukon. We doubted it had another trip left in it. The engines were worn out and needed to be replaced, the roof leaked, the canvas sidewalls were rotten, the water tanks had gone moldy and, worst of all, the wooden hulls had been hammered by river boulders and bedrock so many times there couldn’t be much left holding them together.

Equally battered, we were not sure there was another river trip left in us. Alaska rivers are swift, unpredictable and just plain nasty. It was dangerous business. Over the years there had been more close calls than we cared to remember. Odysseus had a pantheon of Greek gods to guide and protect him on his epic voyage. We had nobody, and our supply of luck was used up. None of us looked forward to tempting fate yet again.

Unfortunately, there was no Plan B. The townships were in the middle of nowhere, strung together like beads in thin discontinuous strips that could not be serviced from central spike camps. On the lower Yukon segment, for example, the use of conventional access methods from a village base would require 60 to 80 mile long helicopter flights that included daily crossings of a perpetually cloud covered mountain range on the Bering Sea coastline.

Helicopters are not particularly fast and they consume enormous quantities of fuel. If we had to deal with 80 mile long access flights to get to work every day, only a single survey crew could be supported, barely. On the other hand a continuously moving barge would allow us to cruise along the river and always stay within 15 to 20 miles of the surveys, close enough to field 3 crews using a single helicopter.

The barge plan was workable, but not one we looked forward to. For one thing there was little time to prepare for this expedition. The Seloohge was frozen in 4 ft. thick ice at its mooring dock off the Chena River in Fairbanks and by the time the ice melted we would only have about 10 days to get it shipshape, repaired and outfitted for the epic voyage.

Then there was the issue of fuel. We thought about this carefully when designing the barge 12 years earlier. The Seloohge’s twin engines could burn avgas so it could share fuel with the helicopter. The barge could store 1000 gallons of fuel in tanks below deck and an additional 1300 gallons in barrels above deck. But helicopters gulp fuel like a thirsty whale and this was barely enough for about 2 or 3 weeks of surveying, nowhere near enough for the summer. Another 5000 gallons of avgas would need to be cached at intervals along the route.

Like most things, this was easier said than done, particularly on the Koyukuk River. Commercial barges avoided the treacherous upper portions of this river and transporting that much fuel by aircraft would cost a small fortune. Lucky for us we heard about a gold mining operation at Hog River, close to some of our surveys, that required some heavy equipment to be brought in to enlarge a runway. To do this the miners hired a small barge out of Nenana to make the trip soon after breakup, when the water level was highest. They agreed to let us add 40 barrels of fuel and to store it at their landing. From this perfectly placed location we could take on fuel in both directions on the upper Koyukuk River.

As soon as the pond ice melted we set about fixing up the Seloohge. A new vinyl roof was glued on top of the old one, the side canvas was replaced, the deck was painted (for about the eighth time), and we ordered new engines: 150 HP Hondas, bigger and beefier than our old ones. We sawed our way into the water tanks, blasted them out, fixed the leaks with epoxy and painted them with enamel. Finally we tested and tightened every one of the thousands of nuts and bolts that held together the aluminum profile superstructure.

Everything was coming together nicely until the new engines arrived just two days before departure. The barge was more or less designed around the original engines, which are fed water by twin tunnel intake channels ending with a transom that is recessed into the hull. The original engines just barely fit into this space. Unfortunately for us the old models had been discontinued and the new engines were a few inches larger in girth. We were able to get them mounted onto the transom okay, but the turning radius was reduced by about 25 percent as the cowlings bumped into the side walls of the channels. Not a problem we reasoned; the limited turning stops should offset by the more powerful engines, in other words, if things got tight we should be able throttle up if a sharp turn was needed.

There was a second chapter to this story. The local boat shop, who we engaged to hook up the engine controls, was having some difficulties with the hydraulics. The engines turned right, they turned left, they just didn’t turn together. Not too far out of alignment, mind you, but enough that you could notice. "Sorry, but this is the best we can do," said Randy, the chief mechanic, "but the engine alignment looks close enough you probably won’t notice the difference." More on that later.

Departure day arrived much too quickly. There was the usual last minute running around and loading of all the survey gear, food and supplies. Our goal was to leave by noon as we needed to navigate past the horrors of Whiskey Island, about 30 miles downriver, before it became too dark to maneuver.

But, as had happened every time before, there was always something to mess things up. This time it was problems with the potable water system that put a hold on the launch countdown. The main pump was unresponsive so we swapped it with another, but the replacement also refused to pressurize the system when electrified, though it made noise. After hours of priming and crawling through the holds with flashlights looking for leaks, we finally, in exasperation, compared the two pumps side by side, and only then discovered that the replacement was, instead of a carbon image, a mirror image of the original, that is, it pumped water in the opposite direction.

With this last delay resolved it was time to begin the voyage. For a brief, fleeting moment we kissed and hugged loved ones, then fired up the engines, pulled the gangplank, untied the mooring lines and set off. Not too far, but just out to the center of our mooring pond to perform a series of maneuvers to make sure everything worked. The Seloohge seemed a little sluggish at the helm, but serviceable as we carved out some figure eights and performed a few spins in tractor mode (with one engine forward and the other in reverse). Good enough, plus it was getting late, time to get this show on the road. We spun around one last time and navigated though the tiny opening in the levee leading to the Chena River, forgetting in our haste to sound the air horn, the standard ritual to let all of Fairbanks know that the Seloohge was setting sail for distant shores.

The radio cackled and it was Albert in the pilot boat. "Better hold up…the Discovery is in the channel and getting ready for their air show." The Discovery was a giant sternwheeler that provided rides on the Chena River for the tourists. They were blocking the river up ahead while a floatplane was doing a few stunts as part of the show.

I feathered the engines in reverse and contemplated our uncertain future as we waited. After a few minutes my eyes caught sight of the ship’s logbook that someone had stuffed under the radio console. I flicked through empty pages and fanaticized about the tales of woe and wonder that would be etched into that little book upon our return, five months hence. Tales there would be…more woe than wonder to be sure. Conspicuously absent would be any mention of our return.
Eric Stahlke, PS, was survey manager of Tanana Chiefs Conference Cadastral Survey Program from 1993 to 2014. He is now retired and living in eastern Oregon.

A 5.042Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE