The Final Voyage—Part 3

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The Seloohge was two seconds away from being gored by a trio of killer spruce snags in the Tanana River. While the rest of us braced for the collision, Todd, at the helm, kept his wits. He remembered what Randy our mechanic mentioned a couple of days earlier regarding the engine misalignment. "If the steering is sluggish, give it power!" Though the boat was pointed directly at the snags, Todd pushed the throttles to the stops with his right hand and a 300 horsepower burst of thrust kicked in. It worked too well. The stern kicked around but now we were broadside to the current and headed for an underwater stump that was accompanied by a gulping whirlpool. It would take a 180 to miss it. "Hard right!!!" we all yelled simultaneously. Too late, but nevertheless the Seloohge snapped around and we found ourselves headed in the other direction. Saving our hides was the left most spruce snag which had hooked a portion of the railing and spun us around quicker than a well-greased theodolite. Eight feet of railing ended up in the river before the barge broke free, but we cleared the underwater stump.

It didn’t seem possible what just happened. In a space of two seconds the barge had avoided two wrecks. By all rights we should have been gored, then sunk. It felt like a giant invisible hand had guided us around the obstacles. Athena came to mind; there was little else in the way of explanation.

We limped around Whiskey Island for the next hour and then scouted around for a place to tie up for the night. First order of business was to inspect the hydraulic lines and the steering. The fluid was up and there was no softness indicating air in the system. As before, the engines were not in perfect alignment, but they were close. We could find nothing wrong.

For the next couple of days the heavy rainfall continued without end. Rain is good for the barge, that’s how we collect our drinking and wash water. Even better, the rising water levels made the Tanana a hundred times easier to navigate. The downside was that it just kept raining, and now the river was approaching flood stage and was choked with floating logs of every description.

Logs can be avoided and our steering seemed to be working fine again so without further crises we worked our way down the Tanana, eventually reaching the confluence with the Yukon River. The Yukon is a virtual ocean at this point, sprawling into three channels over 5 miles wide. It’s like entering the Amazon from the Orinoco, but without the jungle.

Six miles past the confluence is the remote village of Tanana, a pleasant little town, but bearing little resemblance to the village of the same name portrayed on reality TV. Here we would take on fuel and off load two survey crews. Alvin, Peter and I would stay with the Seloohge and spend the next two weeks moving the barge 200 miles further down the Yukon and then 300 miles up the Koyukuk River, to the small village of Hughes. We figured that this leg of the voyage was tame enough that we could safely manage using only three crew members, plus Jeff our cook.

This freed up the remaining two crews to get started on some actual survey work. They would fly to Fairbanks via charter, and then take the company trucks, including the fuel tanker "Slow Jimmy," north a few hundred miles on the Dalton. Staging out of a grimy pipeline era truck stop and using a helicopter for support, they could knock off an isolated portion of the project, some new townships in high mountains south of the Kanuti River. When they finished up the Seloohge would be waiting for them at Hughes (hopefully).

The pace of life in Alaska villages is a bit slower than what many people are used to. Don’t expect to pull up to a gas station and holler "fill her up…" Fueling in Tanana is often a half day experience. Lucky for us Bethi was raised here and she knew the ropes. Though it was Sunday she managed to rouse the operator from her cabin and within a matter of minutes we were pumping product through a 100 ft long blue hose that Todd had dragged over the bank. Bethi then set off to commandeer a pickup truck to haul surveyors and their gear to the village airstrip. I barely had time to take a lap around town on my bike before we found ourselves pushing off to begin the next portion of the river trip.

Under normal circumstances navigating the mighty Yukon River is a cakewalk compared to the Tanana, but after days of incessant rain it too was approaching flood stage and was choked with drift. This flotilla of wood was getting so dense that it was challenging to steer through. The small stuff the engines would churn up and spit out, but mid sized chunks could cause damage and needed to be avoided. With so much wood floating on the river sooner or later something big would get sucked into the Seloohge’s drive tunnels.

The only practical method of clearing this was to reduce power to idle and push the log under the lower unit using a pole with a spike on it. This was potentially dangerous because if the guy with the stick lost his footing and fell overboard it might not be immediately apparent, though the helmsman does have a video monitor to keep an eye on things. It’s much safer with two, so Alvin and Peter teamed up to deal with the log removal situation, although that combination left us without a pilot.

As we were entering Tozitna Crossing I noticed an underwater shoal up ahead that was grounding some of the drift, so I cranked the wheel to the left and boosted the throttle to change course. Like a recurring nightmare the Seloohge ignored the steering command. Though there was plenty of time to maneuver we barely avoided the shoal, saved only by the changing current which brushed us off to the side.

It was obvious now that the problem with the steering hydraulics had returned and could no longer be ignored, something was broken. But before we could find out what, or make any repairs, we needed to locate a place to tie up. Only it couldn’t be here as the Seloohge was now well within Tozitna crossing. The only option was to drift along for another five miles where deeper water would allow us to approach the bank.

So we drifted along, dead in the water, and scanned the banks with binoculars looking for a place to pull up. With the river now running near flood the shore on both sides was an unbroken jungle of trees and sweepers. Near the bottom of the crossing Alvin spotted a tiny break in the woods exposing a gravel beach, barely large enough to fit the Seloohge. Just in time too, because the wind was picking up, blowing us sideways and not far ahead the river divided into four separate channels where good steering was critical.

We powered up the engines and the barge responded cleanly to a right hand turn. The Seloohge spun around 180 degrees like a go cart, and in seconds we faced upstream into the current. Then I cranked the wheel left to move us towards the bank. Amazingly, the boat continued to turn right. Giving power to the engines in an attempt to force our way around only caused the barge to turn right faster.

A glance at the video monitors showed the problem, the engines were pointing in different directions. The port engine followed the movements of the helm, but the starboard engine was locked into a hard right position and wouldn’t budge, like it was welded into place. For some curious reason, probably the rudder effect, the barge continued turning right even when the starboard engine was powered down. Tilting it out of the water was not an option as this involved removing the steering piston mount bolts to keep the hydraulic fittings from getting sheered off, not something that could be done in mid river.

One small consolation was that, though we were constantly turning in circles to the right, we could, by manipulating the wheel, change the diameter of the circles. Only a group of surveyors would figure out that by changing the degree of curve it was possible to work our way closer to the opposite shore with each revolution. We moved closer, but the relentless current of the Yukon also moved us downriver. I had a vision of missing the landing, fetching up on a bar somewhere and getting pounded by drift logs all night. When the river eventually receded, the Seloohge would then be stranded high and dry till freeze up.

This vision gained clarity when we completed one last circle and could see that the plan definitely wasn’t going to work. The landing spot was passed by. Goodbye hope.

Then something happened. A 30 ft. log, de-limbed and straight as an arrow, drifted in from nowhere and plowed into the starboard drive tunnel. It slammed into the engine with a bone jarring thunk. Whatever was going on down there was significant and it straightened out our trajectory, the perpetual right turn stopped. Coincidentally the Seloohge at that moment was pointed at the receding landing spot. We held our breath and throttled cautiously ahead on a straight line, entered the slack current next to the shore and coasted into the tiny gravel opening.

The event was so profound and unexpected that it didn’t feel quite right. If we were ancient Greek mariners no doubt we would have dropped everything then and there and offered up major sacrifice to Athena for having saved our bacon. But that was the last thing on our minds because, actually, we were only half saved. Until we could figure out what was wrong with the hydraulic steering and fix it, we weren’t going anywhere.

The steering manual, sad to say, was still occupying space in a bookshelf back in Fairbanks. We suspected there was air in the lines but dreaded having to bleed all the hydraulics without a schematic and instructions. With nothing else to go on we checked the reservoir fluid for bubbles and scrutinized every millimeter of the hydraulic lines looking for leaks, or something that messed up the steering. Everything looked hunky dory. We ended at the engines staring at a ball valve almost hidden in the tangle of cables and hoses terminating here. We poked around a little and noticed the valve was on a shunt line between the uptake and return lines. I vaguely remembered back when the Seloohge was built a mechanic had pointed it out to us, "Whatever you do, DON’T EVER TOUCH THAT VALVE!" He didn’t tell us what the valve was for, or maybe he did and we forgot.

In any event, it was now half open, apparently disturbed when Alvin or Peter were spearing drift logs. We sent the cook to the helm and had him rotate the wheel as we experimented by opening and closing the valve. It was so basic nobody could believe it. The valve simply regulated the amount of hydraulic oil going to the steering piston on the starboard engine. All we had to do was position the engines parallel to each other and close the valve. That was it, the pair of engines then moved in perfect unison, and stayed that way for the next 2000 miles. The steering issue was solved.

Back to Athena. Perhaps we should have been more respectful. Like most spurned gods, she didn’t stick around. Her assistance never again graced our hardships. As the summer progressed two faced Fortune would become our companion, and she had no pity.

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 4.968Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE