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Fellow surveyors Alvin and Peter, our cook Jeff and yours truly were taking the Seloohge to the village of Hughes. After surviving an eventful passage down the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, we now found ourselves on the Koyukuk, going upriver. The rest of our group had split off in Tanana and were now encamped at a truck stop on the Dalton Highway, about 500 miles to the east of us. Since they were working in mountains that were still buried under winter snow our group had the better deal for the time being. On the river, down near sea level, the midnight sun was kicking in and temperatures were in the 70s. The stress of the week before was long gone. Ahead was a week of laid-back river cruising.
This was not a job for Type A personalities. Downriver and upriver are as different as night and day. Slow lane doesn’t begin to begin to describe the experience of pushing 45,000 lbs. of stuff upriver. The top speed was about 6 mph. The view unfolded one tree at a time and it varied little as the hours passed. The Koyukuk, slow and deep, meandered endlessly.
Our first surveys were located a long ways away, above the village of Huslia, more than 300 miles distant. We’d push off at seven in the morning, engage the engines and point the boat upstream. After cruising 14 hours and gaining Alvin, Gladys and grandchildren about 40 or 50 miles we’d look around for a place to camp. Jeff kept us well fed.
Going upriver is easier and much safer than going downriver. If the boat bumps up against a shoal or gets in a tight situation, it’s simple to reduce power and use the river current to back up and try again. The one negative is that the barge has to stay out of the main channel. Reason being, the current in the center of the channel is much faster than the current along the bank, so if you are moving a barge upriver you can cover a lot more ground sneaking up the slack currents and eddies that form along the edges. The tradeoff is that slack current is narrow, unpredictable and loaded with shoals.
We traded 90 minute shifts at the helm and parceled out the remainder of the boat work, which wasn’t much. That left a lot of free time, rare for surveyors during the Alaskan summer. Each of us had our own version of doing nothing. Peter liked to keep busy and useful, he prowled the decks with tools and duct tape looking for something to fix. Not me, I liked to sit on the bow, where it was quiet, and watch the river slide by for hours on end. Alvin, on the other hand, knew this river from one end to the other and he had seen it before. He headed up to his bunk and went to sleep.
So when the Seloohge passed by the village of Koyukuk, Alvin’s home town, the cook had to run upstairs to fetch him. This was because there were some groups of people on the bank waving and shouting Alvin’s name. He’s a local hero of sorts.
It was at this same spot 27 years earlier that I first met Alvin. I was on my own that summer and needed someone to help me cut lines on a nearby 160 acre survey. So I went down to the office of the Koyukuk village council to see if they could recommend someone to hire. The lady roused a kid hanging out in the entry and directed him to "go get Alvin". Several minutes later a middle aged man with soft eyes, shaggy hair and a long beard stepped through the office door. He was thin, quiet, and wore beat up clothes with flip flops. To be honest, he didn’t strike me as much of a helper. But if ever there was a natural born surveyor it was Alvin. He picked it up right away and was good at it, plus he was a hard worker and knew bush Alaska from the ground up. When TCC decided to create a survey dept. in 1993 Alvin and I were the first employees, and we’ve worked together ever since.
From Koyukuk to Huslia it’s three days travel on the river. In years past it was normal to see a few other boats on this stretch, but these days, with the high price of everything, hardly anyone can afford it. No cell towers out here, and the satellite phone wasn’t working at all, so the first sign of anybody being alive besides ourselves arrived as incoming radio chatter from Huslia. The Seloohge’s ancient radio was a real beast, originally cobbled together by a nerdy HAM operator in the 1980’s. His parting words: "five more watts and you could talk to God…" Not quite, but we could usually talk to a village from a long ways out. VHF is line of site, and with a tall antenna on the roof we could get above the trees and reach over the flats to a radio 50 miles away. Like most villages in Alaska, every cabin in Huslia had a marine radio tuned to channel 10, and village airwaves were rarely silent. It’s known as the Native Pipeline, instant communication long before the age of Facebook. Alvin radioed ahead to Gladys, his faithful girlfriend, to let her know we’d be in the next day. Word got out and a good portion of the village was waiting at the landing when the barge arrived.
One thing about Huslia, you can be gone for years but the minute you return it’s like you never left. Joss Olin was waving at me desperately from the top of the bank. Joss, who otherwise would pass for a normal villager, was instead proudly wearing a hard to miss hat, a purple felt fedora. It must have cost him $200, but it looked better suited for Las Vegas than the Huslia boat landing.
"Hey Joss, nice hat!"
"Thanks," he replied, "I got it in Las Vegas…"
He then got right to the point and asked about re-setting some survey corners. This was probably related to the pile of rebar and caps I could see strapped to the back of his 4-wheeler. Joss was into surveying and could be always be counted on to have a project for us. I told him that we were just stopping for the night and there wasn’t time to fix anything, but I could take a look.
First we needed fuel and the village pump was about a mile away, connected to the boat landing by a series of sandy trails. Alvin commandeered a 4-wheeler and disappeared into the village. A few minutes later he returned with an impressive pile of gas jugs and two 30 gallon barrels. While the crew dealt with the gas, I hopped on the back of Joss’s 4-wheeler for a ride over to his cabin. Here he gave me a tour of the neighborhood and identified all the missing corners.
"My neighbor and I think this back corner goes over here," he said, poking the ground with a stick, "…and, oh yeah, I forgot to mention that we moved some of the front corners into the trees so they wouldn’t get hit by the kids on their bikes, I can show you where…"
Later, back at the Seloohge, sitting around the galley table after dinner, we heard Gladys chime in on Channel 10. In typical Native understatement she asked if anyone had any fire extinguishers, and, if they did, please bring them over to her house. A few minutes later she was back on the radio to add that they needed some helpers to fight a fire. Apparently there was smoke coming out of the windows of her next door neighbor’s house, which belonged to Auntie Alice, who was 85 years old. Fortunately Alice was not home, she was off playing bingo. Unfortunately the village had no fire department. Alvin started a bucket brigade and the village fought the fire all night long, eventually saving the structure, but the interior was gutted.
Stuff happens all the time when you’re working in the villages. It’s easy to get drawn in, and we help where we can, but one has to look at the big picture. Keep to the schedule, that’s our mantra. Alvin and Gladys knew the score. They showed up at the barge for breakfast, sleepless and black with soot, and we shoved off about an hour later.
Upriver from Huslia the Koyukuk River begins to change in a big way. First, it gets shallow, then it gets fast. Thirty miles later the river divides into two channels that wander off in completely different directions and don’t meet again for forty miles. The east channel, known as Cutoff Slough, is smaller but deeper. It’s also twenty miles shorter so most everybody on the river goes that way. But the townships we needed to survey, part of Doyon’s final boundaries, began along the other channel, so we entered unknown waters by design.
These townships were bunched in groups along a corridor stretching 120 miles. The Plan of Survey showed that our work would include the valley as well as steep mountains on both sides of the river. Since the helicopter was currently with the other crews there wasn’t much we could survey at the moment except to put in the control and perform a few recoveries along the river. In years past this would have involved extended hikes with heavy backpacks to distant USGS tri stations, but these days, thankfully, control for virgin townships is based on OPUS solutions.
Things progressed well until we got to the section where the two channels of the Koyukuk merged back together. The river couldn’t seem to make up its mind here and above the divide it spread out filling a space half a mile wide. There was no channel, just a lot of shallow water. We probed extensively and managed to find a few areas deep enough to float the Seloohge as it forged slowly ahead. At the time the river level was reasonably high so we wondered what this section would look like on our return, as the Koyukuk has been known to dry up into a trickle if the rains stop. We’d heard stories of barges being trapped in the upper Koyukuk for years because the river was impassible during low water.
Past this point the current of the Koyukuk gets even crazier, running up to 10 mph. We barely made thirty miles that day, but managed to achieve our goal, Hog Landing. According to our loose agreement with a group of miners who we never met, forty barrels of our avgas were cached here earlier, offloaded from an equipment barge. Hog Landing used to be a big operation in the 1930s. You can still see a line of warehouse foundations, as well as the remains of a giant crane boom on a concrete pedestal which lifted supplies and equipment off the riverboats. The gold mines themselves were another fifteen miles up a gravel road. The road is still there, sort of, but the landing is totally overgrown. Only the crane boom, towering above the trees, gave the place away.
The present day miners who barged in our fuel were sampling these old grounds to see if the place still held treasure. But these miners were long gone and they left the landing in sad shape. Since being abandoned in the 1950’s the area had grown over with willows, alders and cottonwood trees, some of which were now over 50 ft. tall To clear a path through this jungle the miners used a D-8 Cat to knock the trees down, just enough. Then they made a skid trail and drug a dozen or so equipment containers off the barge and onto the road. From here the equipment was skidded by Cat up the old road to the dig. Left behind was a train wreck of stumps and dead trees that had sprung back to life. Our fuel was neatly tucked into a corner on the far edge of this mess.
"You know, there’s a lot more to surveying than what they teach you in school…" Somebody, maybe Peter, mentioned this after wrestling a few 450 lb. barrels of fuel over the downed trees.
At the edge of the river the vertical muck bank was 10 feet high. One has to be careful with fuel so we shoveled out a ramp that would control the descent. Eventually the barrels, who, like us, were now caked in several inches of mud, found their way to the gangplank and onto the forward deck of the Seloohge. When this was done we moved six more barrels to the top of the bank and drained the contents into the main tanks of the Seloohge with a hose. The engines had been burning 80 gallons a day since we left Tanana. By then everyone was exhausted. We noticed that there was so much avgas on board that the deck of the Seloohge was now only 3 inches above the water.
Across the river from the landing was the first actual survey of this expedition, a five acre ANCSA archeological site that needed a boundary. We nursed the swollen barge over to the opposite shore and tied it up on a gravel beach. The level of the river had dropped three feet in the last two days, exposing just enough open shoreline for weary crew members to get out and walk along the edge. This was welcome activity after days of being stuck on-board.
On our way downriver, one month hence, the water level would be so low that we wouldn’t recognize this place.
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 4.775Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE