The Final Voyage—Part 5

A 4.156Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

Confined to the decks of the Seloohge since departing Fairbanks, Alaska, the four of us, three surveyors and a cook, were looking forward to getting off the boat. We were camping at a gravel beach at the confluence on the Hog and Koyukuk Rivers, about 50 river miles below Hughes, the Native village where we would rendezvous with TCC’s other crews to begin our summer of survey work on the river.

But before we could proceed upriver to Hughes there was a side project to take care of, the survey of a five acre archeological site. There were about a dozen of these diminutive metes and bounds surveys on our to-do list for summer, a drop in the bucket compared to the rectangular work. It made sense for us (the boat crew) to execute these outliers if they fell along our route.

Though we had in our possession the original BLM Special Instructions document (SI), stamped, signed and bound in heavy blue paper, the survey itself remained vague. As we have come to expect the SI document included detailed background for a survey of this type, describing the authority, the history of surveys, riparian line policy, etc. Missing, however, was any description of the survey itself. Under that section was the statement "refer to Plan of Survey".

The Plan of Survey (POS) was a quad map enlargement on an 8 ½" by 11" piece of paper with the lines of the proposed survey inked on top. It was a tiny five acre survey so with the highly enlarged scale all that remained of the quad map overlay was a dozen or so thumb sized pixels, green for forest, blue for river. The line graphics were nice and tidy though and the boundary was labeled with bearings, distances and corner numbers. The parcel was located on the left bank of the Koyukuk River, that much could be deduced, but there were no ties to other surveys or any spatial information, such as coordinates, regarding the location.

So we were left to deduce that the survey had something to do with the only other document in the packet, a B&W copy of a mid 1970’s field examination of the site. Not surprisingly, this date placed the land exam not long after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act (ANCSA) became law. The consequence of this legislation was substantial as it undertook the division of Alaska land interests amongst the three main stakeholders: the State of Alaska, the federal government and the indigenous tribes.

At that time, given the vast scale of Alaska, much of the character and content of the land was undocumented or unknown. To protect tribal interests at the outset a coordinated effort was made to identify Alaska Native cultural assets to be set aside from other land selections. For this effort a group of summer interns led by agency archeologists were brought together and dispersed to Alaska’s remote villages. Their job was to identify and map undocumented archeological sites that needed protection, for example, historical cabins, camps, cemeteries or burial sites.

Considering how things decay and disappear in the woods and along the riverbanks of Alaska, the BLM crews did a commendable job of recovering and documenting cultural assets. Using riverboats, or sometimes helicopters, they were guided to various sites by local village elders who retained a memory of the old places. The interns carefully mapped what they were shown and plotted their findings at scale. These measurements led to a metes and bounds description so the site and a buffer zone could ultimately be segregated from surrounding lands. The crews then measured out the boundary lines on the ground by bushwhacking around the parcel with a compass and tape. At each corner they buried a 24 inch long aluminum rod.

Not bad for non surveyors.

Unfortunately, one key element was still left hanging: the location. These sites were literally in the middle of nowhere, sometimes days by riverboat from the nearest village. Imagine a couple of college interns sitting in the back of a riverboat in the middle of Alaska, navigating bend after endless river bend through forest covered flatlands. This was 20 years before GPS became a useful location tool. All they had was seriously out of date quad maps and a compass. The locals were no help, quad maps meant nothing to them. So when it came time to conjure up the location of the site the interns took their best shot and made a cross on the quad map, then scaled the latitude and longitude from the margins.

Our job, 40 years later, was to find the old aluminum rods, replace them with regulation BLM brass caps and turn the whole thing into a US Survey. The site could then be entered into the statewide GIS and segregated from other land interests.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have the original field exam. We had the faxed, copied, refaxed and re-copied redacted version. That’s right, redacted. For good reason archeologists are protective of their field exams, they like to keep them locked up in a safe. Their worst nightmare would be for accurate maps of ancient yet unstudied burial sites to become public record. Artifacts are worth money and there are people out there who will dig them up and make them disappear.

Nevertheless, one would think that if anyone should have access to the field exam, it would be the surveyors. How else are we supposed to find the place?

But alas, the site’s secrets were safe from whoever paged through this file, whether it was the surveyors or the hapless BLM officials charged with writing the Special Instructions. There were a few paragraphs of boilerplate on page one that survived the Sharpie, everything else was black, even the site map. Though the boundary line and dimensions were untouched, the particulars, including the legend, were left to the imagination.

The five or six photos in the file had no need for additional black ink. These images had long ago transformed into black and white abstract art from being faxed and copied multiple times, and there were no captions.

All was not lost. Un-redacted on the bottom of Page 2 was a latitude and longitude for the parcel, the value scaled from the quad map 40 years earlier. This helped a lot, but not as much as one would think. The given lat/long coordinate, rounded to the nearest minute, created a mile wide search area assuming it was correct in the first place.

Ever hopeful, we hopped into the skiff and skimmed across the river towards the POB coordinates while visually checking out the shore for anything obvious. We did spot the remains of a hunting camp near the coordinates but it was obviously recent judging by the ax that was left behind. We tied up anyway, then spread out and hiked in various directions in hopes of finding something more ancient and tangible that would narrow the search area for the aluminum rods.

It should be mentioned that the forests of interior Alaska don’t make for easy walking, especially along the rivers. The woods are packed thick with spruce, willows and alder brush. You can barely claw your way through the stuff and are lucky if you can see more than 10 or 20 feet in any direction. Meanwhile the ground is basically shin to knee deep in spongy tundra and moss.

The three of us met up after awhile and compared notes. Lucky for us we had Alvin on the crew. Alvin wasn’t familiar with this portion of the Koyukuk, but he had good intuition and an ability to see things. Without him we would have turned up far fewer clues. In his quiet way he mentioned that he had come across what he thought was an old camp. Alvin took us over to the place and pointed into the alders. I didn’t see anything but Alvin pointed out how two lumps of thick moss intersected at a curious 90 degree angle, perhaps a corner remnant of a cabin. Sure enough, we removed some of the moss and could make out an old rotted log underneath with ax marks. Alvin kicked around some more and plucked a rusted Prince Albert can out of the leaves. Soon he found an old camp ring.

Okay, we found something old and more than likely it’s the place we’re looking for; we didn’t need to unearth the entire camp site. With the redacted field exam we had no descriptions or ties to the features anyway. The goal was to find the aluminum rods marking the boundary corners. With nothing else to go on, we started with the assumption that the camp site was more or less central to the overall parcel boundary, then split the distance of the river boundary to search for the original WCMC monuments. As surveyors have learned from experience, always go for the easiest corner first, because a single recovery locks you down to the original survey and the other corner monuments will be much easier to search for.

Not helping our efforts, the archeologist’s survey was designed to be invisible. They didn’t want to advertise this location as a cultural site or leave anything behind that would draw the eye of passers by. There were no hacked boundary lines, flagging or bearing trees at the corners. In knee deep tundra an aluminum rod protruding an inch or two out of the ground does not exactly stand out. Also, permafrost exists everywhere this far north, and permafrost destroys rod type survey corners. Simply described, the rod melts the underlying frozen ground, turns it to muck, leaving surface freeze cycles to easily jack the monument out of the ground. The rod pops out, falls over, then lays on the surface to get buried by alder and willow leaves or disappear into the moss. And forget the metal detector, your basic $700 surveyor’s yellow stick won’t buzz up non ferrous metals like aluminum. Might as well use a witching stick.

Luck was with us though and within a matter of minutes of arriving at the search area Peter spotted a rod tip precariously near the eroding bank of the river. That was too easy, it wasn’t even 9 a.m. But the other WCMC couldn’t be found after an hour of searching and we eventually gave up on it, figuring it had been claimed by the river. We then used a handheld GPS, calibrated to the location of the one corner we had found, to search for the rear corners. Sad to say, the 1970s interns were better archeologists than they were surveyors. We eventually found the rods, but no thanks to the distances and bearings shown on their field sketch.

As every surveyor knows, the field work is not done until the monuments are in the ground, so the next morning we were up early knowing that soon we’d be up to our elbows in frozen muck. We grabbed some monuments and our digging gear and headed out.

Technology has been very good to surveyors in the past 40 years, but for some reason monuments and monument holes have not advanced past the Bronze Age.

At the latitude we were working in permafrost is the norm. Now, if we were working on the North Slope or western Alaska, where it’s flat and there are no trees, where you can land a helicopter right next to the monument location, you can use a gasoline powered jack hammer to assist in this kind of work. But this device weighs about 70 lbs., and it’s a real bear to carry more than a few steps out of the helicopter. Forget about packing it over a half mile of tussocks or muskeg.

So for the wretched surveyors working in Interior Alaska, where, due to endless forests, steep hills and mountains, one is lucky to find a place to land a helicopter within a mile of the monument, the tool of choice is the simple ice chisel which can be packed. To the uninitiated the ice chisel is a 16 pound spud bar. About five feet long, one end is flattened and sharpened to a fine chisel point, the other end is shaped into an iron knuckle used for tamping.

Peter had done some surveying on the pipeline but he was new at this. In fact, it was his first cadastral monument, ever…it was initiation time. To his credit he was in great shape from skiing all winter. Without hesitation Peter bored and hammered his way into the frozen ground like a man possessed. But it’s not enough to whack-a-mole permafrost. Frozen silt has to be flaked off in tiny shards from the outside in, otherwise you might as well be swinging a hammer at concrete. It takes strategy and careful aim. Also, you’ve got to pace yourself because there is no comparable half-hour workout that destroys a body as quick; practically every muscle in the upper body gets pounded to shreds. True, there is a short rest break once every two minutes or so, but only for the time it takes your partner to grab the post hole diggers and remove the resulting fruit of your efforts, a tiny pile of frozen chips, from the bottom of the hole.

Keeping this up all day long is sure death so after three rounds of this sequence it is protocol to switch out with the guy holding the post hole diggers, that is, if he (she) is not off somewhere carving up bearing trees. The progress downward is about an inch a minute depending on the hardness of the frozen silt and the density of the mosquitoes.

Peter was up to the challenge. Not only that, he was still going strong on the last monument, and in spite of harboring of a thick swarm of mosquitoes that would have driven many a person mad, he maintained a lively banter to keep the work light hearted and interesting. It confirmed in my mind that we had made a good choice in hiring him; this guy would make a good surveyor.

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 4.156Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE