The Final Voyage: Part 6

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Our grand plan for the summer was coming together at last. While the Seloohge was working its way up the Koyukuk River towards Hughes, TCC’s other survey crews were putting in townships with a helicopter in the distant Kanuti River highlands, staying at a pipeline era truck stop on the Dalton Highway. Soon they would finish and demobilize back to Fairbanks where they would charter a couple of airplanes and join us in Hughes.

The Seloohge, we hoped, would arrive at Hughes before then, creating an opportunity for a short break. Our cook had long ago made up his mind to escape to the big city if the chance ever came up, plus he needed to stock up on supplies and buy fresh food. Peter wanted to see his girlfriend one last time as it would be his only chance until mid-October. Meanwhile, Alvin and I would stay on the barge for a few days performing some surveying upriver that could be accomplished with two people and a riverboat.

First we had to make it to Hughes in time to catch a plane. The insanely fast current poured downriver at about the same speed as the Seloohge, with its engines pounding away under full throttle, could push upriver. To make any headway at all we had to navigate even deeper into the sinuous slack water found along the banks. I wished for a suicide knob on the wheel, because constantly working those big Honda engines side to side at full power was like steering a bumper car with a hundred pound rock.

Our big moment of excitement had nothing to do with navigation, it came after Alvin noticed that our skiff, which usually trails behind the barge connected by a short rope, had popped its U bolt and was floating away down the river into the distance. By the time we had reversed course and caught up to it the skiff had drifted into some water churning along the base of a cliff and was headed for a pile of sharp rocks. We gingerly approached alongside at a safe distance and were contemplating what to do next when Peter started sprinting across the deck and went airborne. He soared about eight feet over the river and managed to stick the landing on the tiny bow plate of the bobbing skiff. Wow, it was the second time in two days that I felt really thankful we hired that guy.

Three days later we arrived at Hughes with only minutes to spare to meet the scheduled flight. After a quick goodbye Alvin and I got down to work as there was plenty to do. First there was business in the village as we needed to upload half a dozen OPUS observations gathered during the previous week. Fortunately Hughes is one of those rare places where surveyors are appreciated and treated well. The village itself is situated on a sliver of land that falls between a towering rock bluff and the Koyukuk River. It’s a narrow shelf and the 60 or so villagers that live here occupy all the buildable land.

Due to its small size Hughes is generally pretty quiet, but as luck would have it we had arrived during a multi day funeral event which brought people in from other villages. Though the Koyukuk River is sparsely populated compared to just about anywhere, the residents who do live here are either related to each other or friends and they think nothing of traveling 100 miles by riverboat to attend a social occasion. Typically there are no hotels in the villages so visitors usually double up in occupied houses or cabins, finding space on a couch or on the floor in sleeping bags. In fact, before we built the Seloohge, us surveyors spent many a night in this fashion. It’s a common situation for those working in the bush. You get used to it but sometimes things can get a little close. For example, once in the village of Rampart I shared the floor of a tiny utility room with the freshly severed head of a large moose. Its tongue, which is longer than you can imagine, emerged out of the side of its mouth and draped along the floor. Rigor mortis had set in and I couldn’t roll over without dealing with it.

It being morning the residents of Hughes were still asleep, which is standard procedure in the northland where the midnight sun eliminates any vestige of night. In this context time slips away and people get into the habit of staying up late and, more to the point, sleeping in late. Also, it was Sunday so the Post Office wasn’t open, or the city office, which was housed in the same building.

Our first task was to get into that city office so we could boot up someone’s computer and upload GPS control data to NGS for some badly needed OPUS results. It’s not like everywhere else where you can hang out at Starbucks and mooch on their WiFi. Modern computer infrastructure is for cities, not the Alaska bush. To connect to the internet in a typical Alaska village you take present day IT and subtract about 15 years, back to the world of Ethernet connections and Windows 3.1.

Somebody out there is thinking, hey you dummies, buy yourself a satellite dish and connect to the internet with Starnet or Hughes Net. Yeah, right. Any surveyor knows the geometry, that from the vantage point of the Arctic Circle, geostationary communication satellites, which are parked over the equator, are only a fingers length above the horizon. Try finding line-of-sight to that low lying target through whatever hills, cliffs or tall trees that happen to line the riverbank. To move megabytes back and forth to civilization it’s far easier to walk over to the village office and borrow somebody’s 1998 Gateway that’s hard wired to the town’s communication dish.

Fortunately for us we spotted Wilmer Beetus marching down the street, intent on some project or other. Slim, short, middle aged and sporting a buzz cut, Wilmer is the definition of an energetic man. His on-going life’s work is transporting quarried rock from the bluff behind the village to a nearby area of muskeg, creating new building sites for village expansion. Like the Dutch, he’s making land where once there was water. Wilmer is also the town’s mayor and everything in Hughes goes through him.

"You guys made it! Get in this morning? …didn’t hear you come in. Hey, this is great timing, how long are you in town? We’ve got a couple of subdivisions that need surveys."

The high cost required to fly in a survey crew to a remote Alaska village makes it impossible for villages to afford surveying, so nothing regarding boundaries ever gets done. TCC surveyors showing up out of the blue with a barge full of total stations and GPS gear gets Wilmer fired up every time.

"Hi Wilmer, how’s it going…yeah, of course, we’ll take care of it."

Wilmer unlocked the front door for us, waved and headed back down the street. "I’ll come back and talk to you guys later on, got something else I’m working on at the moment."

The office building, in typical village style, was a simple two story wood frame box built on stilts and sheathed with plywood. The lower floor contained the post office while upstairs was the city office, consisting of a few desks covered in paperwork. Upon entering I remembered the last time I was in this building, two years earlier. At that time there was a smoke alarm somewhere inside which had a low battery, triggering a brief chirp every 30 seconds or so. This type of chirp drives me nuts if it happens in my own home; I’ll conduct a room by room search even if it’s 3 o’clock in the morning to silence the menace. But in Hughes the noise might as well have been a bird chirping, it didn’t seem to bother anyone and continued unabated during the whole time I was in town. You guessed it, now, two years later, the first sound I heard on entering was "chirp".

Alvin and I were not out of the woods yet, needing to guess a working password on one of the four computers in the office. It was our lucky day as typing the password "Hughes" on the first computer scored a bull’s eye. After that life slowed down a little as the RINEX uploads on Windows 3.1 chugged along about as fast as the Seloohge going upriver in the Koyukuk.

Eventually decent OPUS results nailed the location of our downriver control and we could shift focus to the upriver work. The work area was still a ways off, located about 40 miles north of Hughes, but for surveyors of the Alaska bush this can be a good thing as the best part of the day is travel to and from the job site. To kick back in a fast riverboat that is following the meanders of a remote wilderness stream, or to be strapped into a helicopter that is skimming along the tree tops at 100 mph, and get paid for it, is pleasure pure and simple. The terrain is always new and there is always something to see.

In fact, we weren’t on the river ten minutes when Alvin spotted a black bear swimming in mid-stream, crossing from one side to the other. We circled around so I could get a video of a bear doing the dog paddle, being careful not to get too close. As every villager knows, the animal will pull himself into a boat if it’s within reach of his paws, people have drowned that way.

The boat ride came to an end and it was time to embrace the more pervasive surveying reality, that is, packing heavy gear over soft and squishy ground or through willow thickets, accompanied by a thick cloud of mosquitoes.

With a late start we made it a long day and managed a few recoveries after some hikes that varied from tussocks to talus. By the time we got back to Hughes it was 7:00 pm and I was beat. But making dinner, cleaning up, doing the GPS comps and heading for bed was not yet an option. That’s because the village of Hughes was now fully awake and they had discovered that the Seloohge, an oddity of oddities, was tied up at their boat landing. When they saw Alvin and I arrive with the skiff everyone started congregating near the end of the gangplank in hopes they would be invited aboard for a tour and some socializing. Alvin, ever practical, immediately disappeared somewhere, perhaps to a friend’s cabin to sleep in peace. I was less prepared for the circumstance and did the open house thing for awhile, but the situation got out of hand and eventually it took a blast from the ship’s fog horn to clear the decks. It was well past midnight by the time the GPS processing was complete.

Sleep should have come easy at this point except that the Seloohge was tied up about a hundred feet from the village outdoor basketball court. Though only a warped and cracked concrete half court with a net-less hoop, it might as well have been Staples Center as far as the locals were concerned. The game, which had no beginning or end, was accompanied by dueling boom boxes that fused a combination of rap, country and blues. My trusty earplugs were no match for those subwoofers. Other senses demanded attention: aching legs, sore feet, the 4 inch bloody scratch on my calf, gummy skin from bug dope and dried sweat, and last, but certainly not least, the blinding midnight sun which lit up our white canvas upper deck like a million flood lamps. Sleep came eventually, and then it was time to get up.

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 4.977Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE