The Final Voyage: Part 7

A 1.359Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

While waiting for TCC’s other crews to finish up in the Kanuti River highlands, Alvin and I kept ourselves busy around Hughes working on some archeological surveys. For two surveyors in their mid sixties I can tell you it was a struggle to bushwhack through Alaska crud all day long. Actually, it was mostly a struggle for me to keep up with Alvin who cruised along like a twenty year old. After about six days of that we boated back to Hughes one evening and noticed a big change: instead of a silent empty barge the Seloohge was full of energetic people and laden with gear and supplies. There was country music in the galley, hot food on the table and tales of recent adventures in the air. It was June 14 and everyone was together again.

The returning crews, plus our cook and the chopper pilot, had arrived on two planes earlier in the day. They were energized after spending a couple of nights in Fairbanks, recuperating from some challenging work in the mountains. There was so much activity on the Seloohge it was hard to take it all in. Bethi, headphones in place, was wedged in between the fuel barrels on the bow, steadily plinking away with a ball peen hammer and a set of rotary dies, marking up brass caps according to a crib sheet. Frank, in his coveralls, was aft, changing engine oil with a new suction extractor he had picked up in town. For Frank, a genuine mechanic nerd, it didn’t get any better than this. Todd was encased in a shower of sparks on the river bank, his right foot pinning a digging bar against a drift log while a rotary grinder honed an edge on the chisel. Peter stood twenty feet away, firing up chain saws and adjusting the carburetors. Albert had a base unit up and all the GPS gear laid out. He was checking the repeater and antennas. Jeff, our cook, was down under, in the hold beneath the galley, duck walking a thousand pounds of food and supplies into the corners. Even the pilot was into it, getting the helicopter ready for some serious work in the back country, for tomorrow the project would begin in earnest and everything needed to go right from day one.

The work ahead stretched along a thousand miles of the Koyukuk and Yukon Rivers. The sixty townships to be surveyed plotted out as long tendrils. If the survey lines could be illuminated you could see them from the moon, a necklace draped over the western half of Alaska. For the next four months our flotilla would follow the work moving every few days as each survey was completed. The Seloohge would be our home, office, workshop, kitchen, and heliport rolled into one. If everything went according to plan we would all be back in Fairbanks by October.

First order of business was to move the barge upriver about 15 miles to be closer to the initial batch of work. There was a really nice camp spot in that area located in slack water bordering a giant gravel bar, a perfect place to land the helicopter and set up a GPS base station. Frank and Alvin helped me move the barge while Albert’s and Todd’s crews put in control and made a few recoveries, some abutting nearby townships.

The area we would be starting in was essentially unsurveyed. This situation is heaven for surveyors because there are no complications, just field work. The new townships would be monumented based on a BLM protraction diagram that contained hard coordinates for each corner. Virgin township surveys were simply a matter of establishing a network of precision geodetic control points based on OPUS solutions and positioning new monuments. It usually took a day to set up a solid GPS network setting two control points per township. The biggest issue from a surveyor’s point of view was establishing radio contact with the rovers to allow RTK positioning. No cell phone towers out here, and basic GPS jobsite systems aren’t too handy when operating in a work area that includes 20 miles of rolling hills. There are only so many options, but rule of thumb is to put the GPS base and repeater on hilltops, use the maximum radio signal allowed by law and hope for the best.

The wake up alarms start going off a little before 6:30. By then you can smell the fragrance of breakfast wafting up from the galley below. Jeff has been up since 4:00 a.m. Bacon and sausages are grilled, pancakes are piled high, the coffee is made and the lunch table is laid out. There is a nice fire popping in the woodstove next to the table. First few surveyors down the stairs get the choice seats next to the stove, the rest of us spread out in the limited space on deck using either fuel barrels or a worktable to set our plates and coffee cups on.

Albert and Bethi were always the first crew out, usually out the door by 7:30 a.m. Albert was our Chief of Parties and managed the GNSS layout so he generally set up the base station and a repeater before heading out to position monuments. Todd’s crew always went out next, and Frank, the new guy, went third. It was a simple system: in the helicopter was a clipboard containing a sheet for each monument that would be positioned that day. Each crew in turn would take the top sheet from the clipboard and fly to those coordinates. During the course of the day the three crews leap-frogged along township boundaries (or along a stair step subdivision lines), generally spacing themselves at two to four mile intervals from the other crews. The pilot would return to the Seloohge to refuel a couple times a day but the crews were gone until about six in the evening. They didn’t stop for lunch, feasting mostly on energy bars and GU when a chance presented itself.

On paper the work was simple but this survey was definitely not on paper. For the most part the ground was wet and swampy or steep and broken. Except for the meanderings of the Koyukuk River, the mountains above treeline and a few barren ridgetops everything was covered by a carpet of spruce trees. Because of this many of the points to be monumented were located in places where it was impossible to land a helicopter. When this happens there aren’t many options so the crew circles around and searches for the nearest place to put down. Somewhere out there is a place big enough to stick a helicopter, perhaps a sand bar on the river or some meadow or swamp. Unfortunately, that somewhere was usually many miles away. Not good, because bushwhacking is nasty business: bogs, thickets, wasps, tussocks, talus, bears, stirring up the mosquitoes, you name it. A surveyor wants to eliminate as much of that as possible and concentrate on the work. Plus, we had a schedule to maintain, the BLM contract contained a no holds barred production rate of seven monuments per day per crew. That’s not going to happen if you have to land on distant gravel bars and bushwhack.

For this reason the party chief would usually employ Plan B, the one where the helicopter doesn’t actually land. While the nearest LZ (helicopter speak for landing zone) may be miles distant, there were generally one or two hover options available much closer to the target. A hover option is the use of an opening in the forest that is too small or too overgrown with brush to land in, but low enough for a surveyor to safely jump out. Sounds a little dicey, and sometimes it is, but for bush surveyors it’s part of the job. The technique is simple: you pick a spot, toss out a chainsaw, step onto the skid and jump. You move slowly to not upset the equilibrium of the helicopter. If it’s a long jump you reach down and dangle by your hands from the skid; this buys about seven feet. It helps to land like a rag doll so that your whole body absorbs the impact instead of just your feet.

If the ground consisted of bedrock or gravel this would be a stupid idea. But the tundra found in interior Alaska is nothing like bedrock. Quite the opposite, tundra is spongy moss similar to the foam they put into pole vault pits and a surveyor can drop as much as fifteen feet in relative comfort and safety. If you don’t mind a few scratches, blueberry bushes, willows or pucker brush can also help break a fall.

Once on the ground it’s a matter of firing up the chain saw and enlarging the opening so the helicopter can return and land safely. This can take five minutes if things aren’t bad or an hour if the trees are thick. The chopper lands, the second crew member climbs out with the GPS gear and off the crew goes into the woods, zeroing in on the monument location using a cheap Etrex handheld as navigation. When they arrive in the area the Etrex is pocketed, the expensive GPS comes out of the backpack, and, RTK gods willing, the exact monument position can then be ascertained within a centimeter of its pre-ordained position. A temporary spike is used to mark the spot and a multi baseline static session is initiated for mathematical proof of position. While the GNSS data is being gathered the crew cleans out the area and measures up the bearing trees. Then they hike back to the LZ and repeat the process at the next position.

Such we started that first day. Albert and Bethi were off first. They set up the GPS base station and a repeater, flew to the first pair of coordinates and found a nearby place to hover. Albert, with a thousand jumps under his belt, bailed out, cleaned up a few bushes with the chainsaw and stood back while the pilot Chris maneuvered into position with the helicopter and landed. Bethi emerged from the chopper with the GPS gear, the pair then shouldered their backpacks and they disappeared into the woods. A minute later Chris was on his way back to the barge in order to pick up Todd.

But before that happened, Bethi was on the radio with an SOS and an urgent request for the helicopter to return. Albert had got whacked hard with a spring loaded dead willow branch while he was clearing a path to a bearing tree. The saw took the brunt of the force and was forced under the protecting edge of the chaps, into his leg, business end first. There was a lot of blood but they managed to stop most of that with duct tape. Bethi was supporting Albert, who was in pain, as they clawed their way back to the LZ.

First play of the game our quarterback was headed for the hospital.
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 1.359Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE