The Final Voyage: Part 8

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When Albert returned to the barge we transferred him to the waiting skiff and Alvin brought him 15 miles down the Koyukuk River to Hughes. Everybody in the village monitors channel 10 on the marine radio so it wasn’t difficult to get someone from the health clinic to meet the boat when they arrived. The clinic couldn’t do much about the injury except monitor the situation so Albert boarded a scheduled flight to Fairbanks and had his friend Eric drive him to the hospital.

At Fairbanks it was 8 stitches on an artery and 20 stitches on the skin, a considerable wound, but a scratch compared to what could have happened. The doctor said it would be ten days to two weeks before he could return to a crew. Albert was philosophical about the injury but he didn’t like missing work. It was his first lost time accident in the 18 years he’s surveyed for Tanana Chiefs. But, as anyone who has made a career of surveying knows, no matter how hard you try to avoid an accident, sooner or later you get whacked.

This wasn’t a game of football and we didn’t have someone standing on the sidelines to send in when our quarterback was out, it’s hard enough finding qualified surveyors in the first place. In any event, nobody alive could replace Albert, who, in my opinion, was the best all-around surveyor in Alaska. We’d just had to dial things back a bit until he returned. My day job became my night job and my old job became my day job, that is, stomping through muskeg for ten hours a day working with Alvin on a group of US Surveys along the river. Our two remaining crews handled the township monumentation.

Looming larger than our crew shortage at the moment was the fact that the Koyukuk River was changing character. Whenever we moved the Seloohge to a new camp spot someone would grab a lath and pound it in on the bank to mark the water level. Since this river in particular is constantly rising or falling it’s handy to know exactly what is going on because you don’t want to get stuck somewhere. As each day went by we would compare the lath position with the current river level. The week we were camped at Hughes the Koyukuk dropped seven feet, and after two weeks at our current location it had dropped another ten feet.

This bothered me to no end, because on our 350 mile journey upriver we barely cleared the bottom in a number of places. Now the water level was 17 feet lower; how the heck were we going to get out of here? The barge could easily be stuck here for the summer, which in turn meant that we’d lose our shirts trying to finance an alternative, a complicated plan involving multiple camps and helicopters that was a black hole for money.

Another thing that weighed on me was moving the Seloohge back to Hughes. It was only 15 miles but river conditions had changed a lot since our trip in. From the air much of the river bed now appeared dry. Within its thousand foot wide channel there remained a flowing strip of water a few hundred feet wide that wandered here and there. This, and some lacey rivulets and dead water. But the current was just as fast, that part hadn’t changed.

Thank God we were a bunch of surveyors who could figure out how to deal with this situation. The day before the move Alvin and I headed down river with a handheld GPS and probed the bottom with a stick. Once the channel had been worked out in a section we motored down the centerline of the deepest water and marked it with GPS waypoints. In this fashion we collected enough dots to mark a useable channel all the way to Hughes. The waypoints were then turned into a route and downloaded to the laptop at the helm on the Seloohge.

This was all good news except one spot where we couldn’t find water deeper than two and a half feet. It was a bad spot too, the river had split and one half wandered off and eventually just got too shallow. The other channel had less water but it was deeper. There was kind of a mini waterfall in the middle, actually a long chute which flowed down a grade like a spillway, then washed against the bank of a steep hill. After that the channel appeared to flow along the bank. But the deep water petered out and quickly morphed into muddy shallows. On the opposite shore was a gravel island with willows. Here was a narrow strip of two and three foot water that followed the bank, and this water eventually got deeper and led to a way out. As far as we could tell the channels weren’t connected. Water flowed from right to left, that much was discernable, but it wasn’t deep enough to float the Seloohge.

After about a half hour of probing the bottom with our stick we gave up and went back to the barge. When Chris came back to refuel later in the day we saw a chance to take another look as the area was only a five minute flight away. We circled around with the chopper and discovered something we didn’t see in the boat, that is, a fault line that went down the hill and extended across the bottom of the river. There was a break between plates of rock where much of the gravel had been washed free. Here was the connection between the channels. Chris flew down the centerline and we zapped it with the GPS.

The day of the move turned out to be also the day Albert returned from his recuperation following the injury. He was glad to be back and we were sure glad to have him back. He was walking with a limp but otherwise seemed nearly as active as before. A couple more weeks we figured and he should be fully healed if he took things easy.

But first we had to move the barge. Albert, Bethi and Alvin climbed into the pilot boat just like old times at the beginning of the summer. They dialed in the GPS route and Albert tested the bottom with a stick to make sure there was enough water. We followed about two hundred yards behind in the Seloohge. The GPS route at the fault line didn’t look so hot as it had us doubling back across the flow, but the soundings from the pilot boat were positive and we gently drifted behind, never touching bottom. What a relief! The rest was a piece of cake and in no time we arrived at Hughes.

We stopped just long enough to trade some empty fuel barrels for full ones, then continued another 50 miles to the next camp site, a rather miserable affair on a mud bank. It was a letdown after the vast gravel bars above Hughes where you could take a long walk or ride a bike. Nevertheless, everyone was fired up now that our crews were whole again and we looked forward to getting back on schedule.

But it rained all that night and by morning a heavy fog had set in, keeping us grounded. It was a long slow day but somehow everyone managed to keep busy doing one thing or another. The following morning things lightened up a bit and the crews headed out, more eager than ever to get some work accomplished. Yet a normal day eluded us, for after an hour Todd returned, saying there was another "situation". After flying to the coordinates the location of the first monument was, as usual, deep in the woods, so the crew looked around and found a small hover hole on a ridgetop nearby. Alvin checked it out, motioned Chris into place and then stepped out onto the skid. He flopped his legs over while grasping the skid with his hands. Old, but not stiff, and light as a feather, Alvin had done this a million times before. He knew how to drop and land like a rag doll better than anyone, basically because he was a rag doll. But this time he hit hard. Something solid and immovable, like a log or boulder, was under the tundra and the obstruction twisted his foot, fracturing three bones in his lower leg and ankle.

We were out in the middle of nowhere and at the mercy of a satellite phone, which only sometimes worked, to set up an evacuation. Thankfully the phone worked this time and we learned that Wright’s morning plane, which circuited a group of several villages in the general area, was on route for Huslia and would be there shortly. We radioed Chris with this information and he flew Alvin directly from the accident site to the village to get him on the plane that Wright’s was holding, pending their arrival. Peter, who has medical certification from his winter job, was on site to assist and got Alvin fitted with a splint and some painkillers.

Alvin’s injury was another heartbreaker. Surveying with Tanana Chiefs was his career and he depended on the five months of wages and overtime each summer to make it through a jobless winter with his girlfriend and grandkids. It was a loss for us as well. Alvin, the hardest working 60 year old I’ve ever known, as well as my best friend, was out for the season. What was going on? We prided ourselves on having the longest zero loss safety record of any outfit surveying in Alaska, and now, like snake eyes coming up twice in a row, two veteran surveyors get nailed within two weeks of each other.

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 3.377Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE