The Final Voyage—Part 9

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The loss of Alvin for the summer was an unfortunate occurrence that affected us as well as him. The project, barely manageable with nine people, was once again shouldered by eight. Experienced help being in short supply we put our immediate hopes on locating Charlie Yatlin, one of our former trainees who had contacted us earlier in March. But Charlie, who lived in the village of Beaver, had injury issues of his own. Two years previously he barely survived a rollover on the Dalton Highway in the dead of winter. The wreck was not easy to spot during the Arctic night and Charlie was pinned under his truck for several hours before being discovered by an oil field worker. Unconscious, half frozen, and with a dozen or so broken bones, he was close to the end. But after a few rough months in the ICU Charlie slowly began a steady recovery. With energy and positive attitude working in his favor he was now recuperated, or at least about ninety per cent of what he used to be. Charlie was eager to get back into surveying.

We didn’t have a position open for him in March so Charlie disappeared back into the bush. By sheer coincidence, on the same day that Alvin broke his leg and was transported to Huslia on a medivac, Charlie turned up in the same village to attend a potlatch. To get to Huslia from Beaver (located on the other side of Alaska) Charlie had driven his riverboat straight through stopping only for gas. With the potlatch now in full swing he was on his third day without sleep and a bit groggy, but he readily agreed to take Alvin’s place. Charlie said he was good to go, but first he needed to return to Beaver (again by river boat) to get his outfit together. That would take two or three days. I told him not to hurry because with TCC’s convoluted hiring process it would be at least week before we could get him signed on anyway.

Meanwhile there was our other problem to think about. The Koyukuk River continued to run low and threatened to strand the Seloohge for the summer. A few days of rain had brought the level up a couple of feet but now the water level was dropping again. We finished up at the dismal mud bank camp below Hughes and managed to navigate downriver another thirty miles or so, to the mouth of the Hog River, where our remaining fuel was cached. A month earlier we camped here on the way upriver and the water stretched from bank to bank. Things looked a lot different now. The water level at the landing was barely deep enough to float the barge and the bank itself was a fortress of vertical mud that loomed above the Seloohge. This made for a steep situation and it required steps to be dug and ropes employed to keep the 400 pound barrels from getting away and crashing into the barge.

While Todd, Peter, Bethi and cook Jeff were thus employed loading the fuel barrels, Albert headed out in the helicopter to map the meander lines of the next group of townships downriver. Chris, our pilot for the summer, maneuvered the helicopter low and slow along the endless miles of shoreline. Albert configured the GNSS to kinematic post process and directed Chris to follow the ordinary high water line of numerous lakes and rivers. Inspecting and locating every inch of shoreline was tedious but hundreds of times easier than performing the same task from the ground, like we used to do. Tanana Chiefs pioneered helicopter mapping in the early GPS days of 1995 and it forever changed the way surveyors locate riparian boundaries in Alaska.

After the fuel was loaded the Seloohge would continue downriver to a campsite somewhere near where Albert was mapping. So we needed to see if there was enough water in the shrinking river to get there. Frank and I took the skiff out to map the channels. For a while the Koyukuk was on good behavior and most of the time the water was deep enough that we could rely on the skiff’s sonar, a cheap fish finder that worked down to four feet.

But we knew from the trip upriver that a nasty section was approaching. The shallow area was where the Koyukuk splits apart into two separate rivers that head off in different directions. One channel goes west along the toe of a range of tall mountains, and the other channel heads south into the flats. They eventually join together again many miles later. Above the diversion the river thins out and expands in two directions, braiding out into rivulets that flow down a broad incline of small cobbles and gravel. There is usually a main channel somewhere in this mess and it’s doable under most conditions, but not when the river is low.

We knew we had arrived at "the place" when the sonar blanked out and simultaneously the engine skeg hit gravel. Using a stick to probe the bottom we slowly criss-crossed from one side of the river to the other. The deepest water we could find was two feet, not deep enough for a laden barge. I got one of those feelings in the back of my throat and in the pit of my stomach, the kind of feeling you get when you realize that your plans aren’t going to work. We had wondered about it for the past month, now we knew our fate. The Seloohge would be grounded by low water and stuck in the Koyukuk until conditions changed, perhaps another year. Even if we somehow found a way through, the next two crossings were shallower yet. Two more nails in the coffin.

We searched a few more places in desperation and then gave up. Frank pointed the boat upriver, back to the barge. I was not looking forward to sharing the bad news with the rest of the surveyors. We got on step and followed the current up the middle for about a half mile, then veered right and hugged the shore of an island. Eventually this would bring us to the left bank of the river. As we passed the middle of the island we saw a giant bear. It was absolutely the largest black bear either of us had ever seen. Frank eased up on the throttle so we get a better view. Most all bears turn tail and run when they see a riverboat, but this one stood his ground and made some threatening gestures with one of his enormous paws.

As it happened, past the bear was a willow thicket, and past the thicket was the entry to a small slough, barely a hundred feet wide. We’d seen this little slough on the way down and it didn’t look like anything worth checking out as it flowed into the willows and made a hard left turn away from the main river. But now that we were closer we could see that there was a fair amount of water disappearing down the chute. Frank eased up further on the throttle and swung the boat around to investigate. Surprising to us the depth registered a steady three to four feet. We gingerly entered the gap and were sucked along by a swift current through a series of turns. The slough didn’t thin out like I expected, rather it held together though a willow flat, then wandered into the forest. Deep in the woods, with spruce on one side and cottonwood on the other, the channel narrowed as fallen trees on the cut banks tipped into the current and blocked passage along the edges. Nevertheless, in the middle of the slough the depth held steady, just deep enough to float the Seloohge.

For more than two miles we followed this meandering current, wondering where it would end up, when the forest parted and we were reinserted back into the main channel of the Koyukuk. In other words, the slough, like the beltway in a city, and taken us completely around most of the shallows. It was fast, narrow and curvy, and it would be an exciting passage, but it was deep enough and we knew the Seloohge would make it.

If this stroke of luck wasn’t enough, we noticed that directly across the river it appeared that another slough mirrored the first one. The water curved around a large island and followed a left handed curve at the base of a forested cliff. If the slough was deep enough, and long enough, it likely would bypass the other two shallows where the river split.

Feeling a lot better about things we entered this second slough and followed it along its course. The water remained deep and the channel held together but we saved the high fives for what appeared at the bottom: the ultimate camp spot, a deep water moorage alongside a hard gravel shelf that was large enough to land a plane on. And no bugs.

It felt like a miracle. Frank spun the boat around and we zoomed back upriver to find the Seloohge and pass on the good news. The barge was now tied up at the mouth of the Hog River, noticeably lower in the water after the loading of 14,000 lbs. of avgas. Stretched out on deck were four muddy and exhausted surveyors, cum barrel movers. They perked up when Frank and I told them about the bypass. After a few minutes getting things shipshape we untied the mooring lines and cast off. As with our slow struggle upriver, the journey downriver was subject to the same insane current, but this time the Koyukuk pushed us along rather than working against us. The miles flew by.

The giant black bear hadn’t moved. He was still guarding his territory, and the big boat didn’t scare him any more than the little boat did. Frank and I were glad to see him again because it was obvious that no one had believed our story.

We sped through both bypass channels without incident and before we knew it arrived at the new campsite. But as we swung the Seloohge around 180 degrees and faced into the current, a move needed to dock into our chosen moorage site, things got a little dicey. That’s because the river was so swift in this particular spot that we couldn’t make any headway against it. Eventually, through sheer will power (nobody had to get out the paddles), we fought our way twenty feet upriver into the moorage and pinned the bow against the bank. With the engines still churning water at full power Frank and Peter leaped onto the bar and set double moorage lines fore and aft. There were no trees within a mile of the place so they anchored the lines to five foot long steel digging bars that were driven to the hilt into hard sand and gravel. Easing back on the Seloohge’s throttle the mooring lines stretched and became as tight as violin strings, but they held.

We cut the engines, listened to the silence, and stepped off the barge onto clean hard packed sand, our island kingdom. The midnight sun blazed along the horizon, its golden horizontal rays made everything glow. Brilliant white clouds framed the heavens. And no bugs. Moments later Albert and Chris returned with the helicopter which settled onto the firm sand. Smiles were on everyone’s faces and the future looked bright.
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 5.791Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE