The Final Voyage—Part 10

A 5.207Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

The survey work on the Koyukuk River finished on a positive note. Fortune showed us her good side, and with Charlie joining the ranks our three crews got back into a rhythm. Before long we were back on schedule and even a couple days ahead.

The last monuments were buried along the Koyukuk River and it was time to move on. The Seloohge followed the Koyukuk back to its confluence with the Yukon, and then traveled south to the village of Holy Cross, 600 miles total. It was deep water most of the way and entirely downriver, five days if everything went well. Albert and Charlie volunteered to move the boat; the rest of us caught a short break and boarded planes bound for Fairbanks.

If you’ve been in the bush for six and a half weeks and return on an airplane to your former life in the city there is a surprising amount of culture shock. For one thing, driving more than 20 miles per hour is very scary. Standing in line at a crowded Safeway can trigger powerful urges to flee. It usually takes a couple of days to re-adjust to civilization. If you’re a surveyor that’s about the time you get back on the airplane and return to the bush.

So we were disoriented to begin with. Our group, along with a thousand pounds of groceries and gear were crowded into a chartered Caravan bound for Holy Cross. Even by airplane standards it was a long trip. Once we dropped beneath the cloud layer, through the window, through mist and rain, I could make out the Yukon River. We passed right over the top of the Seloohge which was tied up on a mud bank. It was good to see that old boat again.

The rain was a far cry from life up on the Koyukuk where it had been hot and sunny almost the entire time. Because of the exposure we all had pretty good suntans, at least on our faces and hands. The five of us climbed out of the Caravan and received a dose of southwest Alaska weather: it was cold, the wind was howling and the rain stung like little pins.

The Wright’s agent was there to meet us, listening to country music and keeping dry in his beater pickup truck. We helped unload the plane and transferred the supplies to the bed of the truck. The gravel road, which was full of potholes filled with water, brushed by the south edge of town, then followed the base of a steep bluff. As wet as Holy Cross was the water level on the Yukon was low, determined more by weather conditions a thousand miles upriver, where rain was scarce. The village boats were crammed into the town’s tiny harbor, a bulldozed notch where the bluff met the river. There was no room for the Seloohge in there so Albert had tied up a quarter mile further downriver at the edge of a mudflat. Someone is thinking, why tie up at the edge of a mudflat? Well, in Holy Cross, except for the bluff, everything is a mudflat. Also, we needed an open place to land the helicopter that was away from curious villagers and kids.

At the boat landing we checked on our cache, shipped six weeks earlier by commercial barge. The entire shipment was stacked in neat rows along the edge of the road. There were three pallets of BLM stainless steel survey monuments, additional pallets of triangles and hardware, and a few pallets of shrink wrapped canned goods and liquids. Next to that was 33 barrels of avgas.

The supplies had been sitting there out in the open for a long time. There aren’t many people who have much use for survey monuments but fuel, on the other hand, is a desired commodity. The village fishing boats are always in need of the stuff and the sole source was the village store where gasoline sells for ten dollars a gallon. One thing we’ve come to depend on in most of the remote villages in Alaska, the people are honest and they respect other people’s stuff. As easy as it would have been, nobody siphoned a drop of our gas. If you left that much unattended fuel in plain sight at a boat landing in Fairbanks or Anchorage chances are it would be gone by morning.

The crews got to work moving the load over to the Seloohge. While waiting for our arrival Albert and Charlie had been industrious and had constructed a floating wood path over the mud using cast off pallets and driftwood that had been chainsawed into various widths. The mud was really thick. If you moved you could stay on top of it, if you stood still you just kept sinking. Thankfully the fuel barrels rolled on their sides without breaking through.

We were 500 miles south of our last camp on the Koyukuk and no longer in the land of the midnight sun. By the time the supplies were aboard things were getting dark. The heavy clouds and rain didn’t help with the onset of night. In this lousy weather we had given up hope of seeing the helicopter when out of the dimness Chris emerged from the base of the bluff in the Robinson. The ceiling after Galena had been too low to fly cross country, so he followed the Yukon, skimming the right bank of the river for the past 3 hours.

It was dark, everyone was wet and the deck was covered with mud. We huddled in the galley where the wood stove kept things toasty and dry. Somebody plugged their music into the house speakers, likely Johnny Cash or the Dead. Our cook Jeff was still busy stowing the groceries but he took time to whip up a giant pot of spaghetti and bake some frozen garlic bread. With a little Sriracha it was good tasty food for a cold rainy day.

Standing in line to serve up food we noticed that the boat was rocking. The Seloohge is big and heavy with a low center of gravity and we’re not used to being rocked around while tied up. It felt like we were riding a swell in the ocean.

Though Holy Cross was a hundred miles from the ocean rollers were coming in. Wind generated rollers. The Yukon here is miles wide and a hundred feet deep. The delta area is barren and flat and there is nothing to stop the steady flow of storms arising out of the Bering Sea. The wind, blowing northeast, pushes directly against the current, flowing southwest. Waves build and grow, reaching eight to ten feet high in mid current during a strong blow. Though we were tied up along a mudflat, with acres of shallow water between us and the big waves, we still caught the edge. The Seloohge, short and wide, rode the surface like a leaf.

Upstairs, where the sleeping rooms and the office were, the side to side component of the motion was amplified by a factor of two. You had to watch your step.

When the Seloohge was first built the upper deck was completely open like a giant tent. That summer everyone slept on cots and there wasn’t a lot of privacy. So on the next trip we planned ahead and filled this space with separate rooms. We also built a closed in office with layout tables and storage. Each sleeping room included a built-in bed, cabinets, drawers and a small desk. A long hallway ran end to end and there was a common room of sorts, an open area containing chairs and a woodstove. Above all was a vaulted ceiling that remained open to keep the air circulating.

The latter design detail proved to be a valuable one, because after a day of rain the atmosphere could hang heavy on the upper deck. That’s because the dripping work clothes from the crews were draped from racks above the wood stove to dry. The aroma of steaming wool and polypropylene and oft used socks was hard to avoid. On the floor, or on folding chairs, arranged like sunbathers, were boots, backpacks and the wet GPS gear.

The air was thick at times but the ever present breeze coming through the windows kept things livable. With the motion of the waves, the sound the woodstove crackling and the pattering of the rain on the vinyl roof, sleep came easily. Too easily.

The following morning the journey upriver commenced. In contrast to the day before the weather was beautiful and clear. What a difference! During rain or heavy clouds the Yukon is a muddy silty river that could pass for dirty brown dishwater. But when the sun comes out, and a breeze stirs up a little chop, the surface becomes a sea of diamonds that reflect the color of the blue sky, and this dingy old river transforms completely, horizon to horizon, azure as a mountain lake. The Seloohge powered through this chop, the air was fresh and clear, the temperature was perfect. What a great day for being on the river.

According to the plan we would spend the next two months inching our way back to Fairbanks, moving camp every three or four days as the crews completed the survey of Doyon’s boundary. First there a little detour on the Innoko River to subdivide three townships, but that went quickly. The major push in this area was a batch of surveys that were densely packed on both sides of the Yukon between the villages of Grayling and Kaltag.

The stretch of river between the two villages is 130 miles long and is devoid of human habitation except for the occasional fish camp. The reason nobody lives on this portion of the Yukon is the topography. It’s here that the westerly flowing river is blocked by a series of mountain ranges that run north and south. The Yukon wants to go west and can’t, so it is continually eating away at the base of the mountains, creating steep unstable hillsides which erode and crumble away. The opposite shore is equally uninhabitable, though is entirely different in nature, being nothing but endless mudflats and swamp.

The Seloohge was made for this kind of remote river work but because of this unique topography there were few places to land a helicopter. With the shortage of decent camp sites we broke the work into five serviceable chunks. One camp would be at Grayling, the other four would be wherever we could find a place to tie up and land a helicopter, perhaps on islands in the river. If things went according to plan we would be finished in three weeks and could move upriver to the village of Ruby, where the largest group of surveys began.

But things didn’t go according to plan.

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 5.207Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE