The Final Voyage—Part 11

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As far as dreams go, this one was memorable. It involved perilous adventures at sea and a shipwreck. Waking usually provides safe haven from dreams like this. Not this time. The wind was louder and the rocks were less forgiving. Across the Yukon big waves were rolling towards the shore. Once every four seconds the Seloohge rose up on the crest and then it plunged downward. The bottom was marked by a loud crack and shudder that was felt in every corner of the boat.

Part of me wanted to cling to that warm secure bed but the situation demanded more than that. I emerged into the hallway and bumped into Albert, Todd and Charlie, all groping their way out. The upper deck was being pitched back and forth like an amusement ride, to reach the exit we had to claw our way though the gauntlet of soggy clothes swaying from the ceiling above the wood stove.

The Seloohge was pinned against a windward shore, on a rocky beach of generous sized cobbles. This was not a good place to be tied up and we knew it, but it was the best moorage we could find. On this portion of the Yukon rocky beach or mudflat is about all there is.

Rocks are best avoided. If you do the math it is something to consider, how the kinetic energy increases as the area of impact decreases. When a twenty ton boat comes down on rock a wooden hull is no match; it’s just a matter of time before the hull is pulverized.

So when camping along a rocky beach we use outriggers, long spruce poles, to push the boat out into the river and off the bank. The heavy end of the pole is augured into the bank cobbles and the skinny end is attached to a cleat on the main deck with rope or webbing. Since the boat rocks in the waves something has to give, so the pole is allowed to slide back and forth with the tension maintained by bungee cords.

Once down on main deck we quickly registered that the force of the wind had disengaged our outriggers from the port side, creating slack in the mooring lines. This was why the Seloohge was grinding up and down the shore. We also noticed that the gang plank was missing, presumably drowned. It had been tied to the deck with a piece of 3/8" nylon rope. On the starboard side was the angry Yukon, a sea of turbulent whitecaps that faded into the mist and gloom of sunrise. The wind was blowing 40 to 50 mph, flattening the willows along the bank.

We fired up the Seloohge’s engines and maneuvered in the waves to pin the bow against the bank, then tightened the mooring lines. Albert and Todd fished out our spruce poles, and Peter, up to his waist in the water, found our gangplank. The poles were laid back in position but the force of the wind broadside against the Seloohge made it nearly impossible to push ourselves off the rocks. Under the circumstances it was also obvious that we needed something longer and stouter.

Without delay everyone headed out in search of larger poles. Frank and Charlie spotted a couple of impressive drift logs up the beach and everyone joined together to drag them back to the boat. Anyone who wasn’t soaked by then certainly was after the group effort needed to put the logs in place and anchor them into the cobbles. With a little trial and error we found that the rocking motion of the boat could be used to jack the boat off the shore, using a ratchet to reel in slack webbing during the ebbs of the waves.

Things were just starting to look good when the storm grew in strength and regained the upper hand. Some of the ratchet straps, rated for 1500 lbs., snapped like kite strings. The poles broke free and the wind pushed us back onto the shore. Every four seconds, like the heartbeat of doom, the port side of the Seloohge slammed down against the rocks. The crews went out on a search for additional drift logs. Everyone pitched in, even the pilot, and three more outriggers were put in place along the length of the boat.

Finally, after much effort, the Seloohge was off the rocks, safe and secure. As far as we could tell the hulls had survived the pounding. Take that, storm god! We declared victory and returned to the warmth and shelter of the galley for lunch and hot coffee.

Given a choice, most of us would probably have preferred spending the morning doing something other than wrestling six hundred pound drift logs and standing in the river getting whacked by cold waves. But, from the perspective of our lives at the moment, this was a good day, there had been excitement and something to do, a commodity in very short supply since leaving Holy Cross.

That hopeful departure now seemed like a lifetime ago. The rain had returned and it never stopped. On most days fog and low clouds grounded our helicopter. For every day we worked there were two days we couldn’t. Here and there the crews could get out in the riverboat to access some of the surveying, but that didn’t amount to much. There were times when we thought life was grinding to a standstill. We were pinned down, stuck on the boat, unable to put a dent in the 80 mile long stretch of survey work that was scheduled to be completed by the 5th of August, which was yesterday.

Like it or not, we were weathered in. Surveyors are used to dealing with many challenges but this was a challenge of a different sort. There were some long days. Considering that a month passed by like this the surveyors remained surprisingly upbeat. The positive mood was due in large part to the quality of the crews the Seloohge was blessed with; they never let anything get them down. But there was something else helping to keep spirits up, something unforeseen.

On a typical weather day at camp there is not much to do. We tended to gather in the galley, to soak up the warmth of the wood stove, listen to music and engage in conversation. That was pleasant by itself, but Bethi liked to keep busy and one afternoon she starting combing through the pantry in search of ingredients. The Seloohge was well stocked, a floating grocery store. She cleared a space, got out mixing bowls and spatulas and a rolling pin and baking sheets and went to work. Soon the galley was filled with the overpowering and irresistible aroma of baking. We watched in awe. Bethi was a blur of enthusiasm, resourcefulness and skill. From that moment onward the crew of the Seloohge indulged in endless delights: cinnamon rolls, cookies, cakes, brownies, pies of all sorts, tarts of one sort or another, even éclairs. Who knew we had Betty Crocker on board?

There was one person on board who was not enjoying the cinnamon rolls and the éclairs, or the bad weather, and that was our cook, Jeff. He’d been a little down since Holy Cross. The summer wasn’t going like he had imagined when he signed up. Jeff was a new hire, he replaced our usual cook who canceled out with illness. Jeff had experience in a lot of restaurants around Fairbanks but had never cooked in a camp situation before. Things started out well, he could whip up a full breakfast faster than anyone and his dinners were always cooked to perfection, no matter how late the helicopter returned at night. Nothing fancy, but good basic truck stop fare and there was a lot of it and we had no complaints.

But, humans that we are, nobody is perfect. Soups, steaks, salads, casseroles, Jeff was the master. Baking, not so much. As a general rule surveyors like desserts. You can imagine, every time Bethi got a compliment, which happened a lot, it must have hurt. Meanwhile there was extra mess and dishes to deal with. Those of us who indulged in the tarts and pies inwardly knew this wasn’t going to end well, but on the other hand nobody dared suggest to Bethi that she dial back on the goodies.

But that wasn’t even the main issue. You see, Jeff was also trying to quit a lifelong tobacco habit. His MO was not packing any cigarettes for the journey. With no cigarettes, it’s not possible to smoke, right? Trust me, this never works.

One morning after the crews were out and things had quieted down I heard Jeff’s boots climbing the metal stairs that led to the upper deck, to the office. He didn’t have to say a thing; the look on his face was enough. He was done. Of course, it’s one thing to give notice and another to find a way off the Seloohge when we were tied up in the middle of nowhere. So Jeff agreed to continue on as cook until we reached Kaltag, where a plane could be found back to civilization.

Anyone who has run a camp in the Alaska bush will tell you that the most important person is the cook. Food is everything. Lose a cook, or hire a poor cook and things go south in a hurry. Decent, dependable and talented cooks are hard to find, especially in mid summer, and we were in no position to recruit. Another dollop of bad fortune to add to our burden. Could things get any worse?

Of course, our state of affairs was partially our own fault. Jeff wanted off the boat but we didn’t make it any easier for him. Perhaps Bethi felt more directly complicit because she was the one that remedied the situation with what turned out to be a terrific idea. I thought she was joking at first. She proposed that we hire her mother, April, who, in addition to raising a houseful of kids, had years of experience cooking at fish camps on the Yukon. Given Bethi’s baking skills I had no doubt that her mom would be even better, and the Yukon camp experience was invaluable, but, realistically, our Human Resources (HR) department would have a cow. You can’t just hire your mom to cook on a survey crew, not in a big corporation laden with volumes of hiring regulations.

Never underestimate the creative skills of surveyors. Bethi had it figured out. We bypassed the usual paperwork by classifying the job opening as an emergency hire, which allowed us to take the first qualified applicant. Since April was currently a TCC employee, working part time in Tanana, we could switch her job classification with a PCN hand-delivered to the payroll department (we had a co-conspirator to help in Fairbanks). HR bypass surgery.

We all breathed a collective sigh of relief. I felt ten years younger. But this plan could still backfire. I called April on the satellite phone to check things out a little. She was upbeat, had no qualms whatsoever and agreed to meet us when the Seloohge arrived at Ruby.

Another taste of good fortune followed. At our final camp on the lower Yukon the rain stopped and the clouds retreated. The good weather continued for a second day, and then a third; we couldn’t believe it. The crews put in long hours and soon that marvelous day arrived when it was time to move on, to Ruby, hundreds of miles upriver and far, far away from this fog shrouded shoreline. The bad weather had exacted its toll: six weeks of our time to accomplish three weeks of surveying. We were now seriously behind schedule and unlikely to complete the river portion of the project before freeze 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 1.560Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE