The Final Voyage Part 12

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I kept a journal on the Seloohge, these are the final pages:

August 16: The area we are working now, on the Yukon between Ruby and Tanana, is a remote and beautiful stretch of river with a different climate than we experienced on the lower Yukon. The wind doesn’t blow as hard, the clouds are higher and dryer, and the mountains that rise from the north bank are scenic and pleasing to the eye. Hopefully we have turned the corner and can get back on our pace.

August 20: We’ve been camped across from the Kokrine Hills for about 6 days now. The weather hasn’t been great, raining off and on every day, with only the tiniest glimpses of sun, but work is getting done. Our new pilot, Mark, is much more sure of himself and he’s been landing the crews in some very difficult places. The Kokrine Hills should really be called mountains, for they rise 3500 feet out of the Yukon and present a very impressive face. In fact, this is my favorite place on the entire river…remote, beautiful and the hot springs.

We’re too busy for hot springs now though, and due to the need for a landing area for the helicopter we had to settle for an island mud/sand bar about 3 miles downriver. Nobody has the energy for a boat ride and a mile hike up the steep trail to the hot springs, though it would probably be worth it if the effort was made.

Our new cook definitely changes the feel of camp, and for the better. We are set up like a traditional fish camp. Within the first day April had constructed a really cool outhouse out of nothing except willows, some driftwood, duct tape and a few cast off things she found on the Seloohge. It not only works, it’s comfortable. Soon thereafter she constructed onshore clotheslines, and had the burn barrel stashed at the far end of the island, with a chair and a poke stick. The food is better and I feel like I’m welcome in the kitchen. She’s just what we needed.

My days are pretty slow, sitting on the upper deck doing survey calculations most of the time. The crews are working really hard, but they still manage to return at night with energy and high spirits. I’m really grateful to have this group of people, easily the best barge crew ever. Nothing ever seems to get them down, and the weather and work conditions have been awful. Today Albert had to descend a 1000 ft. steep vertical boulder slope with his pack and chainsaw, then claw through another 1000 ft. of thick willows before cutting out a 70 ft. diam. landing zone in timber where the monument was. One of seven similar monument sites he and Bethi cut out today on the slopes of the Kokrine Hills. Yet, as I write this, after 10 o’clock at night, he and the rest of the crew are enjoying themselves downstairs, telling stories and laughing. I am blessed. Rare are the people who are this dedicated to their work, yet find time to enjoy themselves when done.

Hopefully tomorrow the weather will give us a break and we can finish up here and move on to the next stop, at Henry Island, another beautiful area.

August 26: We enjoyed about 3 days of decent weather, but then the clouds moved in and it’s been awful weather since. The night of the 24th a major storm hit around midnight and strong winds whipped up the Yukon and collapsed our outriggers. It was total darkness outside, not even a glimmer of a moon, so there was little we could do except wait for daylight. Nobody was able to sleep with the violent tossing of the boat.

The weather was barely tolerable enough the following day to allow the helicopter to fly to Fairbanks for maintenance. Frank left with the chopper as he needed to return to Anchorage for his final semester of classes at UAA. So now we are just two crews, plus Charlie, so the pace will drop off even if good weather returns.

Today we have another dreadful day of heavy rain and low clouds. The chopper is still in Fairbanks, waiting for the weather to break, about a 300 mile return trip as the crow flies. In the meantime we are able to get a little work done with the boat, but not enough to put much of a dent in our remaining workload.

August 27: Today the dawn showed promise with some broken clouds and hints of sunshine, though a stiff cold breeze from the north portended the first real sign of winter. I called our pilot in Fairbanks with a weather report and he decided to risk the flight. The wind soon picked up, evolving into something substantial and churned the Yukon into miles of giant whitecaps, and once again the barge was rolling and heaving in the waves. But the brisk coldness of the gale was mitigated by periods of glorious sunlight, which we haven’t seen for what seems like a couple of months now.

Charlie and Bethi stopped at a remote bible camp a few miles upriver from the Seloohge to see about permission to land on their tiny airstrip the day after tomorrow, as we need to bring in a charter airplane with our fuel pump, as well as send Charlie out for a few days for surgery reconstruction. Turns out the proprietor is our old friend Roger Huntington from Galena, a really good man with an interesting history.

I took my usual walk down the gravel shore, past the peregrines and fresh water spring. The route is like a highway of animal tracks, mostly wolf and bear. The wolf tracks are huge, almost as large as the bear. Maybe we’ll catch a glance of him before we leave this campsite.

Sept. 2: We moved to just above the abandoned village of Birches, of which nothing remains, and camped for 4 days on a nice gravel beach. Weather continued with fog and rain, but we managed to finish the work on schedule. Nothing noteworthy.

Actually, there was one thing, about 2 am in darkness I happened to be awake and could hear Crowley’s big river barge gradually approach. Our camp was right alongside the barge channel and as the sound of the big diesel got louder and louder I was half convinced it was going to collide. At the last minute the tug’s floodlight came on, so they saw us, but the barge passed by really close and the wake had the Seloohge rocking and rolling.

This morning we set off in dense fog but didn’t get very far. Though we had a good track to follow on the GPS it was no longer valid and led us into some shallow water. With the fog and nothing to use for orientation it’s easy to get into trouble, so I headed for shore and waited for the fog to lift. Todd and Pete looked for a channel with the skiff and got so disoriented that they went completely around an island before they realized their mistake.

We are now camped at Grant Creek, another abandoned village with nothing left. Kind of muddy mooring and not good walking, but we’ll just be here for a few days before heading to Tanana.

Sept. 10: Seems like a month since the last journal entry, much has happened since then. Rainy weather continued at our camp at Grant Creek where we spent another three days. On the 6th April and I took the barge up to Tanana, about 30 miles, while the crews worked. Soon after we arrived word came on the sat phone that Albert had been injured and the helicopter was bringing him in. He didn’t arrive for another 90 minutes and we only learned towards the end of the wait that the injury was a broken ankle. Apparently he was going down a tree which was brittle from a previous forest fire and it snapped, pitching him to the ground where he narrowly missed landing on a couple of logs. It could have been a lot worse, but was bad enough. We called Rick in Fairbanks to set up a medivac but it was midnight before the plane arrived. We all stayed with Albert at the airport. Albert maintained his good spirits in spite of the pain. Everyone feels bad; the summer is over for him.

For the rest of us there is no choice except to make the best of it. We have the helicopter leased for another three weeks, all the fuel is in place, our supplies and food are stockpiled and rent is paid on the Mission House. We have to see things through.

With only three field surveyors left we decided to focus on recoveries and meander line mapping. There is enough work of this sort to last until the first week of October; there would be snow by then anyway. Todd, Bethi and Peter know what they are doing and should be fine by themselves. Since there is no safe place to tie up the Seloohge at Tanana, Charlie and I need to take it back to Fairbanks, a 7 day journey, before the river gets any lower. There is already frost in the mornings and the commercial barges have stopped running.

On the 7th the weather, after nearly two months of rain, clouds and wind, finally exhausted itself. After the fog cleared the sky was cloudless. We worked until early afternoon transferring all the gear, supplies and food into our last camp, the Mission House owned by the Episcopal Church. It’s an old log building but is nicely furnished. No running water though.

Charlie and I took the skiff up to Squaw Crossing to look for a channel, which took many hours along the south end, the north end being closed due to low water.

On the morning of the 8th we said goodbye to the crew that was remaining at the Mission House in Tanana and set out in heavy fog, clinging to the shore, but didn’t get very far as we soon reached land’s end where we needed to cross the Yukon. It’s very wide here, with numerous shoals where the Tanana River enters. The fog didn’t lift till almost noon and by the time we got to Squaw Crossing we were dismayed to discover that the channel we plotted the day before was no longer in existence, so we set out on a new course up the middle, where we promptly got stuck but we were able to wiggle out after about 5 minutes. Squaw Crossing was long and arduous and we finally made it and drove a few more hours, camping at Harper Bend.

Another beautiful sunny day dawned on the 9th and our main problem was driving the boat with the sun in our eyes, glinting off the choppy river. There were a few bad crossings but mostly it was an enjoyable river journey. We traveled 45 miles and camped at the mouth of Manley Hot Springs slough. The 13 hour trip was very tiring though.

Yet another sunny day today and beautiful fall foliage to gaze at. Numerous nasty crossings today, and we narrowly escaped two close calls in narrow channels with swift current and sweepers. Twice we hit bottom and had to blast the engines to avoid getting stuck. Absolutely beautiful camp site at the end of the bluff, about 4 miles below the confluence with the Kantishna River, at an old cabin site in the birch trees, and an operating fish wheel.

Sept 13: This will be our final night on the barge unless something bad happens tomorrow. The last three days have been both exhilarating and exhausting. The crossings have been as bad as they can get, and it has been time consuming to negotiate our way through the swift and shallow water, avoiding sandbars and snags. Cosna Crossing, the McKinleys, Caribou Crossing, Swan Neck were white knuckles all the way. But we made them all, and made our way to Nenana more or less on schedule.

But those challenges were nothing to what we faced today going up the Tanana on our way to Fairbanks. The river is as low as I’ve ever seen it. Three times we searched and searched for deeper water and found none, getting by with the skin of our teeth, scraping the engines on the bottom as we fought to push the barge upriver. At least half a dozen times I had to carefully back the Seloohge downriver in reverse, as the channel was too narrow to turn around.

Whiskey Island though, above which we are camped tonight, was the ultimate bad experience. The only way was through incredibly swift water, through a forest of snags located at the edge of killer sweepers and whirlpools that spun in counter directions. The passage was so narrow that we had to pull in the sounders to make room to squeeze the barge through. Inside the snag forest we had to navigate laterally with just a few feet to spare at the bow and stern to weave our way out.

But we made it, and camped shortly thereafter and I’m totally wiped out.

The journal ends there. The following day Charlie and I navigated upriver to discover that the Chena River, which leads to Fairbanks, was blocked at the mouth by a mudflat resulting from the avulsion of the Tanana. The water level was simply too low, there was no channel to float a boat. We tied up at the only available mooring, a State of Alaska wayside on the Tanana River with a boat landing that was connected by road to Fairbanks. It was the height of moose season and the landing was crowded with people and riverboats.

That night the Seloohge was broken into and vandalized. The entire boat was ransacked and a number of items were stolen, including our gangplank. Stapled on the side of the galley was an eviction notice from the State of Alaska, Division of Parks. According to the state our barge was a navigation hazard. It was illegally tied up and in violation of various regulations. Tanana Chiefs was being fined $100 a day and we had 7 days to move the boat or it would be impounded.

Freeze up was imminent, there was no place to go, upriver or downriver. If the Seloohge froze in place it would be destroyed when the ice went out the following spring.

TCC management considered its options: The surveyors were finished with the Seloohge and would likely never use it again, and it cost thousands each year to store it. Being tied up at a public boat landing on the Tanana was not an option, it was a liability. The decision was made to look for a buyer who would have more use for the boat and who was willing to take a risk in moving it. A nonprofit organization soon learned of the opportunity and made an offer. Their plan was to pull the Seloohge from the river at a nearby youth camp, place it on a foundation and use it as a dormitory and kitchen for resource kids. The offer was accepted. It was over.

To be sure this outcome wasn’t nearly as gratifying as the one I dreamed of during that final night at Whiskey Island, the outcome where the Seloohge steamed up the Chena River with flags flying at the end of a challenging 2500 mile river trip, where Charlie and I waved to the crowds in Fairbanks and blasted the ship’s horn at the riverside bars and restaurants as we passed by, where we entered our mooring pond one final time to be greeted by our friends and loved ones. You know, the outcome where the curtain comes down and the crowd cheers. Not a grimy boat landing with vandals, thieves and eviction notices.

But Fortune had a more prosaic outcome in mind, a realistic one. It was the end of an era, the ANCSA surveys were all but completed, and the Seloohge no longer had a job to do. It was time to move on.

The Seloohge served us well, 20,000 miles it lasted. It never let us down. Designed and built by surveyors to navigate Alaska rivers, never again will such a boat exist. But I won’t miss it. All I need to do is close my eyes and it’s there, every nut and bolt, every inch of the deck and the galley and the holds, every mile of those rivers.

What I will miss are my co workers and the warm times and struggles we shared. And the people of the remote villages who we worked and lived with, and the way they welcomed us and brought us into their lives, and the lasting friendships that grew over the years. That I will miss.

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 3.322Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE