Posted By Alan Haig-Brown on August 4, 2008
One of those great captains was Iyana Gusty, who took me 450 miles down Alaska’s Kuskokwim River. It was 1995 and I had driven down to Seattle from my home near the Fraser River at New Westminster. Leaving my car at the Seatac International Airport, I flew to the Anchorage International Airport. There I boarded a small twin-engine plane for a very domestic flight. We took off to the northwest over rivers that drained into the Pacific Ocean through Cook Inlet. Crossing a ridge of mountains we flew over rivers from a drainage system new to me. These were the Bering Sea Rivers. First I glimpsed the headwaters of those shorter rivers that flow into Bristol Bay and whose gravels and lakes nurture huge runs of sockeye salmon. We crossed the Kuskokwim that was my destination river, and flew on to deliver passengers to a tiny town on the shores of the Bering Sea. On the way we crossed the expanse of the delta area of the 2300-mile long Yukon River. Great furrows indented the forest cover to mark successive layers of delta, in a magnified horizontal version of the familiar silt layers marking the history of flood and freshet since the last ice age.
The gravel strip in the town was a short walk from the Bering Sea shore. The pilot agreed that I had time to run down to experience that arctic shore where a God light was breaking through the heavy sky, I imagined out over the horizon to the Pribilioff Islands of my school history and that early conservation treaty between North Pacific nations to limit the slaughter and protect the fur seal populations there. As was my habit I pocketed a handful of the smooth black beach gravel as a souvenir for my daughter Linda before walking back to the waiting aircraft.
About an hour later, my little plane touched down on the gravel strip at McGrath on the upper reaches of the Kuskokwim River and, in winter, on the route of the famous 1000-mile Iditarod sled dog race. But now it was early June and although it was after ten in the evening, the sun still hovered above the horizon and slanted its amber light down the single street of the little village of about 400 people. With the hesitation that I always experience as I go to meet the crew of a vessel, I walked down the gravel street past the few stores and bars, each seemingly built by a frontier entrepreneur raised in one of the southern 48 states on Hollywood movies the “last frontier”. Now here, in the bush 435 miles up the Kuskokwim they had replicated those childhood fantasies or maybe it was the real thing.
A few hundred yards away, at the opposite end of the gravel main street, the towboat Tanana Chief and its two barges, lit by that soft summer light, showed no pretensions of grandeur or frontier kitsch. The severely functional three level superstructure rose in a boxy yellow and white plywood practicality, each level proportionally smaller and all set forward on the leading edge of the one below. Operated by Crowley Maritime, the boat has since been replaced.
I found the crew in the galley of the bottom level box. They were gathered around a huge pot of salmon stew prepared with generous chunks of the river’s chum salmon, lightly boiled with potatoes and a few vegetables. Invited to sup, I thought of the caution the boat owner’s executive had delivered in a Seattle high-rise office, “Are you sure that you want to ride that boat?” he asked, “These guys eat pretty basic native food. There is nothing fancy up there.”
But I felt right at home. Not only did the stew remind me of those that my mother-in-law had served to me on the family fishing boat in the 1960s, my new captain, Iyana Gusty, was a dead ringer for my short stocky father-in-law captain on that same boat. Iyana and two others of the five-man crew were Upik Eskimo. Engineer Doyle Graf and Cargo Master Steve Marley were of Caucasian originally from “down south”. With the late night supper of salmon stew, we enjoyed the delights of a Father’s Day cake replete with a sugar icing representation of the boat on a purple background. It had been delivered to the crew by two of the native Athapascan women of McGrath, Sally and Alexandra Turner, in a kind gesture of multiculturalism and recognition of the importance of the boat’s visit.
In this, the first visit of the season, the barge cargo included diesel fuel, now being pumped from the barge hull to shore side tanks. The barges’ deck cargo comprised of shipping containers filled with all manner of consumer goods from outside and slings of lumber had already been transferred ashore. Except for expensive airfreight, the barge service is the only means that McGrath and other villages along the river have of getting supplies from “outside”. With the barging season limited to the short summer months, the arrivals are major events in the quiet lives of these villages and the people who work them have that mystic ascribed to deep-sea mariners who travel to distant shores, in this case the shores are along 450 barely navigable corkscrew miles of the Kuskokwim River.
As fuel continued to pump from the barge to the town’s fuel tanks in the midnight sun, regulars at the town’s log cabin bar stepped out from time to time to check the progress of the only show in town. The fuel out lasted the bar patrons, taking all night to transfer to shore. The next morning the crew fetched the boat’s grub order from the local store. Captain Iyana, stood on the porch watching and was approached deferentially by a young man. “Sorry that I missed you last winter,” says the young man, “I was away checking traps.”
Iyana asks about caribou hunting and is told that they were up high this year and hard to find. “Tell your dad I said, ‘Hello,” he instructs the younger man. Up and down the river Iyana seems to know everyone and to be known by everyone. He is a River Captain. Even when the river is locked in several feet of ice, Iyana will often travel its length by snow mobile. The river is more than his highway — it is his life.
This voyage had begun in mid-May with arrival of the first big offshore tug and barge from Seattle at the small summer port of Bethel. Seventy miles up river from the Bering Sea it is the head of navigation for the deeper draft ocean tugs. A pilot boat stationed at Bethel meets the outside tugs at the river’s mouth and leads them up through the shallows to Bethel. It was front-page news in the Tundra Drums, Bethel’s newspaper serving the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, when the Seattle-based tug Point Milne brought the first barge of 1995 into the port on May 19th. The big ocean going barge is off loaded and the freight sorted according to destination. That which is destined for the villages along the Kuskokwim above Bethel is loaded on to three barges.
For the next 435 miles upriver to McGrath, the shallow-draft 68-foot Tanana Chief pushed these barges with their cargo of fuel and general cargo. The 165 by 45-foot barge Nepamute with 186,000 gallons of diesel on board, the 119 by 34-foot Oiler No.1 with an 84,000-gallon cargo and the still smaller Eek, named for a down-river village, with 35,000 gallons on board. Fully loaded, the biggest barge draws between five and six feet. The standard on the Mississippi system is a 9.5-foot draft, but there is dredging on that system. The Alaskan arctic rivers flow freely with neither levees nor dredging.
The assemblage of boat and barges departed Bethel on June 4 in 1995, but the snow in the headwaters was not yet in full melt and the river was low. As the Tanana Chief pushed the scows upriver they encountered shallows that grounded the loaded Nepamute. Iyana checked with villagers along the way to get whatever information was available about the movement of bars. Then like a canoe poler he moved the barges back and forth across the face of the bar looking for a way through. If that failed he would send a couple of the crew off in an outboard-powered skiff with a measured pole to check depths, “Going upriver,” he explained, “I try to look for a hole. If you can’t make it you can check with a pole from the bow of the boat, with one crewman on each side with a measuring pole. Then you go to the deeper side. If you don’t find a way through the bar fairly soon you must back off or your prop wash will dig a hole in the gravel and make a pile behind that you will back into.”
On the trip up river that June of 1995 the river shallows stopped the barge at Liske’s Crossing, over 100 miles below the trip’s furthest upriver destination of McGrath. When this happens the tedious job of lightering fuel upriver with the little Eek is the only way to lighten up the big barge to get it over the bar. As a result of this kind of unpredictable delay the trip that started in Bethel on June 4 arrived in McGrath a full two weeks later on June 18.
While stops at a dozen villages combined with shallow waters to slow the upriver passage, the down river trip with only a couple of stops would take only two days. At noon on June 19th the Tanana Chief made up to the two larger barges. The smallest barge had been sent on ahead with another towboat. Chief engineer Doyle Graf, one of the two non-Up’ik crew member, had tuned the towboat’s four venerable six-cylinder Jimmy 671s to get the full 185 hp each from them. Doyle spent years off shore on ocean tugs, but now much preferred his current berth. He came up to Alaska from his Seattle home each April to help get the boats ready for the season’s launch in May and then stays up to see them safely up on the shore for the winter each October when the ice comes back in.
Doyle explained that the engine arrangement on the Tanana Chief is well suited to river work. Each of the four engines turns a prop set up in a tunnel in the bottom of the boat’s hull to give a scant working draft of only 2.5 feet. This was only about 18-inches more than my little outboard on my Campbell River canoe. The props on the two outside engines are set in three feet from the transom while the two inboard engines drive props set about eight feet ahead of the transom. The rudders are set outboard of the transom. By creating a strong water flow over the rudders, the two outside props provide turning power, while the deep-set inside props give propulsion and stopping power. This was a boat tuned to its river.
Each of the engines can be controlled independently from the wheelhouse. In good water conditions all four engines run near their maximum rpm and the 68-foot Tanana Chief makes good time over the bottom with the help of the strong river current. But, especially in the upper river, good water seldom lasts more than 10 or 15 minutes before the river makes one of its broad sweeping turns. This will routinely require Iyana, or on the mate’s watch,, Alex Levi — a Yupik from Lower Kalskag 100 miles upriver from Bethel — to slow the inboard engines while keeping the revs up on the outboard engines. This slows the boat while maintaining steerage. Coming into the turn the boat is lined up as close as possible to the angle at which the pilot hopes to exit the turn. On the Mississippi this is called “steering the bend” as opposed to “flanking the bend” which is not done on the smaller Kuskokwim. But the bigger barge, with its rounded chine, likes to slide sideways on the turns. With the down-river momentum it moves steadily closer to the steep outside bank of the curve.
Most times the combined length of tug and barge make it around the corner, but Iyana is always ready for those times when the big rig just doesn’t want to power its way around. “When you are going to hit the beach with the starboard bow,” he explains, “you have to go hard to starboard with the rudders so that the stern swings out into the current; at the same time you put all four engines in reverse to soften the impact and to pull you off once you touch.”
Thirty miles below McGrath, on Mate Alex Levi’s afternoon 12-to-6 watch, the tug and barges must make a stop at Sterling Landing to drop off some way freight including a Ford Ranger with trailer, a little bulldozer, a set of new Cat rails, and a pump for hydraulic gold mining. Two men and a dog wait on the steep dirt bank of the landing which marks the end of a road that goes back into the hills to one of the Cold War era distant early warning radar sites as well as the mine where the men work. As he approaches the landing, which is on his starboard side, Alex pulls the control levers for the two inboard engines to the full astern position. At the same time, he pushes the controls for the two out board engines to full ahead to cause the tow to pivot in mid-stream so that the head of the barges in upstream with the boat pushing from the stern. With the combined length of boat and barge nearly equal to the width of the river this is a tricky maneuver handled with calm assurance. From this position he has greater control to manage an upstream landing. Alex waits until the 180-degree swing is complete, then sets all ahead full and moves back upriver to push the port bow into the soft brown soil of the landing. Cargo Master Steve Marley has already fired up Big Red, a giant forklift that is his pride and joy. He runs the machine’s huge forks into chain straps wrapped around a pair of heavy steel gangplanks. As the bow touches the steep dirt riverbank, Steve runs the gangway out to make a temporary bridge between his floating world and the land. Backing the forks out from the straps, he picks up the first load of freight and bounces the heavy machine over the precarious gangway and up the soft dirt bank. This is not the way they off-load barges in the lower 48!
Next, one after the other, he drives the Ford and the bulldozer up the bank. All the while the tug is driving ahead to hold the barge into the bank. With the cargo ashore, the tug and barge are off down river again. The whole operation has taken less than an hour but is one of those perfectly executed maneuvers, both of the tug and the movement of the thousands of dollars worth of equipment from the floating barge to the firm ground, that characterize the Alaskan, “Can do” spirit. It is also a demonstration of the teamwork between the pilot on the bridge and the cargo handler on the deck.
Like most non-natives that one meets in Alaska, Steve grew up in the “Lower 48″ at the Puget Sound logging town of Sheldon. By the time he was in his late 30s he could run every piece of heavy logging equipment in the bush but his personal life was going downhill faster than he could yell, “Timber”. Like many before him he decided that escape lay on the “last frontier.” Arriving in Bethel he quickly got work on the tugs. When I met him he had become a confirmed Alaskan with no interest in trading a life of hunting and trapping in winter and river work in summer for the drugged out world in the south. He had come to understand that the country doesn’t like things too crisp. The land is big and sprawling with rugged ridges of trees and wide flats of muskeg. Its better to keep a little shuffle in your walk so that you stay in pace with the land and its rivers. In June, when the sun never goes down, the days run into each other. The work of supplying the villages by tug and barge, like that of the families stocking their larders with dried dog salmon, is urgent but sets its own determinedly steady pace. Not a place for a crisp white Stetson hat. Better something like the big soft old black leather hat that Steve wears, with its layers of bug spray and dust.
As we passed easily downstream pushing the empty barges Iyana pointed out a spots that had given them trouble coming up river. At Liske’s Crossing, over 100 miles below McGrath, a bar formed by the outgoing ice and freshet had blocked the barge’s passage. When this happens the tedious job of lightering fuel upriver with the little barge Eek is the only way to reduce the draft on the big barge to get it over the bar. As a result of this kind of unpredictable delay the trip that started in Bethel on June 4th finally offloaded the last of its fuel and deck cargo a full two weeks and only 435 miles later on June 18th.
Heading down river with the current, even apparently long straight runs on the upper river can hold their dangers. On his evening 6-to-12 skipper’s watch, Iyana explained the surface signs of a broad, apparently safe stretch of water. Over on the port side a series of tight little boils well up, signifying dangerous shallows, while on the starboard side larger boils tell Iyana’s trained eye that there is a deeper safe passage. A little further down river the channel moves over to the port side and Iyana nudges the jog stick, that takes the place of a steering wheel, to follow it. There are no range markers on the beach or buoys in the channel. “So many times we go back and forth, we know the channel,” explains Iyana in classic northern understatement.
Down river a little more, he points out an opening through the trees along the riverbank and explains that the river runs just over there. It will take the tug and barge a half-hour to make the big loop around to get to that point. In the story-swapping tradition of wheelhouses the world over, I tell of a place on the Mississipi well above Memphis and near to New Madrid Missouri- pronounced on the river as New-May-Drid, accenting the middle syllable -where I have seen what I thought was a seachlight cutting across a farmer’s ploughed field. But the river captain explained to me that it was another towboat checking the river surface for buoys or current lines. It would be nearly an hour before we had passed around the big curve to get to that point that appeared so near across the field.
At another point further down the Kuskokwim, the top of Vinaule Mountain comes into view and then appears to move around half the points of the compass, although this boat has no need for such an instrument, before appearing dead ahead. Iyana points out the sharp rocky shore at the base of the mountain and takes particular care to keep the vulnerable hull of the fuel barge well out in the river channel. Unlike many flat county rivers, the serpentine bends of the upper Kukokwim are caused by the ridges and mountains of the geography as the river seeks a way toward the sea.
There are a number of legendary difficult spots on the upper river with names and stories dating back to the days of the steam-powered paddle wheelers. The Devil’s Elbow gets part of its name from the shape of the river bend and the other part from the ferocity of the currents. In the days of the paddle wheelers the crews often had to use a steam winch mounted on the foreward deck to haul themselves around this point. Another difficult piece of the river is Peter Snow Island. Named for the unfortunate skipper of a paddle wheeler that ran aground there, it sits tight against the starboard side of the river with deep water in the narrow channel made more difficult by the big fallen trees called sweepers sticking out from the undercut bank. These toppled trees have been known to punch holes in the housework of tugs that don’t keep a respectful distance off the shore.
As Iyana nears the bottom of the turn with the inboard engines on dead slow, the starboard bow of the barge continues to drift towards the bank. He puts all engines in full reverse except for the starboard outside engine. The bow nudges up against the bank and Iyana lets the stern fall off from the beach just a little before going full astern on all four engines. The bow comes off the beach and Iyana’s hands play the throttles and the jog stick like a master at the pipe organ. The barge finds the channel again and proceeds down river. Iyana looks at the water below Pete Snow Island and tells the engineer Doyle Graf, “When we come up next time we’ll take the skiff and measure the water on the other side. I think it might be better over there now.”
As we approach the river’s delta country near our destination at Bethel, the banks bear testimony of the force of the winter ice as the river currents pile it and then grind huge chunks like plows through the rich black loam. The low arctic shrubs and earth are sheared away as if cut by a huge knife. New channels appear testing Iyana’s sense of direction as he searches out the final miles to his destination. He explains that the Upik people, like all good pilots, have protected their river knowledge by employing southerners to look after the engines but keeping the river navigation firmly in the wheelhouse. This has been the practice since the early days of steamboats on the river and, if people like Iyana have their way, it will stay like this in to the future generations.
Back in the easier water the taped country music is turned on again in the wheelhouse. Iyana persuades me to sing along with Freddie Fender’s Tex-Mex and Hank Williams’ classic about the Louisiana “Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou”. Then the tape wails a song about living by a river in a little log house. Saturated in nostalgia, the song tells of a time long ago and a river far to the south, but there on the Kuskokwim little trappers’ cabins show up on the bank ever few miles. From time to time there are larger villages with names like Stony River (Iyana’s home), Sleetmute, Red Devil, Georgetown, Crooked Creek, Napamute, Chuathbaluk, Aniak, Kalskag, Tuluksak, Akiak, Akiachak, and Kwethluk. Near the villages fish wheels are turned by the currents and scoop up big chum salmon as they rotate. It is a pastoral scene reminiscent of Twain’s Mississippi and Iyana with his quiet unassuming confidence brings to mind the nineteenth century pilots of that great river.