Thursday, June 01, 2006

Going Logging


The energy around town is all about logging right now. It is an important subsistence activity in southwest Alaska. For those of us on the lower Kuskokwim, it often means a two week trip up the river by boat.

My friends Henry and his wife Betty, both in their early, vibrant 60s, left this morning on just such a trip. They took with them their niece Andrea, 27 and very fit (and a great musher); and our friend Joan’s son Michael, 16 and also very fit after varsity wrestling and basketball this past school year. And three dogs, Jimmy, Hoolie, and Monroe. I showed up for the boat launching and farewells, and wished like crazy that I were going with them.

Henry has been working on his boat for the last two weeks, getting it ready for this trip. Today was its first time in the water since last season.


The boat is a beautiful 26 foot wooden craft that Henry built about four seasons ago. There are very few wooden boats left on the river any more; everything is aluminum now, and Henry’s boat really stands out for its flowing lines and beautiful “lie” in the water. It is pushed by a 115 horse Johnson outboard motor, with a 15 horse Honda four-stroke as a kicker. Even fully loaded, it gets up on step nicely and gives a smooth ride.

We launched the boat, as loaded as I’ve ever seen it, about 10:00 this morning. They are carrying two 55-gallon drums of gas, plus three 20-gallon tanks, all for the boat; and two 5-gallon tanks for the chainsaws. At our current gas prices of $4.17/gallon, that is $750 worth; and they will need to replenish, if possible, to be on the safe side. Gas may be available at the largest village upriver, Aniak, if the first barge has made it up there yet; price is likely to be over $5/gal. They plan to go as far as Crooked Creek, about 250 river miles from Bethel, if they don’t find good wood any closer to home. Boats have been going out on one-day logging trips for the past week, so most of the good wood nearby has been cleaned out.

About two days upriver, they will find a good logging spot and make a base camp with two wall tents, each with a small woodstove. Despite our continuing beautiful early summer weather, it is likely to get rainy, cold and windy before they return. The wall tents will keep everything warm and dry, which makes all the difference when the weather turns nasty. Henry and Betty have been making a trip like this nearly every year of their 30+ years in Bethel. They are old pros at it, and watching them function as a well-matched and knowledgeable team is a joy.

Once camp is set up, the real work begins. Trees must be extracted from riff-raff piled up at bends in the river, or dropped from leaning positions where the bank is caving in as the river endlessly quests to change its course. The trees are trimmed to logs, roped up, and towed back to camp with the boat.

The first good batch of logs will be made into a raft on the beach in front of the campsite. The raft must be big enough to set up one of the wall tents on for the trip home, so at least 10 x 14 feet; and three or four layers of crossed logs thick to support the weight of four adult and three dogs. It will take much longer to get home towing the logs than it takes to get up there; the raft will save a lot of time that would be spent making and breaking camp every day while traveling.

Once the raft is complete, all additional logs will be gathered in a boom, a circle of logs roped together with free logs floating in the middle. Henry has 3,000 feet of rope in the boat for making the raft and the boom. He hopes to bring home 100 to 150 logs. With the three units—boat/raft/boom—tied together, it will stretch out nearly a hundred feet; quite a challenge to bring several hundred miles downriver, with current, tides, and wind, safely. It requires impressive boat-handling skill.

The upper Kuskokwim flows through rolling hills with mountains nearby, and has much larger trees. They could easily see black bear, caribou, or moose, so Henry and Andrea both have rifles along. Michael has a shotgun, as they will probably see goose, swan or crane, which would make a yummy supper. And Andrea and Michael have fishing rods, as the river has lots of grayling and pike.

Hopefully the weather will remain mild and they will find plenty of good wood early in the trip, which will leave time for napping, reading, and relaxing in camp. Betty is a great camp cook, and will have some wonderful treats in store for dinners. Henry and Betty have friends in villages up and down the river, and people may drop in to visit in camp, spend a day or two, and offer a hand, or some advice. River people are friendly, and help is usually available if you need it (and sometimes when you don’t).

One of the best parts of a trip like this one is being on River Time. The river has its own pace and flow, and as the saying goes, you can’t push it. You take what the river gives you, and at her pace, not yours. Once you get that, and really relax into it, time seems to disappear.

Addendum: many thanks to reader Wil for identifying my photo problem with Blogger--my 2.0 MB photos were too much. And thanks to my soul mate, Dutch, for figuring out how to reduce the file size on photos already taken, and reset my camera to take smaller-file photos from here on. So last night's post above now has one of the two reduced-size photos I wanted to go with it. I'll try to see that as the glass half full. TPA

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Dawn said...

TPA--even with the reduced size, the photos are beautiful and add so much to your very descriptive stories.

Friday, June 02, 2006 4:42:00 PM  
Blogger wolfbaby said...

Glad the pics are back I really enjoy them!!! I envy you... How horrible it sounds but I do... Your community sounds so involved and together and I don't even know my neighbors names. It must be wonderful. I used to dream of moving to Alaska.

Saturday, June 03, 2006 8:56:00 AM  
Blogger TheTundraPA said...

Dawn--thanks. I love photography almost as much as writing, and this place begs for images to go with descriptions. It is hard for people to imagine without photos. And they appeal to my aesthetic sense; my posts tend to be pretty long, and the photos help to break them up a bit. Thanks for being a regular reader; I appreciate your input.

Wolfbaby--the above goes for you, too. Community involvement seems to happen more easily in small towns. And when the town is isolated, as we are--remember, you can't drive here--it happens even more. And in addition to that, our only entertainment, pretty much, is visiting with friends. We have no shopping mall, no movie theatre, no bowling alley, no skating rink, no swimming pool, no golf course, no tennis courts, no book store, no bars (alcohol is not sold in Bethel), no pool hall, no fitness club. It is an odd little place here, and yes, I think it is wonderful, but not everyone agrees. It is definitely different.

Saturday, June 03, 2006 10:28:00 AM  

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