You are hereA Gravel Bar on the Sheenjek River, August 21, 1995

A Gravel Bar on the Sheenjek River, August 21, 1995

By John Locke - Posted on 21 August 1995

A huge log drifted downstream, a slow-motion arrow aimed right for what was left of our weir, three stakes with some hurricane fence tangled together. Passing over where the transducer was only hours before, the trunk slid over the fence until it reached the roots, and, rising slightly out of the water, it stopped. I watched for a couple of minutes as the water built up on the log, pushing with the force of the relentless river. Finally, I got in the skiff and started the motor, to go pull the tree off. When I got it started, I looked up to see the log grinding downstream again, and then it broke free. There was no sign of our weir.

The river was now inches from the door of our work tent. The gravel bar that once was some 300 feet wide, was now a 60-foot wide strip, with water on both sides. Lee and I watched uneasily, hoping we wouldn't have to evacuate. "So this is what we're getting paid for. . ." we agreed. Disaster control.

A few days earlier, sitting on the beach, lounging in the sun and reading novels, we had thought we had pulled some sort of scam. Here we were, above the Arctic Circle, enjoying 70 degree weather and sunshine, and the only work we had to do other than camp chores, was to calibrate the sonar 7 times a day.

The sonar counter works by sending sound waves--pings--from the transducer, straight across the bottom. If a fish crosses the beam, it reflects it back. We see the fish as spikes on an oscilloscope. The spike that represents a fish shoots up, hangs at the top of the scope for a few pings, and then drops back down.

The counter registers a fish if that spike holds at a certain distance for a certain number of pings. But the counter cannot see the fish--it works by formula. If a fish is swimming through the beam too fast, it won't get enough pings to register. Too slow, and it registers as more than one fish. So we adjust the rate of pings until the counter is counting roughly the same number of fish as we see on the scope. The weir, or fish lead, runs from the shore to the transducer, to prevent fish from going behind the beam.

We calibrate for 15 to 30 minutes, at certain intervals around the clock. So that means there is less than 4 hours of work total for the day, and two of us to do it. And we're getting paid 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week. The rest of the time, after cutting wood and cleaning the weir, is ours. What a scam, we thought, getting paid for hanging out in the only summery weather I've had all summer. Little did we realize. . .

To get here, we drove 150 miles from Fairbanks, to Circle City on the Yukon River. We launched the skiff, and jetted down the Yukon for 90 miles, past the town of Fort Yukon at the Arctic Circle, then went up the Porcupine River 40 miles, to the mouth of the Sheenjek. Six miles up the Sheenjek, we arrived at the gravel bar that is our home for August and September. We arrived at 1:30 in the morning, August 4, after 8 hours of river travel.

When we arrived, Kevin, the guy who drove us up here, said "man, the river is high." That was the lowest we've seen it. The river creeped up for several days. We set up our tents, a sleep tent, a cook tent, a work tent, and a storage tent. The work tent was down near the water.

Louis, our supervisor, arrived the 6th to help us set up the sonar. The 7th, we rolled up the sides of the work tent so the river could flow through unobstructed, we put the sonar in the water, and set up a new work tent on higher ground.

The morning of the 8th, we were sitting in the work tent, going over the operational plan, when Lee looked up to see a large tree headed right for the transducer. Not wasting the time to put on waders, he dashed out up to his waist to try to push the log around. Too late. It hit the transducer and started carrying it downstream, snapping one of the cables and bending one of the iron "T"-stakes 45 degrees. We managed to rescue everything except our water thermometer. By this time, our first work tent was a picnic shelter sheltering the middle of the river, so we pulled it to shore before a log carried it off, too. And then Louis's plane came, so he left us to gather the shreds and put everything back together--"But don't put anything in the water until it's definitly going down, and there's no more logs."

Two days later, the water crested some 10 feet from the door of our upper tent, and we finally started counting fish. We were sure the worst was over--from here on, the water would drop, and everything would go smoothly.

Sure enough, the water dropped quickly. We held out as long as we could, until the transducer was at the surface, and then moved it out as far Lee could go with chest waders. It took all day to find a good bottom profile, where it was flat enough that we wouldn't miss fish. We checked the water level--and it had risen slightly. Psych!

The next day, the water had risen some 8 inches, and showed no sign of slowing down. We looked around, puzzled. We had had very little rain, and it was a sunny day. Why was the river rising? For another two or three days, our good weather continued, and so did the rise of the river. When the transducer was in 4 1/2 feet of water, and the river was rising faster than ever, we went out and rescued it with the boat. We could only pull the shoreward half of the weir--the outer section was already underwater, and way too deep, with far too much current for us to retrieve. And it was only a few hours later that the log buried it.


Here it is, 3 weeks into August, and it's finally cooling off. We've been using the woodstoves at night for a week now, and have seen the northern lights a few times. In between spurts of activity, we still have a lot of time to hang out, cook gourmet meals, take sun-showers, and shoot ducks. Our first plane in two weeks arrives tomorrow, bringing a load of mail and fresh meat and produce. "If you need meat sooner, be sure to let us know," said Louis several times. The plane that flew Louis out delivered so much meat that we gorged ourselves every night for a week, and still had two steaks, half a dozen pork-chops, a package of chicken breasts, and 2 pounds of ground beef, all of which we had to throw out because it had gone bad.

We were relieved to get rid of the meat, because then we could eat at our leisure. We finally started eating some of our canned foods, and quit eating huge dinners. One day we shot a few ducks, and had fresh duck breasts marinated in Yoshida's--very delicious. It felt very uncomfortable to kill our meat, but it forced us to deal with the issue directly, rather than having somebody else do our killing for us. And it tasted so good. . . Now we're waiting for a goose to present itself as dinner.

One of these days I'll fire up the sauna. It's been too hot, but now it might feel good. The other part of our job is to catch a few fish to sample, using a beach seine as I did in Ugashik. We're just starting to get fish passing in enough numbers to make it worthwhile.

We've seen one black bear wandering the beach across the river, and a few canoeists and kayakers have floated by, but none have stopped. Probably intimidated by our four huge tents. Little would they guess there's only two of us.

The water crested for the second time three days ago, and is receding again. Once again, the transducer is almost out of the water, and we'll probably have to move it tomorrow. The wreckage of our old weir in the middle of the river is starting to create a ripple on the surface, another foot or so and it will be visible. We still pass the time watching the river and listening to the radio station from Fort Yukon. The river provides hours of entertainment. Not much happens, but it's soothing to watch.

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