You are hereSheenjek Part 2

Sheenjek Part 2

By John Locke - Posted on 28 September 1995

Reaching down in the freezing current for the next cork, I tried pushing and yanking, but it was too cold to hold, and still wouldn't come free. With one numb hand hanging on to the cork line at the surface of the water, I swung my other hand to get the blood flowing again. I switched hands, warmed the other one up.

Lee was right
next to me, working to free another section of net. It was wrapped in a knot
around a tree in the middle of the river. We were lying across the bow of the
boat, trying to untangle the mess beneath us, the motor idling, the skiff
rubbing against the tree. We had been at it almost two hours already, and I had
finally gotten ahold of a section of net that promised to free it, if I could
pull through the gap between the tree, three feet below the surface, and a
section of the lead line. I wasn't about to let go, but my numb hands couldn't
hold much longer. "Lee, can you find me a piece of rope?" I asked,
and when he brought me a section, I tied it around the cork line, still
underwater, and then secured the other end to the boat.

It had looked
like a perfect set, at first. A week before, we were driving upriver when I saw
some fish finning right next to this very beach. The net was ready to go, so I
leaped out and walked the beach with one end of the net while Lee backed away
from the beach with the boat, the net tumbling off the bow until he had it
completely deployed. The net drifted downstream for half a minute, gradually
drifting into an arc downstream, and then I anchored it while Lee motored back
to shore, circling the group of fish. When we pulled the net up on the beach,
we had caught 89 fish, within two minutes of first seeing them.

This time,
however, things didn't go quite so smoothly. . . I backed out into the river
quickly, everything looking just right. But the river was a bit lower than it
was the week before. Suddenly, the bow of the boat swung upstream. Uh oh. We
had hit a snag. I hadn't seen it at all, because the lead line (a rope filled
with weight that hangs at the bottom of the net) drags 8 feet below the corks. Acting
quickly, I pushed forward on the throttle, running upstream to unhook it. But I
wasn't quick enough. I did get it free, but not before the force of the river
had pulled the other end out of Lee's grasp.

Now I was
drifting downstream with a 120 feet of net trailing off the bow of the boat,
headed right for three partially submerged snags. The jet didn't have enough
power in reverse to pull the net around them upstream, so I tried to thread the
net between one of the trees and the other two. I missed.

We couldn't
even figure out how to cut the net free. We yanked, tugged, pulled, pushed with
paddles, twisted, and cursed for two hours, before we finally got the worst
section untangled. But the leads were still stuck on the tree, down in the dark
depths. I tied one end to the boat, while Lee held the other, and I gave it all
hundred and ten horses before it ripped out of Lee's grasp. When the boat
stopped oscillating, we pulled the two ends back in--and the leads were free. Yes!
We tore the remaining tangled mesh free, and spent the next two days mending
the net.

Out here, in
the middle of the wilderness, we are totally dependent upon the machines of the
modern world. Is it possible to enjoy living so close to nature, without the
aid of technology? We get so excited by little improvements in our machinery. Last
week, we got a new chainsaw blade. Suddenly cutting logs for firewood is fast
and easy. Teeth on the body of the chainsaw grip the wood, keep the logs from
spinning under the blade. Before, I would use these teeth to lever the blade
through, to apply pressure so it would grind through. Now the blade slices
cleanly, all by itself, and I use the teeth to help guide. The ability to cut
wood so easily makes us giddy.

The airplane
that brought our new chainsaw blade also brought our supervisor, Louis, to
check up on us. As we pulled away from the gravel bar on the Porcupine where
the plane had landed and entered the mouth of the Sheenjek, the motor sputtered
and died. We had had problems with the 115-hp jet ever since leaving Circle; it
didn't have the power it was supposed to have. But it had never died on us. Louis
and I both fiddled and messed with it, but couldn't get it running again, so we
putted up the river with our 15-hp spare. Instead of a twenty minute trip, it
took us 2 hours. Finally, near the camp, we got the jet going again, but Louis
decided to bring his spare 110-hp out, and not leave us with an unreliable,
under-powered motor for the 135-mile trip home.

So the next
day, a STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft called a HelioCourier flew
the 300 pound spare out, landing on the gravel bar in front of our camp. With
the aid of free-pivoting spoilers on the front of the wings, the HelioCourier
can take off and land in under a hundred yards. The pilot helped us wrestle the
motors around, disconnecting and removing the 115 hp, and connecting and
mounting the 110.

Suddenly, the
boat moves like it should. It starts planing almost instantly, and we have to
slow down for the bends in the river. It is like driving a car, it moves so
fast. Between the new motor and the new chainsaw blade, Lee and I were
jubilant, cruising up and down the river, and even a short ways up the
Porcupine. After all, the newly rebuilt motor needed to be broken in.

But the
HelioCourier didn't fare so well. We heard, a week later, that a rock had hit
its propeller, causing a ding that cost $6,000 to repair. And that's not the
only mishap we've had with aircraft out here. The first plane, bringing in Lee
and our supplies, a large single-engine plane called a Cessna Caravan, flew in
the day after I arrived. After unloading everything, the pilot taxied to the end
of the gravel bar, started turning around, and dug his wheels into the softer
gravel at that end of the bar. This was no light bush plane, either. It took
the three of us three hours of digging and pulling, straining to get it free,
while the pilot gunned the motor.

Both of these
incidents paled to insignificance after the near disaster of our last supply
plane. Two bigwigs from the Anchorage headquarters were flying in, visiting all
of the field camps in the area. They came in a Cessna 185 on floats, the first
floatplane to visit us. After circling camp, the pilot decided to land
downstream, just below the end of the gravel bar our camp sits on. He set the
plane down, and started turning around, to taxi back up to our gravel bar.

But the
current and the wind slowed his rotation, and pushed the plane right towards a
logjam where the current splits, part of it forming the main river, the other
part flowing into a side slough.

ready to get out quick!" he yelled at his passengers, as his right pontoon
slid sideways into the logjam. He gunned the motor and the float pushed over
the logs, coming out of the water, nearly capsizing the plane.

By the time
we arrived with the skiff, the plane was beached in the side eddy, and the
pilot was pumping water out of the float. "I beached it hard, in case we
were going to sink," the pilot said. A small stick was planted in the
pontoon right below the top seam. You could see where it had hit, left a dent,
and then slid to the seam, where it couldn't slide anymore so it punched
through. Another expensive repair, but not too critical. The pilot sealed it
with silicone while our visitors examined our camp and collected their nerves.

All these
machines definitly add work to our lives. But they are essential for our
project, and some of them make life much more pleasant out here. We have solar
panels charging 12-volt batteries, that run a small refrigerator, power the
sonar, and our short-wave radio. We also have a radio-telephone, like a
walkie-talkie, with which we are connected to the Fort Yukon telephone
exchange. It's very tempermental, but it provides us with regular contact with
the outside world.

By connecting
a coil of wire to our shortwave radio's antenna and a ground, and looping it
around an AM radio, we can tune in most of Fairbanks' stations, and at night,
we've listened to radio from Vancouver, Bakersfield, Sacramento, and China. Lee
has become the latest Bruce Williams' fan. But the strongest, and most
entertaining station is KZTA, Fort Yukon's radio station. KZTA plays National
Public Radio shows--when they feel like it. They seem to think it's very
important to give their station identification, so they give it about 8 times
an hour. A spacy voice created from feedback loops interrupts reports of the
NATO bombings in Bosnia to inform us that yes, this is Klondike Public Radio. Favorite
songs on the station seem to revolve around getting drunk, or making fun of
Indians. (Fort Yukon is an Athabascan Indian town.) "Help me make it
through the yard," is followed by "They're my Indian In-Laws,"
followed by "If Whiskey don't kill me I'll live 'til I die. . ." One
morning the DJ had a new album of Hollywood sound effects that he had to play
for the audience. So at the end of a song, you hear this awful shreiking and
crying, that sounds totally fake. "That was the sound of somebody
crying," says the DJ. Okay.

afternoon, the DJ was playing Name That Tune with the audience. She played the
opening of a song about 6 times, asking for people to call in and guess the
artist and name of the song. "Come on guys, somebody call, please!"
she said in frustration. We have had many hours of entertainment from Klondike
Public Radio.

We've had a
few visitors here and there. An airboat with four hunters went upstream for a
couple weeks, looking for caribou, but they ran out of fuel before they reached
the foothills. One day, a boat came up to the camp with three people, and
Roland, the driver, a native from Fort Yukon, said "What's this? This is
my allotment!"

We asked him
about the most famous Fort Yukon resident--Don Young, Alaska's Congressman For
Life. No, nobody has seen him around for years. . . Where would you stay, given
the choice between a comfortable mansion in D.C, or a run-down plywood shack in
Fort Yukon? One woman informed us that "I think he finally put a roof on
his house. . ."

Surrounded by
our space-age devices, utterly reliant on the inventions of the 20th century,
we find ourselves in true wilderness. Once we may have been comfortable living
out here without electricity, without petroleum, but that time is gone. Some 50
miles up the river lives a man who has struggled for most of his life to live
off the land with a minimum of technology, running a trapline. A few years ago
he gave in and bought a snowmobile, so that he could be with his family for
more of the week. This year he bought a television.

Yet the
wilderness is still here. Last week we found ourselves staring at a black bear
on the shore, while he stared at us in the boat. After a good long look at each
other, he decided we weren't that interesting, so he left.

The colors
have turned. Only the spruce are still green, everything else has turned yellow
and red, and our weir fills with leaves overnight. The fish surface and jump as
they pass our camp. The woods behind camp are filled with rabbits that stare at
you with fear, and then scamper through the bramble. You see their white ears
through the brush, holding still, hoping to be invisible. Ruffed grouse fill
the brush. Going back to get one for dinner is as easy as going to the
neighborhood grocery store for chicken--you take the shotgun, go for a walk,
and come back 10 minutes later with dinner. Ruffed grouse meat is light,
fluffy, and delicious, even better tasting than chicken.

But most
wonderful of all out here, is the Aurora, the Northern Lights. Several nights I
have put my sleeping pad outside and snuggled up in my sleeping bag, watching
the lights dance and swirl overhead. They've put on a display almost every
clear night we've been here. One time they were a brilliant red, orange,
yellow, and purple band across the sky, a night-time rainbow. But usually they
are green, ranging from a ribbon of color to dancing sheets. A couple of times
I saw them swirling in patterns and shapes, like a moving billboard programmed
by aliens.

We are only
visitors here. In less than two weeks, we will be back among our own kind,
leaving this gravel bar to the bears, the moose, the rabbits, the fish. We are
both more than ready to leave, ready for a faster pace of life, our bodies
yearning to shake off the sluggishness from lack of aerobic exercise. Yet our
visit to the Sheenjek inspires us to question the reality we left behind, in
"civilization." We listen to our society on the radio, discussing
Windows 95 and the Internet, and then go dig a new latrine. The politics of the
country, the International Women's Convention, seem so very far away, as we
attack the logjam with our chainsaw, cutting and working for what will keep us
warm. What is real?

Our final
adventure was the voyage up the Yukon. We got a late start, leaving camp around
2 pm, but figured we had plenty of time to make it to Circle before dusk at 8
pm. We thought it would be a 5 hour trip. We were wrong.

From Fort
Yukon to Circle, the Yukon river is wide and braided, filling a broad meandering
bed 10 to 20 miles across--the Yukon Flats. Several main channels divide,
recombine, wind and twist around islands and gravel bars. The biggest channel
is about a third to a half-mile across. With our 110 hp jet, travelling at 30
mph, the river banks were so far away that it seemed like we were walking,
going nowhere. Hour after hour we drove, 45 minutes zagging in one direction,
cutting the corner, then 45 minutes zigging back. Imagine a freeway, 15 lanes
across, with no traffic, going back and forth in a jagged line between two
mountain ranges. You just can't go fast enough.

We ran out of
light about 7:30. We could see the gravel bars, and the banks, but could no
longer read the river, couldn't see the whirlpools and boils in the current. We
drove by feel: if the boat rocked gently from side to side, we were still in
good current; as soon as it became calm, we knew we had taken a wrong turn and
left the main channel. After three wrong turns up side sloughs, it was getting
black out. We could see the searchlight from the Circle Airport--we knew we
were close.

The jet
sputtered and cut out. We had run out of gas. Lee started filling a tank with
our last barrel, as I dug out the oil and poured in enough to mix it. But the
starter wouldn't engage. As I dug around checking the battery connections, a
Kotex box filled with excess food kept falling on me, getting in my way. I
tossed it overboard.

No luck
getting the starter to work. I tried rope starting it, but the oil wasn't mixed
well, so the few pulls I did didn't fire up right away. I had a hard time
aligning the rope on the flywheel, and 3 times out of 4, it would fall off as I
pulled. We had drifted a couple miles downriver, and we were a long ways from
shore. Lee shined his light on the motor to help me align the rope, and the
beam hit a shape in the water. The Kotex box, still floating right next to us.

We finally
fired up the spare 15-hp motor, headed for shore, and pitched the tent. The
next morning we reached Circle in half an hour.

Previous Episode: Sheenjek 1