Working as a Deckhand on a Tugboat on the Yukon River in Alaska

My first year of university was at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington. It is a beautiful city not far from Vancouver British Columbia and the spectacular San Juan Islands are nearby. My freshman year I had decided to focus on pre-medical studies with the aim of being a doctor. I studied hard and finished the year with All As and one B. I got almost 4.0 throughout all of my university studies. I guess that is one thing I am good at….being a student.

Anyway, my father, who was a practicing veterinarian at the time had a client that owned a tugboat company called, Yutana Barge Lines that was/is located in Nenana on the Tanana River that leads into the Yukon River. The weather is severe there to say the least with temperatures averaging below freezing eight months of the year. During the four months that it is not freezing and worse, the ice on the river finally melts and tugboats with barges can make their way down the rivers. My dad encouraged me to apply for a job with them and I did. Many people were going to Alaska in the 70s and making a lot of money. Some were doing the dangerous King Crab fishing, others fishing and others in canning factories. I was excited and thought I might make some money. I was never afraid of hard, physical work, so that was not an issue.

I had not flown a lot in my life at that time, so even the flight from Seattle to Fairbanks was a big deal for me Alaska is grand on an entirely different scale. The mountains are high and the forests thick for as far as you can see. The population is low. After landing in Fairbanks I got into a very small “bush”plane and it delivered me to the banks of the Tanana River and the boat I was to work on. It truly was at the same time one of the worst experiences of my life while also being fascinating. When I arrived after traveling all day, one of the people on the tugboat without introducing himself and my bags still in my hands, threw a large cable towards me and screamed at me to find the “deadhead,” which of course was something I had no idea of. I grabbed the heavy cable and ran where he was looking but saw nothing. His screaming increased and finally I found another cable buried in the dirt that I was to attach it to with a device. This keeps the boat anchored. The guy acted disgusted with me. Nice welcome. That was Mel, The first mate of the tugboat. He was very overweight, completely unshaven for what I would guess was months and had beedy, hateful eyes.

The Yukon River almost 2000 miles long

There was also a second mate, Alan who was an addict of many substances but a great guy. Then another guy from Elma, Washington that was the engineer and very positive. It was a crazy little group. The pilots of the boat were Native Americans who knew the river well. They could read the ripples in the water to know if the sand was too high or too low in a given area. If it was too low, the barges could get stuck on the sand bar, which was a significant problem. I was a deckhand and there were two other deckhands with me. One was from Talkeetna near Mt. McKinley and the other was a younger guy from Shelton, Washington. There was a cook that wore so much perfume that it was almost dangerous to pass by her.

The night I arrived I was told I was to stay up all night in case anything happened. So, I saw a bucket and a mop and decided to make myself useful. I mopped the halls and the floors thinking it might win me some points with the first mate. Man was I wrong! He came up behind me in the middle of the night, swearing at me and threatening me to never do anything without asking again. We worked 12 hour shifts. Sometimes when there was an emergency like being stuck on a sandbar or when we were delivering in a town, we all had to work all the time, so working 24 hours straight was not unheard of. I think 36 was my record. The sleeping areas were very small. I was in a room that was maybe four feet wide and 8 feet long. The beds were body width and were one on top of the other. Our room happened to be right next to the engine. When the engine was running you could not hear yourself talk. It was also so hot that the paint on the wall was peeling off from the heat. I was waking up completely soaked with sweat and completely exhausted. Crazy conditions.

Salmón wheel

The way the operation worked was that the tugboats would push the barges. Sometimes only one, but at other times two. This was very tricky and very dangerous. Large cables were tightly connected to the barges to keep them connected to the tugboat. If a cable snapped, it could easily kill a person and that sort of thing did happen. It also cut off fingers of people when being reeled back in to a winch. One of the pilots was missing fingers due to that. Tough environment.

You could not wear gloves because you could get caught on the cable as it was being reeled in and pull you into the winch, crushing you. There were many such hazards. While cruising down the rivers, one of the jobs was for someone like me to sit on the front of the leading barge and look for logs floating in the river. If I saw one, my job was to raise the fathometer (device that measures depth) before it collided with the log and damaged it. The information from the fathometer was fed up to the pilot of the boat. At times it was magical looking out at the summer skies far from anybody, but often the work was unnecessarily hazardous due to the poor leadership on the boat. I felt at times that maybe the first mate didn’t like me because I was educated and he knew he never would be. I could care less about education levels but some people want to teach you a lesson somehow. I figured if I worked harder than him he would learn to respect me.

The Yukon River

The Tanana River flowed into the Yukon and made its way all the way out to the Bering Sea which was the water between the USA and Russia. We went down the river through small villages such as Ruby, Nulato, Kaltag, Galena and Holy Cross. The Yukon is over 3000 kilometers long. The barges were full of everything you could imagine a village would need to survive. This was to be all the supplies they needed to survive the Winter months. We had food, beverages, lumber, snow mobiles, cars, fuel, stoves, clothes washers and much more. When we arrived in a town it was a big day for the village.

The Tanana River

While cruising down the river, one was viewing a traditioinal life at that time. There were still sled dogs, salmon fishing wheels and fish drying on the little smoking huts. The river would change day to day so the pilots had to see how to pass through certain areas without getting stuck on the sand bars. One time we were stuck for an entire day. We eventually had to unhook the tugboat from the barges and then push the barge from the side with the tugboat. When the barge broke free, we had to scramble to catch the barge and reconnect it to the tugboat. When puling up to a village, we would drive the boat as fast as possible towards the shore and try to end up parallel to the shore stuck in the sand as close as we could to the shore. We would then jump off the boat with the cable and rush to secure the boat somehow. Sometimes we had to find multiple trees to tie the cables around. Then we would place two large pieces of timber off of the barge on to the shore as in the photos and lay them down on to the land. We would drive back and forth across these timbers. There were times when the forklift or tractor would fall of and get stuck and then we would have to figure out how to get it back on the logs. The barges are hollow so that they can carry hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel. We carried different kinds of fuel. When we arrived at cities, we would connect long hard rubber hoses to a valve on land, where we would pump the fuel to the village storage areas. One of my jobs was to sit and watch the valves for 8 hours at a time. We also had long steel containers of propane. These were tremendously heavy, but I learned to carry them on my shoulders. I developed big bruises on both shoulders but I became tremendously strong.

Native American graveyard in Nulato

One of the villages, Kaltag, had a reputation for being very rough. We were told to wear hard hats in case the villagers threw rocks at us. We were told to deliver everything as fast as possible. Indeed, they used slingshots to hurl rocks at us. Some snuck on the barge to steal some supplies. It was the wild, wild west…or at least the North. Alcohol was a problem for the villagers. I have never seen people so intoxicated. While on shore once, a villager approached me waving a gun at me. I was terrified but tried to act cool. Another time on the barge, one of the locals was trying to climb on to the tractor I was driving. He was screaming that he was blind. Back in Nenana, I went to the bar to try and call home. The bars were open 23 hours and 45 minutes. They cleaned up the mess from 545 to 600 AM in the morning. When I reached my brother on the phone I started crying. I didn’t realize how stressed I was. The other two deckhands quit but I decided to try and stay longer.

One event that I recall well was when we pulled into a village. The first mate gave me the cable and told me to jump off the barge and tie up the boat. I had no problem with that. I ran and jumped, cable in hand. There was no slack in the cable and when I jumped it pulled me back hard into the river. I was soaked and furious. After finally securing the boat I decided I would kill the first mate. When I got back on the boat everybody knew something was about to happen. I walked slowly up to the first mate and got face to face with him. The engineer was saying, “don’t do it!” I walked past the first mate to my room and did not work for 24 hours. No one bothered me and I was never treated poorly again.

Me working. You can see propane tanks in the background.

Published by jimboyce44

World Traveler, Educator, Father, Husband, Son

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