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Survival in a Northern Wilderness: A Mother's Story--Part XXXIX

It was August of 1962.

They said it just simply couldn’t be done and no wonder they shook their heads as a deep sea-troller attempted to push a barge up the Tanana River to Fairbanks, Alaska.

As fate would have it Orrah, Orrah Jr. and Tony had just finished helping Violet and Elnora load the barge to make the trip across the Gulf of Alaska and on the same day after two heart breaking years of attempting to keep their steamboat, barge and cruiser in shape for the final move Orrah who Violet described as “my dear husband of almost thirty-three years” collapsed and died of a heart attack! Now what?

Orrah left no insurance, Violet received a small amount of Social Security for the two youngest children Billy and Linda. The two older boys and Violet jointly decided to remain at their temporary home which was just across the Tongass Narrows from Ketchikan. After the funeral, the children went back to work but Wesley kept saying “we should continue the trip that dad started out to make when we left Fort Frances, Ontario” and that was to go on to the Yukon River up into the interior of Alaska.

Violet felt that Orrah Jr., Elnora and even Tony didn’t like the idea, in the Spring they came to a decision to sell three of the five boats they had, the crossing of the treacherous Gulf of Alaska under their own power was abandoned. Elnora and Violet made arrangements with the Alaska Steamship Company to ship their remaining boats to Seward for a sum within their means. For Violet, the weather cooperated very nicely, the usual rainy weather turned out somewhat sunny, everything went on schedule. Or so it seemed.

Elnora and Violet had their cameras at the ready, Wesley and Orrah Jr. were to adjust the slings on the boats and were to ride on the boats as they were lifted aboard with a huge crane. At last the boats were loaded and the cat and dog taken on board, the boats would arrive in Seward on the following Monday, the plan was for them to meet the ship when it arrived to save on expensive wharfage. The plan that they decided on was to see if they could purchase some waterfront property near Seward and if they could do so the boys could obtain work. However, after two weeks of getting nowhere and Wesley continuing to say that he would still like them to go on to the Yukon River, Violet consulted the railroad manager about shipping into Nenana which was the closest place they could get to Fairbanks with the proper waterfront facilities to unload large boats. Violet and clan followed on the passenger train, she noted that the crew was very hospitable, they would stop for anyone who waved them down for a ride. Violet thought that it was wonderful because the great frozen north land could be very cruel, once the train stopped for a couple of guys that had killed a moose, several folks jumped off the train and helped them haul the moose aboard the baggage car.

According to Violet, one look at that swift river, the Tannana, and they wished they had not shipped any boats with the idea of moving them up against the tremendous current. There was no turning back. Violet’s funds were depleted. It was do or die trying. Old timers told them that the barge was an impossibility but two residents that Violet described as “more substantial” gave them better encouragement, “yes it could be done”. They loaned them blocks, tackles and a come-a-long to augment the winch they had. After many trials and errors and attempts to get the boats past the heavier current under the Nenana Bridge they finally succeeded in getting the boats above the bridge. The rigging was either too loose or the ropes would snap and at such times the barge would jackknife around in front of the troller, swing around, and sail down the current pulling the troller after it. Wesley would manage to get control of the troller time and again and somehow would zigzag the barge back to the shore, he made a final attempt and was successful. They left the campsite about three miles above the Nenana Bridge on August 17th, everything went okay and before dark they pulled the barge to the bank, tied up for the night, and cooked their meal over an open fire.

Next up, Violet’s adventure gets edgy.

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