FAIRBANKS — John Sauer has spent 16 years building a home along the Salcha River, and now he’s struggling to keep it from being washed away.
When he began the project, the site seemed to be a safe distance back from the stream channel. “You had to look through the trees to even see a figure back there,” he said.
In recent years, however, and particularly during this summer of heavy rainfall, the Salcha River has been on a rampage, eating away the river bank and moving ever closer to swallowing his home. His margin of safety has disappeared.
“This year I lost 35 feet from the river to the deck and a couple of weeks ago I had to cut the deck off because it was falling in the river,” said Sauer, 60, who has owned the property since 1969.
As the second largest tributary of the Tanana River, the Salcha drains more than 2,000 square miles in an area southeast of Fairbanks. It rises and falls rapidly with rainfall, as do the other streams in the region. A series of storms in June did most of the damage to Sauer's property, which is about 34 miles upriver from a bridge on the Richardson Highway.
“I’ve dumped my life savings into trying to save the place and it’s all been futile. Now my only option is to move it. That’s what I’m trying to do,” he said.
Sauer said he is limited in what he can do by himself, as it is a monumental task.
“There’s been a lot of people devastated by the flooding this summer -- I’m not the only one -- but I happen to have the largest place on the river and it’s just such a problem to move it.”
Twice this summer, the river rose 5 to 6 feet above its banks and floodwaters swept under the house, which is 7 feet above the ground on steel pilings. The challenge is to get the home off the pilings and onto the ground and then move it back from the bank.
Complicating the situation is that he is off the road system at a spot accessible only by boat and helicopter. He has a D-8 Cat, but it is on the other side of the river. He has access to an excavator and a loader, but that may not be enough. He is considering his options, none easy. If he waits until winter, it may be too late.
“I really don’t want to lose this place. It’s been a lifetime dream building it and it has a purpose,” he said.
A lifelong Fairbanksan, he said he envisions the home as a place where children could come for a real wilderness experience as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. He also intends to open it to wounded veterans. He said he wanted them to have a true Alaska experience on the river and built it with that in mind.
“I’m diligent in trying to move it. I’ve been fighting this erosion thing for years,” he said. “This year really put the boots to me. There was no reprieve whatsoever.”
Every day that it rains, his worries grow. He continues to work at it each day, preparing for a move. The building is 2,800 square feet and two stories. He said it’s not as easy as hooking up a chain and pulling it out of danger.
“I wish it were that simple,” he said.
While friends have offered to help and he’s making progress, he’s not certain what the immediate future holds or who might be able to help save the structure. He is open to suggestions and to anyone who might be of assistance. He can be reached at (907) 378-5747 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If it starts raining again and the river rises again, I’m done,” he said. “I’m researching every possible option.”
Dermot Cole can be reached at dermot(at)alaskadispatch.com.