Rural Alaska

The last barge of the year means last chance to get big items in Bush city

BETHEL – The last-chance barge landed at Bethel's city dock Tuesday afternoon hauling most everything needed for life in Southwest Alaska.

The giant, slow-moving vessel is the last arrival of the year in Bethel for Alaska Marine Lines, part of the Lynden companies and the biggest freight operator serving the region. The final barge for another, smaller shipper is still to come.

The 380-foot-long Polar Trader was carrying a massive load with dozens of colorful storage containers and odd-shaped freight as well: police vehicles and a school bus, a modular school building and steel piling for hospital housing, snowmachines and four-wheelers, city water trucks and sewer trucks, couches and washing machines, dry goods and bottled beverages for local stores.

Miss this month's shipping deadline and you'll wait months for the next barge.

"It's the last call for the year to get anything before winter," said Rick Kellogg, Bethel office manager for Alaska Marine Lines.

In the Lower 48, such goods often are transported by rail or semi-truck. In Anchorage, cargo ships arrive year-round in Cook Inlet to keep Southcentral and Interior Alaska supplied.

But for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta hub of Bethel, ocean-going barges must make their last deliveries in September before the Kuskokwim River freezes. Already, overnight temperatures have dipped into the 30s.

Even before the river hardens into a winter-only ice road, its water level drops as tributaries and sloughs freeze. Ocean barges can't make the trip when the river is low. Captains always time their run up the Kuskokwim River at high tide to make it over the shallows. So far this fall, the Kuskokwim has been running high.

From a distance, Tuesday's incoming barge with containers stacked four high looked like a Lego project. To the eyes of the crew, it was more a high-stakes puzzle.

Around 3:30 p.m., the barge landed at the Bethel city dock.

The journey began Sept. 9 in Seattle, with stops in Anchorage and Dutch Harbor before Bethel. The crew is hoping to unload and repack the barge so it can sail by high tide Thursday for its next stop, in Nome.

Then the barge, towed by the Polar Viking, will continue on to Dillingham, Naknek and Dutch Harbor before returning to Seattle.

Imagine packing your SUV for a multi-stop road trip, leaving and collecting bags from assorted friends and family all along the way and not losing any of it. Now picture doing so with everything packed onto a football-field-sized vessel.

"Let the game of Tetris begin," said Kellogg, referring to the once-popular video game in which players manipulate fast-moving blocks.

The strategy is for crews to handle each item once, though it doesn't always work that way, said barge master Trevor Stephens.

About the first thing off the barge was a big modulars building that traveled atop steel containers. Bethel operations manager Rick Liddle worked a tall crane from shore to offload it.

The river level this day was so high that he wasn't sure the crane hooks could reach the cables atop the modular. He might have to drive the crane onto the barge.

"Come up a little higher," Stephens told him. "Just like that."

The operation went more easily than planned.

"Looking good," someone said.

Liddle gently set the modular on the ground. It will eventually go upriver on a smaller barge to Tuluksak, where it will become part of a store.

Workers loosened the shackles that kept everything in place for hundreds or even thousands of miles at sea, along the Pacific Ocean coast, across the Gulf of Alaska, through the Aleutians into the Bering Sea and Kuskokwim Bay, then up the wide, gray river.

A forklift driver on the barge lifted a container or two at a time off the deck and set it down with a loud clank on the pass-pass ramp, basically a stack of steel plates anchored on one end with concrete. A forklift driver on the ground approached the pass-pass from the other side to collect the container. Kellogg checked each one off the manifest and radioed the driver the pre-assigned staging spot for each container marked by traffic cones.

"This is for A-7," he told one driver.

For hours, beeping forklifts were in constant motion, rumbling along the gravel yard. Off came a Caterpillar bulldozer no longer needed in Shemya. Off came wrapped lumber. Off came tanks of propane destined for Crowley's tank farm in town.

Don Hansen, a Seattle-based Western Alaska sales representative for the shipping company, was in Bethel for the barge's arrival to make sure vehicles and other big items got to their owners. He brought with him boxes of fresh Washington state corn for customers and former customers.

He will bring strawberries, peaches, whatever is in season. Into the night, he called customers.

"Our stuff come in one piece?" asked Raymond Hoffman, half-owner of The Lumber Yard, approaching Hansen just after the barge docked.

He had a lot on the vessel: roofing and plumbing materials, lumber and plywood – his inventory for winter. He hopes he ordered enough to see the store through.

"That's always the plan," he said. "Sometimes it doesn't work out."

A village could unexpectedly buy all his treated lumber, for a basketball court or another big project.

If his store runs out, "that's it," Hoffman said. Customers will have to wait until next year or hope Swanson's True Value still has stock.

The first barge of spring and the last barge of the year are the two most important ones, said Sammy Dema, owner of Sammy's Market in Bethel. His store inventory had gotten low while waiting for this one. He had dry goods on the barge and also some number of vehicles that he hoped to sell at a profit.

Others were shipping their own.

"Our car is here!" exclaimed Tammy Evon, walking up to the Alaska Marine Lines office around 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.

The family had been keeping the jazzy blue Saturn in Anchorage but weren't in the city enough to make good use of it. It cost about $2,800 to ship to Bethel, she said.

More than 60 vehicles came up on the barge, Hansen said.

"Quite often it's mom and dad and all the kids who come to pick it up," he said.

Around 10 p.m., Stephens, the barge master, called it for the night. Steel piling more than 60 feet long was next off the barge. It was dark and the piles are harder to handle than shipping containers.

By noon Wednesday, everything had been offloaded. Empty containers were going on the barge and full ones too. Refrigerator cases, freezers and other equipment from the failed Swanson's grocery store filled up many.

The last barge of the season floated higher on the water. It would soon turn to head downriver toward the Bering Sea.

Lisa Demer

Lisa Demer was a longtime reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Dispatch News. Among her many assignments, she spent three years based in Bethel as the newspaper's western Alaska correspondent. She left the ADN in 2018.