BETHEL -- After more than a week of floating down the Kuskokwim River on a giant log raft, a crew of men led by Thomas Willis of Stony River arrived in this Southwest Alaska hub community Saturday with the goal of selling the very wood that formed their vessel.
The group reached Bethel that afternoon and tied up on the rock-covered bank near a boat launch area by the new Swanson's store. Willis said they were hoping to fire up their chainsaws there for the next four or five days to divide and then distribute the wood. Right away, they cut logs for a friend who had brought them fish and checked on them during their journey.
"I only get from the best," said that friend, Earl Samuelson of Napaskiak, from his now firewood-laden skiff.
Later, they moved the operation to the beach area near the Association of Village Council Presidents' Joe Lomack building.
The Stony River crew traveled by raft more than 330 miles on the river over a week and a half or so, Willis said. Stony River is 185 air miles northeast of Bethel, and their main wood collection site was even further upriver, at the confluence with the Swift River. The Kuskokwim curves around villages and mountains and marshy tundra.
Willis, 58, said it was his third time bringing logs to Bethel, though he hadn't done it in many years. His crew included his son Ryan, 20, and two other young men, Cori Bobby, 20, and Chris Gregory, 27, all first-timers rafting logs to Bethel.
They worked hard gathering driftwood spruce and some birch cut in Red Devil from the Alaska Native land allotment of Willis' mother. He figured they collected about 50 cords, which they hoped to sell for $450 apiece. The expense of fuel oil turns some in Bethel to driftwood or broken-down pallets for the winter's heat source.
While scrub trees and shrubs sprout up along the Kuskokwim and planted birch and spruce dot Bethel yards, trees big enough for firewood are rare. Harvesting driftwood along the Kuskokwim has become common. Still, biologists note that log jams on tributaries can create valuable fish habitat, providing cover and protection for salmon and other fish, and urge that driftwood further up tributaries be left there.
The river ride on the big raft was relaxing, Willis said. They pitched tents on top for sleeping, and steered with a couple of wooden motor boats and a motor secured on the logs. As the raft approached town, aluminum skiffs tied up alongside to help direct it safely to shore.
"It was like sitting on your ship on a vacation coming down," Willis joked.
They traveled at about 5 to 6 mph, past Sleetmute and Crooked Creek, on by Aniak and Kalskag. They stocked up in village stores. People in skiffs snapped photos with their phones. The log haulers saw a brown bear run down and kill a big cow moose by the riverside.
It rained at the start but the weather was nice from Kalskag on down and they made it from there to past Kwethluk in just a day.
As they tied up, Martha Demientieff and her grandsons stood on the bank and watched. She had been berry picking nearby and had a half-full bucket. She's from Kasigluk and remembers seeing log rafts as a girl.
People haul driftwood down the river periodically but the raft from Stony River was bigger than most, Samuelson said.
"It was a good journey," said Willis, relaxing with a smoke on shore.