Three Hundred Mile Haul
In the late fall of 1943 we were low bidder on a contract with the U.S. Air Force to haul five hundred tons of steel-webbed aircraft landing mats, each ten feet long and four feet wide, from Ladd Field near Fairbanks to the Galena Air Force Base on the bank of the Yukon, a three hundred mile haul, by our trail.
We had eight sets of heavy tractor sleds and were to be furnished twenty five sets of new sleds by the Air Force. But when the sleds were delivered to our shop in Fairbanks they were old, having been purchased here and there from the gold mines in Alaska. The mats had to be loaded crosswise to get them all on, making rather wide loads so the trail had to be a minimum of twelve feet wide.
Charlie and Vic built a bunk house on sleds, twenty five feet long and eight feet wide, a mess house with the cook’s bedroom the same size, and a repair shop for the electric welder, oxygen acetylene cutting outfit and tools.
On February twenty fifth hauling started and loads were moved ahead. The Air Force sent a lieutenant, a young man from Philadelphia, along with us to make a one hundred page report on cross country tractor freighting in Alaska. He got up each morning at nine or ten so the cook had to fix him a special breakfast.
On the fourth morning as we were repairing the old sleds, he came to me and said, “Elmer, you are doing altogether too much monkeying around.
Why the hell don’t you keep going?”
“Lieutenant, have you ever done any cross country tractor freighting?” I asked. He kept twisting his pretty mustache and said, “Quite a bit, quite a bit”. “Good,” I told him angrily, “You take over. I will go back to Fairbanks.”
“Oh no, no. I don’t want the job! You go ahead.”
Two days later the Air force sent a plane to Manley Hot springs and took him away.
At Tanana, Victor Neck, who rode on the lead tractor breaking trail, drilled the ice on the Yukon River. Five feet of snow with forty eight inches of ice and water tight under it, made it safe for the heavy equipment. Vick drill-tested the ice often.
About forty five miles from Tanana the trail breakers came to a weak spot but decided to take a chance. George Paajanen, following the lead cat and towing their small bunk house hooked to the new D-8 with a long cable, went over the spot with no trouble, but when they turned around to bulldoze off more of the snow, George’s tractor broke through, jerking the bunk house right up to the edge of the huge hole. It was twenty feet deep and four hundred feet from the south shore. Luckily the main current was about a mile away next to the north shore, so George didn’t get carried under the ice. He came up quickly and Vick pulled him out.
“Tain’t safe!” he gasped. He stood on the drawbar of the other tractor for two miles in the freezing temperature, back to where we were, to get dry clothes, but didn’t even catch a cold.
It was clear we had to give up our good highway to Galena and get off the river. High cut banks lined both sides of the Yukon so we had to backtrack nearly all the way to Tanana before we found a place where we were able to climb out. Dry sunken lakes, big willows and timber made rough going along the south shore.
When we got opposite the tractor in the river we began to salvage it. We had sent an Indian, who lived on the bank with his dog team, up to Tanana with a wire for Gus in Fairbanks to send down four hundred fifty feet of one inch steel cable, a diver and a helper. Jim Dodson had flown them down and landed next to the bunk house. They were there waiting for us.
Cutting a hole in the now frozen ice, the diver went down and hooked the cable to the drawbar, then took the tractor out of gear.
Laying the cable on top of the ice to shore, we hoped to cut through the ice like a saw, bringing the machine to shore under the ice, but this only pulled it up to the ice. On letting the machine down, it could have landed on the top or side, but landed on its tracks.
Drilling a hole almost through the ice every four feet alongside the cable and putting a stick of dynamite in each hole, we blasted, weakening the ice enough so the cable broke through.
Slick frozen gravel on shore made traction impossible even for two D-8’s to pull. After blasting and digging a deep hole on shore, in which to stand a heavy spruce pole, and filling it with gravel and water, we had a good frozen anchor on which to hook heavy steel tackle blocks to rig up a four part cable line. One D-8 pulled the cat easily as the cable kept crashing through the ice.
When the tractor was about thirty feet from shore we blasted again and shoveled out the ice, but that still left a four foot high cut bank to overcome. Closer in, we shoved two heavy spruce poles under each track, but when the machine was nearly out, it slipped off the poles. Pushing the machine back into the river with a big pole 9 we tried again and out it came.
It was still twenty degrees below zero so everything had to be drained quickly.
Film of D8 being pulled out of frozen Yukon, with Elmer later narrating
Putting a tent over the machine, with a Herman Nelson gasoline space heater warming the tent, I loosened the manifolds on both the Diesel and the gasoline starting engine. After removing the spark plugs I cranked the starting engine very slowly, forcing the water out of the cylinders. Directing the heater hose into the magneto soon dried it out. I started the starting engine and by slipping the clutch, slowly turned over the Diesel until all the water was out of those cylinders. The engine was running in less than five hours after it had been in the river for two weeks. Because the main current was so far away there was no silt in the engine.
By now our supply of Diesel fuel was running low so Charlie Uotila and one of the cat drivers went back to get a load from Tanana. The rest / of us kept moving loads ahead.
After two days, when they had not returned, a man was sent back with one of the cats to meet them. He met them walking. The fuel line on their tractor had frozen in the thirty five below zero weather and a stiff wind faced them. They tried thawing the line out with a blow torch but failed. About midnight they had started walking. After several miles, Charlie said, “I am having trouble breathing.”
Spotting an old log cabin on the bank they went in, but there was no stove and big cracks were open between the logs. They set out walking again and were exhausted when met by the other cat. Charlie was very ill. It was evident he had had a stroke.
The next day I went back with one of the men and got the tractor. We came to the Nowitna River, which had hot springs above, so the ice was too thin for crossing. Finally finding a better place, we made a crossing by laying long poles side by side and covering them with snow and willows.
I was going ahead breaking trail when one of the men came to tell me Jim Dodson and Gus had just landed next to our parked loads. He said Gus wanted me to come back, that they had decided to leave the tractors and all the loads there and abandon the contract. I told him to tell them to keep coming, that we were not going to give up now.
Arriving at the bank of the Yukon just above Ruby, we saw a lot of overflow water on the ice. Some of the men refused to go and two quit. After going with hip boots on, to drill the ice and finding it adequate, I took the oldest tractor across, and the rest were willing to follow.
From Ruby we headed west, crossing the Melozitna River, and climbing a long steep ravine full of heavy timber.
Charlie still didn’t feel well but refused to go to Fairbanks. Two days later he had a bad stroke in the evening when we got back to camp. I sent one of the men on foot back twenty five miles to Ruby, requesting Albert Yriana to come get Charlie with his dog team. In Ruby, Albert wired for a plane to take him to Fairbanks. Gus decided to send him to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where he died a few days later. I certainly missed Charlie many times. He was a very good mining partner and was liked by everyone.
We reached Galena on May tenth. The snow was nearly all gone and the days were sunny and warm.
Our contract stated the Government must pay the river barge cost to return our cats and sleds to Fairbanks. George Black, owner of Black Navigation Company, tied one of his barges to trees so it was lengthwise next to the high bank. Water at this spot was very deep.
We put heavy 12 by 14 inch timbers from the barge to the bank. When the same cat (our new one) that had been in the Yukon was being driven down the timbers, the tree that held the upstream end of the barge pulled out. The barge began floating out into the extremely fast current. The timbers fell off, but the bulldozer blade dropped onto the edge of the barge, holding it from swinging farther out. We had to do a lot of jacking and blocking to get the tractor back on shore.