Jeff – Beginnings on the Susitna – the 70’s and 80’s

-----The first time Jeff ever saw the Susitna River it was the Spring of 1977. Allan Bogart, a neighbor, and Allan’s brother in law -his sister Ruthie’s husband- asked Jeff to go bear hunting. After going down the Little Willow to the Susitna River he fell in love. He thought “Wow! This is a BIG river”. They introduced Jeff to a 25 hp jet motor on a 16 foot John boat. The jet was great going over shallow sandbars. On this trip they saw some bear but didn’t shoot one. However, it was an adventure that would make Jeff want to come back to the Susitna over and over again in the future. Having grown up on a lake and driving boats with 10 to 15 hp props all his life Jeff had never had much opportunity to use a jet motor. Within the next year he got his own boat – a 14 foot Lowe Line flat-bottom Wide Boy with a 48” bottom and a 72” beam. Then in the summer of ’78 he got a 40hp Mercury outboard with a prop. After running it a few times he quickly realized a jet would be the way to go if he wanted to get into the areas where he wanted to go so he bought a jet unit to go with his Mercury for $1200.0O by selling his Datsun pickup. He started going a lot to the Little Willow, the Willow and the Susitna River. He ran both the Little Willow, which was narrow and deep, and the Big Willow, which was wider but shallower. His jet motor could compete with any of the air boats of the time for getting through either narrow or shallow waters. He did a lot of hunting and fishing in the area. By the summer of 1978 he got so comfortable he began doing fishing charters for extra money on the weekends. At the time Jeff was in the military - the Army. The King Salmon were big and plentiful in those days on the mouth of the Alexander, the Deshka, the Big Willow and the Little Willow. The best time for fishing Kings was from Memorial weekend through June 20th at the Deshka and then from June 20th through 4th of July on the Willow. You could catch one king after another. Most were 28 to 32 pounds but some were 45 to up to 55 pounds. Jeff even once caught a 70 pound King! In those days you were allowed one per day and one in possession. In abundant years the limit would increase to 2 per day and 2 in possession. In those day you could really pull out a lot of pounds fish in a summer!
-----In 1980 Jeff got out of the military and the following year he started working for the Post Office. While working for the Post Office Jeff continued to run charters on the weekends and began getting to know people up and down the river system. While King fishing and getting to know people on the Alexander he met Lawrence Roberts. Lawrence was the unofficial Postmaster for the Alexander. Since there were people living out on Alexander Creek and other places on the nearby creeks and rivers, there was a need for mail to get delivered. The Post Office would contract a person who lived in the area – in this case Lawrence Roberts - and then contract an airplane to deliver mail to that person and then residents of the area would go to them to pick up their mail. On Alexander Creek, in those days for instance, every Tuesday was mail delivery day and Lawrence Roberts was the caretaker of the mail and Spernak Air was contracted to fly the mail out to him at Alexander Creek. They would drop it off in an old mailbox on a platform by the river in the summer and then in the winter it was delivered to a cabin. Then Lawrence would be in charge of picking up the mail from the drop off location and holding it for residents to pick up from him. In those days they had Caribou Clatter on the radio also and Lawrence could deliver messages to residents that they had mail and then they would come and pick it up. I think the station was KFQD or KBYR. Jeff always had a couple friends with him that were postal employees that enjoyed going fishing Jesus Rivera, Jim Lynch and one of them, Jim Hightower come to find out was related to Lawrence. Jim Hightower’s mother grew up at the Alexander. Her name was Roberts. Lawrence Roberts was his mother’s brother making him his Uncle. The Roberts have had property on the Alexander since the 40’s. Being Postal Employees and sitting there with the Postmaster the thought came to them that since they were travelling up and down the rivers fishing they could drop off one of the families mail on the way so that the family didn’t have to go all the way to the Alexander to pick up their mail saving them a trip. This was the family of Butch Hawley who lived at Susitna Station. There was no mail delivery system to homesteaders on the river normally but Butch had his own mailmen! Butch and Lawrence thought it was the damdest thing that these mailmen on their day off fishing would pick up the mail and go deliver mail on the river on their day off! Around the same time another Postal employee, Dave Smith, started going out fishing and hunting with Jeff on the river and enjoyed it so much that he bought his own boat. One year in the Fall he offered to deliver Butch Hawley’s dog food to him which is another story all on it’s own! He was a highly decorated helicopter pilot in Vietnam, but sure had some bad luck when it came to getting his boat up and down the River. As a reminder this is a very remote area back in the day. It’s remote today but nothing like the remoteness of the 70’s and 80’s. With no roads and no support you were really on your own. One mistake could cost you your life! Here Jeff was in his 20’s – with no fear and feeling invinceable. Jeff was always good at repairing things. One of the snowmachines he used in the early days was an old 1973 Snow Jet that had was given to him broken and he fixed it up by taking parts off 2 Arctic Cat Panther snowmachines that he had used prior before they broke down. Using the parts from these two machines he got the Snow Jet to work pretty well. In the early 80’s the State of Alaska opened up land up and down the Yentna through a staking program. These days a trip down the Yentna is a couple hour trip with the right equipment but in those days it was a 2 day adventure and they did not have dependable equipment. Jeff considered getting land on the Yentna in the staking program. He and a few friends had already been moose hunting up there for years so they were familiar with the area but after a few difficulties doing the trip Jeff determined that the Yentna was too difficult to get to and he did not have good enough equipment. On one adventure snowmachining Jeff left Point McKenzie heading towards the Yentna River. It was snowing lightly when he left but as he got out past Flathorn Lake it turned into a blizzard with white-out conditions. Poor visability prevented him from seeing a creek and he lawn darted his machine across it wacking his knee and flying over the handlebars of the machine and landing face first in a snowbank on the other side and burying his machine up to the handlebars in snow. He had to use his snowshoes to dig the machine out and had to stomp a path up the creek in order to get the machine out and back up onto the trail. This took a couple of hours and by this time it was getting dark. Once he got going again he made it through the drifts of snow to the woods near the Susitna River. As he was driving down the trail the wind and snow lessened because of the trees and he was looking down brushing snow off his lap. As he came over a hill going pretty fast with only a headlamp because the machine did not have a working headlight he felt a hard hit in his face that knocked him right off his machine. His first thought was he ran into a low hanging tree limb. However, it was a moose that had been bedded down right on the trail and as Jeff approached the moose stood up just as he got to him and Jeff and his machine went right underneath the belly of the moose between his front legs and back legs. Jeff’s face had hit the moose’s belly and knocked him off his machine. The moose jumped up and down probably trying to get out of the way and in the process stomping down on Jeff and the machine. Jeff jumped up and started waving and screaming like a madman and scared the moose away. He was so mad he chased the moose down the trail a ways before coming to his senses and realizing his rifle was still on the machine and the moose could come back and kick his ass and you can’t run very fast in bunny boots. So he walked back to the machine and since it was getting dark he headed for a friend’s nearby cabin. On the way to his friend’s cabin he got stuck in knee-deep overflow which took him another couple of hours to get out of and when he finally reached the cabin it was dark and he was cold, hurting and exhausted. From where he was it was still 30 miles to his original destination on the Yentna River and it was still snowing so he built a fire in the woodstove and decided to hunker down for the night. He was unable to get his snowsuit and boots off because the zippers and shoelaces were frozen and he was so exhausted he just fell fast asleep on the floor in front of the woodstove. About 3 oclock in the morning he woke up cold and wet in a puddle of water and managed to get out of his suit, hang it up to dry and restoke the fire. After warming up he began accessing the damages from the day’s adventure. A bruised knee, a couple cracked ribs, and a nice black and blue outline of a moose print right on his side. He went outside to access damages to his snowmachine. It had snowed about 3 feet and the snowmachine was buried in snow up to the handlebars. It was one of the biggest snowstorms Jeff had ever seen and it was still snowing. He had left his snowshoes on the machine the night before as well as all his food so he waded out in waist deep snow to the machine and did his best to dig it out and gather his supplies from it and head back to the cabin. The only damage he accessed on the machine was a broken shroud. Since it was still snowing Jeff decided to stay another night and wait for friends who were supposed to be following him up the trail the next morning. The next day he heard machines on the other side of the river go by and thought it might be his friends. However, they were on the other side of the river and they didn’t see him and Jeff had an old machine that was not a trailbreaker and he was a little worried about getting across the river to the trail they were breaking. His friend’s cabin had a CB radio. A few hours later he heard his friends on the CB talking about him asking if anyone had seen him. He picked up the CB and told them where he was, that he was okay and he would head up behind them. He managed to break trail and hours later he arrived up on the Yentna at Jack and Pauline’s where his friends were waiting for him. They left from Jack and Paulines to head further up the Yentna and still made a weekend out of it with his friends sore but with a few new stories to tell! On another trip to the Yentna in the early 80’s Jeff took the same 73 Snow Jet - except this time it had a broken shroud from the accident with the moose prior - and a friend took his 1969 Evinrude Skeeter and they went up the Yentna River and spent the weekend riding around. On Sunday heading back downriver somewhere between 20 mile slough and Dan and Jean Gabryszak’s Yentna Station Lodge Jeff’s machine broke down. He had burnt a piston because earlier in the trip he had removed the rattling fan shroud because the noise was bugging him. This caused the heating of the cylinder which is turn burned the piston…lesson learned don’t remove the fan shroud! They had to leave the machine there on the river. Jeff took his sleeping bag, snow shoes and his rifle and jumped in the sled behind his friends Evinrude Skeeter and his friend pulled him as they continued downriver. A couple of miles later the drive train chain broke on the Evinrude. This left them stranded out in the wilderness miles from nowhere with nothing to do but start walking. They knew that Yentna Station Lodge was still 4 or 5 miles away They walked about 3 miles and then some other snowmachiners that had seen the broken down snow machines and the foot tracks caught up to them and gave them a ride the last mile or so to the lodge. The weather was bad and they were stuck at the lodge for 3 to 4 days in a snowstorm until a plane could come and pick them up and take them back to Anchorage. Jeff’s machine though old had a new clutch and Jeff told the lodge they could have it if they wanted it as payment for letting them stay there. They had little money and were lucky they found a place to stay in weather like that! The other machine was retrieved and kept at the lodge. Heading back up the following weekend Jeff used another snowmachine - an Arctic Cat Cheta which he borrowed from a friend - but then he got stuck in overflow and had to head back downstream in the pouring rain. It wasn’t a fun trip either. Bad experiences like these added up to Jeff’s decision not to pursue property out on the Yentna River. About this time Jeff saw an advertisement for a parcel of land for sale at Susitna Station right on the Susitna River which was half the distance of the parcels up the Yenta and all downstream. So Jeff saving his money ended up purchasing this piece of property with an already established homestead.