Alaska Delta tram gets federal boost

By Alex Demarban
Bethel, Alaska (AP) 3-08

A crumbling tundra tram – originally used by fur traders threading together a gigantic puzzle of lakes, creeks and sloughs as they traversed a chunk of Western Alaska – will get a major makeover with federal highway dollars.

The Denali Commission, the state-federal agency that funnels millions of dollars into rural projects, views the flatbed railcar near villages northwest of Bethel as important infrastructure in a region where frozen rivers are the only roads between villages, said Mike Hoffman, a Bethel resident on the commission’s transportation advisory board.

The tram carries hundreds of boats a summer across 450 feet of tundra, bridging a dry spot on the water-logged Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, a low-lying plain where the state’s two biggest rivers drain into the Bering Sea.

The commission agreed in December to spend $308,000 to fix the rotting ties, weathered car and swampy trail alongside it, Hoffman said. The money is a cheap alternative to roads, and will make travel safer for people motoring skiffs between the coast and inland communities.

“We have very little resources, so this is one way to have a connection between our villages in the summer,” said Hoffman, transportation director for Association of Village Council Presidents in Bethel, the Native nonprofit serving the delta.

The tram, pulled by cables and hand-cranked winches placed at either end of the rusty rails, was built in the 1940s by fur traders, said Eli Wassillie, tribal administrator from Nunapitchuk.

Yup’ik trappers from inland villages took boats to Baird Inlet and nearby areas to trap for otter, beavers and other animals some 50 air miles from Nunapitchuk but farther by water. They returned in winter by dog sled to make their way to markets in Bethel, he said.

The tram is in bad shape these days. One of the two boat ramps has buckled, rails sag into the ground unless shimmed with two-by-fours, and the car sometimes jumps the track, he said.

The tram is in bad shape these days. One of the two boat ramps has buckled, rails sag into the ground unless shimmed with two-by-fours, and the car sometimes jumps the track, he said.

Still, after spring snowmelt fills creeks and sloughs, boaters from the village of 550 and other inland communities journey along the tram route to subsistence hunt for ducks, pick berries and fish for pike at Baird Inlet, he said.

People from several coastal villages such as Tununak head the other way for cheap shopping in the hub city of Bethel, especially if storms and big waves at the Kuskowkim River mouth keep small boats from heading upriver to Bethel.More than 1,000 people use the tram every year, Wassillie said.

The Nunapitchuk tribal council requested the money from the Denali Commission, but at least six villages backed the effort with resolutions or letters of support.

Nunapitchuk, one of the villages closest to the tram, is 40 minutes away if boaters can find an intestine-shaped creek leaving Kayigyalik Lake, he said. Follow that to a small lake and another creek and boaters will see the wooden ramp near Takslesluk Lake, he said.

Getting the boat to the ramp can require some dragging, he said. Once there, people slide their skiffs onto the flat-bed railcar, walk to the end of the tracks and crank their boat to the ramp on the other side.

For Bethel fishermen headed to the Yukon, the tram-route offers a much shorter trip than going up the Bering Sea coast, said Ken Laraux of Bethel.

But it’s not necessarily quicker if the water around the tram is really low, said Laruax, who used the railcar a few times in the 1980s to haul long fishing skiffs to the Yukon.

On two trips, the water was far from the ramp on both sides. “You got to just drag your boat in hip boots. There’s sloughs and stuff between the lakes, but it was kind of a pain.”

The Denali Commission money should help extend the tram several feet, pay for treated lumber to replace ties and shore up ramps, Wassillie said. The trail along the tracks, with parts now stomped into deep mud by spring’s end, will be hardened with a foundation of interlocking plastic grids.

The tram fix-up got quick approval from the Denali Commission, said Mike McKinnon, transportation program manager. The Federal Highway Administration money will reduce damage to boats and save villagers gas money by cutting travel distances.

The tram will likely be built in stages because of the difficulty getting materials to the site, he said. After the commission and highway administration review design and environmental documents, materials will likely be barged to Nunapitchuk in the summer of 2009, he said. From there, snowmachiners will drag the materials in winter, with construction starting once the snow melts, he said.

“For a minimal cost it will provide a tremendous service to people who go back and forth across that stretch of country,” he said.