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The Salvage

Monday, August 30, 2004

Itís 1:30 am and we have come to the southern end of Birch Lake that joins back into the Ashuanipi River. Rick does not want to attempt the difficult passage into the river in darkness. We anchor out and secure operations for the moment. Temperatures have dropped during the evening and hover around freezing. Gary Shaw Junior takes John and Hamilton off the plane and over to the Silver Dolphin. They are sent below into the cramped confines of the cuddy cabin for warmth and some sleep, if possible. Aboard the other boats the crews hunker down and try to keep warm and catch whatever sleep might be possible. A few others of the team are able to join John and Hamilton down in the cuddy cabin. Don, Mark and the rest sit in the open cockpit of the boat and endure the remaining cold and sleepless hours before sunrise.

In the early morning twilight the smaller assist boat is sent once again to Northern Lights Lodge for fuel. Upon their return the boats will have their fuel tanks topped off and then the tow will resume and enter the river.

While waiting for the boat to return with fuel, the team discusses the towing procedure and lessons learned in the past 24 hours. It is agreed that the job of directing the assist boats to steer the tow will be given to Hamilton Halford. His vantage point on the aircraft gives him a better perspective for negotiating the turns than is available to the crew on the towboat. Rick and Mark will outline the course to Hamilton via radio and Hamilton will direct the assist vessels.

With fuel topped off, the tow is back underway by 7:30am and pulling into the river. It is a beautiful day with bright blue skies with scattered clouds.

While we are going on 24 hours without sleep, we are amazed at the beauty of the scenery that we are passing through.

As we prepared to make a turn around a bend a small boat filled with two fishermen and their guide happened upon us. The look on their faces was priceless! Here they are, looking to catch some fish on a nice morning, and they come across a very unusual sight! They stood up in their small boat and started snapping photos and asking us questions. There is no question that when they get home and start telling people about their trip the first thing they will talk about is the floating B-17.

We continued our slow progress down river, our speed now averaging about 1-Ĺ knots. Under Hamiltonís guidance the turns and straight passages significantly improved. The learning curve of handling our tow was beginning to level off and the team was working well together.

With the mechanical problems finally corrected, our convoy and tow resumed our southern passage downstream. Gary Shaw Senior and Junior had returned their small aluminum fishing boats at the lodge and joined the crew aboard the Silver Dolphin.

Our delay seemed to have thrown off our coordination in handling the tow and we were still working on regaining our teamwork when we entered one of the more difficult portions of the passage. We had a narrow channel to pass through followed by an immediate 90-degree turn to the right. The current boiled and eddied in this section of the river and there were dangerous shoals and snags all around us.

Both assist boats were secured to the aircraft with towlines they used to help steer the tow. Both vessels were needed to help navigate this passage and both vessels started to develop mechanical problems at this critical time. During the next hour and a half the towed verged on drifting ashore in very dangerous locations. Each time the team was able to regain control and return to the safety of deeper water. The crews on the boats worked hard to get the problems resolved and the tow back under control. At one point the large assist vessel got its towline fouled in its lower unit. Wearing only his skivvies and a smile Zak jumped into the cold river to quickly free the line and allow the boat to resume its maneuvering. When Zak climbed back aboard his coloring looked a little blue from the cold, but that big smile was on his face knowing that he had done the job.

After what seemed to be an eternity of near disaster, our proficiency in handling the tow returned, the mechanical problems abated and we continued onward in the waning light. We turned into a wider portion of the river and settled in for some long distances of straight and steady towing. Our speed had increased and we were now running between 1 .5 to 1.8 knots. During this time that we all took turns at attempting to get some sleep as best we could. The small boat was sent of again on another fuel run. This time they went to Lobstick to get the fuel instead of the lodge.

The refueling was completed in the late evening and the boats were working well together in handling the tow. The weather was still cooperating and we continued towing on into the darkness.