Third in a series

ABOARD USAV PALO ALTO - Plugging along at 10 knots in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska, this 174-foot-long Army landing craft is heading for Bethel, a town of 6,000 along the Kuskokwim River.

The boat is manned by soldiers of the 709th Transportation Company, a U.S. Army Reserve unit from Tacoma, Wash. Many of the soldiers have been here since June, taking part in Exercise Alaska Move, an ambitious five-year project to relocate a native Yup'ik village located deep in the bush. The exercise continues until September.

The village of Newtok, located some 450 air miles from Anchorage, sits on the banks of the Ninglick River. Studies conducted by the state of Alaska over a period of more than 30 years concluded that Newtok was threatened by erosion caused by the river, permafrost degradation, and seasonal flooding. Plans to move Newtok's inhabitants to a new village, called Mertarvik ('getting water from the spring' in Yup'ik) began in 1994.

The military kicked off a five-year series of operations to assist with the relocation in 2009. Part of Innovative Readiness Training, the exercise, called Alaska Move, would gradually create and build infrastructure around Mertarvik.

The area around the new town is mostly uninhabited. There is no electricity, telephones, Internet, or roads. Everything must be brought in by air or boat, and that's where the reservists of the 709th fit in.

Palo Alto, a Landing Craft, Utility, belongs to the 481st Transportation Company at Mare Island, Calif. As part of an equipment-sharing agreement, the vessel was loaned to the 709th for the exercise. Palo Alto left Tacoma in early June and headed for Bethel; the trip took about 12 days.

"It takes awhile when you only move at 10 knots," said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Brett Radford, Palo Alto's skipper for the mission.

Radford, who took over in mid-July for Chief Warrant Officer 2 Frank Caraska, said the fully-loaded Palo Alto ran into storms on the sail northward and had to anchor in Dutch Harbor until they passed. With its flat bottom, Palo Alto rolls in heavy seas, and it made sense to wait awhile, Radford said.

Once Palo Alto reached Bethel, its crew made ready for the first of many trips they would make to Mertarvik over the next several months. On the deck was lashed more than 100 tons of equipment, including diesel-powered generators, forklifts, and a full-size dump truck. Every bit would be needed for the mission in Mertarvik.

Re-provisioning took place in Bethel. The LCU has a full-service galley for its crew of 16; Bethel is the only place with a grocery store for miles in any direction.

"It costs about $2,000 to provision the boat every time it's here in port," said Staff Sgt. David Valdes, the 709th's supply sergeant. "Grocery prices here are extremely high, since everything has to come in by air or boat."

As a demonstration, Valdes pointed out some prices: $6.99 for a gallon of milk; $9.99 for a bag of chips; $12.49 for a 12-pack of soda.

River Navigation Brings Challenges

If Palo Alto had a hard time dealing with the ocean waves, navigating the rivers brought another challenge: the tides. As the water recedes, broad mudflats dominate the river, and the boat often has to anchor for hours before the tide comes back in.

Taped near a window on the bridge was a note reminding the crew to leave for and depart from Bethel several hours before the tide came in or went out.

"We have to time going up and down the rivers with the tides," Radford said. "There are a lot of shallow spots in the rivers, and sometimes the water under us is only five feet deep. We have to stop or we'll be grounded."

Another issue, Radford said, was that navigation charts for the area are old and in serious need of updates.

"The chart data we're using is from 1957," he said. "The river bed can shift from day to day because of the sand and silt, and we have to be careful."

To make sure Palo Alto stayed on course through the shallow water, it uses the latest in GPS technology. With the help of a computer program that stores and tracks Palo Alto's path, the crew uses previous trips up and down the rivers to avoid grounding.

Avoiding the sandbars and mudflats takes precise navigation, and course corrections of as little as two degrees are common. Steering the 174-foot-long craft takes planning.

"You learn to anticipate the turns," said Staff Sgt. David Kartchner, first mate on Palo Alto for this mission. "Instead of making one big correction, you do it gradually. It's something that comes with time and experience."

The trip from Bethel to Mertarvik often takes close to 36 hours, depending on tides, weather conditions, and the amount of equipment the boat is carrying. One voyage took 41 hours; the same trip takes less than an hour by helicopter.

Tons of Equipment for Site

At Camp Mertarvik, the sailors, Marines and airmen working at the village site waited for Palo Alto's return trips. Since the camp is supplied entirely by the boat, any delays could bring difficult circumstances.

Electricity is supplied by diesel generators located at different areas of the camp. The fuel comes in tanks lashed to Palo Alto's deck or, more commonly, pumped from the boat's fuel tanks. On one recent day, the camp's fuel supply had dwindled to the point that only one generator was operating, providing power only to essential systems.

By running a hose from Palo Alto's fuel bunkers, the crew was able to transfer 1,150 gallons of diesel fuel to the Marines' tanks, ensuring they would have power, hot food, and hot showers for the next four to five days, enough time for the boat to make another trip to Bethel and back. Over the course of the exercise, Palo Alto had provided 6,400 gallons of diesel fuel and 500 gallons of gasoline to the troops on the shore.

"We've got plenty of fuel on board, and can easily spare that amount," Radford said. Palo Alto can cruise for up to 6,500 nautical miles when heavily loaded, and 10,000 unloaded.

Unloading Palo Alto takes skill and time. Again, the boat - and the troops on shore waiting to assist - is at the mercy of the tides.

"The boat needs high tide to be able to unload," said Capt. Chad Hailey, a Marine reservist and commander of Headquarters and Support Company, 6th Engineer Support Battalion. Hailey was in charge of the Mertarvik project during this rotation.

Palo Alto beaches to unload; the skipper basically drives the bow up onto land, drops the ramp, and cargo is offloaded. With anchors at the front and rear of the boat, it can remain fairly stable. By dropping the stern anchor some distance from the beach, Palo Alto's crew can use the boat's winch to literally pull it off the shore, especially in shallow water where it may be difficult to use the engines.

On one recent trip to Mertarvik, Palo Alto had difficulty beaching due to the river current; water was flowing at almost five knots, enough to push the boat away from its intended landing target. The rapidly-flowing water made it hard for the anchor to get a foothold, and it kept slipping away from the riverbed.

After five or six attempts, Radford decided to give up until the next day, as the tide was going out and Palo Alto wouldn't be able to reach the beach. At low tide, the shoreline is several hundred yards away, across a wide expanse of deep, sticky mud.

The next day, with the tide in and slightly better weather, Palo Alto beached without difficulty, and the activity began. Marines, sailors and soldiers had come down to the beaching area, bringing with them several heavy-capacity forklifts.

As equipment and supplies were taken off Palo Alto, other items waited to take their place: empty barrels, extra field rations, even trash that had been generated by the camp's occupants; it would be moved to Bethel for recycling and disposal.

On the bridge, the crew currently on watch (the shift changes every four hours) was keeping Palo Alto's engines slightly forward, to make sure the boat stayed beached during on- and offloading. LCUs are also equipped with bow thrusters that use mechanical pumps to shoot water at high pressure on the port or starboard sides of the craft, enabling sideways movement and increased maneuverability. The port bow thruster was applied throughout that day's operations to counteract the effects of the river current.

Once offloaded, Radford moved Palo Alto out into the Ninglick to wait for the correct tidal stage. Radford said the tide charts are fairly accurate, but there will be fluctuations.

"The tide goes in and comes out every 12 hours," he said, "and we plan our movements around that."

That meant some unusual sailing times. For one recent trip back to Bethel, Radford ordered the engines started at 2:30 a.m., for a 3:00 a.m. departure. Leaving in the middle of the night in the pitch-black Alaska wilderness presents its own set of challenges, as spotlights mounted on Palo Alto are shined back and forth across the river's surface to make sure nothing gets in the boat's path. But it's for good reason that Alaska is known as 'The Land of the Midnight Sun;' in late July, the sun didn't set until almost that time.

"This was easier in June and early July," Radford said. "The sun never really went down at that time; it'd sit on the horizon and start coming right back up."

Although Palo Alto moves slowly, it would have been impossible to mount this exercise without it. By the end, Radford estimated, the Army Reserve boat crew would have transported more than 600 tons of equipment to and from Mertarvik.

Even after the exercise ends, however, there's still the long sail back to Tacoma to offload the equipment returning from Mertarvik. From there, Palo Alto will sail back to its home port of Mare Island.

All told, Army Reserve soldiers will sail thousands of miles and work thousands of man-hours in a harsh environment, all without the creature comforts they'd enjoy at home.

Just to bring hope and a new life to some people in Alaska they'd never met.

Next: Down in the Engine Room

Capt. Christopher Larsen is the public affairs officer for the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Seattle.