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A Tug Boat Ride Down the Snake River

The Modern Day Columbia River – Part Three

Every year, tug boats push millions of tons of products like wheat, barley, potatoes and sawdust up and down the Columbia and Snake Rivers.

This maritime highway stretches 465 miles from the mouth of the Columbia to Lewiston, Idaho – the most inland port on the West coast.

In part three of our series on the modern day Columbia River system, Correspondent Austin Jenkins explores the commerce on this river from aboard a tug pushing barges down the Snake.

My journey begins just downriver from Lewiston on a green and white Foss Maritime tug called the Clarkston.

Dustin Johnson: “Clarkston departing Wilma barge for downriver.”

 Dustin Johnson
Captain Dustin Johnson in the wheelhouse of the tug Clarkston

At the helm is Captain Dustin Johnson - just 26 years old. He has a buzz cut and a goatee.

For this leg of the trip, we’re pushing an empty sawdust barge down the Snake. Later we’ll pick-up two, full grain barges. Johnson went to work on this river straight out of high school. He’s following in his father’s footsteps.

Dustin Johnson: “I was fortunate enough to ride along with him when I was younger and kind of got a taste for it and I really enjoy it.”

But pushing barges up and down a river is complicated business. First, there’s the sheer scale of the operation. The barges this tug pushes are nearly a football field long. Like a freight train it takes a mile to stop. Add in wind and current and the captain has his hands full.

Dustin Johnson: “There’s times out here where I wish I was in a cubicle it gets so darn windy. But you know there’s also times when it’s blue sky and not a breath of wind and you can put your feet up and just enjoy the scenery.”

That is until you get to the locks on the lower four Snake River dams.

Dustin Johnson: “45, Lower Granite, Clarkston.”

Locktender: “45, go ahead.”

As we approach the first dam – Lower Granite – Johnson radios ahead to the lockmaster.

Dustin Johnson: “Afternoon, we’re just around the corner from you here.”

Even though Johnson sits three stories up in the wheelhouse, the barge obstructs his view. So he relies on a deckhand to guide him into the locks.

Reinhofer: “225 to the knuckle. 65”

That’s code for how many feet the barge is from the lock wall.

Dustin Johnson: “We’re strictly relying on him to tell us what’s going on.”

Reinhofer: “55. Knuckle in 175.”

The “tow” as its called in the locks at one of the lower four Snake River dams

Getting into the locks is tricky. But things mellow as we settle in for the ride down – about a hundred feet. Johnson cranks up the volume on the satellite radio and leans back in his captain’s chair.

Dustin Johnson: “(music up) Spend this time and relax (music up).”

Just down river from Lower Granite dam, we pick up the loaded grain barges. Wheat and barley make up 85-percent of what’s shipped on the Snake River.

Veteran captain Mike Hayes has replaced Johnson in the wheelhouse. The two switch off every six hours. It’s getting dark and Hayes navigates by radar. He started working out here 38-years ago.

Mike Hayes: “I come from the era that when you got out of high school you went in the service, so I went in the service and I never did go back to school so this is probably the best job I could have ever had in my life actually.”

A senior tug captain can make over $100,000 a year. But the job takes a toll. Tug crews work around the clock for seven days straight. Hayes says it’s hard on marriages and families. It’s also stressful.

Mike Hayes: “I’ve had three major accidents where I’ve poked holes in the boat, poked holes in barges.”

Accidents are bound to happen over a long career. The worst offense is to hit a bridge. Hayes likens the job to that of an airline pilot.

Mike Hayes: “You’ve got your moments of pure joy and you got your moments of pure terror – more so with this because sometimes you’re not in control of it, the elements control you more than anything.”

Winter out here is especially bad. Howling winds, below zero temperatures, limited visibility.

As we approach Little Goose dam, Hayes barks at his deckhand.

Mike Hayes: “I want one of you on the lead barge and one on the drag barge. Hurry up.”

Now that there are three barges in the tow – two of them side-by-side – there’s barely enough room to fit in the locks. Think of it this way: Haye’s job is to maneuver two floating football fields into a slot with a foot to spare on either side.

Reinhofer: “Just about all stop fore aft. All stop for aft. 8, and 7.”

You can’t pass through the lower Snake River dams and not ask the question: what if the dams are removed someday to aid salmon recovery? If that were to happen – this maritime highway would disappear.

Mike Hayes: “That’s going to be a big fight to get those out. Unless you get somebody like Redding that’s really more for salmon than he is for the people.”

Hayes is referring to James Redden, the federal judge in Portland who’s brokering a regional plan for salmon recovery. The industry maintains barges are the lowest cost, least polluting form of transportation. They have a chart that shows one barge can carry the equivalent of 35 rail cars or 120 semi-trucks.

As we approach the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers and the end of my trip, I ask Hayes when he plans to retire. He says 2010 – when his current captain’s license expires.

Mike Hayes: “Time for somebody else to do it. I’ll have almost 41 years in by then. That’s more than enough.”

And how does Hayes plan to spend his retirement? Fishing with his son below Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River.

In part four we go to the mouth of the Columbia River, and meet the bar pilots who keep ships’ captains from sinking into the graveyard of the Pacific.