Guarding Alaska: A Memoir of Coast Guard Missions on the Last Frontier

Guarding Alaska: A Memoir of Coast Guard Missions on the Last Frontier

by Captain Jeffrey Hartman Uscg (Ret)


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781475924794
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Pages: 258
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

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Guarding Alaska

By Jeffrey Hartman

iUniverse, Inc.

Copyright © 2012 Captain Jeffrey Hartman USCG (ret)
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-4759-2479-4

Chapter One

Alaska Took My Breath Away

Dimensions, Diamonds, Dangers & Defining


Once when I was briefing congressional staffers who were on a visit to Alaska, I used a slide similar to graphic 1-1 depicting Alaska superimposed on a map of the lower 48. The staffers laughed as they said Senator Stevens used the same illustration frequently in trying to impress his colleagues. Despite the humor, the point was that getting around in Alaska is difficult. Even with its vast distances, there are less than 5,000 miles of paved roads.


The land area of Alaska is 570,374 square miles. The population according to the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development was 710,231 in 2010. Of this population, 291,826, or nearly 42%, were in Anchorage. It's said in Alaska (outside Anchorage) that the good thing about Anchorage is that it's close to Alaska, meaning it has all the big city problems not common in the rest of the state. The second largest city is Fairbanks at 31,627 followed closely by Juneau, the capital at 31,275. Sitka is the fourth largest with 8,881. Rounding out the top five is Ketchikan at 7,728.


The population includes 106,000 Natives (17%), or as the Canadians call them, First Nation peoples. These include eight different ethnic groups living in fairly well defined regions of Alaska. They are Tlingit and Haida Indians living in southeastern Alaska, Athabascan in the interior, Tsimshian living in Metlakatla on Annette Island, Aleut in the Aleutian Islands, the Yup'ik and Inupiat Eskimos and the Alutiq on Kodiak Island.

A common joke in Alaska is that if it were divided in half, Texas would be the third largest state. Alaska contains 20% of the land area of the other forty-nine states combined. More importantly than just its size, Alaska also contains vast amounts of valuable natural resources.


Alaska really doesn't have diamonds, or at least they haven't been discovered yet, but it has nearly everything else of value, and in great abundance. The natural resources include gold, silver, copper, molybdenum, zinc, coal, timber, fish, crab and of course oil and gas. The mineral value of its production of the top four, lead, silver, gold and zinc for 2009 was $2.3 billion. It also has some of the worst weather, least developed infrastructure, at least half of the U.S. earthquakes, most annoying mosquitoes, and the most dangerous animals outside Africa. But there are no snakes.

Location, Location, Location

Alaska's location at the top of the world makes it strategically important as both a transportation hub and as a rapid response base to go anywhere on the globe. Ted Stevens International Airport in Anchorage was the busiest airport in the US for air cargo landed weight in 2006. This is typical of the dichotomy of Alaska - the state with the second lowest population and fewest paved roads has one of the busiest airports for freight. From Alaska it is quicker to fly to both Europe and Asia than it is from the continental United States.

Natural Resources

Oil and Gas

Alaska is rich with resources. Within its borders is the Trans-Alaska Pipeline (TAPS) and oil platforms in Cook Inlet that provides 17% of the nations' oil supply. The North Slope, which is well known for its oil, has an even greater abundance of natural gas. The proven gas reserve of this area is thirty-seven trillion cubic feet. Natural gas is a clean alternative to coal for electricity generation. This is critically important to Japan, which buys a large percentage of the world's liquefied natural gas. When Alaska develops the means to get the gas to market, the national economy will be significantly improved. Environmentally, natural gas is a better choice as heating homes since natural gas and not coal reduces pollution and improves the environment for us all.

Fresh Water

Even more importantly for the arid future, 40% of the fresh water of the United States is in Alaska. Approximately three quarters of the fresh water is contained in the state's rapidly melting 100,000 glaciers and ice fields.

Food From the Sea

The ocean waters of Alaska contain vast quantities of renewable protein if properly managed. Alaska fisheries account for 53% of the U. S. fish landed in 2010 with a total of 4.3 billion pounds. In a day when the nation is concerned with its trade deficit, it's worthy of note that Alaska's biggest customers are the far eastern nations. The potential markets are even greater if the resources are appropriately managed. As the Coast Guard is charged with the safe operation of the nation's ports and waterways, all of this is of concern to the Service.



The threat for death from bear attacks is greatly exaggerated. A study done by the Alaska State epidemiologist showed that bear attacks killed only twenty people in the first eighty-five years of the 20th century. The state does have an abundance of bears, however, and those who venture into the wild are cautioned to be aware.

There are four types of bears in Alaska, black, brown, glacier (blue) and polar (white). Brown bear numbers are estimated to be 40,000, with black bears being much more common at 100,000. Kodiak bears are included in the Ursus Arctos classification just as are the brown bear, which are known as grizzly bears.

Polar bear numbers in Alaska are hard to come by, however the U. S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates the worldwide population at 22,000-25,000 in nineteen different populations in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia. It is generally accepted that they are dwindling with the loss of ice habitat. In May of 2008 the U.S. Fish. & Wildlife published a final rule that the polar bear was a threatened species. The somewhat rare glacier or blue bear is sub-specie of black bears normally found in the Southeast region. I've never seen a Blue bear in the wild but there is a wonderful one mounted on display at the Juneau airport.

When I reported in to Kodiak Air Station in January of 1974, my sponsor was Lieutenant Commander Jack Denninger, class of '62. Jack was a pilot's pilot and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses during his operational flying. The day we checked in, Jack and his wife Pat had stocked our refrigerator, made our beds and had a crab casserole on the stove. He also gave me two books saying, "Read these, and pass them along when you are a sponsor!" The two books were The Thousand-Mile War by Brian Garfield, and The Monarch of Dead Man's Bay by Roger Caras. The first book was about WW II in the Aleutians, and the second was a fictional account of a giant brown bear. It was a wonderful book in that it gave many insights into the habits of brown bears and their environments. My entire family has enjoyed it over the years.

During my time in Alaska I had many bear experiences. Most came when I was flying a helicopter and were good for some interesting pictures although not particularly exciting. A half dozen came when I was in the woods or mountains hunting deer, Rocky Mountain goats or Dall sheep. Being eye to eye with a bear on its terrain is definitely exciting. The closest I came to being one of the statistics was with my hunting partner, Mike Stenger.

A Bear Story

The Hunt

We were returning to the crest of Crown Mountain on Kodiak where we had left a mountain goat that Mike had shot a few days earlier. After dressing out the goat Mike and I and a third partner, Stan Bork had pitched our two tents. Mike and I were sleeping in a two-man pup tent he had sewn himself because he didn't trust production equipment. Stan, and all our gear, was in a second tent we had checked out from the Kodiak Support Center's morale locker. The morale locker carried recreational equipment that could be rented or in some cases loaned out. It was usually not top-of-the-line equipment.

The Weather Factor

Weather forecasting back in those days before satellites was somewhat hit or miss. This night was definitely a "miss." We noted darkening skies and hurried through our dinner and turned in before the rains started. That night Alaska demonstrated that she was not for the unwary.

A serious Alaskan storm blew up with high winds and horizontal rain. The tent rainfly was useless as the heavy rain blew in under it, and we were soon soaked in our sleeping bags. Suddenly Stan appeared out of the shrieking wind and rain filled black night and climbed in with Mike and I in the two-man tent. "Didn't you guys hear me yelling for help?" he angrily shouted. He was soaked and not particularly happy that we had not joined him in saving our gear.

He told us that the winds had buckled the aluminum poles in the morale tent and had completely blown it down and rolled it several yards with Stan inside. Stan had covered it with rocks the best he could to keep things from blowing away even more and then retreated to us. Needless to say we spent a miserable, cold and wet night.

Running For Our Lives

I remember thinking that if the wind increased only ten knots more we would be blown away. I also remember praying "God, if you get me out of this, I'll never go hunting again." The next morning we were all approaching hypothermia and knew we had to get down to where we could build a fire to dry out and get warm. The three of us packed up what was left of our camp and covered the goat with rocks intending to return when the weather abated. We safely made it back down to sea level where we pitched camp and huddled around a fire for two days until our contracted pilot picked us up.

Back For More

Mike and I agreed that we should attempt to retrieve his goat meat from the mountain, in that state hunting laws made it unlawful to waste game meat. We again contracted with our pilot to fly us in, this time to be in and back in one day. Our plan was to climb up the 3,000 foot plus mountain and back with the goat in the same day. Each of us only carried a handgun, Mike had a 22, and I had borrowed a 357. We took basic survival rations and light packs for the flight in by floatplane. All went well until we reached the basin with the alpine lake where the goat was buried. Rounding a large boulder we came face to face with a small (300 pound) brown bear finishing up the last of Mike's goat. In all the bear books I had read, one of the situations to be absolutely avoided is surprising a bear with its food. It is second in danger only to surprising a sow with cubs.

Stenger said, "If he charges, jump in the lake." I thought it was probably a lousy option as the bear was likely a much better swimmer than either of us. We were lucky however in that the bear smelled us and didn't like it and took off for the high country. We did make it back down in time but ended up with about five pounds of usable goat meat. As they say in the commercials, " but memories – priceless."

Alaskan Weather

The weather in Alaska can be dangerous and often is. Forecasting in the 1970's when I was flying helicopters from Kodiak was more art than science. High winds are common, made even more unpredictable by the high terrain along the coastline of most of mainland Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. High winds also mean heavy seas. Waves of fifty feet can occur. These often result in maritime disasters, which mean helicopter rescues. Heavy snow and icing were common in the six months of coldest weather from October through March. January in Kodiak has an average temperature of 29.9 degrees F and precipitation of 9.5 inches. Reduced visibility due to fog is common year round.

A classmate of mine, and brother aviator, Denis Bluett, told me a story when he was flying the old Grumman fixed wing amphibian aircraft, the UF2G. This aircraft was officially called the Albatross but affectionately known as the Goat. He was a new pilot at the air station and as a joke the instructor had him start the aircraft in the lee of the hanger during a high wind. Once he started taxiing and came out from behind the hanger, the wind caught the tail and caused the big aircraft to end for end and start sliding on the ice. It was only by expert use of the throttles by the more experienced pilot that the aircraft was brought under control.

During my tour at Kodiak as head of the Training Department, we started the Kodiak Survival School. This school was intended to teach survival basics for a crew that was stranded in a coastal maritime environment. Prior to this we had been using the USAF cold weather school, at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks, which was intended for survival in an inland situation. While this was a valuable experience, it was not the environment that the Coast Guard pilots normally operated in. We were more likely to be forced down in a coastal setting. We would need to know how to make a shelter out of driftwood rather than snow. Also gathering of food is entirely different. I participated in one of the first classes and was fortunate to catch my dinner, a snowshoe hare, with a snare that I had set. It was one of my proudest trophies and it was as enjoyable as any gourmet meal after 24 hours with no food.


The amount of daylight is a fact of life in Alaska and a factor in attempting rescues. Night vision goggles were not available when I was flying and searching for an object such as a disabled fishing boat with no power for lights was daunting in the dark. In Juneau in Southeast Alaska, at winter solstice in December, there was only a little over six hours of daylight. On a less dramatic note, the lack of daylight means that for much of the winter you go to work and come home in the dark. This can be depressing for some.

Chief of Readiness

During my final tour of duty in Alaska I was Chief of Readiness and Reserve. This was a catchall position that covered military and contingency planning, small arms training, running the district armory where the small arms were stored and relations with other military organizations. A bizarre example from my first Readiness tour in Boston was that when the admiral was invited to march in a parade with his staff I was responsible for refreshing everyone on the sword manual of arms. This included such things as "present swords," "order swords" and so on. We practiced several days so that when we actually marched in the parade we could perform the sword movements properly.

Part of the Alaska readiness job involved planning, running and evaluating mobilization exercises for reserve personnel assigned. Whenever we would host Navy and Coast Guard Reservists from "outside" (a term that Alaskans use to refer to anyplace but Alaska) for military exercises, the first thing we had to impress on them was how life-threatening Alaska weather could be.

Earthquakes Earthquake Mechanics

Earthquakes result when the gigantic "plates" that form the surface of the earth move relative to each other. Where these plates contact each other a fault line results. In the devastating Good Friday quake, as it later became known, the Pacific plate slid beneath the North American plate 80 miles north of Anchorage and twelve miles underground. What resulted was an 8.6 magnitude quake on the Richter scale. Other accounts, including the 32nd edition of The Alaska Almanac list the earthquake's magnitude at 9.2.

According to seismologists a quake of this magnitude would result in the following: few masonry structures would be left standing, bridges would be destroyed, broad fissures would form in the ground, underground pipes would rupture, and railroad rails would be bent greatly. I would add to this somewhat stale description the sheer terror of having your entire world thrashing about you and nothing whatsoever you could do. If this destruction were not enough, it is magnified when an earthquake occurs under the ocean or near the shoreline. It produces a terrifying sea wave, known as a tsunami, which can travel thousands of miles. Unfortunately Alaska is earthquake prone and has more coastline than any other part of the U.S.


Excerpted from Guarding Alaska by Jeffrey Hartman Copyright © 2012 by Captain Jeffrey Hartman USCG (ret) . Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


PREFACE GUARDING ALASKA....................xxi
CHAPTER NINE SEARCH AND RESCUE (SAR)....................131
CHAPTER TEN AIDS TO NAVIGATION....................147
CHAPTER ELEVEN ICE OPERATIONS....................155
CHAPTER FIFTEEN FUN & GAMES IN ALASKA....................213

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Guarding Alaska: A Memoir of Coast Guard Missions on the Last Frontier 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
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