Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Merritt Helfferich
Merritt Helfferich
Merritt Helfferich talks about the Great Tanana River Raft Race.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2008-04-02

Project: Fairbanks Communities of Memory
Date of Interview: Mar 2, 1996
Narrator(s): Merritt Helfferich
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Humanities Forum
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

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Sections

Moving to Alaska and loving the rivers

The origin of the raft race

The first annual raft race

The second and third years of the race, and the preparations involved

Figuring out how to start the race, and the assortment of rafts and people

The great Tanana raft barrel robbery

How to discourage competition

An unfortunate event on the river

Merritt's interest in water

Barrels everywhere

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Transcript



I'm Merritt Helfferich, and I came here in 1957, ah, from the east coast of the United States. And I came here, because Alaska was being considered for statehood at that time, and I thought well, I'm going on to college and I might as well take a year and go see this wonderful land that people are talking about so much.

And then of course I will go off someplace else. And so I arrived here in the summer of 1958, and within three months decided that there was no other place on earth I wanted to stay. And I've been here ever since.

Ah, one of the things that I was read a child was a book called "Wind in the Willows" and in there one of the characters says that there’s nothing quite so wonderful as simply messing about in boats. And I found that to be true. And Alaska offers many opportunities for boating and being on the river.

I remember sitting in Steven's Village one time in the summer watching the water sparkle on the river, and the wind blow through the grass through an open door, and I remember that so vividly and so beautifully, it comes back to me many, many times again and again,

as an example of just a wonderful way to be and to live. The rivers not only provide communication, they also provide a lot of fun.

And ah, back in 1968, I was with a number of friends having dinner at a restaurant called the Switzerland, which is out on Airport Road, is now called the Castle.

And I was with George Crestwell who was, and Neil Brown who were graduate students at the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute, and with Wayne Saint John who is now an Assembly person in this town, and his wife Janice, and I and my wife.

We were sitting around having dinner and discussing the fact that Neil and George had floated down the Tanana River from Fairbanks to Nenana the previous summer, 1967, on a raft that they had put together using barrels, and ah, they had had a wonderful time.

And I said to them, well that would be very nice, I would really like to go down the Tanana, that would be really wonderful. And then George said to me, "Oh, I don't know." I said, "What do you mean you don't know?" He said, "You have to have a lot of experience and skill being on the river.

And I don't think you have it." I said, "What?" I said, "You people don't have any experience." And he said, "Oh yes we do. We have a great deal of experience and skill, and we know what we're doing, and you don't know what you’re doing, and therefore you shouldn't come with us." I said, I said some fairly outrageous things at this, and finally he said we would go down the river, and if you went, you'd slow us down, and we would never get there, and there would be a terrible time.

And I said, "That’s outrageous!" I said, "I'll tell you what, I will build my own raft and float down the River and I will get there before you! Far before you." They said, "Oh, don't be ridiculous." And this built and built and built with insults cast back and forth,

until finally this small challenge between us, which ended up in a bet of a case of champagne, reached the point where none of us could back out, and, even if we'd wanted to.

And the bet was set, and we thought, well, maybe some other people could come along with us, and we would have a more enjoyable time, when we'd have some more people to beat.

Obviously I will beat you George. And George said, oh, no no, that’s ridiculous, I will beat you. But we decided that the two of us could beat everybody else.

So we made a sign, and we invited people to join us in this small race. Maybe we could have five or ten other people join us in a race.

We put the sign up in the Iinternational Hotel, and we suggested that people should build rafts out of four barrels or more with no mechanical propulsion and no engines, and that we would have a race to Nenana from Fairbanks.

And we would start at the Chena Pump Road campground on the Tanana, and the first person to get there would win the bottle; case of champagne and we would have a very pleasant day going down the river.

Well, much to our amazement, the numbers of people exceeded the five or ten that we thought, and by the time of the race we had 63 people signed up to build rafts. Those rafts were of a variety of descriptions.

Many of which were entirely un-seaworthy, and ah, but everybody was quite enthusiastic about it, and ah, the flotilla gathered on the banks of the Tanana on May 25th 1968.

And we decided that the start should be made qual here, and we would have a Le Mans start. The rafts would be in the river, and the captains would be back from the river several hundred feet, a shotgun would be fired, and the captains would run to the bank and get on their rafts and away they would go.

As is done, sort of done, in automobile races in Europe with entirely more serious sort of intent. So we did this, and the rafts were put on the bank, and the captains lined up,

we fired the shotgun, and the captains ran off to the bank, and fell down the bank and into the water and climbed aboard their rafts and away we went, very slowly, for this dramatic start and off to Nenana we went.

Well, it was a long day, and ah, no one knew exactly what they were doing, but we had a wonderful time. But the stories about this grew during the year, and people came to us and said well, were you going to do this again next year? We said, well, we didn't know, but I suppose we could.

The next year, 215 rafts signed up from the 63 of the first year. This was really getting very serious.

As we went forward, we realized that there are hazards here, and decided that we'd better warn about this. And so we decided that we needed to have some people help out, and we also didn't want to make it too organized.

So we started spending time getting people to be on the river with river boats to potentially rescue people, should that be necessary, and we got the military involved in this rescue effort. We were spending quite a bit of time making this un-organized,

and as, by the third year, which was 1970, it was consuming probably about two months of my time every spring, and that of a lot of other people ensuring that there would be people on the river to help, that the rafts which collected in Nenana would be cleaned up, that the city of Nenana would welcome us rather than shoot us as we arrived,

and ah, that people would have a good time on the river, but that we would hope that nothing untoward would happen.

This went on for four years, this race, and then the last year there were 475 plus rafts. We had no idea how many there would be.

After the first start, in 1968, we had another start which didn't go very well the second year, because someone who had a cannon on their raft fired it off, and people started early.

It was very disorganized. And I think Nilo Kopponen had something to do with that. The third year we decided we needed help to have something identifiable, and Captain Jim Binkley was to start the race by raising a flag, as I recall.

Oh no it was the steam, the whistle, and this sort of worked, but it didn't work very well. And the fourth year decided that I should have my raft on the other side of the river and when I took off, then everybody else would take off. This was a vain hope.

And it didn't work very well when Captain Jim was out there either because people went when they wanted to.

There were no penalties, and someone likened the start of over 300 rafts as being very similar to the harbor at Hong Kong with all kinds of small wooden vessels of every description.

Vessels with bicycles on them linked to paddle wheels, vessels with sails, vessels, I saw one come apart within five minutes and the people swim to shore at the Chena Pump Road.

People with dogs, teams of people, one raft was three stories tall, and another raft, someone had crazily brought a Volkswagen Microbus onto their raft and floated it all the way to Nenana, successfully.

They wanted to have something to drive back! It was almost surprising they got there. The, there were teams of... jujutsu teams, marital arts teams in costume, people with bagpipes. And it was very hard to keep track of all this, but this chaos gained some notoriety.

A team from Hawaii came, a radio station. Honolulu sent a team over. People came from Seattle. Many rafts came up from Anchorage.

The group became fairly unruly. The day or two before the race people were on the bank of the river building rafts.

One group had built a raft that was about 75 feet long and had unknown numbers of barrels, and they had set a fire in the center of it on the way down and it almost burned in half and sank,

not sank, because it was on barrels, but it was total chaos but it was wonderful in a way. The excitement and un-expectedness of the experience and brought more and more people.

I always felt that it was probably somewhat of an accomplishment to encourage 6000 people to turn up at 6 o'clock in the morning anywhere in Fairbanks. And these people showing up on the bank of the river to watch this insane start was a marvelous experience.

I understand that these rafts became used as landing platforms from Fairbanks all the way down to the mouth of the Yukon.

They also provided some hazard to riverboat people, because sometimes they would partially sink and cause problems. We tried as much as possible, after the first year,

to start cleaning up this mess that we had created, and had engaged with the city of Nenana to pull some of these rafts out. And we also had the experience of the great Tanana raft barrel robbery.

A group of entrepreneurs decided that barrels having some value, about $10 a piece at the time, I recall, that if they were able to bring in several hundred barrels, would make themselves a tidy sum.

And so went to Nenana with tractor trailer trucks and a small crane mechanism, and they began to pull rafts out of the river after they’d reached Nenana. And pull the barrels off of them and load them on the trucks.

But they got over zealous about this thing and started not only taking the rafts away from people who still wanted to retain them, and at least in one occasion they took the owner of the raft and threw him into the river.

And then proceeded to take his raft out of the river and remove the barrels and throw the wood back in the river. Well, this was not considered to be a very friendly activity, and it ended up with a charge of, a felony charge, and in fact I believe the perpetrators were convicted.

And...but it involved my meeting the former governor of the State of Alaska, Steve Cowper who was then the district attorney, assistant district attorney in Fairbanks and he and I and two other people flew around trying to find the barrels on these large tractor trailer trucks,

and located them and so we were able to track down the people who had done this.

Exciting times on the river, many people, most people had a very pleasant time for about 10-12 hours floating from Fairbanks to Nenana.

And after the second year, when there seemed to be some enthusiasm about getting there first, we decided we would change the rules. And instead of giving the prize of the case of champagne which really wasn't a very magnificent prize to the first person to arrive there,

we would discourage this competitive spirit and we would award the prize to the tenth raft that arrived. Well, this created a certain amount of chaos amongst the early arrivers,

people arriving in Nenana, because they had to figure out who was first and who was second, and everybody sort of held back, and then there was a major race to the desk where the award was given.

And so, but people were amused by this way of discouraging the competition, and so we continued it in the last year.

The race went for four years. And fortunately during the first three years, there were no problems, but in the last year there was very high water, and it was, and during the race period.

And unfortunately two people drowned during the race, and being swept into a log jams at the head of rivers.

This was a very sad event, and at that time, I ceased my involvement in the race because to my mind this was something that was a celebration of spring, and just sort of a wonderful human experience on the river, but with those deaths it lost its enthusiasm for me.

And also the Coast Guard who had licensed this event as a regatta on the river, this was one of the things that we did to make it unorganized, came in and said that while they understood the kind of spirit that we were trying to make,

they figured that we ought to inspect the rafts for their sea-worthiness prior to their departure. And we thought that this would make it very difficult to do this.

And so the race ended in 1971. After 1971. But then it was later revived, I think about ten years later, by a group of earlier participants who wanted to do that again.

And from time to time, people do go down the river again.

One of the things that ended of this, I got very much more interested in the water, and started...learned and then started teaching marine celestial navigation, which is totally useless on a river.

But ah, because you're... unlike Captain Jim and others, you need to remember the river rather than using the stars to tell where you are. In fact, you're tied up, I guess, during the night.

This race, I think by itself was just an amazing event. In 1971, we applied for and were granted a declaration by the Governor of Alaska for, to declaring that May 22nd 1971 was State Raft Race Day.

The Governor turned up on the bank of the river, and I think there was an election going on that fall, and no one paid any attention whatsoever to him, because they were otherwise occupied.

I think it was Governor Egan. But, that little bit of acknowledgement was a fun sort of thing to have happen.

One of the things we thought that would help in the race in 1968 was that the flood, after the flood there were barrels everywhere.

There were barrels everywhere, in every bush, and all over town people's fuel supplies had washed away from their homes and stacks of barrels that had been all over town ended up all kinds of places.

But there probably weren't enough barrels to satisfy this incredible consumption that went on during the race.

And it became apparent that there was a problem and barrels disappearing from places that they shouldn’t have disappeared from. In fact, there was a construction project going on at the University of Alaska prior to one year,

and the forms for a concrete pour that was to take place on the day of the raft race disappeared prior to the pour, and apparently turned into a raft and went down the river.

This was distressing to us, and it was very distressing to the contractor. And so there were some misdeeds going on, and some accidents which were unfortunate, but all in all, probably about 8000 people participated in going down the river and having a little bit of Alaska history involved in that time.

And having an experience on the river which they probably would not have done in any other, at any other time. And that experience on the river, I think is a very useful sort of thing for one's soul and the comradeship,

the meeting people is very good in creating a shared experience which to my mind is very useful for building a community.

And it's stories like these which have been told today are the kind of glue which holds people together.