Alaska’s Coast Guard reservists: Worth their weight in gold

Petty Officer 1st Class Pete Harwell, a maritime enforcement specialist with Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, examines flares aboard a gold dredge vessel near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014. Flares are used to signal others in the event of an emergency, making them an important part of the safety equipment checklist. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Petty Officer 1st Class Pete Harwell, a maritime enforcement specialist with Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, examines flares aboard a gold dredge vessel near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014. Flares are used to signal others in the event of an emergency, making them an important part of the safety equipment checklist. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst.

Living in Alaska takes grit. The sprawling state, though full of adventure, leaves something to be desired in the way of creature comforts. Unless you are visiting one of the few-and-far-between municipalities, there is no fast food, no coffee shops and don’t even ask how much a gallon of milk costs.

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules aircraft crew loads a Station Valdez 25-foot Response Boat - Small at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, July 30, 2014.

A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules aircraft crew loads a Station Valdez 25-foot Response Boat – Small at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage, Alaska, July 30, 2014.

In this, the Last Frontier, the Coast Guard’s statutory missions are difficult to perform on the best of days. What may be a short drive in the contiguous U.S., is a series of plane flights here. Times are calculated in days rather than hours. Coupled with the deceivingly beautiful, always treacherous maritime environment, these challenges keep the members of Coast Guard 17th District busy. Sometimes an extra set of hands is necessary.

Like flakes of gold emerging in a prospector’s pan, it’s during times of need that Coast Guard reservists in Alaska show their true value. Operation Gold Nugget, an offshoot of Arctic Shield 2014 headed up by Coast Guard Sector Anchorage’s enforcement division personnel, was the perfect example of part-time Coast Guardsmen stepping to the plate.

Coast Guard Sector Anchorage enforcement department personnel talk to a gold dredge vessel operator from a Station Valdez 25-foot Response Boat - Small near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014.

Coast Guard Sector Anchorage enforcement division personnel talk to a gold dredge vessel operator from a Station Valdez 25-foot Response Boat – Small near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014.

The mission began thousands of miles from Nome at Coast Guard Station Valdez. The station crew trailered one of the unit’s 25-foot Response Boats – Small and made the scenic, 300-mile drive to Anchorage. There they met up with Gadziala and her team of Reserve maritime enforcement specialists: Petty Officer 1st Class Pete Harwell, Petty Officer 2nd Class Sean Purcell and Petty Officer 3rd Class Nicolai Tykalsky.

On a sun-drenched tarmac at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson a third party came into the picture: the crew of an Air Station Kodiak HC-130 Hercules airplane, ready to load the RBS on for a flight to Nome. With the boat on board the plane, the enforcement team found some jumps seats and off they all went, soon flying past Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park on their way west.

Once on the ground, the crew hauls out the trailered boat with a truck that was flown up days earlier. Thanks to a partnership with the local Alaska Air National Guard, a nearby hangar was available to shelter the RBS, where the Station Valdez crew got to work preparing the boat for operations. Early the next morning, it was time to get underway.

The scene was set for the team to begin their law enforcement mission. Scattered along the beach, and bobbing just off shore in the murky water, were the reasons the crew travelled all this way: gold dredging vessels. The enormous fleet of make-shift rigs patrol the shallow water to sift through the gold-rich earth below. The average operation consists of only one or two mariners, with or without prior boating experience, working all day on the frigid Bering Sea.

“There’s a lot of risk they take and it’s our responsibility to make sure they are staying safe out there,” said Tykalsky, who serves in the Alaska State Troopers when he’s not performing his Coast Guard Reserve duties. “As a reservist team we push to educate the public.”

Coast Guard Sector Anchorage enforcement department personnel conduct a boarding aboard a gold dredge vessel near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014.

Coast Guard Sector Anchorage enforcement division personnel conduct a boarding aboard a gold dredge vessel near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014.

Federal regulations guide the crew in their law enforcement mission. It is the Coast Guard that responds when a vessel has an emergency, so it is the Coast Guard that checks to make sure mariners are mitigating the possibility of something bad happening. For dredge operators that have had little or no exposure to the Coast Guard, education is key.

“We don’t just get on and say, ‘Hey, you don’t have a life jacket? We’re sending you back to the dock,'” said Harwell, who also works with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “We explain to them what we look for when we’re checking life jackets and all the safety equipment, and it’s helping us learn as a team.”

Petty Officer 1st Class Pete Harwell, a maritime enforcement specialist with Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, opens the lifejacket compartment on a gold dredge vessel near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014.

Petty Officer 1st Class Pete Harwell, a maritime enforcement specialist with Coast Guard Sector Anchorage, opens the lifejacket compartment on a gold dredge vessel near Nome, Alaska, Aug. 3, 2014.

“I had no idea what Nome would be like,” said Tykalsky. “I got to meet a lot of neat people and learn about the community and gold dredgers.”

At the end of the day, it was a beneficial experience for everyone: the Reserve team built on their skills and local knowledge, all while assisting Sector Anchorage in performing statutory Coast Guard missions in rural Alaska, and the local mariners now have a better picture of how to outfit their vessels for safe operation on the water.

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