To the other side of the globe and back: The Seasonal Kuskokwim Patrol of the CGC Hickory

The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory is a multi-mission cutter which includes: aids to navigation,  search and rescue,  maritime law enforcement,  marine environmental protection and homeland security.

The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory is a multi-mission cutter which includes: aids to navigation, search and rescue, maritime law enforcement, marine environmental protection and homeland security.

By Lt. j.g. David Parker

The Kuskokwim River seasonal aids to navigation (AtoN) patrols are traditionally Coast Guard Cutter Hickory’s most challenging and exciting trips. The voyage trackline carries the crew to the furthest northern extent of any United States federally marked waterway and presents a landscape that can truly be described as “the last frontier.”

It is a landscape whose inhabitants live a subsistence lifestyle dependent on the resources that thrive on the river. People live in remote fish camps and villages and travel in open skiffs from village to village trading goods and services, and harvesting the river’s rich resources. For most Coast Guard members, Alaska is a world away from what we have experienced for most of our lives. It is a world of snow covered mountains, lush forests, untamed wilderness, and remote coastal towns. But even by that standard, the way of life on the Kuskokwim is truly frontier. There are no mountains here, no roads connecting it to transportation hubs, and no regular shipment of groceries and manufactured goods.

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Hickory is responsible for over 160 floating and fixed aids and can carry out orders from 17th District command to serve any place in Alaska's far-reaching and diverse waters.

The crew of Coast Guard Cutter Hickory is responsible for over 160 floating and fixed aids and can carry out orders from 17th District command to serve any place in Alaska’s far-reaching and diverse waters.

For the crew of the Hickory, safely marking the Kuskokwim Bay and river puts our mission into clearer perspective. This has been one of the longest, but one of the most rewarding, Kuskokwim patrols in the past couple years. In addition to commissioning 45 AtoN in the Kuskokwim Bay and river, Hickory also serviced 32 additional AtoN in Chugach, King Cove, Sand Point, Cold Bay, Port Moller, the Shumagin Islands, and two NOAA weather buoys in the Pacific Ocean. If you connect each of those places on a map of Alaska, it’s intriguing to see the locations marked by the Coast Guard that aid the safe passage of vessels at sea. By the end of this trip, Hickory’s crew will have safely marked approximately 4,000 nautical miles of critical Alaskan waterways.

The long days of working AtoN have been broken up by brief port calls in Dutch Harbor and Kiska, which the crew used to catch up on rest and prepare for the next round of AtoN evolutions. Crewmembers had two unique opportunities on this patrol, both of which occurred while servicing NOAA weather buoys in the Pacific Ocean at the end of the Aleutian chain. The first, and more energetic experience, was crossing the 180th line of longitude – also known as the International Date Line. Crossing this marker is a significant accomplishment in the world of sailors because it hails back to the days of sailing ships and explorers whose courage took them beyond the edge of the known world into uncharted waters of the eastern seas, the “Realm of the Golden Dragon.” The sea stories will be saved for another time, but let it be known that everyone onboard Hickory that crossed the line was successfully initiated as an Honorable Golden Dragon.

The second, and more sobering experience, was laying ashore on the island of Kiska, one of the last islands in the Aleutian chain. Kiska was the site of a major Japanese stronghold during WWII, and a forward operating base for a potential attack on the U.S. mainland. After the U.S. bombed the island, the Japanese evacuated and left the island “as-is”. It is perhaps one of the only WWII sites remaining that has not been preserved for tourism. Exploring the island gives you a genuine sense of its desolate history and the desperation of two nations struggling to survive and preserve their own freedoms and way of life.

The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory, nicknamed “The Bull of the North,” is a 225-foot, sea-going buoy tender homeported in Homer, Alaska.

The Coast Guard Cutter Hickory, nicknamed “The Bull of the North,” is a 225-foot, sea-going buoy tender homeported in Homer, Alaska.

Hickory’s crew has worked hard, executing their mission to keep Alaska’s waterways safe for mariners and promote the economic vibrancy of the country and the people of Alaska. Although this has been a long trip, it has been a good one and they return with memories that will never be forgotten. It is also the last trip with this particular crew since many are transferring to other units upon their return to Homer. The crew is grateful for the work and sacrifice of these men, and for families and loved ones back home who always keep the home fires burning.

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