Coast Guard unit keeps mariners safe on Northwest's high desert

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The following is the text of a news release from the U.S. Coast Guard:

(KENNEWICK, Wash.) — Imagine being recently out of basic training and new to a unit. It's early morning and you find yourself harnessed in cliffside conducting maintenance on a navigational aid when you are greeted by the sound of hundreds of small leathery wings. For fireman Abby Hamann, that experience defined her first visit to the Snake River.

“I was up on this aid, on the side of a cliff, with bats swarming around me at 6 in the morning,” she said. “It was my most memorable experience, definitely unique.”

Working in memorable locations may not be unusual for Coast Guardsmen, but there are unique locations, and then there are unique locations. The men and women of Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team Kennewick, Wash., are stationed in one of these places.

Located in the high desert of eastern Washington, the ANT is situated at the confluence of two of the West’s most important navigable rivers, the Columbia and the Snake, more than 300 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean.

Boasting nine crew, one 18-foot utility boat and one 23-foot trailerable aids to navigation (ATON) boat, ANT Kennewick personnel help ensure the safe movement of more than 9 million tons of commercial cargo annually on the upper Columbia River and the Snake River. The Pacific Northwest Waterways Association has stated, “The Columbia-Snake River system is a vital transportation link for the states of Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington. The economies of these four states rely on the trade and commerce flows up and down the most important commercial waterway of the Northwest.”

A majority of the aids maintained by the ANT crew are situated on land, with some bolted directly into the cliffs of the river canyons. The area provides a challenge, as the crews often climb through tall desert grasses, thorny brush and scrub trees and up rocky hillsides to reach the aids. They routinely carry equipment through barbed-wire fences and along remote stretches of railroad and highways to conduct routine checks of equipment to ensure that it is functioning properly.

“We have to always keep an eye out,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Justin Whitehead, a boatswain's mate and the ANT’s executive petty officer. “It is not unusual to come across rattlesnakes out here. Luckily they are good about letting us know they are here, as we will often hear them before we see them. I never thought that I would be climbing desert canyons, looking out for snakes and other wildlife all while working ATON.”

Having a Coast Guard unit located hundreds of miles from the coast may seem peculiar, but to those who use the rivers for recreation or commerce, the presence of the Coast Guard is invaluable.

“We are responsible for more than 230 aids to navigation,” said Hamann. “Between the two rivers, there is a lot of marine traffic, specifically barges. We are here to make sure the barges and boaters can safely make it down the rivers.”

Their mission, however, is more than ATON. Each year the team and local Auxiliary provide a safety zone around the River of Fire festival fireworks barge, an event that draws mariners aboard at least 500 boats. The unit also participates in the annual Columbia Cup hydroplane races. In August 2001, the ANT and Auxiliary assisted in transporting firefighters across Lake Chelan, Wash., to wildfires burning in the surrounding area.

Working together in the unique and challenging locations like the remote desert canyons of the river system and managing a vast system of aids to navigation has led these Coast Guard members to develop a close bond and rely on each other in their off time and while providing vital services.

“I did not know what to expect from being in a desert, however, Kennewick is the hidden gem of the Coast Guard,” said Whitehead. “It's nice out here, I definitely recommend serving here, and it’s a unique place.”

— Story and photos by Chief Petty Officer David Mosley

By Professional Mariner Staff