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"Corporate America" in the North

Story & photos by Murray Lundberg


Dateline: September 20, 1999

    Are some large US corporations abusing their neighbours during their few weeks in Alaska and the Yukon each summer? Eric Stretch of Dawson City certainly thinks so, and many residents of Eagle agree. The main source of controversy this summer is Holland America Westours' new high-speed cruise boat, the Yukon Queen II.

Eric Stretch, Dawson City, Yukon - 'Ask Me My Opinion About Holland America'
Eric Stretch welcomes visitors to Dawson City


    The beautiful Yukon Queen II arrived this spring with great fanfare, ready to run daily trips on the Yukon River between Dawson City, Yukon and Eagle, Alaska. Al Bruce, captain of the boat, had been captain of the original Yukon Queen since 1988, and according to the company, "was instrumental in the design and construction of the new vessel." Among the design considerations were "environmental concerns such as minimal wake output."

    Eric Stretch operates a placer gold mine on Frisco Creek, 80 miles upriver from Dawson City. The only access is by water, and over the past 2 summers, he has spent a total of 2,237 hours rebuilding a freight barge that he christened the River Hawk. With twin gas engines, the 12x39-foot boat was capable of hauling 15,000 pounds of equipment to the mine.

    By June 25 this year, the River Hawk was ready for river trials, and on the 29th, she was declared ready to go to work, following a 2-hour run with no problems. Stretch reports that:

We tied it up at the north end, the downstream end, of the dock about 11:30 at night, and by 9:30 the next morning it had finished its river career. With 7 hours on one engine and 6.6 hours on the other.

The dock at Dawson City where the Yukon Queen II and the River Hawk collided
The dock at Dawson City.
The Yukon Queen II is to the left.
    According to Stretch, when the Yukon Queen II pulled away from the dock at Dawson City the morning following the River Hawk's successful trial, Captain Bruce, while waiting for the ferry George Black to land, let his boat drift backwards down the river, alongside the dock, for about 300 feet. Despite the efforts of people on the shore who tried to warn Captain Bruce what was happening, the Yukon Queen II struck the River Hawk with its stern.

    Apparently noticing that he was too close to the dock, Captain Bruce applied full power to his four 1,000-horsepower jets, which Stretch feels may have done as much damage to his boat as the collision.

    Captain Bruce was notified by radiophone of the collision, and has apologized to Stretch. However, his employer's attitude has been much different.

    The River Hawk was first inspected by Wayne Lozell, who is supervising the restoration of the sternwheeler Keno in Dawson. He found that many rivets had been popped, the pilothouse was shifted, and both engines were out of alignment. The worst damage, however, was to the hull, which was twisted 2 5/8 inches. With the determination that the hull's "structural integrity had been compromised", Stretch was no longer able to use the boat. He says that if the boat fell apart while he was hauling 10,000 pounds of fuel, "it would be an environmental disaster."

    Holland America's insurance company then sent Ron Baptiste, a marine surveyor, up from Seattle to inspect the boat. He initially found the same damage that Lozell reported. Once the deck was taken off, though, much more damage was apparent, and Baptiste declared the River Hawk a total loss. Stretch and Baptiste both drew up estimates of a fair financial settlement, and Stretch says that his estimate was lower than Baptiste's. At this point, a solution should have been easy to arrive at.
The Yukon Queen II arrives in Eagle, Alaska
The Yukon Queen II arrives at Eagle, Alaska.
September 10, 1999.

    Holland America Westours, however, offered Stretch 1/4 of what he estimates his losses at, which he has refused to accept. So Stretch has now lost an entire season's work, and feels that "corporate America" is trying to starve him into accepting far less than a fair settlement for the damage they caused.

    Stretch resorted to meeting the Yukon Queen II each morning and evening with the large sign in the photo at the top of this article. He says that "I think it makes the captain uncomfortable, and I'm sorry about that. I'm not mad at him. I think he's a good river man, it was just an accident."

    Continuing downriver to Eagle, I found that all 6 people in the restaurant where I had lunch had much the same level of animosity towards the Yukon Queen II, and even more so to Holland America Westours generally.

    Despite statements by the company that the wake from the boat is well within acceptable limits, the people I talked to report their small boats being washed right out of the water by the wake, and of being unable to keep fishnets anchored because of the way the underwater 'wake' drives the anchors off the river bottom.

The Yukon Queen II arrives in Eagle, Alaska
Motorcoaches waiting for passengers from
the Yukon Queen II at Eagle.

    They also stated that permission to build a dock for the new boat close to downtown Eagle was refused, with the result that the $4 million vessel docks at a thrown-together dock on a mudbank a half-mile upriver.

    Holland America first made an appearance in Alaska in February 1971 when they bought a controlling interest in Westours. In 1975 the Prinsendam became the first Holland America ship to cruise the Inside Passage, and they have been a dominant figure in Alaska and Yukon tourism ever since.

    The company's contribution to community events throughout Alaska and the Yukon is very visible, from sponsorship of the Alaska Native Heritage Center to donating $200,000 in educational grants to Alaskans.

    From what I've just seen along the banks of the Yukon River, though, it's difficult to not question the motives behind those donations. Are these isolated instances, or an indication that Holland America Westours really is "corporate America" at its worst? Winter will soon be upon us - Eric Stretch hasn't had a pay check since April, several people in Eagle have far fewer fish than normal, and most Holland America Westours employees are back Outside somewhere, enjoying their summer memories and wages.