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A constantly changing workplace

by: ELLEN SPITALERI Chris Stewart of Oregon City doesn't seem to mind going to the office. That's because he's a tugboat captain on the Columbia River.

(Editor's note: This is the third in a series of stories about 'People at Work,' focusing on people with interesting or unusual jobs.)

Last week, while Portland was enjoying balmy temperatures, Tidewater tugboat captain Chris Stewart was on the Columbia River near Arlington.

'I swear it looks like it's snowing here; it is 68 degrees, so it can't be snow, but something is coming down and it looks like snow,' he said, in a telephone conversation.

But then, Stewart is used to unusual sights as he voyages down the Columbia, and this year's spate of high water on the river made his job 'a little more adventurous.'

In fact, it made every day 'a lot more interesting. I had to be on my toes and use the skills I have honed over the years to get through the dams and under bridges,' he said.

This past spring, the water hit the highest levels Stewart has ever seen in his more than 20 years on the water was at the highest levels Stewart has ever seen in his more than 20 years on the river.

In the floods of 1996, the level was 430,000 cubic feet of water per second over the dams, and this year it was at 530,000 cubic feet of water per second, he noted.

The past two months, as he does every year, he participated in the Army Corps of Engineers juvenile fish run up the river.

The Corps 'captures natural young fingerlings and fishery fish near the Snake River, and we load the fish on the barges and transport them down river and deploy them below the Bonneville Dam,' to enable them to make the journey to the ocean, Stewart said.

This year the water was so high that the Corps was unable to capture as many fish as they usually do, because the water flushed the fish through the dams, he said.

He estimated that each of two barges carried 90,000 fingerlings to Bonneville.

History

When he's not on the river, Stewart lives in Oregon City, where he graduated from high school in 1981. He grew up with Ken Bernert, whose family owns Bernert Barge Lines in Oregon City, and back in 1987 the company hired Stewart to do general maintenance on the barges. He was only supposed to do that for two months, but ended up working for Bernert's from supposed to do that for two months, but ended up working for Bernert's from 1987 to 1993, working in the wheelhouse and amassing enough sea time to get his Coast Guard license as a captain.

Stewart then started working for Tidewater in Vancouver, Wash., running a crane and fixing equipment; this allowed him to be home every night for three years.

'But every time Tidewater got busy, they'd put me on a tugboat, so I came back on the boats full time in September of 1996. I went back to a 15 days-on-the boat, 15 days off-the-boat schedule. This is a wonderful career; I know I will get to spend 15 days of quality time at home every month,' he said.

He and his crew alternate working shifts; six hours on and six hours off.

'I'll work from 6 a.m. to noon, and then I sleep until 4:30 p.m., get up, eat, exercise, and then I'm back in the wheelhouse from 6 p.m. to midnight.'

Barges

As the captain of the tugboat, Stewart has the final say on procedures and he manages the crew, vessel and barges, as situations arise. There are always two operators on board, the captain and the pilot, both of whom are equally capable of running the vessel, he said.

When he's working, Stewart and his crew live on the tugboat, which is pushing a barge 650 feet long. The tug has state-of-the-art equipment, including radar, a GPS and a satellite digital compass, all designed to help the crew maintain a course on the river in any weather condition.

Stewart takes radar classes every five years to renew his Coast Guard captain's license, and every year takes wheelhouse management courses to keep current with changes in technology and to keep him 'refreshed and focused on my job,' he said.

Conditions on the boat are similar to being at home, he said, noting that they have 'nice staterooms and living quarters with Internet access and TV.'

His voyages begin in Vancouver, and then the barge hauls wheat, petroleum and other products up and down the Columbia River to the Snake River, with stops in The Dalles, Biggs Junction and Arlington in Oregon, Pasco, Wash., and Lewiston, Idaho.

'It's a relaxing job, out in the river, but it has its moments. I've been in 100-mile-an-hour windstorms, when the east wind blows down the gorge. It can be a challenge, but it is beautiful,' Stewart said.

Future

Do tugboats have a future in the 21st century?

'Absolutely,' Stewart said, noting that tugs can push barges that carry as much as 60 rail cars.

'We are able to move mass quantities of product safely - we are a great asset to customers, the economy and the environment,' he noted. 'Tidewater has made great strides in upgrading equipment to make the boats more efficient, and they are very cautious with fuel so as to avoid polluting. An outboard motorboat puts more pollutants in the river than we do in one month.'

Stewart said he intends to keep doing the job as long as he can, partly because it is so fascinating.

'The river is different all along,' he said noting that he regularly sees pelicans, bald eagles, osprey, seals and sea lions.

He has noticed one routine that has remained the same on his journey down the Columbia River: just after The Dalles, a flock of crows will land and ride the barge.

'But the second we come to the Hood River bridge, they fly off and won't go under it. Then they fly back, get on the barge and when we come to the Bridge of the Gods, at Cascade Locks, they fly away,' Stewart said.

One thing has changed in Stewart's personal life - he and his wife now have a 10-month-old granddaughter.

He added, 'It puts a whole new spin on things - she is the joy of our life.'