Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Getting There by Air, or Not in Bush Alaska

Last week, we arrived at the Anchorage airport at 7:45 for a 9am flight to Phoenix that left on time and place us in the Arizona desert by 3pm Anchorage time.  That’s the way most people expect air travel to work.   Make a reservation show up, fly, and arrive very close to the scheduled arrival time.    In bush Alaska however, travel takes on a very different look. 
            For you folks not from Alaska, “the bush” is any place off the road system.  
            Flying to the bush usually means boarding a small plane which is much more limited by weather your average 737.   Wind, fog, snow, and ice can stop or delay a flight and so can things like a pilot not showing up for work or a plane being delayed or weathered on the other end or a passenger throwing up in a plane.   Because of these potentials for delay, travel in bush Alaska is more like this: 
            Arrive at the flight service office an hour before the scheduled fight.  Check in, which means surrendering any bag bigger than ten pounds, declaring your weight, loud and clear, and making that you are dressed for bad weather and add those heavy clothes to your weight.  Then you wait.  Usually there are comfortable chairs, coffee, WIFI, snack machines, and people to visit with.  Often a TV is playing and some places have extra amenities special to that location.    
             No fudging on this; having an accurate weight of everything and everybody on the plane is critical to safety. 
            Take Bethel, a hub in western Alaska for example.  The Grant Aviation waiting room has a little coffee shop upstairs with espresso and hot sandwiches.  Above Yute Air you’ll find Brothers Pizza and an eclectic gift shop with some native arts and other interesting items for sale.  The RAVN station often has a lunch wagon parked outside with burgers and Chinese food available.   Alaska Air Bethel is the worst of the lot.  No Wi-Fi, no coffee, just TV, snack machines and a change machine that’s usually out of order, so don’t show up hungry with only a ten dollar bill — I did once and was saved by a colleague who shared her Chinese meal.   The nice thing about waiting in Bethel is there that cabs are cheap five to seven dollars to get most anywhere and you can order take out food from a variety of place and they will deliver.  
            So you wonder, why all these tips about waiting?  Well, bush travel is about waiting you will spend more time waiting than traveling.  Sure the flights all have schedule departures, but as one traveler put it, these are just guidelines.  Your flight may leave 30 minutes early or 2 hours late.  You just never know.  Sometimes the flight is delayed and put on “weather hold”. That means a thirty-minute wait for another weather check weather legally safe for flying.  Weather might be fine where you are but not where you are going.   You might spend several hours on weather hold before the flight is actually cancelled, and the traveler rebooks and starts the process over again, often the next day.  Weather hold can last for days.  Especially when a blizzard blows in because when it’s all over then runways have to be cleared and declared safe.  
            People unfamiliar with this sort of travel don’t function well with weather hold.  Once when a flight service office was packed with people, suitcases, plastic tubs, and cardboard cartons on one typical wintery morning in Bethel.  A couple hundred people including me had blown in with the storm even though the chance was poor fpr flying anywhere on a day like this.  All flights were on weather hold and apt to stay that way for a while.  It didn’t take a pilot or meteorologist to tell most of that.   There was one woman dressed more for Seattle than Bethel who was grilling ticket agent.  I have to fly the Akiachak and back today because I have a flight to New York this evening.  Everyone laughed.  “I’m sorry, Ma’am said the ticket agent, we are on weather hold.” 
            “Weather hold?  How long does that last?” ask the frustrated traveler.  Everyone laughed again.  We have to laugh because travel in the bush will drive us nuts otherwise.
            Once your flight is called your pilot calls the passengers, checks the manifest and escorts the passengers to the plane.   Newcomers will be surprised to find they are sharing the passenger compartment with cargo, cases of soda, diapers, spam, toilet paper, and you the passenger are all going together.  I have boarded planes so packed with cargo that we had to squeeze and wiggle our way to forward to get into our seats.  Lucky you gave up that backpack for there is no place for it.  Some passengers will have carryon though, take-out pizza or Chinese from Bethel restaurants or even Cinnabuns or McDonalds from the Anchorage airport.  My favorite is when I see some one traveling with a elaborately decorated birthday cake on their lap.  That is love.   Finally, the pilot gives the travel briefing and the routing — that when you find out how many villages you get to see on the way to your destination. 
            When the plane finally arrives at the remote village there is usually and gravel apron where the plane parks and unloads surrounded in winter by snowmobiles and trucks and in the summer by atvs and trucks.   You hope your ride is there to pick you up for there is no warm terminal building to wait in and don’t expect a shuttle bus.   Over the last few years air strips have been moved away from villages so it is often a couple miles to the village unlike the old days when the airstrip was literally in the village.  Some places like Chignik Lagoon, and Hughes are still that way. 
            Flying to Hughes my first time, I called the school and asked them to meet my plane.  “Sure,” the man said at other end of the phone, ‘I’ll be there.  Sure enough, when the plan landed he walked the hundred feet from the schoolhouse to meet me.  We had a good laugh over that. 
            As tricky as it might be to reach a remote Alaskan village, leaving requires nuance attention to detail and sometimes dumb luck.   Needless to say, people aren’t sitting around at the village airstrip for hours waiting for the plane.  When the plane is fifteen or twenty minutes from the airstrip, the pilot calls on the vhf radio which anyone with a radio can here, “The is Grant Aviation 20 minutes, Hooper Bethel.” Usually he will repeat it.  The local agent has probably received call from Bethel or whatever hub when the plane leaves there.   Earlier in the day, the departing passenger has called the flight service hub and the local agent to get on “the list”.  Failure to do this can mean not having a seat.  It also helps the pilot plot his routing if flying village to village.   As your flight time approaches because you have to read to roll when that radio call comes through.   Sometimes that means waiting and waiting all packed and ready, or being drug out of a meeting because the flight is coming early.
            If you have read this carefully you know what you need to know about successful flying in bush Alaska.  But you would be wrong.  It has been my experience that if you think you have it all figured out, you are delusional. 
            For example, I was in in one village and scheduled to fly from that village to another rather than back to the hub.  My reservation was paid, confirmed and I checked in with the agent after ten years of bus travel I knew what I was doing,  That’s why with one foot on the step to board the plane I double-checked the routing with the pilot.  “Oh, I’m not flying there today.  We are direct to Bethel.”  Following up with the main office I found, “Oh village to village is dependent on cargo and routing.”  Luckily, I could catch one of the other flight services in time to catch their plane that was going where I wanted to go.   That’s just how it works.
            The few of us that have the opportunity to use the many small flight services in bush Alaska get to visit remote and wonderful place that are inaccessible to most people.   Flying to places like Toksook Bay or Arctic Village requires knowledge, flexibility and a willingness to embrace the moment and savor the experience even if  sometimes you are gritting teeth while doing it.


  1. i've gotten to the point that i don't know what to do when i don't call the agent and just show up in a warm building with TSA and baggage checks and all kinds of silliness just to get from one place to another. and get there on time.

    1. Travel systems don't aways make sense even when we think we know them.