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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Christmas Travel - Alaska

In all the years I spent in Alaska I only decided to return to the lower 48 for Christmas once.  My kids were a little up set, more for me than for them I suspect.  They had visions of me sitting in my little basement dwelling, watching television all alone with a little TV dinner while I cried into my eggnog.  That was not the case due to nice people that always seemed to take pity on a single person around Christmas time.  I always had a Christmas dinner and a New Year happening to go to.  The reason I did not return more than once had a lot to do about not spending the $1000 the trip would have cost and the hassle it involved.

The coming and going from the village over Christmas vacation was always a real mental and physical hardship let alone a financial drain.  Leaving from bush Alaska is not an easy task under the best of circumstances let alone over a busy holiday period.

The year I did return, my first year there, it went something like this -
Around the 20th of December the teachers who were leaving congregated in the school office.  They waited for the fifteen minute warning call from a plane that would carry them off.  When the call was received all the bags were thrown into a sled attached to a snow-go and we piled on top of them and sped towards the landing strip.  We hoped our timing was right so as not to miss the plane or worse yet get to the strip to early and wait in the freezing cold longer than necessary.  The plane only held nine people plus baggage and it takes two and sometimes three trips in an out of the village to the regional airport, about an hour away, to get everyone on their way.

Once arriving at the regional airport, in this particular case Bethel, it was easy to transfer to a regular jet liner, seating about 50, for the trip to Anchorage.  We got into Anchorage around  and the flight to the lower 48 took off at .  Going to a motel seems ludicrous so it is customary to find a soft metal bench or an even a softer portion of some indoor outdoor carpet and try and sleep. 

The flight I was on was going to Seattle first where you may or not spend the night.  Sometimes the flight goes to Chicago or even Houston non stop but not this time.  From Seattle we went to Denver then to Chicago, my final destination that year. 

After visiting that year the return trip I thought would be more relaxing due mostly to the fact I didn’t care if I got back on time or not.  However it turned out to be far more taxing.

It was a direct shot to Anchorage from Chicago.  What could go wrong?  Well, as we were going down the runway and were just about ready to lift off for our seven hour flight the engines suddenly unwound, setting the nose back on the tarmac and the plane started heading back towards the terminal.  The captain came over the intercom and explained that there was nothing serious but a light had come on indicating a pressure door was malfunctioning.  It needed to be checked out.  It took two hours to check the situation out and naturally we were not allowed to deplane. 

We tried the takeoff again and this time met with success.  The seven hour flight went smooth enough but every time we hit an air pocket I had visions of one of the doors blowing off.

Our landing in Anchorage was as smooth a landing as I had ever experienced.  We parked by our gate but then it took another two hours to get the door opened.  I guess they did a good job of closing it in Chicago.

By this time it was  and our plane to Bethel was leaving at .  So I found another soft metal bench and some softer indoor outdoor carpeting close to the ticket gate and settled in.

I had planned on being first in line that morning but so did everyone else and I was number 29.  By the time I was number 10 an airline employee made an announcement indicating I was in the wrong line.  I informed whoever would listen that I was in the line I was told to be in.  I was then informed by a very polite soft spoken lady representing the airline that I was now being told to do something else and that I need not yell.

I am ashamed to say that I must have made quite a scene going to another line because two airline ticket agents came out from behind the counter and gave me special attention.  I was calming down and things were going well when it was discovered that the computer did not have me listed on the flight to Bethel and there were no seats left for over twenty-four hours.  Another scene arose.  As I was shouting out my confirmation number a phone call was made and security guards started congregating in the area.  The problem was soon rectified and I thanked the ticket agent the best I could through my hyperventilating and went off to my gate.

We took off without door problems or lights coming on and an hour later we landed in Bethel amidst a blizzard.  I took a $12, three block cab ride to the air carrier that would take me to Hooper Bay in about an hour.  I was informed that the flight had been delayed due to weather.  Ten hours later the flight was canceled.  I was put on a stand by list for the following morning.

In the mean time more teachers had arrived trying to catch a flight to the bush. They were more experienced than I about such things so I just sat back and listened to what they had to say.  The terminal was closing down and the authorities would not allow anyone to stay in the terminal over night.  To bad I thought because the metal benches seemed sort of comfortable.  The travel pros had made tentative reservations at one of the several motels and by the time I started calling around there were no rooms at the inn.  I pictured myself standing out in the cold all night when a teacher suggested I call the police to see if they had room.  I was a little perplexed until he informed me that sometimes the police let stranded passengers sleep in one of the cells if one was available.  I had no choice.

I made the call to the local constabulary and was told to come on over.  Twenty minutes and $15 later I was placed in a cell with two other transients for the night.  It was the first and only time up till now that I have ever been incarcerated as such.

The next morning I caught a taxi back to the airport, this time costing $20 and got ready for my supposedly  flight.  Nine AM came and went and around 10:00 AM I began to hear rumors that weather was still bad in Hooper Bay and that we would be in Bethel another night.  It was then that the luck of the Irish placed its charms around me.

 As I was leaning against the counter listening to the pros talk about what to do next, an employee came out of the back room from behind the counter and told the Eskimo ticket agent to get nine people on a manifest to Hooper Bay and he did not care which nine they were.  So much for a stand by list.  I immediately turned around and said, “Give me a ticket.”  The teachers began jostling and shoving their way to the counter and I got out of the way for fear of life and limb.  The plane took off about an hour later.

When we landed in Hooper Bay it was 10 below and the wind chill brought the temperature down to minus 42.  There was no time to delay.  We hurriedly threw our bags on the sled trip to school, jumped on top and off we went towards the school about a mile away.  We zoomed across the tundra at 35 mph which was fast but not fast enough into the wind and a teacher later told me that he calculated the temperature was -75 degrees with the wind chill.

The following years I made no special attempt to go home for Christmas.  It was too much of a hassle.  I told my family and friends not to worry about me but to instead concern themselves with those young men and women that are really spending Christmas far away from home and really have no choice.  They are not teachers, I think the term used is "being in the military."

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