I crossed over the Arctic Circle today! I spent the day flying over the length of Alaska, and after four ‘airports’ I am ready to spend some time on solid ground.
I left Anchorage way too early in the morning for any sane human being to be awake. If you’ve never flown in bush Alaska, you may never have seen the Boeing 747 Combination planes they have up here. Since there isn’t a mad rush for passenger seats between Anchorage and rural Alaska, they have special planes built for carrying half-passenger and half-cargo loads. Locally, they are called Combis.
The front half is a cargo hold, and the back half is dedicated to carrying passengers. There is no way to back a plane that big onto a skywalk bridge, so you have to exit the airport down a flight of stairs and walk across the Anchorage tarmac to the Combi. Once you arrive at your destination in rural Alaska, you exit off the plane onto the tarmac and walk into a terminal building. To my knowledge, there are two of these Combis in Alaska. One of them flies the western route to Kotzebue/Nome, and the other flies the northern route to Fairbanks/Prudhoe Bay/Barrow. Sometimes the Combi skips a few of those cities and takes a direct flight, and sometimes it jumps inbetween all of them.
Apparently, I purchased the milk-run flight to Barrow . . . so my Combi plane made a stop in Fairbanks. And then Prudhoe Bay. And then Barrow. This made a long trip even longer, but I did meet some interesting people along the way.
On my flight to Fairbanks, I sat next to the Vice President of Alaskan Operations for BP. Of course, it was evident he didn’t know a thing about Alaska after only twenty minutes of conversation. If you have to ask me why somebody can’t drive a car from Anchorage to Dillingham, you shouldn’t be Vice President of any kind of Alaskan Operation.
On my flight to Prudhoe Bay, I sat next to an oil rig worker who was about my age. Actually, most of the flight from Anchorage to Prudhoe Bay (Deadhorse) was primarily oil workers coming up for a shift change. The guy next to me said that they work something like 6 weeks on the Slope, and then get 6 weeks off. It seems like a hard job, but I know the money is fantastic. He was saving up to build a house in Houston, Alaska. Lots of people in Southern Alaska work on the North Slope with the oil companies just to make ends meet. I asked him what it was really like, and he said that ‘There is a girl behind every tree.’ There are no trees on the North Slope of Alaska, once you get yourself past the Brooks Range. They shouldn’t complain, though, because I was pulling lightning 3G speed on my iPhone just sitting on the plane. Even Barrow can’t boast that. Also, Prudhoe Bay has these really cool FAKE bald eagles sitting on their tarmac . . . to ward off birds, I imagine. A bird hit is not good for a plane, no matter the size of the bird or the plane. (Personally, I think they should have REAL American bald eagles trained for the job . . . talk about outsourcing).
(This is a picture of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline, from the air. It's much bigger in real life, with space enough underneath for animals to travel through unimpeded).
I got in Barrow around 10:30 am after 6 hours of flying and sitting on tarmacs. It’s a funny little town of about 4,000 people. Unlike Nome, Barrow is technically still a village. The tourist trade isn’t as kitchy here, and it functions just like any small town might. There is a library, a museum, an elementary school, a middle school, a high school, a police department, a fire department, a pool, a skating rink, a few Chinese restaurants, a café, a Japanese restaurant, two pizza places, a fur shop, and a grocery store. You can find anything you might need in Barrow . . . for a price, and don’t expect a choice between brands. Even still, it’s better than most village stores.
I spent some time at the district office meeting people, and then hopped on the 4:00 pm Era Aviation flight to Atqasuk with 3 dozen eggs and a half-gallon of milk on my lap. (Have you ever thought about what you can’t get without a Wal-Mart or direct flight to Anchorage?) If you have seen that show ‘Flying Wild Alaska’ on the Discovery Channel, this is the same little airline with little bitty airplanes. Actually, the second episode of the first season highlighted Barrow and Atqasuk. You should watch it sometime.
My fellow Oklahomans will find this piece of information interesting: Will Rogers and Wiley Post (Oklahomans) crashed their plane in Barrow . . . so the airport is named after them, just like in Oklahoma City! It's kind of weird to have started the journey at Will Rogers International Airport and nearly end it at the top of the world at Will Rogers/Wiley Post Memorial Airport.
My little plane landed on the gravel airstrip in Atqasuk about 20 minutes after leaving Barrow skies. It is so nice living so close to a hub! A 90 minute flight over the Bering Sea from Nome to Siberia sounds exotic, but trust me it gets old and uncomfortable in a hurry.
Atqasuk seems like a quaint little Alaskan village. More to come when I know more about the town . . . for now, I’m ‘bushed’ and it’s time to get some sleep!