It was already well after noon, and with only five hours of daylight remaining the situation was not good. My flight to a roadless Eskimo village of 200 souls, two-plus flying hours northwest of Fairbanks, was on borrowed time weather-wise. It had been beautiful for the past three days, but now there were clouds forming on the western horizon. Wasting time in Alaska during good weather in March is a fool's errand, and as a freelance writer/photographer and former pilot I was on a mission of love -- to document a "routine" bush mail flight above the Arctic Circle.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. An hour ago, I was wedged amid a "maximum permissible load" of boxes and we were accelerating down the Fairbanks runway in an eight-passenger Piper Navaho headed for the Inuit village of Shungnak. The March day was nearly perfect, sunny, thirty degrees, little wind, and I was looking forward to exposing six or eight of the several dozen film canisters on the floor below me to the wonders that would unfold out the window. In fact I was already focusing my camera on some of the vintage DC-3's, 6's, and 7's that decorate the Fairbanks ramp as we were taking off. Suddenly, my eyes left the viewfinder and came to rest on the pilot. Instead of lifting off he had pulled back the throttles and was slowing the aircraft. From my vantage point right behind him, I could see the red light on the dashboard indicating low oil pressure in one of the engines. As we taxied back to the ramp, I wondered what if this had happened over the frozen wilderness an hour into the trip.
The commuter airline terminals at Fairbanks International Airport are glorified hangars on the opposite side of the field from the commercial facility. This particular terminal was crowded, noisy, and hot, with a handful of women and children passengers mixing with schedulers, maintenance people, and administrative staff -- not exactly a rich photographic environment. I sneaked out on the ramp to take some pictures of the maintenance guys poking and peering into the airplane's guts but was quickly shooed back into the waiting room by the ramp manager. I then tried to surreptitiously photograph the airline personnel as they used the large scale that stood right beside the ticket agent. Because weight and balance are so critical in small airplanes, each passenger checking in is asked his or her weight, and if there's any doubt in the agent's mind, the passenger is invited to "prove it". The scale was rarely used, but the effect it had on each traveler's body language was priceless.
Finally, the decision was made to use another Navaho for our flight to Shungnak, and I was privately quite relieved. From the looks on the faces of the pilot and maintenance workers, the oil light problem seemed caused by gremlins, and I wanted no part of its recurrence. Thirty minutes later I was back in my spot, feeling like just another piece of cargo, and happy to be taxiing back to the active runway. So far the weather held -- the clouds were still there but getting no worse.
Authors Deke Castlemen & Don Pitcher in their Alaska Handbook argue that "no city in the north is closer to the Edge than Fairbanks." It follows then that when you head north from Fairbanks, you're over the Edge, and believe me it feels like it. Once past the Eliot Highway, a dead-end gravel road a few minutes out of Fairbanks, there is no sign of human habitation. No road, no farm, no structure, no airport, no nothing except range after range of white mountains, each one a little less wooded than the one before. The only interruptions were three large rivers, the Tanana, Yukon, and Kobuk.
The Navaho fuselage is quite small, and at six-foot three, I could not stand in the cabin. Because my seat was over the wing, picture-taking required me to get on my knees in the tiny aisle and spread-eagle over the boxes of television sets, foodstuffs, boxes from L.L. Bean and Land's End, and other "mail" that were lashed to the empty seats. Once assuming this position, I had to eliminate the reflections in the window from sun on the boxes and then isolate the camera from as much of the turbulence as possible. Shungnak is just about the limit of the Navaho's endurance, loaded as we were today. As a result the trip had to be completed with the fuel we left with, as a diversion to an alternate airport is almost impossible. Therefore we didn't gain a foot of altitude that didn't have to be gained, and that meant skimming through passes between glaciated six thousand-foot mountains. This made for stunning photographic opportunities, but generated almost constant bumpiness.
Nonetheless, I managed to expose two 36 shot rolls on the trip out, hoping to document the river valleys, frozen lakes, and the ubiquitous mountains that passed under us during the two hour flight. The Sawtooth Mountains were the first major range we passed, and while not particularly high in elevation, their knife-edged crest made them imposing. The island-studded Yukon River was particularly striking, its sinuous, white shape looking every bit as impressive as authors like Jack London have given us to believe. The Ray Mountains marked the half-way-point, and as we brushed across them at very low altitude, their treeless, boulder-strewn contours proved attractive but difficult subjects. Finally, the Brooks Range came into view. The range is Alaska's farthest north and one of its most impressive. It serves to wall off the interior from the Arctic Ocean, as well as mark the northern boundary of the tree line -- past the Brooks, nothing but tundra grows.
Arrival at Shungnak was quite an event. I had been following our route of travel on a topographical map to help me identify my pictures, and therefore knew we were getting close. I was photographing a deep canyon in the Brooks Range when I noticed our low altitude. A quick glance at the altimeter showed we were down to 500 feet, but so far I had seen no evidence of civilization –- of course, the same could be said for the previous hour and forty-five minutes as well. Moments later the pilot banked sharply to the right, lined up the Navaho with what looked like just another patch of snow, and demonstrated every intention of landing. Amid these maneuvers, I was trying to find the town, get to a window with the best view of it, snap a couple of pictures, and then get myself buckled up in my seat for landing. Needless to say, that last objective didn't make the cut. Moments later we touched down on the village runway, which was almost invisible because of a packed snow cover – a situation that exists most of the year.
The "airport" consisted of a short runway and a clearing where the plane can be taxied and parked, but lacked any luxuries such as refueling capability or a rest room. (The latter situation required some improvising as the airplane also lacked any relief facility.) I crawled out onto the tarmac and into a 20° Arctic spring afternoon and began to absorb the surroundings. Moments later a snowmobile (called snow machines in Alaska) arrived alongside the aircraft towing what looked like a large dog sled. The driver turned out to be the postman and the sled was the mail truck used to cart the mail the several hundred yards into town. "This is my favorite time of year, the snow machine driver greeted me with. "Everything's still pretty (read: frozen over), there's more than twelve hours of daylight, the bugs are a month or two away, and it's warming up!"
The town is a collection of perhaps three dozen snow-covered houses, set a mile or two from the southern boundary of the Brooks. All the houses were elevated on blocks because of the permafrost and looked identical save for being blue on one side of street and gray on the other. (I never found out why.) The "streets" were snow-machine pathways, and if there were cars in the town, they were unusable during winter and hidden under the snow. The pathways led out of town in every direction, some looking more traveled than others, and I had the feeling that the busier ones must have led to hunting or fishing areas. As I photographed, I fantasized about the destinations of some of the single tracks, imagining them leading to small pockets of "real" solitude deep in the narrow canyons of the front range.
By the time I had gone through another roll of film, it was time to get on board for the trip back. There were no local passengers and no freight to take back to Fairbanks, so the entire rear of the airplane became my photo studio. Departure formalities at Shungnak were pretty simple. In our case, that meant taxi down the runway to the opposite end, make a 180° turn, check the engines, and take off. I wanted to get pictures of the frozen, dimensionless runway, and several of the blue-gray village during take off. After breaking ground, the town was left behind the aircraft after three quick shutter clicks. During the climb out I kept busy looking for moose, caribou, or any other wildlife, but the landscape proved motionless.
The return flight was even lovelier and more interesting than the trip out. I'm told that late afternoon and early evening at this latitude this time of year is glorious and unhurried, a phenomenon I can substantiate but am at a loss to explain. The clouds that earlier had given me concern formed isolated snow squalls on either side of our route, but never interfered with my photography. I spent a good part of the next two hours crawling around on the floor in the back of the plane trying to capture fleeting images of river valleys in deep shadow, ominous looking ice crevasses on the slopes of peaks, and knife-edged ridges catching the last rays of the afternoon sun. In many cases these were the same scenes I had taken on the way up, but the orange light made them oh so much more special.
By the time Fairbanks came into view, it had lost its "outpost on the edge" look of five hours ago but instead resembled a major metropolis. The airport with its miles-long runway, large terminal, and parked 747's could have been JFK, after the field at Shungnak. Clearly, my standards for "outpost" and "airport" had been redefined. But what stuck in my mind most of all was the veritable 21st century Pony Express operation that I had just witnessed, complete with all the courage and daring of the four-legged version 150 years earlier. I could only imagine what the trip I had just completed must be like in the dead of winter, with daylong darkness and below zero temperatures of 30° and 40°, not to mention the occasional red oil lights. I felt very fortunate to have been able to experience this country's last remaining mail-delivery adventure. It will stay with me the rest of my life.
Getting There: Alaskan Bush Mail
There have been bush mail airlines and pilots for decades, but the present day process of delivering bush mail to remote native villages in Alaska is an interesting series of compromises worked out by local politicians and the federal government shortly after airline deregulation in the late 1970's. As it was explained to me, the politicians feared that the native villages, tiny population islands and totally dependant on air service, could never afford to provide profit-making routes to an airline. The politicians, with some help from Congress, "persuaded" the postal service to fund the small airlines to make these flights, and as a result, all merchandise whether UPS, FedEx, or regular mail, goes up to these towns as US Mail. The Postal Service charges their regular rates for the goods, and then pays the airline a significant surcharge, but one that permits air service to continue. Even more importantly, these planes are equipped for air evacuation of critically ill residents, which over the years has saved numerous lives.
Sightseers like myself can ride along on these trips for around $200 round-trip. Passengers with reservations are allowed on a space-available basis, but the fares are higher depending on destination. I flew on Warbelow's Air Ventures, phone # 907/474-0518, but there are at least six good bush airlines, most flying twin engine, eight passenger Piper Navaho's, and the pilots are as good as they come. For other airlines contact the Fairbanks Visitor's Bureau #907/456-5774. The trip is the most cost-effective method to experience the breadth of Alaskan landscape as well as the bush mail process itself. In the case of Shungnak, this "process" is the villagers' lifeline in the 10 or so months in between riverboat visits. The boats come only during the several month thaw season. For the adventuresome, one can fly up to an Arctic Circle village, backpack for a period of time, and then fly back on a later flight. I found the Alaska Public Lands Information Center (in Fairbanks) to be particularly helpful on these issues (907/456-0527). Fairbanks and the interior of Alaska are on Alaska Standard Time, one hour earlier than Pacific Standard.