In last week’s episode of “Flying Wild Alaska,” the Discovery Channel’s show about bush pilots working for Era Alaska, the narrator said that flying in Alaska in the spring can be even more dangerous than flying in the winter. Well, it turns out springtime is dangerous for more than just those in the sky, as a nasty flood puts a village along the Kuskokwim River underwater, and fog wreaks havoc on the delivery of vital ammunition for a walrus hunt on St. Lawrence Island.
Springtime in Alaska
Spring is really here this time, despite assurances in the last few episodes, it has genuinely felt like the last few weeks of breakup -- like it takes forever for spring to actually arrive. But in Unalakleet, where Era COO Jim Tweto and his family call home, villagers are taking bets on an Alaska springtime occurrence -- the melting of river ice.
Nenana hosts the best-known of the “Ice Classics” every year, a competition in which a tripod is placed a stretch of river ice, and then people bet on when the tripod will tip over. Unalakleet has its own, smaller version of this tradition, with a pot worth over $2,000 in 2011. Jim’s wife Ferno Tweto and their daughter Ariel take bets at the Era hub in Unalakleet.
After the betting opens and the time approaches when the ice is anticipated to break, there are several villagers standing or sitting atop ATVs on the shore of the Unalakleet River, watching the tripod and waiting for it to tip, hoping they’ve won the purse.
“It’s pretty funny if you think about it,” Ariel says. “Eskimos watching ice melt.”
Elsewhere in Alaska, the residents of Crooked Creek are seeing the other side of springtime. Crooked Creek, located at the north end of a bend in the Kuskokwim River, is experiencing major flooding, as melting river ice has built up and created a natural dam near the village.
Several homes are underwater, and the residents have evacuated north to Donlin Creek, where a mining camp is serving as a makeshift refugee camp. Era is flying supplies to Aniak, the closest village with an airstrip. Jim says it’s not because anyone’s paying, but because it needs to be done.
“When there’s a major disaster (in Alaska),” Jim says, “we don’t flinch and start counting pennies. There’s people’s lives at stake, and we have to help them out.”
Pilot Brett Harris is flying the supplies out to Aniak, and meeting up with several homeland security officials. As he passes over the swollen river, water is standing in many places it shouldn’t be. Harris later tells Jim he’s never seen anything like it.
He’s not alone. Crooked Creek resident Jonnie John motors around the village in a boat, on his way to check out the condition of his cabin.
“This is bad,” 53-year Crooked Creek resident says. “Really bad.”
He arrives at a cabin. “This is my house,” he says, pointing to the building. Outside is a truck submerged above the hood in water -- which means the first floor is also under several feet of icy river water.
“This is the worst I’ve seen our river do this to us,” he says. “I hope it’s the last time.”
Meanwhile, Era pilot Dan Sailors is taking a group of researchers, including Karl Edwards Alaska Emergency Management, to check out the river ice and do a flyover of the damage in Crooked Creek. As they fly over, it’s a mass of water and small fields of chunky ice.
“Crooked Creek hasn’t seen this kind of ice,” Edwards says. “I talked to the elders, they’ve never seen it this bad either.”
In a fog
In Nome, Era pilots Doug Stewart and Nick Stone are headed to the village of Gambell, one of two villages on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Strait. They’re about to encounter their own springtime weather problem, although theirs isn’t as drastic as the one in Crooked Creek.
The villagers in Gamble are in the midst of their springtime walrus hunt, and Stewart and Stone are delivering needed rifle ammunition for the annual hunt. They’ve been kept out of Gambell for the last six days because of heavy fog and low visibility.
“I would definitely say the springtime is harder to fly than the winter time,” Stewart says, because the dew point is closer to the actual temperatures, which creates fog, especially as winds blow over the Bering Strait and meet the coastline.
Stone, who we met earlier in the season and inexplicably refused to wear a jacket, even in the frigid Alaska winter, must really be loving it now that it’s warmed up above freezing. He’s a bit of a joker, and he and Stewart riff on the way to Gambell. We learn that Stewart quit flying for a while to act in New York.
It would be hard to imagine a lot of grizzled Alaska pilots taking acting classes, but Doug’s a laid-back guy, so it’s not too much of a stretch. His acting career never really took off, although he says he was in a couple of soap operas, and had what they call an “under five,” meaning a speaking part with less than five lines. Stone makes him act the line, and he takes it seriously as he sets Stewart up.
“What’s the condition of the patient?” He asks.
“Headwound, possible concussion,” Stewart replies, and they chuckle. Stewart says he sometimes catches flack from the other pilots about his brief stint as an actor.
Things quickly turn serious though, as they check conditions at the Gambell airport and find out that the visibility is low at a mile, but the cloud ceiling is high -- which means fog. There’s fog rolling around them as they look for the runway. It descends on them and they lose sight of even the water below for a moment.
“I don’t see anything now,” Stone says, right as the fog lifts and the runway appears below. They drop off the ammunition with local villager Jan Campbell, who the cameras follow back to his house, where he has a crate full of fresh walrus meat.
“A good hunt is the difference between a mild short winter, versus a long hard winter,” Campbell says.
Stewart and Stone head back to Nome, but a few days later they need to return to Gambell. Stone pages Stewart in the terminal.
“What’s the condition of the patient?” He says over the intercom.
When they land back in Gambell, Campbell is waiting for them again with a small Tupperware container in hand.
“I got some goodies for you,” Campbell says.
“I was hoping you’d forget,” Stewart tells him.
The “goodies” are predigested clams, harvested from the stomach of a walrus. Stone and Stewart grimace as they take a bite. Stewart enjoys his, but Stone immediately reaches for his Nalgene water bottle to wash it down.
‘The Alaska limo’
In Unalakleet, Ariel’s cousin Keira walks into the terminal in a dress. She’s going to prom, and she needs to go to Shaktoolik to pick up her date. Her gown is black, and to complement it, she’s wearing a special Alaska touch: bunny boots with pink laces.
Pilot Ben Pedersen is in charge of taking her to Shaktoolik, and he shuttles her there in his “Alaska limo.” Her date is standing in a tuxedo with a red bow tie waiting at the end of the runway.
It’s a cool moment, a way of showing how different things are in rural Alaska but also similar. Keira’s date asks Ben to fly over the hills instead of along the coast, and Ben’s happy to accommodate.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com