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Coronavirus impact on travel sends Alaskans studying and teaching out of state scrambling to come home

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: April 4, 2020
  • Published April 4, 2020

For Alaska travelers, the ground is moving beneath our feet. It’s not an earthquake, but we’re still shook up quite a bit with airline cancellations and schedule reductions.

For parents with students studying Outside, the month of March was more stressful. There was little time to prepare for students to return to Alaska. Then, there’s the issue of dwindling flight options and borders that were closing. Even this week, there are charter flights operating in conjunction with U.S. Embassies to bring travelers back home.

William Scannell, 15, is in his second year at Eton College near London. “I love being at Eton,” he said. “I’ve made a lot of friends here, mostly English.”

Eton was founded in 1440 by King Henry VI — and William is the first Alaskan to attend. The school had spring break scheduled for the last part of March, but was closed on March 18 as part of an overall shutdown in the UK to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

“After the school closed, I stayed with a friend’s family,” he said. “And I flew back on March 21. My friend’s father dropped me off and said to call him if there was a problem.”

London’s Heathrow Airport is one of the world’s busiest. It was a hectic time to fly, even for an experienced traveler.

“Heathrow was a bit surreal,” he said. “I had to wait about 90 minutes in the check-in line. I saw more than five people in full body suits that looked like they were dealing with nuclear waste.”

While the check-in line was busy, it was completely different once he passed security. “The airport was almost deserted past security,” Scannell said. “It was like stepping in to another world.”

Safe at home, Scannell will be doing online classes for the remainder of the year. “I think we’ll be going back, though.”

Miranda Atkinson and Ben Campbell pose at the “sign farm” along the Alaska Highway in Watson Lake, Yukon Territory. (Photo by Miranda Atkinson)

Miranda Atkinson is a journalism student at the University of Alaska Anchorage and had arranged for all of her classes to be online well before the coronavirus pandemic. So she made the decision to do her remote learning in the community of Pebble Beach, California. Rooming with friends, she started teaching yoga at a local golf club, enjoying the California sunshine when she wasn’t studying for her classes.

“It started to get pretty tight really fast,” Atkinson said, referring to lockdown orders in California because of the coronavirus. “Then Alaska sent out a travel advisory to come home. Flights were restricted and Canada started shutting its borders,” she said.

“So, we put the clothes in the car, checked the oil and took off. All the places we wanted to visit on the way also were shut down in Portland and Seattle, so we kept going,” said Atkinson.

Atkinson and her boyfriend, Ben Campbell, traded off on the driving, crossing the border at Sumas, Washington (east of Vancouver, near Abbotsford, B.C.).

“The border was a breeze,” she said. “There was one other car in front of us. They gave us a standard COVID-19 warning about symptoms and hand-washing. It took three minutes.”

Heading north to Prince George for the evening, Ben and Miranda made their way to Watson Lake for a photo at the “sign farm” and then continued to Dawson Creek, to Whitehorse and finally to Fairbanks.

“I think we stopped at every Tim Hortons restaurant along the way,” said Atkinson. “I made a bunch of sandwiches but they got soggy really fast.”

After making the 15-hour drive from Watson Lake to Fairbanks, Atkinson’s dad met her in the driveway with a mask and gloves. Now they’re in quarantine in the basement, where Atkinson is catching up on her online coursework.

Tristin Stetson, 18, was playing hockey and studying special education at Buffalo State College before the school closed and she had to fly back to Alaska on short notice. (Photo courtesy Tristin Stetson)

Tristin Stetson, 18, graduated last spring from West Anchorage High School. She was settled in at Buffalo State College in western New York, playing hockey for the Buffalo State Bengals and studying special education.

“There were rumors last month about other schools shutting down,” said Stetson. “I was going to join my parents at a concert in California. When the concert got canceled, my parents called and told me to pack up.”

Stetson started to pack her things for a return to Anchorage. “Then it got really bad overnight. I got an email from the school saying classes were ending the following day,” she said.

“It’s really weird to be home now,” said Stetson. “I’m getting emails from all my teachers and all my assignments are due. It’s hard to stay organized and balance five or six classes with lectures online,” she said.

“My hockey coaches are giving us some workouts from home. Ours is an athletic school, but everybody’s pretty much in lockdown.”

Danny Kreilkamp enjoys a relaxing lunch in Chiang Mai, Thailand. (Photo courtesy Danny Kreilkamp)

Danny Kreilkamp was done with his own schooling and wanted to travel to Southeast Asia. He landed in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he took a job as a teacher in a local school. “I taught PE and health to kids in grades 5-12. It was a mix of Thai kids, Koreans and Chinese,” he said.

“I intended to finish out the school year until next April. But when I got the announcement from the embassy on March 14, it was pretty concerning. It said to come home now or face being outside the U.S. indefinitely,” he said.

“First I tried a flight through Taipei, but then the Taipei-Seattle flight got canceled. More flights were getting cut each day,” he said. “And we were getting more warnings from the embassy. I was lucky to get back.”

Kreilkamp learned from a co-worker about a flight to the U.S. from Tokyo. To get it, he had to pack up and fly to Bangkok, where he spent the night in the airport. “It was a small price to pay,” he said.

The ticket across the Pacific, though, was spendy. “Let’s just say that was Danny’s Christmas present for the next 10 years,” said his father, John Kreilkamp.

Many Alaska kids, including students who study out-of-state, are frequent flyers. Whether they’re driving back home across the country or flying over the ocean to get here, parents are happy that they’re safe at home.