A North Slope ‘milk run’ shows how flight services fill needs big and small for rural Alaskans

As pandemic-related travel restrictions loosen up, the big airlines make it easy to get to the paved runways: Anchorage, Fairbanks or even Kotzebue.

But for adventurers who want to see more remote parts of Alaska, chances are they’re going to fly the last mile in a smaller plane and land on a gravel strip or a sand bar.

Along Alaska’s North Slope, passengers are just one part of the transportation matrix, which includes freight, mail, lots of Amazon boxes and an occasional birthday cake.

Wright Air Service in Fairbanks operates a fleet of more than 15 Cessna 208 Caravans, as well as several other aircraft types. These single-engine planes are a workhorse for far-flung Alaska communities up and down the Yukon River, from Fort Yukon to Galena and Kaltag.

In early April 2020, Wright’s sent a couple of its 208s north to Utqiaġvik to start flying passengers, mail and freight.

Wright Air operates a “milk run” between Fairbanks and Utqiaġvik. On our flight, we stopped in Arctic Village, Kaktovik, Deadhorse, Nuiqsut and Utqiaġvik.

Most travelers would opt to fly with Alaska Airlines down to Anchorage and back north to either Utqiaġvik or Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay). But this itinerary offered an interesting perspective of life in the Bush.

In Fairbanks, the Wright Air staff loaded up several hundred pounds of rafting equipment for Ouzel Expeditions. Ouzel is one of several companies that offers raft trips on rivers in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The gear filled up most of the Cessna 208. The ground crew in Fairbanks had put in two rows of seats for six passengers who would join us in Deadhorse. Every flight is a “combi” flight with passengers and freight.

On arrival in Arctic Village, the pilot and the village agent from Arctic Village unloaded the rafting gear for another smaller plane — a Helio Courier — to fly it out to the river.

No passengers were getting on this northbound flight, so we took off for Kaktovik, on the north side of the Brooks Range on the coast.

Kaktovik is a popular destination in the fall when photographers flock to this small town in search of polar bears. The bears congregate on the barrier islands just offshore, waiting for the sea ice to firm up. Local guides take small groups of photographers in boats for an up-close look at the bears.

This is the second year that all photography tours have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After dropping off some mail and picking up a passenger, we took off for Deadhorse.

It’s just 114 miles from Kaktovik to Deadhorse. Landing on the runway was smooth as silk, since it was paved. It’s also built for 737s that fly in from Anchorage. So we only needed about a third of the runway. It was a long taxi over to the Wright Air hangar.

Our pilot, Scott Justesen, told us we had to get off the plane while they fueled up. Unlike Arctic Village and Kaktovik, there was a terminal building where passengers could get out of the wind. Even though it was a clear blue sky and the sun was high in the sky, the wind was blowing at about 25 knots per hour. That’s OK, though, since the bugs would be out in force if the wind died down.

After fueling up, Justesen welcomed new passengers headed to Nuiqsut and Utqiaġvik, in addition to another load of freight.

Nuiqsut is just a 59-mile flight, so we were there in about 20 minutes. Eunice, the village agent, met us with her pickup. Justesen and another Wright Air co-worker unloaded the freight and mail. Then, the pilot had to pull one of the folding airplane seats out of the belly pod to accommodate Eunice and her daughters, who were flying with us to Utqiaġvik.

It’s 151 miles from Nuiqsut to Utqiaġvik. We were in the air for an hour. But once we were on the ground, the pilot took out all the seats. Then, the ramp workers turned the 208 into a freighter. After about 20 minutes, the plane was loaded up and headed to Wainwright, about 80 miles to the west.

At Utqiaġvik, the big cargo loads come in on Northern Air Cargo (737s) or Lynden Air Cargo (C-130 Hercules). Much of the cargo is headed for businesses or stores in town. But lots of it is bound for Wainwright, Point Lay, Atqasuk or Point Hope.

Between the communities on the North Slope, there is a steady flow of travelers to and from the hospital for doctors’ visits, as well as North Slope Borough utility workers.

It’s very expensive to travel on these routes. For example, between Wainwright and Barrow is 80 miles. The fare is $227 one-way. Wright Air co-worker Matt Atkinson told me “you win the people’s hearts and minds through freight.”

In fact, along the North Slope, travelers are allowed 100 pounds of checked baggage each. “And they use it,” said Atkinson.

It’s a balancing act determining which freight and mail gets priority.

But then there are some unique loads that call for special handling. One resident in Wainwright called to say they were sending two big buckets of seal oil on a return flight and that someone would be there to pick it up. Then there was a birthday cake that needed to make it to Wainwright for a party the next day. I’m pretty sure our pilot placed it carefully in the co-pilot’s seat for the quick trip.

Utqiaġvik is a hub on the North Slope, but it’s also a destination for adventure travelers.

“Tropical Birding is just one of several companies that cater to birdwatchers,” said Jack Phan, manager of the King Eider Inn. There was a vanload of Tropical Birding travelers driving around town two weeks ago.

Even as COVID-related protocols are eased, Utqiaġvik is slow to open up. All restaurants in town still are takeout only, for example.

The King Eider Inn is located across the street from the airport. The hotel rooms start at $199 per night, but birdwatching groups have taken many of the available rooms.

Just out of town you can see migratory ducks and geese, in addition to the beautiful snowy owl. Some references to the origins of Utqiaġvik’s name note the similar Inupiaq name Ukpiaġvik — “the place where snowy owls are hunted.”

The North Slope and destinations around Fairbanks are not the only places Cessna 208s connect Alaskans. Rob Kelley, head of Grant Aviation, operates 25 208s between Bethel and surrounding villages, as well as between Anchorage and Kenai. Bering Air flies 208s from Nome and Kotzebue to villages in Northwest Alaska. Alaska Seaplanes, based in Juneau, flies 208s from Haines and Skagway down to Kake and Klawock.

It’s nice to think about exploring the world again. But to visit the farthest-flung communities in Alaska, be prepared to compete for space on the aircraft with a kid’s bicycle, cases of Dr. Pepper or a four-wheeler.