Air taxi delivers South Naknek students to school, slowing village's decline

NAKNEK — For decades, the Bristol Bay Borough School District has relied on more than school buses and drivers to get its students between school and home: A daily air charter brings students in the village of South Naknek to the north side of the river to attend school in Naknek.

According to the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, it's the only daily air taxi to a school in the state.

When school lets out at 3:30 p.m., Peter Geffe and Amy Angasan climb into a 15-passenger van. Both brother and sister put in their earphones for the 1-mile drive from the school to the small gravel landing strip of the Naknek airport.

Now teenagers, Peter and Amy moved to South Naknek from Anchorage when they were in elementary school and have been flying to school ever since. Though the flight seemed exciting when he was 8 years old, Peter says the novelty wore off pretty fast.

"As time moved on it got a little more boring," said Peter. "Nowadays it's just something I do."

Amy enjoys getting to see her two hometowns from the air every day, especially this time of year, she said, when everything greens up.

The students climb into the four-seater plane operated by King Air, clutching laptops and bookbags. It's a short flight; the plane will touch down on the south side in less than five minutes.

Aside from being fast, the air taxi is the most reliable and safest way to get across the Naknek River. Twenty-foot tidal fluctuations make it impossible to launch a boat at the same time day after day, and the river doesn't freeze consistently enough to drive vehicles across in the winter. An effort to build a bridge between the two communities never got enough support or funding.

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Of course, there are times when Peter and Amy can't fly back across the river after school. Sometimes they get weathered in by fog or wind, or they have to miss the flight to stay for sports practice.

"I have to stay over here most of the time during basketball season," said Peter.

When they have to stay school-side, Peter and Amy sleep at friends' houses, or at their Aunt Nola Angasan's place, a big, cheerfully noisy home up the road from the school.

Nola and her husband have hosted South Naknek students for the last 30 years. Between her own four kids, foster children, adopted grandkids and a popular daycare business, Nola has always had a full house.

"I really liked it too," said Nola. "Kids these days always seem to want to take off, or be somewhere else. But with my kids I never had to worry, because there was always someone here for them to play with, or something to do."

Nola's husband, Steven Angasan, grew up in South Naknek. He and his siblings also took the air taxi to school in the 1970s.

"It was like nothing! Like riding a bike," he said.

"Just like everyday life," added Nola.

Back then, South Naknek still had an elementary school. Still, Steven says there were enough middle and high school students to fill four planeloads across the river every day.

But in 2004, the primary school closed too and South Naknek has been shrinking ever since. It's a familiar story around Bristol Bay — communities like Portage Creek, Ivanof Bay and Clarks Point have lost their schools in recent years to low enrollment.

"For some, it's an instant decline," says Steven Angasan. "After the school, then the mail planes quit coming, then everybody moves out to bring their kids to school. There's a few villages in this region that've shut down over the years."

Recently, the Trident Seafoods plant in South Naknek closed, taking with it a few more jobs and facilities. But the village is still hanging on, with 30 to 50 residents at any given time.

The air taxi, Steven says, is probably keeping some families around who would otherwise have to move elsewhere to put their kids in school.

The daily flights are funded by a pupil transportation grant from the state Department of Education and Early Development. Each district gets a different amount per student; it's a number set years ago based on factors including fuel costs, how much road there is in a town, vehicle maintenance and local wages. The number for each district has grown at times, along with inflation and occasional legislative action.

At $2,952 per student per year, the Bristol Bay Borough School District has the highest transportation allocation in the state. The next highest is the Alaska Gateway School District at $2,299 per head. For comparison, the Anchorage School District gets $481.

It's a figure that may cause some to cringe at a time when the state is grappling with a massive budget shortfall. But what's important, says Superintendent Bill Hill, is that all the students in the Bristol Bay Borough have access to school.

"Students do have a right to an education in the state of Alaska," said Hill. "This service provides South Naknek students the education that every student deserves. So we appreciate the fact that this can happen."

Peter Geffe and Amy Angasan are the only school-age kids in Naknek right now. After Peter graduates next spring, Amy might be doing the river hop alone during her senior year.

But, as Nola Angasan pointed out, South Naknek isn't yet a ghost town. There are still families who come and go, from Anchorage or Naknek or elsewhere, and as long as there's state funding, the superintendent says the air taxi will always be an option.

This story was originally produced for Dillingham radio station KDLG. It is republished here with permission.