Friday, May 2, 2014

Alaskan Rush Hour

There is only one highway in Alaska and I’ve heard its one of the most dangerous roads in America. I wouldn’t actually know because I have never driven on it. This post is not about freeways, packed subways or any of those other typical commuting systems, this post is about how most people in Alaska commute to work. Before you ask, no, its not by sled-dog team, orca or polar bear ride … its by air.

Not my photo, but this is what flying over Alaska really looks like. 
Rush hour in Alaska, like most other places, is a predictable enough event, although instead of happening everyday at 7am and 5pm it happens each year at the beginning and end of fishing season.  There are essentially 5-6 “airports” (I use the term loosely for a reason, but we’ll get to that soon enough.) from which every person in the fishing industry attempts to fly into.  I’m talking everyone, fishermen, plant workers, contractors and, of course, observers. That’s almost two thousand people attempting to get through one little bottleneck of a transportation system, in a very small window of time, amidst Alaska’s  somewhat-less-than hospitable weather conditions.

We pick up my story just after Pollock processing in Akutan (which will hereby be referred to as Akutraz) finished for this season. My partner Mark and I were finished with our work at the plant sometime around Easter. All to excited to start our island hopping journey back to Seattle, we cleaned up our acts, packed all our gear  and prepared to leave immediately, but the plant had other plans for us. 

Upon asking, we were never really given exact details of when or how we might be leaving the plant. “Maybe tomorrow” was a central theme in my life for the next few days. Luckily the weather was beautiful for flying, unfortunately the only airline that flies to Akutraz had technical difficulties with ALL of their airplanes. So we waited. Each day we sat at breakfast/dinner (His breakfast but my night-shift dinner.) saying that we couldn’t possibly be stuck at the plant for too many more days, our hope and faith in the discussion waning as each day passed.  After we had our dinner/breakfast pow-wow Mark would head off to go wait for travel calls saying he’d wake me up if we got the call, I would go to sleep thinking this is my last sleep in Akutraz!

After a week of this game, we sat at our usual breakfast/dinner pow-wow, silently staring at our food. Neither of us wanted to play out the usual, “maybe tomorrow” conversation. We were out of hope, and done with this rock of an island. We needed to return to our cell phones, sushi and margaritas, in short, to civilization. After that dismal breakfast I was again sleeping in my room when I heard Mark through my door, “Ali, wake up, we’re on the helicopter at 10 today.”
“What? REALLY?!?! Ten? AM? … What time is it now?”
“Yes really. Get your shit packed. It’s 9am.”
We excitedly packed our bags and turned in our linens and keys! At 9:45 am the travel coordinator for the plant came into our office, “Lists have changed, which means you’ve been canceled.” 
What? How? H-h-h-how can they just do that? Just like that? No helicopter, no sushi, no cell phones? Defeated, I sulked back to my now empty room, to go sleep on a now bare mattress and wait for another day.  I had slipped into a black, exhausted sleep when I heard Mark yet again on the other side of my door, “Just kidding, we’re really flying this time. Get up. The van should take us to our flight in five minuets.”
This is how excited I was to be leaving. Always reminds me of that quote from Finding Nemo "The sun is shining, the tank is clean, and we are getting out of HERE!" 
Well this time he was right! It was an exciting ride. The wind was blowing; a weather front was headed in. As we lifted off the ground the helicopter immediately swayed in the wind. Each gust blew us one way or another, in this little bubble of flying metal and gasoline. Each time we tipped in the wind I got an all too broad view of the angry ocean below. The helicopter pilot was determined to fly all seventy people from Akutan to Akun so we could all make our flights from Akun to Dutch today! A little shaken up, but also excited we landed in Akun’s tiny, double-wide storage container trailer of an airport.   

We felt quite accomplished to be out of Akutraz, until we realized the airport’s only storage container trailer was so full of people you physically couldn’t fit another person inside. Not that there’s much in the trailer, its a heated room with a few folding chairs. No worries, it was in the high thirties and only slightly snow/raining, we could wait out or flight huddling on the leeward side of the “airport” trailer. 45 minuets of freezing our butts off later, an airport crewmember informed us that all 70 of the people waiting in the trailer we expected to make it out of Akun today … If the weather holds. Luckily the plane holds 9 people and there was only abouy 70 waiting to fly. Yay? We succumbed to the cold after a few hours, joined the least fun game of sardines ever, and set about thinking over “Why, oh why didn’t we think to grab lunch at the cafeteria before leaving Akutraz?”

As our turn to fly approached, the rate of time passing seemed to decrease in an almost asymptotic curve. I assumed when our plane eventually arrived, time would stop completely and we’d end up being stuck forever in this dingy, overcrowded trailer. The weather did nothing for our nerves. It got progressively worse until visibility was a fraction of what it was that morning and the wind was blowing so hard you could hear it screaming over the roof of our pitiful shelter.  

Finally we were the last 9 people left, and we heard the props of our plane as it touched down the runway! We jumped for joy, physically. It was surprisingly beautiful flight. The fog and weather came in patches over our 50 mile ride. At times we were flying in grey soup, but at other times we would edge out into a clear patch, and I realized we we’re flying over a sunbathed sea as the clouds swirled over the island mountain tops! It was beautiful. And then we saw Dutch Harbor. Our approach was much less violent that my experience flying in February. Again we flew through a valley so low you could see cliffs on both sides of the plane. Before I knew it we were hovering over the runway and smoothly touching down at the closest thing to civilization I’ve been to in the past three months! We had cell reception at last! We hopped in a cab to leave our bags at the bunkhouse and then headed off for a sushi dinner! (Which was amazing, but if anyone is qualified to judge raw fish quality I guess it’d be the people on the Aleutian Islands.) 

Hopefully we can fly back to the lower 48 tomorrow morning. But for that night I was contented with sushi, a drink, and a working cell phone.   Commuting in Alaska, like everything else, is extreme. So far my commute had taken over 5 days, and I had really only traveled 50 miles … in the opposite direction of home! (Yep, Dutch Hrabor is 50 miles WEST of Akutan.)

Over the next 3 days we played the “wait at the airport on standby for 9 hours everyday” game hoping to catch a flight to Anchorage. Finally we were able to talk our way onto a private charter plane headed to Anchorage that had a few extra seats. Our travel manager pulled some magic out of her hat, got us on the plane and we were home free! Well at least Seattle bound for once.
Sunset over Anchorage from the air. 

So the next time you're sitting in traffic, thinking this is taking forever and that you’ll never get home, remember that if you were working in Alaska it could take you three plane rides, a helicopter, 4 stop-overs and EIGHT DAYS just to get back to civilization! And that’s how Alaska does rush hour.
Hiking in Dutch Harbor while we were stranded. 

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