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The Trip III

(Part Three)

The Bethel runway lights are broken? A moan echoed through the terminal. “Are they kidding?” I asked no one in particular.

They weren’t.

The man on the PA continued. “Alaska Airlines is adding an extra flight tomorrow. All of you will be rolled over onto that plane and your flights rebooked.”

I borrowed a phone from my friend Julia, who looked to be near tears, and informed my family that I would be spending the night in Bethel. “No, at the moment I have no idea when I’ll be home,” I said.

As I strolled to the counter to retrieve my bag a new fear flashed through my mind. A whole plane load of people would now be looking for hotel rooms in a town of 6,000 people.

Quickly, I retrieved my luggage and went to find a taxi. I’m not sure how we did it, but after standing in the freezing cold for about ten minutes I crammed into a cab with four other people.

Fortunately, I was the first one dropped off. I walked into the Long House Hotel and found a line of five families at the check-in counter.

Reaching the front of the line, I said, “I need a room for tonight.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

“No.”

“Were you on the flight that was cancelled tonight?”

“Yes.”

He nodded. “That sure has been a bonus for the hotel tonight.”

“Do you have any rooms available?”

“A few.”

With a look at the line behind me I said, “I’ll take one.”

I woke the next morning, Sunday the 22nd, just after 6:00 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t have to be at the terminal until 10:00 a.m. so breakfast sounded like a good idea, but the restaurant wouldn’t be open until 8:00 a.m. I climbed out of bed, bathed, shaved, dressed, packed and was standing at the door of the restaurant before they unlocked the door.

When they opened I took a booth all for myself and ordered eggs, pancakes and sausage. Lord knows when or where I’ll be eating next. As I finished my meal I heard someone ask, “Would you like some company, Kyle?”

Looking up, I saw Brett, the Principal of Eek School, with his wife and two young children.

I motioned for him to join me. “So, you didn’t get out of Bethel either.” Brett and his family had been trying to leave town on an Era Airlines turboprop flight to Anchorage.

“No,” he said as he sat down. “When the weather delayed us getting out of Eek, we missed our flight. Era is so backed up….” He let the sentence die with a shake of the head. “We spent the night here and now we’re scheduled to fly out on Christmas Eve.”

We spent the next few minutes sharing travel horror stories and then wished each other luck as I left to pack a few last minute things and head to the airport.

We had been told to return to the Alaska Airlines terminal at 10:00 a.m., but at 9:35 when the taxi dropped me off it was already busy. The line coiled around the waiting room like giant snake, and I was the end.

The line slowly moved forwarded while growing longer. The waiting area got ever more crowded. Over an hour later I stepped up to an agent. She confirmed I was booked on the 11:00 a.m. flight to Anchorage.

I looked at my watch. It read 10:50.

“We’re running behind,” the agent said and handed me a boarding pass.

“So, I’m only booked to Anchorage?”

She sighed. “The only available seats are on Christmas morning.”

It was my turn to sigh. “If that is all you have book me on it.”

The Christmas Morning Ticket

The agent typed on the computer for a minute and then wrote my connecting flight information on a scrap of paper, tore it from the sheet, and handed it to me.

I stared at it for a second. “This is my ticket,” I asked waving the bit of paper.

“It’s more of an itinerary than a ticket. Show it to the agent in Anchorage when you pick up your luggage.”

Feeling not a bit confident, I walked over to the growing TSA line.

(Part Four tomorrow)

The Trip II

(Part Two)

After removing the freight from the plane loading our luggage was easy and quick.

Just before takeoff the pilot turned in his seat and gave the usual speech about seatbelts and, in case of a crash, where the emergency transponder was located, then he said, “If we get to Bethel and I start circling it’s because the visibility has gone down over the airport.”

At that moment visions of us flying around and around over Bethel, but ultimately returning to Eek darkened the already cloudy day for me. The pilot went on to say, “It has been doing that all day.” However, he seems confident we would land in Bethel.

 I had planned to take video as we bumped down Eek’s icy dirt runway and get a shot of the village as we lifted in the air, but instead I was scraping frost off the inside of the window. When the window was clear I did took the video of frozen tundra which you see here.

The Caravan that you see in the video is much bigger than the Cessna 207s that normally service the village. This is fast luxury flying from the for us.

The weather stayed clear and we were soon on the ground in Bethel. It was now about four in the afternoon of December 21st. As I walked from the plane toward Grant Aviation terminal in Bethel I considered my options. I had no hotel reservation. My travel itinerary had me arriving home, with Santa, late on Christmas Eve. I decided to head over to the Alaska Airline terminal and try and get on the evening flight to Anchorage. I knew that it was very unlikely that I would get a seat, but I saw no reason not to try.

The Alaska Airlines terminal in Bethel, consists mostly of a waiting room with three ticket counters, a TSA checkpoint, baggage carousel, and bathrooms around the edges. By modern airport standards its small and drab. The clerk behind the counter shook his head slowly. “Every seat is taken, but I can take your name down in case something opens up.”

I thanked him and sat down with my friends Dirk and Julia in the waiting area. Dirk had missed his flight on Friday, but had managed to get rebook earlier and get a seat on the night flight. Julia was even luckier; she had originally booked herself on the upcoming flight. I sat between them wondering just how long I would be in Bethel.

Three hours later, as I chatted with my friends, a voice came over the waiting area. “Kyle Pratt, please report to the ticket counter.”

I nearly ran.

Going up to the same clerk he said, “I’ve got you a seat on the flight tonight and as he typed my information in he added, “a seat has opened up on the red eye flight to Seattle. Do you want it?”

“Yes!”

For over an hour I relaxed in the glow of knowing I would be home by morning. Then I again heard the crackle of the PA system. “Attention in the terminal, the runway lights here in Bethel are broken, they won’t turn on, and consequently the 9:30 flight to Anchorage has been cancelled.”

(Part Three tomorrow)

Jury Duty (part 2)

Traveling by bush plane is nothing like a regular airline.

As you may have guessed from the picture in part one, I did find Ferdinand and, with him driving, I rode to the airstrip sitting on the side of the ATV. Like the airfield the road to it is dirt, but with hundreds of pot holes, mud, water, ice and gravel. I’m always glad when these trips are over—my butt is sore and my pant legs are splashed with mud.

The pilot of an eight seat Cessna 207, like the one in this earlier picture, was heading back to Bethel so we climbed on board. The plane is cramped and all the seats were full, but the flight was only 20 minutes long.

Upon arrival in Bethel I walked up to the Grant Aviation ticket counter and gave the lady my name and said, “I’m here for jury duty.”

She asked for my juror number and then thanked me. While no paperwork or money changed hands at that time I’m sure the taxpayers of Alaska got the bill. Still, one of the things I like about Alaska is the casual informality.

After checking in at the courthouse I did a fair amount of reading, waiting and talking to a couple of other people from Eek. My friend Loni was one of them, but she was excused that afternoon. I’ve got to ask here how she did that.

Hours later as the northern sun was dipping low in the sky the Judge said we were all excused for the day and to come back tomorrow at eleven.

Really? Eleven? Most people go to lunch at that time, I thought.

After a good night’s sleep and a large breakfast, all paid for with tax dollars, I reported back to the courthouse and waited and read and waited. I filled out a questionnaire, answered questions from both the prosecutor and defense attorney, but eventually I was excused.

In Eek there is only one tiny general store so, I took the opportunity to shop for groceries at a full size store in Bethel. I walked from the courthouse to the store and, after shopping, caught a taxi to the Grant Aviation terminal at the airport. I walked up to the ticket counter and without showing paperwork or ID said, “I had jury duty, but I need to head home to Eek now.”

The lady said, “Sure thing.”  

Again I smiled at the casualness of bush Alaska. Five people, all excused jurors, ended up on a Cessna headed back to Eek that night. As the tiny plane lifted into the night sky I think we were all thinking the same thing, it was good to be going home.

Jury Duty (part 1)

Jury duty in bush Alaska means traveling by plane—if weather permits.

I was supposed to report for jury duty on Tuesday of last week. I packed a bag with three days of clothes because travel at this time of year is always iffy. I might fly into Bethel and get stuck there, so it’s smart to pack extra underwear and socks. However, wind and freezing rain meant that no bush planes could fly, so that day I did my regular job of teaching.

Kyle Pratt waiting beside the plane

The next day the rain had stopped and the wind died down. I thought we would be flying in, but as the first rays of sun hit the village I couldn’t see the runway on the edge of the village. Experience has taught me that if I can’t see it, planes won’t be landing. As the morning ticked on, the fog waxed and waned, but I never saw the runway. Again, I taught in our village school.

On Thursday the sky was clear and the winds were calm. Planes began arriving early. In the village you can go out to the airport and catch a flight, but it is just a dirt field, you wait in the weather, so most people wait for a call from the local agent. They tell you a plane is coming and there is probably a space for you. No one called me. When my friend Loni, who also had jury duty, phoned the agent, she was told passengers were backed up and waiting. We would have to wait. I started teaching.

By 11:00am I figured we were not going in for jury duty. I even phoned the courthouse in Bethel to tell them I couldn’t get in. Of course that is when Loni phoned to say that the plane was nine minutes out from the village.

“What?” I said into the phone, but she had already hung up. I told the students I had at that time to go to their other class, pulled on my boots and parka and headed out to find Ferdinand, one of the local school workers, and hope he could drive me up to the airport on the school ATV.

(Part two tomorrow)

The Delta Discovery

About ten days ago several of our students here in Eek excitedly told me there was an article about me in The Delta Discovery.

The Delta Discovery is the weekly newspaper in our region of Alaska. I had sent them a press release about the book and later someone from the paper had asked me a few questions so, of course, I wanted to read the article.

Between classes I went to the school office where copies are usually available. There were copies from the previous week, but not the current, August 28, issue that I was supposedly in. Later, a co-worker went to the village store promising to bring me a copy but, when she returned, said all the copies were gone.

Monday evening I flew into Bethel on school business. There, in the regional transportation and business hub, and home of The Delta Discovery, I was confident I would find a copy.

There was none at my hotel. Tuesday, after meetings and training, I stopped by the school district office, but didn’t find any copies. That evening I went grocery shopping (an important thing to do when you get to the big city), but both Swanson’s and AC store, were already selling the next issue. At that point I gave up.

Kyle Pratt finally has his copy!

I was in Bethel until the end of the week. Every day at least two people would ask me if I’d seen the article about me in the Delta Discovery. I’d smile and say, “No, but I’ve heard about it.”

I returned paperless to Eek Friday evening. Saturday morning I went to the school to write lesson plans and prepare for Monday. As I walked in I stopped by the office. There on the floor, literally in the first place I had gone looking, was a bound stack of the August 28th issue of The Delta Discovery. I sat in the secretary’s chair and read the article.

The next day the article about me was posted online. Click here if you want to read it.

 

Back in Eek

Yesterday I flew back to the Yup’ik Eskimo village of Eek.

Kyle Pratt points to himself

This will be my seventh year teaching in this remote Alaskan village.  Getting to Eek starts with a flight to Anchorage, but that is only the beginning.  From there you catch an Alaskan Airlines flight to Bethel, about 400 miles west of Anchorage on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, one of the largest river deltas in the world. 

This region is about the size of Oregon, but there are few roads in this marshy region and none where I am going.  This time of year, travel is by boat or bush plane.  So, after arriving in Bethel, I headed over to Grant Aviation, with a fellow Eek teacher Caitlyn James, to catch the next plane to the village.

Bush planes fly on a notoriously fickle schedule.  The departure time may be listed as 2:30, but consider that as only a rough estimate.        

Kyle Pratt with most of the staff of Eek School.

While waiting at the terminal Caitlyn said, “There’s a photo with you in it over there on the wall.”  Of course, I had to go check that out.  The picture is from about two years ago and shows most of the Eek School staff, including me, at the village airport with a Grant plane in the background.  It's weird to see a photo of me hanging in a random location.

We left not long afterwards on a Cessna 207 and arrived in Eek ahead of schedule.  I’ll be in the Yukon-Kuskokwim region until Christmas vacation.