Wednesday, August 28, 2019

First Trip to Red Dog

Having spent the past eight hours flying from Indianapolis I was more then ready to get up and move around.  Landing in Anchorage International Airport, the plane slowly taxied from the runway to the gate.  I did my best to look out the window from the aisle seat.  

Mountains.  I could see mountains.  A gentle calm came over me.  I was back in my home state of Alaska.  

As soon I was off the plane and on the jet way connecting the plane to the terminal, I felt the cool Alaska air all over my body.  Inhaling it in, I smiled to myself.  I can breathe.  No more humid Midwest air. 

I found my bags at the baggage claim.  Made my way to the hotel.  Check in, dropped my bags off in my room.  Immediately, went right back outside to go for a walk.  

It was about 8pm.  It was a gorgeous evening for a walk, sunny and clear.  The temperature was in the low 60s.  Perfect weather.

After an hour or so, I returned to the hotel bar.  Sat out on the deck.  Ordered a Reuben sandwich and a cold Rainier Beer.  Returning to my room a little before 11pm, the sun was still out.  I guessed it would be another 2 hours before it would go below the horizon.  Land of the midnight sun.

The next morning was an early one.  I had a 7am flight to catch.  Fly Alaska Air to the village of Kotzebue.  My first time flying so far north.

Landing in Kotzebue was a trip.  The runway is not all that long.  The pilot did a very good job stopping the Boeing 737 before running out of runway.  

Kotzebue is a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.  Tundra country.  A permafrost landscape.  No trees. Just shrubs and small bushes.  Treeless mountains in the distance still covered in snow. 

Getting off the plane in Kotzebue was comical.  No jet way to the airport terminal.  Steps were rolled up to the plane, and I had to walk about 50 yard across the tarmac to get inside the terminal.  

I noticed immediately the air temperature was about 10-15 degrees cooler than Anchorage.  It was cool enough for me to want my hoodie that was inside my backpack but no time to dig it out.  The TSA agent that was at the bottom of the stairs was waving a few of us passengers to get off the plane.  About halfway to the terminal, another TSA agent stopped a group of us.  He said to wait and let these people pass.  I didn’t see anyone.  Then I saw about 6 or 8 people walking towards us from the terminal.  It was some of the boarding passengers heading out to get on the plane.  I didn’t understand what was going on.  Don’t they normally let all the passengers off the plane first before they start to re-board the plane?

Not in Kotzebue.

After another stop by a TSA agent to wait for the next group of boarding passengers, I finally got inside the terminal.  And what a madhouse it was.  The Kotzebue airport terminal was super tiny--one room, not much bigger than a 3-car garage.  And all the normal things that you see at an airport were in this one room.  On one side was a small ticketing check in counter. The other side was a small miniature luggage carousel with luggage making its short round and round.  A front door went out to the parking lot, and a back door led to the tarmac.  TSA had their outdated, walk-through, metal detector at the back door.  You had to walk through the metal detector getting off the plane.  People trying to clear through security had to wait for those getting off the plane, vice versa.  

And on this day, it seemed like half the village was in that very small airport terminal.  The place was packed.  Standing room only.  People tried to get through security one direction or another.  People tried to get to their luggage on the very small luggage carousel. Then there were those in line trying to get checked in at the ticket counter.  Families hugging and kissing loved ones.  It was a zoo.

After getting to the luggage carousel to collect my bags, I headed for the front door of the airport.  

Kotzebue Airport Alaska Air terminal

I walked down the street.  I was looking for Kotzebue Air, a small regional airline, which would be my final flight to get to Red Dog.
Noticing the local houses, it seemed like every other house had dogs in the yards.  Some had lots.  Dog sled teams.

Dog Sled team

Kotzebue house
Being the start of the summer months, the snow was gone revealing all the clutter in people’s yards.  

I found Kotzebue Air and checked in.  I gave the gal behind the counter my bags.  She put them on a cart and said that I had 4 hours until the plane departed.  Looking at the Kotzebue Air waiting area, which was not much bigger than your average living room, I knew it was going to be a long 4 hours.  

I decided to go explore the village of Kotzebue.  It only took about 15 minutes to walk around the village.  I went to the local grocery store to get a snack.  I was blown away by the outrageous prices--over $4.00 for a liter of Coca-Cola.  

It cost a lot to get things flown into the Arctic

Kotzebue Main Drag

Arctic Church

Caribou racks 
After seeing the sites, I went back to Kotzebue Air.  I pulled out a book from my backpack and got comfortable in a chair.  

It became more entertaining to people watch.  Locals would come in to catch a flight to wherever. Or they would drop off packages with whatever to have flown out to whatever remote part of the artic.  About every 5 or 10 minutes someone would come in.

Not every family uses cars to get around
One man, an old-timer native with a thick native drawl, came in with two 5-gallon buckets in hand. He told the gal that he needed these buckets flown out to his brother to whatever village.  

She nicely asked, “What’s inside the buckets?”

“Seal oil,” the old timer responded.

She kindly told him that they could not fly open buckets full of seal oil.  It was at that point that I could smell the stench of seal oil filling the waiting area. The smell was indescribable, like a fishy sting, metallic almost.

The man turned and walked out with his buckets of seal oil. 

About an hour later, a man walked into the waiting area with a clipboard.  He called out 3 names, mine being one of them.  He introduced himself and said that he was going to fly us to Red Dog. We followed him through the door behind the check in counter that lead out to a hanger.  Passing through the hanger, the pilot stopped at a cart with luggage on it.  He said that if we saw our bags grab them.  We picked up our bags and followed the pilot out of the hanger and onto the tarmac. He pointed towards three Cesenas that were parked together.  “Our plane is over there.”  He climbed up into one of the Cesenas and told us to hand him our bags.  

After loading the plane, he got out and looked around and said, “Well, I don’t see Greg.  He must still be at lunch.  We’re a little short staffed today.  We need to back this plane up about 40 feet.  Let's push this plane back.  Two of us on each wing should get the job done.”

The four of us pushed until the pilot said, “That should do it.  Let's get in.”

Pilot from Kotzebue Air
I sat just behind the pilot.  He fired up the twin engine Cesena and taxied out to the runway. He pushed the throttles down and the engine roared.  

We climbed to about 500ft and started to turn to the left. Looking out the window, I watched the village of Kotzebue pass by until it was out of view.  Still climbing and flying over Kotzebue Sound, I felt the plane make a hard bank to the left.  I looked at the pilot.  He was shaking his head and adjusting the flaps on the plane.  

Village of Kotzebue 

We circled back and lined up with the runway and landed. Taxing back to the hanger, the pilot shut one engine off so that we could hear him better.  

He yelled out, “Weather.  The weather at Red Dog is not good.  The runway is fogged in.”

We made our way back towards the waiting area of Kotzebue Air. Greg was back.  He waved as we passed by him.  “Bad weather?” he asked.  The pilot nodded.
I grabbed a cup of coffee from the coffee pot that was behind the check in counter and went back to my book.

About an hour later the pilot came back in and said, “Let’s try it.”  

We took off again.  

I looked out the window, enjoying the barren landscape below--nothing but tundra wilderness.

The pilot weaved the plane around the mountains throughout the 45-minute flight.  He kept the plane low in elevation, no more the 800ft up.  The cloud ceiling was low.  I watched him throttle back the engines and start to adjust the flaps. Looking out the front window, I could start to just barely see a runway. 

Red Dog Runway

Landing was smooth and effortless.  

It was starting to drizzle rain and the fog was still present but lifting.  

I made it to Red Dog.      



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