Rocking on the Delta

Flying to the beat of Alaska's Eskimo heritage

April 1, 2002

The Yukon River flowed out toward the Bering Sea, terminus of a mighty river that is a staggering 2,600 miles long, with 1,400 miles of it spanning Alaska. Fine silt from its banks colored the river a milky brown. Huge uprooted trees from far upriver swept silently and ominously along its course, stark roots reaching for the sky. Along the shores the willow trees quivered in the river wind, leaves turned away from it in mute submission. Sandbars loomed out of the murky water, some with drifted trees stuck in the muck.

Thousands of pondlets and lakes dotted the Yukon delta's tundra. Each of them hosted numerous families of trumpeter swans, stately sandhill cranes, Canada geese, and other birds. These took advantage of western Alaska's short summer and its abundant mosquito crop to feed their broods.

The delta was alive with wind, rustling and fervent. Tundra grass flowed with it, cotton heads bobbing. The grass seemed to cringe at the sight of my airplane's shadow hawk as I cruised overhead. Fish-drying racks sat along the Yukon River, some at ancient Yupik Eskimo summer campsites. Seagulls flocked around the fish racks in supplication to the fish gods and hopes of any leftover scraps. Boats carrying single hunters or whole families plied the river, vees of waves in their wake. When I flew over them they all waved. I always waved my wings back. It was here, in this solitary world, that I learned the art of bush flying. During years of flying among these remote villages, I came to appreciate the vistas, the challenges, and the people who make up this region.

Four remote Yupik Eskimo villages straddled the Yukon delta's alluvial fan. Sheldon Point, the southernmost of them, is a tiny town at the dividing line between river and sea, and was host to only about 160 people. The Yupik Eskimo name for this village is numan equa, which means end of the land. On gray days it would be hard to distinguish between sere land and sea. Grasses and small shrubs inhabited the area. This village used to be hard to spot since it was so small and compact. The villagers took advantage of the constant wind by erecting wind generators for power. The resident airstrip was a trumped-up pile of gravel that rose from the endless tundra. A ditch two-thirds of the way toward the south deployed aircraft suddenly and ungracefully into the air unless the pilot was prepared. The wings of the ubiquitous Cessna 207, Alaska's bush pickup truck, outstretched the width of the tiny runway, itself only being 1,900 feet long at the time. A lake adjacent to the strip had a yellow Cessna nestled in its waters from a long-ago accident. The ramp could hardly squeeze two airplanes onto its surface.

The air taxi's village agent, Tom Prince, putted out to the strip on an ancient all-terrain vehicle (ATV) pulling a trailer, a smile ever-present on his face. A pile of green mail sacks may have been situated behind him to be given to the pilot. Sometimes prospective passengers gripped the sides of the trailer, bags at their sides. Grunts of exertion emanated from behind 66-pound "triple mailers" as he took them from me to load in his trailer. Triple mailers were three cases of soda in a cardboard box, the popular way of shipping them in Alaska. On days when Tom wanted to fly into the "big city" of St. Mary's, 30 minutes upriver via a Cessna 207, he carried a rickety tan suitcase in tandem on the ATV, his grin even bigger on his face.

Alakanuk was just five minutes north of Sheldon Point; a village now of 670 people, it aligned itself along a slough of the Yukon. Alakanuk means wrong way, in consideration of the maze of watercourses of the Yukon delta. It had willow trees along the shores, unlike Sheldon Point. The slough had riverboats tied to the shore during the summer, filled with red plastic gas jugs and fishnets during the fishing season. The schoolhouse dominated the village, being the tallest building. Boardwalks assured connections between houses over the swampy ground. As I walked through the village, old people sat outside their houses, eyeing me as I passed; smiles were easy
to come by. Children whooped and hollered as they ran surefooted on the wooden walkways, chasing each other, free from the duties of school.

Alakanuk's runway was marginally longer than Sheldon Point's at 2,100 feet, and a "whopping" 40 feet wide, lined with willows on either side. The ramp could hold three airplanes! During the spring "break up" the runway turned into a veritable obstacle course on landing or takeoff, as the villagers would mark the dangerous soft spots with runway cones. It made for some fancy dancing with my feet on the rudder pedals. The village agent came in a blue pickup, ready for the incoming mail. Villagers and curious children always came to watch the proceedings. A run-down shack guarded the ramp while a rickety pole with a faded windsock stood sentinel over the airport.

Just north of Alakanuk was Emmonak, the largest village on the delta; its houses built along the shore followed a finger of the myriad Yukon sloughs. Emmonak was moved from its original village site of Kwiguk, which meant big stream, in the mid-1960s because of flooding. Emmonak means black fish in Yupik. Populated by 840 people, it was the hub of the delta. Riverboats plied the sloughs as regular car traffic would do in more conventional cities. The town bustled with ATVs as the villagers went back and forth to visit. Teenagers also used the ATVs to cruise down the runway. The town even sported a restaurant that made the best hamburgers on the delta — a restaurant that had both a TV and a stereo blaring to keep each other company.

The streets were dusty in the summer and fall from dirt kicked up by the ATVs as they drove around town. The runway was actually a village street, converted to a runway whenever an airplane arrived. I always had to fly over the strip to make sure that people moved off and that there were no kids playing on it. The width of this strip also was 40 feet and it was 2,000 feet long. Its west side sported a line of houses right at the airstrip's edge. I made emergency aborted landings more than once when somebody stepped or drove out onto the runway.

Villagers crowded around the airplane when it came in, ATVs and trucks everywhere, kids skipping and running hither and yon. The ramp itself served as a road and a boat dock when not in use by aircraft. The village agent had an old Wien Air Alaska trailer behind his ATV. When I first flew into Emmonak a seasoned Eskimo couple came to my airplane. Both of them cocked their heads in wonderment, eyes aglitter. The old couple had never seen an Eskimo woman pilot. The old man had a ready grin, grizzled and wise, which he used as he stepped into my plane. The woman had a deeply lined, wonderful face and cracked a smile so wide with friendly eyes that the memory has stuck with me since.

Kotlik, which means pair of pants in Yupik, was on the more northerly part of the delta. A tiny village with all the buildings on stilts and crisscrossed with boardwalks, it was remote and alone on the edge of the Bering Sea. The village came into existence when a Bureau of Indian Affairs school was built and the surrounding fish camp residents moved there out of convenience. About 550 people inhabit Kotlik now and still primarily live off the land. Farther north on the Norton Sound were Stebbins and St. Michael. They were connected to each other by snow machines. Kotlik was a windblown, desolate, but wonderful village. It was the most isolated of the delta villages and seemed to tick to a slower and more beautiful clock, unmarred by the trappings of mass civilization. The airstrip was remote and less than beautiful, since it was just another short, narrow bush strip. It was built up out of the wet land with gravel. Boardwalks led to the village. Shore birds were always everywhere.

One thing common to all of these villages was the wind. Always blowing out of the west from the sea, it kept the mosquitoes at bay. The villagers never thought anything of the wind, it was just there. Pilots, however, thought that airport engineers must have had a sense of glee when they planned the runways. The runways were all perpendicular to the prevailing winds. If pilots did not master crosswind landings, they would not last long on the delta.

As a young pilot, I spent some of my first years in the bush flying out of St. Mary's in the early 1980s, having 1,600 hours in my pilot logbook by that time. St. Mary's is situated on the confluence of the Yukon and Andreasky rivers. Since then, I have accumulated almost 14,000 hours in the bush. Since I flew in St. Mary's years ago, the delta village runways have been vastly improved — made wider and longer, with some of the airstrips moved away from the towns and the dangers of village traffic. As one of the first women to fly out on the delta, I enjoyed the raw wildness and the untouched beauty of Alaska's bush. The people were the real draw. The well-meaning individuals who marked the runways up with cones, the ones who always came out to meet the bush plane just to say hi or send greetings to people in other villages. The ones who always took off their gloves to shake my hand, as was and is the custom. I spent many hours flying over the delta, rocking to the ancient beat of the Eskimo heritage, which is also partly mine.

Ellen Paneok is an aviation safety inspector for the FAA. She has been inducted into the Alaskan Aviation Heritage Museum.