June 1, 2008
By Alton K. Marsh
Five flights are scheduled into Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska, today, the last remaining outpost of the once nomadic Nunamiut Eskimos who just 60 years ago followed the caribou herds. The village is a mixture of old and new; ancient dances and the fading Inupiaq language survive here, but villagers are flying to Anchorage to root for the boys’ high school basketball team at the state finals, and e-mailing travel plans over a satellite Internet link. (Last year the Nunamiut School girls’ team won the Alaska 1A state championship with only five members.) They get CNN, the Weather Channel (which rarely talks about this region 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle), and entertainment channels that have taught the teenagers to dress California-style.
As recently as the late 1950s, houses were sod huts and caribou-skin tents, like those Mayor George Paneak grew up in, but enough plywood has arrived by cargo aircraft in the years since to build 100 wooden homes. The huts are gone. The school of nearly 100 students compares well to any school building in America, yet it, too, flew in. That’s why the present runway was built in 1961; the school contractor needed a way to get materials and construction equipment to a village without roads, waterways, or railroads.
Today, a Beech 1900 operated by Warbelow’s Air Ventures delivers four visitors for a day-long tour with native guide Cyrus McKenna, along with mail and cardboard boxes of food for the co-op grocery store. It is followed within minutes by a competitor, a Cessna Caravan operated by Wright Air Service delivering residents and boxes of soft drinks. Snowmobiles pulling sleds swarm to the aircraft to accept the cargo handed down to them by pilot Bill Miller of Wright Air.
“A lot of pilots don’t like to go to Anaktuvuk because of weather,” Miller said. “It’s nasty. It’s on a divide of the Brooks Range, and on the north side. So you have 75 miles of the Brooks Range [to fly over before reaching Anaktuvuk]. The lowest MEA [minimum en route altitude] is 10,000, so you get icing. You don’t have much to work with if you have to go down [to a lower altitude]. You really have to watch your options up there.”
Miller’s Caravan has terrain awareness mapping, but he disarms it during the final approach. He said he doesn’t want to be “pushing a button” at the key moment when the runway appears in the windscreen. “You’re too busy to do that in places like Anaktuvuk,” Miller said.
Forty steps after passengers exit Warbelow’s aircraft the moisture in their breath turns eyelashes to icicles. The air temperature is minus 38 degrees Fahrenheit, a biting cold that attacks exposed skin like a splash of mild acid. Tears flow and face masks frost. Six caribou dig through the snow for plants on a mountain next to the runway.
Forty-five minutes later, an Everts Air Alaska tanker carrying nearly 5,000 gallons of diesel fuel for the town’s power generator appears in the blue sky above the 4,800-foot gravel runway to assess the weather. The fuel will keep the houses warm and the lights lit. Nunamiut Corporate Manager Bob Parker calls the runway, “The lifeline with the outside world.” While the Douglas DC-6 tanker is in clear skies directly overhead, blowing snow has generated a thick, white haze in the valley used for the approach. The aircraft will fly below the 6,000-foot-msl mountaintops in that murk while descending to the 2,100-foot-msl runway.
Tour guide McKenna heads off with two women from New Orleans to show them the school, the Simon Paneak Memorial Museum (named after Anaktuvuk Pass Mayor George Paneak’s father who was first to settle there), the church, and the restaurant. The women had flown up days earlier without Arctic clothing, but they got back on the airplane and returned to Fairbanks to get properly outfitted.
White landing lights of the DC-6 first appear a mile into the angled valley, and although the runway is covered with caribou droppings, there are no animals on its 100-foot width. The windchill factor—according to weather data checked days later—is now minus 63 degrees F, a few degrees colder than the Everts Air limit for allowing its crew to work outside.
A picture of Howard Hughes and the name of the movie The Aviator are visible on the DC-6 nose. Hughes bought the airplane as a personal aircraft but never flew it, paying college students to guard it before it was finally sold.
“This is the kind of day when I question my job choice,” says first officer Jeff Jackson after descending a ladder from the cargo door. One of the on-ground fuel pumps isn’t working, so the airplane crew gets down on their hands and knees in the hard-crusted snow to wrestle with dangerously cold pipes and valves.
Jackson jokes that captain Ron Klemm has been flying DC-6s in Alaska “since statehood,” but it is actually 24 years—all but one of them with Everts Air. Klemm had checked the weather prior to his departure from Fairbanks by viewing Anaktuvuk weather cameras on an Internet site.
“It is a lot safer knowing the terrain and what it looks like,” Klemm said. “If you’ve never flown up here before, you’d say, ‘I ain’t going there.’” Few general aviation pilots come to Anaktuvuk even in summer, according to Native American Jerry Skivauyugak, the operator of the above-ground fuel farm. He was out of 100LL at the time.
Klemm said the nuisance level of making deliveries rises as the temperature drops: “The colder it gets the more hassle it is. More things don’t work right. It’s hard to start the pump, and the hoses get stiff. Today we couldn’t get one pump running. We always have an extra pump with us, so we just swapped it out.
“We’re probably up here at least three times a week. Normally when we come up here for the day we’ll drop a load here now and then we go up to Deadhorse on the [North] Slope and get another load, and go up and get [a third] load and bring it down. Today we’re just going to go home [to Fairbanks] because I’ve got to take a checkride,” Klemm says.
There is no more traffic until 3 p.m. when a Warbelow’s Piper Navajo Chieftain returns to pick up the tourists; a Wright Air Caravan makes a second appearance. The Chieftain is on the ground 15 minutes, unloading yet more cargo, but a snowmobile with outbound cargo is late. The wait is long enough to cold soak both engines, and while the starter is able to easily turn both propellers, neither engine will start. The pilot calls for help from the post office next to the runway.
A Cessna 206 is dispatched from Fairbanks with mechanics aboard carrying an engine heater and a new battery, arriving at Anaktuvuk Pass shortly after 7 p.m. It is the first flight of the day to encounter caribou on the runway. While the aircraft is on final, 20 animals make it across, but as it touches down the stragglers see the landing lights and race back to the mountain slope where they have grazed all day. The aircraft gets closer and the 20 caribou nearly run into one another in confusion, raising the fear that they will dash into the path of the 206. It is clear why there are caribou droppings on the runway.
Anaktuvuk means “place of the caribou droppings,” and to natives that is good news—a place of sustenance. The lean and nutritious caribou meat remains a major part of the Nunamiut diet and, best of all, it’s free and right outside during migration.
The Cessna leaves first to get out of the mountains in the last of the daylight while the Navajo departs later in darkness. The caribou choose to stay away.
Once in Fairbanks, 220 nm to the south, company owner Art Warbelow and Warbelow’s marketing director Ed Peebles greet the tourists. “You got a lesson in Arctic operations,” Peebles notes.
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