North Slope ‘Milk Race’ Shows How Flight Services Meet The Needs Of People Small And Large In Rural Alaska
As travel restrictions linked to the pandemic loosen, major airlines are easing access to paved runways: Anchorage, Fairbanks or even Kotzebue.
But for adventurers who want to see more remote parts of Alaska, there’s a good chance they’ll travel the last mile in a smaller plane and land on a gravel strip or sandbar.
Along the North Slope of Alaska, passengers are only part of the transportation matrix, which includes freight, mail, plenty of Amazon boxes, and an occasional birthday cake.
Wright Air Service in Fairbanks operates a fleet of over 15 Cessna 208 Caravans, as well as several other types of aircraft. These single-engine planes are a workhorse for remote Alaskan communities along the Yukon River, from Fort Yukon to Galena and Kaltag.
In early April 2020, Wright sent a few of his 208 north to Utqiaġvik to begin transporting passengers, mail and cargo.
Wright Air operates a milk run between Fairbanks and Utqiaġvik. On our flight, we stopped at Arctic Village, Kaktovik, Deadhorse, Nuiqsut and Utqiaġvik.
Most travelers would opt for an Alaska Airlines flight to Anchorage and back north to Utqiaġvik or Deadhorse (Prudhoe Bay). But this route offered an interesting perspective of life in the bush.
In Fairbanks, Wright Air personnel loaded several hundred pounds of rafting equipment for Ouzel’s expeditions. Ouzel is one of the many companies that offer raft trips on the rivers of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Equipment filled most of the Cessna 208. The ground crew at Fairbanks had set up two rows of seats for six passengers who would join us in Deadhorse. Each flight is a “combi” flight with passengers and freight.
Upon arrival at Arctic Village, the pilot and the Arctic Village agent unloaded the rafting equipment for another smaller plane – a Helio Courier – to fly it to the river.
No passengers were on this northbound flight, so we took off for Kaktovik, on the north side of the Brooks Range on the coast.
Kaktovik is a popular destination in the fall when photographers flock to this small town in search of polar bears. Bears congregate on the barrier islands just offshore, waiting for the sea ice to harden. Local guides take small groups of photographers in boats to see bears up close.
This is the second year that all photo tours have been canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After dropping off mail and picking up a passenger, we took off for Deadhorse.
It is only 114 miles from Kaktovik to Deadhorse. The landing on the runway was smooth as silk, since it was paved. It is also designed for the 737s arriving from Anchorage. So we only needed about a third of the trail. It was a long cab to the Wright Air hangar.
Our pilot, Scott Justesen, told us we had to get off the plane while they were refueling. Unlike Arctic Village and Kaktovik, there was a terminal where passengers could shelter from the wind. Even though the sky was clear blue and the sun was high in the sky, the wind was blowing at around 25 knots per hour. That’s okay, because the insects would come out in force if the wind died down.
After refueling, Justesen welcomed new passengers to Nuiqsut and Utqiaġvik, in addition to another load of cargo.
Nuiqsut is only a 59 mile flight away so we were there in about 20 minutes. Eunice, the village agent, met us with her pick-up. Justesen and another Wright Air colleague unloaded the cargo and mail. Then the pilot had to remove one of the folding plane seats from the belly pod to accommodate Eunice and her daughters, who were flying with us to Utqiaġvik.
It is 151 miles from Nuiqsut to Utqiaġvik. We were in the air for an hour. But once on the ground, the pilot removed all the seats. Then the ramp workers transformed the 208 into a freighter. After about 20 minutes, the plane was loaded and proceeded towards Wainwright, about 80 miles to the west.
In Utqiaġvik, large loads arrive on Northern Air Cargo (737) or Lynden Air Cargo (C-130 Hercules). Much of the cargo is destined for businesses or stores in the city. But much of it goes to Wainwright, Point Lay, Atqasuk or Point Hope.
Between the North Slope communities there is a constant flow of travelers to and from the hospital for doctor visits, as well as utility workers from the Borough of North Slope.
It is very expensive to travel on these roads. For example, between Wainwright and Barrow is 80 miles. The fare is $ 227 one way. Wright Air colleague Matt Atkinson told me “you win people’s hearts and minds with freight.”
In fact, along the North Slope, travelers are entitled to 100 pounds of checked baggage each. “And they use it,” Atkinson said.
It’s a balancing act that determines which freight and which courier takes priority.
But then there are some unique fillers that require special handling. A Wainwright resident called to say he was sending two large buckets of seal oil on a return flight and someone would be there to pick it up. Then there was a birthday cake that was due to go to Wainwright for a party the next day. I’m pretty sure our pilot placed it neatly in the co-pilot’s seat for the quick trip.
Utqiaġvik is a hub on the North Slope, but it is also a destination for adventure travelers.
“Tropical Birding is just one of many companies that cater to bird watchers,” said Jack Phan, manager of the King Eider Inn. There was a van of Tropical bird watching travelers in town two weeks ago.
Even though COVID-related protocols are relaxed, Utqiaġvik is slow to open. All the restaurants in town are always take out, for example.
the Auberge King Eider is located in front of the airport. Hotel rooms start at $ 199 a night, but birding groups have taken up most of the available rooms.
Just outside of town you can see migrating ducks and geese, in addition to the beautiful snowy owl. Some references to the origins of the name Utqiaġvik note the similar Inupiaq name Ukpiaġvik – “the place where snowy owls are hunted”.
The North Slope and the destinations around Fairbanks aren’t the only places the Cessna 208s connect Alaskans. Rob Kelley, director of Grant Aviation, operates 25,208 between Bethel and the surrounding villages, as well as between Anchorage and Kenai. Bering Air flies 208s from Nome and Kotzebue to villages in Northwestern Alaska. Alaska Seaplanes, based in Juneau, flies 208s from Haines and Skagway to Kake and Klawock.
It’s nice to think of exploring the world again. But to visit Alaska’s most remote communities, prepare to compete for space on the plane with a kid’s bike, Dr. Pepper’s suitcases, or a four-wheeled vehicle.