Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Getting Anywhere

I just spent thirteen hours on a ferry ride that should have taken less than three.  This isn’t all that uncommon though; it’s part of the never-ending adventure involved with going anywhere.  I live in Valdez, a town of 3,500 people.  Our community is surrounded by mountains and sits at the head of a glacial fjord which juts inland from the northern swell of Prince William Sound.  For work, I travel frequently within a one-hundred mile radius, to locations along the Richardson Highway, the Copper River Basin, east to the city of Cordova, and, on occasion, north to the villages of Chitina, McCarthy, Mentasta, and Tatitlek.  A number of times every year, I also make the long trip to Anchorage for shopping, to see my family, or for business.  Over the past five years, I’ve hit the road, the skies, and the water to get to these destinations by car, ferry, bow-picker, jet, prop plane, 4-seater aircraft, and helicopter.  Every time I make arrangements to leave town, I say my prayers, take a deep breath, and assume things may not go exactly according to plan.
We have a perfect combination of severe terrain and brutal weather that, when you think about it, are probably two obvious factors that the pioneers should have paid a bit more attention to when settling here.  The mountains and ocean effectively strand Valdez from its neighboring communities and the frigid temperatures, freezing rain, snow storms, and gale-forced winds seem to put an exclamation point on the idea of crossing these natural barriers. 
My most recent trip is a good example of how things can go quickly awry when traveling around this part of the state.  Several co-workers and I set out for the fishing town of Cordova on board the M/V Fairweather, a high-speed ferry that transits Prince William Sound weekly during the winter.  Typically, the trip is just 2 hours 45 minutes.  After we had made our reservations, the Alaska Marine Highway notified us that we’d be routed through Whittier to accommodate youth sports teams that needed a ride to their tournament.  It would add another three hours to our travel day, but was not really a big deal.  On board, junior high kids bound for volleyball games in Cordova stretched out in the observation deck’s reclining chairs and played electronic games on their iPads.  High school basketball teams lounged and napped.  My co-workers and I sipped coffee at the snack bar and surfed the web.  All was well until we hit the rough water generated by a low pressure system moving rapidly north across the Sound.  Rain battered the ferry’s skylights and the 7’ seas pounded the catamaran’s hull.  About the time the first of the kids got seasick, the captain spoke up, telling wary passengers to stay seated as the ferry rocked, rolled, and crashed along, ducking in and out of protected island passages.  Finally, we sailed into Whittier and while in port, we heard news that a school bus bound for Anchorage was stuck in a snow drift somewhere up on the Glenn Highway and that a semi was hanging over the edge of the Long Lake road cut.  It was unclear who was having the better trip.

As we left Whittier, the captain announced that, instead of going on to Cordova, we would return to Valdez, change ferries, and then head for Cordova.  At 7:00 p.m., we were back in Valdez.  The single-hulled, ocean-going M/V Kennecott pulled up to the dock and we re-boarded in the dark night while quarter-sized snowflakes splattered on our windshields.  The Kennecott proved to be a far more comfortable ride, cutting effortlessly through the high seas with its single hull.  Time was the trade-off for this gloriously restful ride—the Kennecott is big and slow.  Thirteen hours after our initial departure, we arrived in the pouring rain at the ice-covered, snow inundated town of Cordova.  It was 2:00 a.m.
Another recent weekend trip turned into a snow-storm-induced waiting game.  At Christmas, I made reservations to fly to Anchorage to spend the holiday with my family and was scheduled for the morning ERA Aviation flight out of Valdez.  But, a snow storm swept in and ERA cancelled the flight because the ceiling was too low to land.  The other two passengers and I didn’t worry, though, since there’s another airline serving our town which, rumor has it, can sneak in under a lower cloud ceiling than ERA planes.  So, the three of us scurried down the ten yards to the other end of the ticket counter to check in with Grant Aviation for the ‘8:45.  Sadly, that flight was cancelled, too, and I began to feel Christmas celebrations drifting away.  Ever the travel optimist, I rescheduled for ERA’s evening flight, which got cancelled again, and, déjà vu, I headed back to Grant for my final chance to get out of Valdez for the holiday.  Grant Aviation flies a Beech King Air 200 with seven seats.  These aircraft are small enough that there’s just a single pilot, no flight attendants, and all the luggage stacks behind the passengers’ seats, secured in place by netting.  Last summer, I was the only passenger on a Grant Aviation flight to Anchorage and was invited to ride shotgun to balance the weight out.  As a result, I was treated to a low-flying tour of the high Chugach Range, its glacier valleys, and vast ice fields.  But, on this snowy night before Christmas, the Grant flight spent a half hour circling over Valdez while the pilot looked for a hole in the clouds big enough to dip through.  Sometime during the circling, the pilot polled the Valdez-bound passengers to gage interest in returning to Anchorage and got a unanimous vote to ‘keep circling’.  Just in the nick of time, the clouds lifted a bit and the pilot dropped her plane down onto the runway.  In Valdez, we all know that the pilots won’t land if they don’t think they can take off again because they don’t want to spend the night here.  Thus, my weekend holiday plans were secure once I saw that bird taxi up to the terminal.
Cold weather can also throw a wrench into my trips.  I drive big sturdy fleet vehicles from Valdez over Thompson Pass into the Interior of Alaska to visit field offices and work with customers.  The thermometer routinely hits -20 in these locations and several times each winter, temperatures reach -50.  Last November, I attended an event where I needed to park the rig outdoors all day while the temperature refused to rise above -35.  My co-worker, who lives nearby and is more in tuned with her vehicle’s behavior in this climate, kept taking quick breaks to go start her car.  I should have paid attention.  By the end of the day, my rig was frozen solid and, while it would start, it wouldn’t go anywhere.  So, being unwilling to hitchhike back to Valdez, I opted for a night in a nearby lodge, enjoyed an excellent shrimp and rice dinner, fell asleep to one of five television stations available in a drafty upstairs room, and waited for my husband to drive up the next day to get me.
Over the next eight weeks, my calendar tells me that I have a couple of road trips to Glennallen and a flight to Anchorage scheduled.  As always, I’ll just buckle up, hope for the best, and expect the unexpected.

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