LIVE: #ArcticBarnstormingTour along Alaska’s North Slope

In Alaska Travelgram by scott

Arctic Ocean splashdown on the beach in Utqiagvik. Photo by Bao Long Lawson.

Last week, I left Fairbanks aboard a Cessna 208EX “Grand Caravan” bound for Arctic Village, operated by Wright Air Service.

The mission: to get a first-hand view of some Arctic aviation ops. Specifically, I got an up-close view of how important reliable aviation options are to Alaskans living in the Bush.

For those Alaskans living off the road system, the smooth operation of planes of all shapes and sizes mean many things: mail service, grocery store, bus station, home improvement store and gateway to the rest of the world.

Ride along with me over the Brooks Range to Barter Island (Kaktovik), Prudhoe Bay, Nuiqsit and Utqiagvik.

The plane: Cessna 208EX Grand Caravan. Wright Air Service co-workers Matt Atkinson and Brett Carlson help load it up.

Wright Air Service was founded in 1966…and now operates more than 15 Cessna 208s. Every single plane is a “combi”, with room for up to nine passengers. According to Cessna’s specifications, the 208’s useful load is about 3,500 pounds. So the weight/balance figures really matter. Yes, they weigh you at the counter, along with all your bags.

Everyone’s getting on board for the first flight. Matt talks to our pilot, Scott Justesen, who has been flying for Wright Air for three years.

Bound for Arctic Village.

Ear plugs engaged, looking backward on our load: rafting supplies for wilderness outfitter in Arctic Village.
Crossing the mighty Yukon River.
On the ground at Arctic Village. Their gas and fuel oil is flown in by Everts Air Service.

We took off from Arctic Village and headed north into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our destination: Barter Island, or Kaktovik. On the ground, we picked up a utility repairman. He travels back and forth to communities on the North Slope, fixing the phone systems, electrical grids, tank farms…the works.

Flying over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Loading up freight in Kaktovik.

Prudhoe Bay is connected to the road system by the Dalton Highway, which starts about 100 miles north of Fairbanks, stretching 404 miles to the Deadhorse Airport. Lots of mail and freight comes up by truck to the airport, where it’s loaded on to the plane for villages like Nuiqsit and Utqiagvik.

All those boxes are going in to the airplane, or the belly pods, below.

It’s a short flight from Deadhorse to Nuiqsit. On arrival, Eunice the “village agent” comes out to meet us with her pickup to collect the inbound freight and mail.

Matt and Eunice, Wright’s village agent who collects all the mail and freight on arrival and arranges for outbound passengers/freight.
Eunice’s daughters Charity and Chloe wait on the truck until it’s time to board.

After off-loading the Nuiqsit freight, Matt had to dig out an extra seat from the belly pod to accommodate the full nine-passenger load between Nuiqsit and Utqiagvik. Our pilot, Scott, got to secure it before passengers re-boarded.

The extra passenger seats for the Cessna are stored below in the belly pod.
Matt is riding in the right seat and snaps a photo of our full load in-bound for Utqiagvik.

After landing in Utqiagvik, everyone got out and the crew pulled all the seats so the plane was all-freighter. It took about 15 minutes before Scott was all seat to fly on to Wainwright.

Precious cargo on the freight run to Wainwright.

I had about 40 hours on the ground in Utqiagvik, during which time I learned more about how freight and passengers move around the Arctic Coast. I spotted lots of migratory ducks and geese. We got take-out from a couple of restaurants (no dine-in yet). And yes…I took a polar plunge. It was “full immersion” so I can legitimately join the “Barrow Beach Club.” I’m still waiting for the t-shirt!

“Hitting the beach” in Utqiagvik. Photos by Bao Long Lawson.

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