Tuesday, September 07, 2010

She Does Not Get Eaten By Wolves At this Time

This much maligned small town in the boondocks of Alaska doesn't seem to be nearly as horrendous as everyone made it out to be. Yes, there are no roads that goes anywhere other than the airport, the dump and the old radar array. The last is left over from the Cold War, but you're not allowed to go up there. Dangerous levels of radiation or wolves or landmines or something. The airport I have described already: it has good pavement even on the aprons, and electronic security systems, as opposed to remote Canadian airports, which are only protected from trespassers by signs like "no snowmobiles beyond this point," and "stray dogs will be shot."

The main road, the one named after the local chief, runs from somewhere that I didn't go to, past the airport, and through town. It's paved, and there might have been a couple of paved side roads, but most roads are gravel with potholes. The town is spread out around the ubiquitous little round lakes. Here's a view across a lake.

There was a shorter road from our camp to the business area, but it was all blocked off with no trespassing signs. There was a fair amount of signage in general, of the "This property protected by Smith & Wesson" and "We don't call 9-1-1" variety. You really didn't get the idea they were joking, either. It was incongruous with my usual experience of northern towns. But I'm happy to step away, saying, "Okay, that bit of mosquito-ridden muskeg is all yours. I'll just hang out on these thousands of other hectares of mosquito-ridden muskeg." There weren't an uncomfortable level of mosquitoes. There were some, but I'm beginning to suspect that my mosquito tolerance level has been permanently reset by my first northern base, or even better by my memories of my first northern base. If it's not worse than I remember, then it's not a problem. I have Victory Airways to thank for a perpetually positive environment. It will be interesting to see how Cambodia compares.

People walk here, as opposed to driving. The main paved road has a wide painted shoulder that is marked off specifically as a pedestrian walkway and I do see people walking back and forth on it, even though it's a few kilometres from the shopping area to the next group of homes. Vehicles and especially fuel are very expensive here. I paid almost nine dollars a gallon for avgas.

All the buildings are on stilts, to keep them from melting and sinkig into the permafrost. There are some new modern buildings, such as a some sort of nature interpretation centre and a museum/library that I didn't get to explore because someone was waiting for me. There is a hospital that was probably considered "new" and "ultramodern" by the architects who came up with it. It looks like something that Captain Kirk would beam down to, along with Spock, McCoy and an unnamed crew member, the last of whom would die without any dialogue. There are many churches, all Christian, but in hugely different states of repair. You'd have to be really committed to Independent Baptism over all other options not to switch congregations.

There's a raised boardwalk that goes across a swampy area, connecting some of the buildings. I see lots of people using them. I mentioned it later to someone and he said, "Oh you mean the sewers?" Makes them a little less picturesque, perhaps. You don't bury anything or leave it lying on top of the ground here, so the sewage lines are raised up, and they've built wooden decks and handrails for them. All that wood had to have been brought in by boat, too. There aren't any trees here at all. Shacks like these were fairly common. I didn't notice evidence that they were inhabited, but I would expect that if they were abandoned that the wood would have been scavenged. The fact that the wondows are boarded up is not in my experience evidence one way or another for occupation. Glass is harder to transport than wood. Is the same joke told in Alaska?

Q: What's the Alaskan word for "window"?
A: Plywood.

It turns out that the grocery store we went to with no vegetables was just a quickstop kind of place, and there is a larger grocery store with the usual complement of fruit and vegetables. And there was a Subway restaurant, a totally normal Subway restaurant with all the fresh toppings and drinks and varieties of bread and everything else of every other Subway sandwich place in North America. Mind you, a footlong with a drink was over twelve dollars, but everything there must have been flown in daily. It's also where the white people are at, but it isn't the only place to eat. There's a not at all bad Asian food restaurant and some pizza places. They told us at the lodge not to be put off by the fact that most restaurants sell most kinds of food.

There were lots of kids of various shades playing in the street with a combination of southern manufactured toys like tricycles and locally made toys like piles of mud and rocks. There was a kid with a wheeled dogsled and a single very enthusiastic dog going like smoke down the paved walking lane. I saw a kid-sized dogsled for use on snow, too, in a yard. The kids looked happy, mostly filthy--not a criticism, they were playing in mud--and adequately fed. They were of all different shades. At first I thought that the local people tended to be darker skinned than the locals in other northern areas, but my current theory is that there were a lot of lonely soldiers here twenty years ago, and the dark genes in the locals have come from Africa through the US, and not over the Bering land bridge. I didn't notice a lot of teenagers. Even if they go away for high school, I'd expect them to be back for the summer. Or maybe once they get out they never come back.

People do come here from all over. We met a woman who had immigrated from Macedonia. Why to here? She said there were jobs. I guess if you're coming from a country most Americans can't find on a map, you might as well move to a state that gets left off many American maps. I wonder if there are Macedonians in Nunavut.

The oddest thing I noticed in town was a tumbledown shack--bigger, but not substantially nicer than the ones pictured above--signed as a "Prematernal Home." Including the Jetsons hospital there were three professionally constructed and maintained medical facilities in town, so this was highly unlikely to be a prenatal clinic. The easiest interpretation is that it is a home for pregnant women with nowhere to go, but the whole concept of being kicked out of your family home for being pregnant seems both temporally and culturally incongruous.

I don't have as many photos as I'd like of the buildings in town, because I accepted the advice not to walk down the road from our accommodations to the town alone, so all my town trips were with someone else in a truck, and they were usually on a quick errand and waiting for me to put away my camera and get back in the truck. I did walk about a kilometre through town and during that time was not attacked by wild or domestic animals nor harassed by humans. It isn't a place I'd be enthusiastic about moving to, but I wouldn't object to coming back and spending a month here. That it was so universally reviled by Alaskans speaks well of the standards they expect for their fellow citizens.

In the evening they take me and the other pilot out to the airport. My fellow pilot is going off rotation, and to ensure he makes all of his connections to get home, he's boarding a flight at the local airport. I'm here to load all the gear we brought out here. It's not too difficult since it's the third time I've loaded and secured this exact same load, and the customers help lift the heavy stuff into the airplane. Ordinarily it would be a trivial load for this aircraft, but I can't load anything on or against the installed equipment, and I can't move the installed equipment, so its as if I have a much smaller airplane with a more finicky C of G. I don't secure the load yet, because some of it isn't in its final position. The best loading configuration still has a space in it for my personal baggage which I'll bring from the lodge in the morning.

This is where we were when a news crawl reported "Seven dead in plane crash in Canada." It's odd to have so little context for the type of aircraft or place. We had to google to find that it was a King Air coming out of Jean-Lesage International, the main airport for Québec City. I found some news stories and this audio clip (en français) of the ATC communications with the departing aircraft. I strained to hear it a few times then passed it off to a reader whose first language is French. He warns that he is an aviation enthusiast not a pilot so may not have rendered everything correctly.

Tower and another plane communicating – taxiway instructions
Aeropro 201: Québec tower, Aeropro 201, problem with right engine, we are coming back for landing runway 30
Québec tower: Aeropro 201, roger, left side right side, your choice, you’re number one for runway 30, do you need emergency services?
Aeropro 201: affirmative we can not climb.
other plane: 701 ready to taxi.
Rescue 5 ("Sauvetage cinq")and Québec ground ("Québec sol") acknowledging each other.
Rescue 5: Information?
Québec ground: Ball of fire north of the airport, plane had problems, it’s a King Air from Aeropro, they’re outside of the airport limits.
Rescue 5: Do you have more precision on where they are?
Québec ground: I don’t know if you see him there's a big black spot on the other side of Mont Belair
Rescue 5: Do you think it would be on this side or the other side of Mont Belair
Québec ground: No no he's on this side of Mont Belair at the base on the other side of the fields.
Rescue 5: roger

The crash is old news now, and by the time you read this it will be old news also that Aeropro was shut down by Transport Canada. Even the India Times reported it. Kind of makes me wonder how many people in India care whether a Québec air operator loses its operating certificate. But none of that answers the question of why a King Air with one engine failed was not able to return safely to the airport. I was hoping there would be more information available by the time I got to posting it, but the investigation must be still in progress now. An AvCanada poster [not a reliable source] says, "I heard from reliable source, no cockpit recorder or FDR, TSB investigator is pretty pissed off, 'All I got to worked with is a burned up crater'." So we may never know. The [Canadian] Transportation Safety Board takes a long time to do an investigation anyway. There's nothing on their site for 2010 yet. They only report on a few a year, at their discretion. The [American] NTSB investigates every air crash in the US and would at least have a preliminary list of facts posted by now.

It's odd to hear news from your own country filtered through another country's media. Your ears perk up every time you hear the name of your country and then you struggle to figure out what it really means. I wonder if there is ever any Macedonian news up here.


Sarah said...

The nameless place looks a bit bleak in those pictures. Plywood windows may be just as good at night, but in the daytime it's a little dark.

The hospital looks not only like a Star Trek set, but a set on a winter planet. Definitely looks ready to be hunkered down in a blizzard.

dpierce said...

I've not been up to the "old radar array", but I know some guys that have. It has a bit of a reputation as a hazmat challenge. You're probably wise not to wander through.

Rhonda said...

That hospital reminds me of the Iqaluit airport - all rounded edges for the wind. Except the Iqaluit airport is bright yellow.

Unknown said...

A "prematernal home" is due to the fact that this town is the only one in a 150 mile radius with a hospital. Expectant mothers from other villages move into these places when they are getting close to giving birth so that they will have easy access to the hospital when the time comes.