Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Unexpected Vacation

For most people, their vacations are exotic and their business travels are ordinary. For me, it is the opposite. Our vacations are for family visits or reunions. Don’t get me wrong, I love relaxing and visiting family, but for me to get to the exotic it has to be for work. I have crossed the Arctic Circle into the Land of the Midnight Sun. I have walked on the frozen Chukchi Sea and looked out towards Russia. I have been to the birth place of the winds straddling the Bering Sea and the Pacific Ocean. My work has taken me to places all throughout Alaska.

Traveling to the far reaches of Alaska comes with its challenges. One of which is weather delays. You always have to plan for weather delays because weather delays always happen. It is a rare trip when I leave and arrive by the emailed itinerary on my etickets. Many people are frustrated by travel in Alaska, but not me. I have learned to accept these delays as unexpected vacations, because this is when the ordinary business trip becomes the extraordinary.

The most extraordinary of these unexpected vacations happened on my first trip to the village of Nikolski along the Aleutian Chain. It was my last scheduled day after a week in Nikolski. So far everything had gone as scheduled getting out to Nikolski. I knew I had been lucky and as the weather began to deteriorate I wondered if my luck had run out. I was relieved when we received word from the satellite phone that the weekly plane had left on time from Dutch Harbor. In an hour the plane buzzed overhead and we walked out to the lake where it was landing. When we got there the pilot beached the amphibious plane and got out. We had our luggage ready to load. There were seven people flying out that day, a full flight. The pilot then stopped us and said he would not be taking any passengers. It took me a while to understand what was going on. The plane’s left engine was missing its cowling, or engine cover. It had blown off mid-flight. No one was sure what was going to happen next. Ernie, a native with the school district who was flying out with us, just laughed and said he had jinxed us. He had made a joke earlier about weather and having a safe flight. In the end we all left to wait for news.

Several hours later, the other amphibious plane in the Aleutians showed up and everyone went down again to the lake. I do mean everyone—almost the whole town showed up. Doug, my traveling companion, mentioned that this was the most excitement a lot of people had had in a while. It was pretty funny. There were three guys working on the plane and 20 people huddled around in the freezing wind talking about them. It took quite a while. I had expected the second plane to drop off the parts and fly us back immediately. I was wrong. I guess they wanted to fly the planes back together. Since it was taking so long I was a little nervous because we were using up daylight fast. It takes at least an hour to fly to Dutch Harbor and since we were an hour behind there was even less time than usual.

Finally the plane was fixed. Most of the luggage was packed on the first plane, while we crammed into the other. I wondered what they would have done if there had not been two planes. They could not have taken everyone and the luggage in one plane. With a roar of engines and water spraying over our head, we took off. Through the turbulence I finally relaxed and began to hope for spending the night in a real hotel.

We flew for quite a while but it was slow going because of the 40 knot headwinds. It was also a pretty bumpy ride. We had gotten about two thirds of the way when we started out over the last stretch of open ocean before we reached Dutch Harbor. Halfway across, right before the point of no turning back, a giant snow squall appeared. It stretched from the ocean to several thousand feet above us. Black storm clouds pushed by heavy winds churned towards us. The pilot turned around. I prayed we would not have to turn back to Nikolski. When we reached the middle of Umnak Island (Nikolski’s island), we met up with the other plane. It was a lot lower than us and going full boar forward. The pilot turned again and followed it. As passengers we had no idea what was going on. I assumed we had turned back to more closely follow the other plane. But when we reached Fort Glenn the pilot quickly landed.

After landing and taxiing back to the other end of an old dirt airstrip, the pilot shut down the plane. He finally explained that since it was rapidly getting dark he did not have time to fly around the storm or if it was even possible to. He did not want to risk a night landing at Dutch Harbor. It has a very bad runway. He had intended to fly back to Nikolski but was told by the other plane that there was a squall now over Nikolski. So our only option was to land at Fort Glenn and wait until we could get out.

Fort Glenn is located at the east end of Umnak Island, 60 miles east of Nikolski. It was a major Army base during World War II and played an important part in the Pacific Theater. At one time it had four runways and over 20,000 troops. It had been abandoned intact since the1950’s. Now it is an organic beef ranch. The ranch house is pieced together from salvaged base parts.

Before landing the pilot had radioed in to the ranch house and had been told they would be there to pick us up when we landed. No one was there. By the time the pilot turned off the engine it was pitch black. The ranch house was only a speck of light in the distance. We sat there huddled in our seats listening to the howling wind. Our pilot had jumped out the back door for a smoke. As we sat shivering in our seats, I couldn’t help but think we were in one of those stories where a group of lost travels stumbled upon a house in the middle of nowhere during a storm. We only had to wait before we started mysteriously disappearing one by one. Finally the pilot was able to get the ranch house on the radio and they sent someone out to pick us up.

At the ranch we got a welcome that only comes when someone hasn’t seen a new face in months. In the short time it had taken to pick us up they had stoked the big pot belly stove, made up extra beds, and readied eight more spots for dinner. After a quick thawing by the stove we were herded to the kitchen. Food was pushed on us as soon as we sat down at huge half-log tables. We were served fresh steak, potatoes, corn on the cob, salad, and fresh rolls. For desert it was homemade pies with ice cream. I hadn’t eaten that good or anywhere near it, since I left home.
I was in awe of my surroundings during dinner. I was just amazed at where I was and the impossibility of the situation. I was in a ranch (the largest ranch in Alaska producing more than half of all the cattle in the state), which I had never heard of before, having dinner in a very warm handmade ranch house.

There were only 35 people living at the ranch, but they were a very diverse group. To my left were four Mexicans straight from Mexico, eating their steak wrapped in corn tortillas. To my right were a New Zealand cowboy and a helicopter pilot. There was also a Canadian couple that ran the place with their Dutch engineer. In front of me were four Aleut Elders who had been on the plane with me. There were so many people, cultures, languages, accents, and wild experiences happening all at once that I was in complete surreal shock. I just quietly ate my meal just thoroughly happy to be soaking in my environment. I must have sat for a half an hour after I was finished eating before I moved.

After dinner, Pat the owner, took us on the tour of the slaughter house. He explained how there are 5,000 head of cattle on the island which they round up each year using helicopters. They slaughter about half the heard and package the meat. They then fly it out to Dutch Harbor where it gets shipped to high-end restaurants and grocers in Seattle.

The tour of the slaughter house was interesting; unfortunately they were already done cleaning up for the night. They showed us where the cattle where brought in and sprayed with ozonated air and then killed. They showed us where they hung them up and bled them. At this point, out of professional curiosity, I asked about their sewer system. Slaughterhouses have a real problem with disposal of the waste materials. Well I won’t go into detail, but the manager jumped right up and began to give me and Doug a detailed tour of the plant and how it worked. He was really proud of how sophisticated the plant was and he seemed really excited to have someone to talk to about it that understood how cool it was.

They have a state of the art facility, which they need, because all the meat is certified as USDA 100% organic (there actually is an inspector who lives there too). This is the top and hardest labeling to get. Meat can be graded as natural, organic, or 100% organic. 100% organic means that not only is the animal raised in a chemical free environment, it is slaughtered and process includes no chemicals or additives. They even have to wash all surfaces off with special soaps after they are cleaned with chlorine. To disinfect the meat, they soak it with mists of ozonated water. Soaking the meat with water actually makes the meat taste better. It was a fascinating tour.

After the tour, we all sat around the fox den or common room with its huge pot belly stove, the only heat in the house. Everyone talked and talked for hours. It was really entertaining. I heard cool stories about mad cows that attack helicopters and a lot about the history of the island. The shelves were covered with artifacts from the old base. They salvaged a mural painting from the officer’s mess hall, which, as luck has it is a picture of some cowboys . . . and a buxom blonde cowgirl. They had a stone seal oil lantern that had been found.

This started an amazing discussion with the Aleut Elders talking about the old ways and the Aleut people during the war. Patty, the oldest Elder, had lived in the Aleut intern camps and lived much of the history we were talking about. The first time she had seen anything taller than a man, was when their boat sailed into Ketchikan interment camp and she saw the towering trees. She lost much of her family during the interment. I cannot describe how much I learned that night and how much closer I came to understanding what it means to be a native.

It was late when everyone started to head off to bed. There wasn’t a real phone only an emergency satellite phone. I could not impose upon such gracious hosts in that way, so I emailed my wife instead. Oddly enough, they had email but not a phone. I was afraid that Rebecca would be worried about me. I didn’t want that to happen. I had not been in any danger and I was very well fed. The slaughterhouse tour was fascinating and worth the delay. The conversation was moving and enlightening and I would not have wanted to miss it.

I finally fell asleep on a couch next to the stove in the middle of nowhere. I couldn’t help but think I was surrounded by the most interesting collection of people I will probably ever meet. What a bizarre set of circumstances that had placed me in this most wonderfully dream like place. The daylight of the next day only slightly lessened its aura. We did get to see the slaughterhouse in action. We helped out with chores. We waited as squall after squall swept over us. Finally there was an opening in the weather and we hurriedly piled into the plane. We were all anxious to get to our destinations, but couldn’t help feeling a little sadden at leaving. I now look back on my unexpected vacation to Fort Glenn as more than a weather delay. It was a journey in itself and one of my favorites.

1 comment:

Scribbit said...

An excellent entry, I'm glad you thought to write all of that down and enter it.