It took three tries to land.
I was telling a friend about a recent visit to Deering, a community of 125 people just south of Kotzebue, and when I just briefly mentioned that we were delayed as we were unable to land for a time, and she asked me, “Weren’t you scared?”
That’s when I noticed that to her, this wasn’t normal.
That’s when I noticed that to me, this was.
Alaska is an immense place, and not just because of the size of the state, but the robust nature of its people. Our land is complex as it is vast and diverse as it is beautiful, and you could live your whole life here and continually find yourself in places that make you question everything you thought you knew about our state.
The most prevalent way to access these amazing corners of Alaska is by airplane; the most common method is taking a jet to a regional hub and getting on a smaller Cessna Caravan (a single-pilot, single-prop 9-seater) or something similar. This is not a novelty for much of the state, but normal life. And sometimes those planes crash. Our air routes are our aviation highway; with the elevated use of aircraft compared to other states, there are unfortunately going to be accidents, just as there are with cars, and thankfully those are relatively few, given the amount of flying that occurs.
The descent pulled us into the finest fog I have ever seen. Commonly you can see the passing of vapor when you pass through fog or clouds, but the fog which emerges from the thawing of inland lakes is so fine, it is as if all movement has stopped, and we were simply suspended; we were not moving up or down, forward or otherwise. There was no sky or land or sense of gravity to speak of, we were just hanging in nothingness in total ease, I wondered if this must be what it is like to pass on. The fine fog broke into a larger graininess and I could tell we were indeed descending still; there was no telling our altitude, but I knew we should be touching down by now, except we weren’t. The plane began to lift and we were taking off once again.
The pilot’s voice broke the silence of the plane. “We just tried descending from south to north, and we weren’t able to land because we couldn’t see the runway, but when we pulled up, we noticed that the fog on the north end is a little lighter. We’re going to turn around and try landing from north to south next time.”
The plane took about 20 minutes to reverse before trying the attempt again. The airplane descended and was met with that same fine fog before becoming grainy again and we were nearing the ground, when the plane began pulling up again.
“Good afternoon. We just tried the landing from north to south, and the fog is still hanging around on the runway, but it is moving. We did better on gas getting up here than I thought we would, so we’re just going to hang up here for a time and wait out the fog. If we are unable to land, we’ll go park in Kotzebue to gas up and wait it out and then try again from there.”
What “hanging up here” meant circling this community of 125 while the residents watched and looked upward at our at attempts. It is peaceful. You listen to music. You think about how what you are viewing has only been made available to humanity for about 100 years. You consider where you have been in life and where you are going, and you think about how fortunate you are to get to living in a place like we do, and to go to places that many in urban areas never get to go. You’re ready to spend some time outside of the city; when you go back to a small community, you leave everything about the city behind. Time slows. You’re not on city time, but ecological time. Values shift; it’s less about what you have and the infrastructure but more about the people and the community and a thankfulness for what the land provides.
And so for 40 minutes, we circled the community. The fog did shift enough to see the mountains in Northwest Alaska, which are soft and rounded; the mountains near Deering are patterned like thick starfish from the sky.
“Starfish mountains” of Northwest Alaska
The plane tugged downwards, and I could tell we were trying again. The flight attendant buckled in, and quickly and swiftly, grown rose towards up and we landed. I remembered that if it didn’t look like we could touch down in Deering, the pilot said we would land in Kotzebue. The flight attendant announced, “Hello everyone. I don’t know where we are, because the pilot hasn’t told me yet, but wherever we are, we’re here.” I looked outside, and it wasn’t Kotzebue.
Downtown Deering, AK. Photos by author.
There are going to be times where things don’t happen as you plan them. Once you leave the urban areas, your realm of control is actually very little, and that is part of the humbling nature of this place. When you leave the city, you are not the strongest force around. You are going to get on a jet, as you’re used to flying on, and you’re going to get on a smaller airplane if you’re continuing on to a smaller final destination. You are going to have to carry your own bags from jet airline to the regional carrier; they will likely not be transferred for you. The person who takes your bags is going to be the person who flies the plane, and they’re going to be young. And when you arrive in a smaller community, there’s not going to be an airport, but a landing strip, and if you don’t have a ride arranged, it’s okay, because the community is nearby and someone will offer a ride, or you can walk.
If you’ve been flying around Alaska for any length of time, you are going to have stories, and the people you know will either know someone who was in a plane crash (if they weren’t in one themselves), or at the very least are going to have stories as well.
A plane crash outside my family’s village killed everyone aboard in 1997–it was an entire family going to a funeral, and the extended family, already struck by grief…well, the grief was multiplied by 8; my friend high school got in his father’s small plane one sunny spring Sunday with his father the pilot, and his younger brother and sister, and never returned alive; a friend who was on a plane while it circled her community for 45 additional minutes, dumping gas, so if it crashed when they hit the ground, it wouldn’t explode; a colleague who missed his flight leaving a small community, only to hear that it crashed with no survivors.
Can you get on a plane and think of the experience as being life or death? Yes you can, for many of the passengers aboard. Because being connected to your homelands, being able to go where you need to go but also return to live life with your family, to feel that connection with the land, to take up your place every time you return–having that or not having that is a matter of life or death: having true life or feeling your spirit starve. Given the choice, many will find the plane ride to new experiences or going home to be well worth even three tries to land.