Flying Out

10 Weeks One Summer: Chapter Two

Flying Out

                I will admit that I was excited. I sat in my seat next to another kid named Sam. Sam was not his real name. He was native and Sam was his English name. He wouldn’t tell me his real name, but made it clear that I was to call him Sam.

Sam was sixteen like me and from a small fishing village in Southcentral Alaska. When I had first met him, he had been wearing a black leather jacket with studs in the shoulder. He also wore biker gloves with studs in them along with a chain attached to his wallet and combat boots. His ears and eyebrow were pierced and he always scowled.

Today however, he was smiling and was dressed in a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt tied about his waist.

We were riding in a small turbo prop plane with three narrow seats making up about a dozen rows. The rows were set up with two seat on the left of the plane and one on the right with a very narrow aisle between them.

A few days before, I had met the crew I was going to be working with. There were four of us. Sam and myself, Carl, a college student, and our boss John.

Carl, a Hispanic young man, was doing an internship with the Bureau of Land Management out of a university in Colorado where he was studying engineering and surveying. He was shorter than me and had a stocky build. It was his first trip to Alaska and he was excited to see bears.

John was in his late thirties and looked more like he came out of a Jeremiah Johnson movie. He had shaggy reddish hair and a matching bushy beard. His beard and hair were not long, but had curls and waves that seemed to be in a constant argument as to which way they should go. He seemed to have a calmness about himself and I wondered if he had chosen to work with a bunch of kids or if this was some sort of punishment.

We had spent the last few days doing trainings and packing for our summer in Southeast Alaska near Lake Iliamna. We were going to be camping and we had to try to fit all of our gear into as few boxes as we could since all our material was going to be flown in by sea plane.

I was called down to the main Federal Building to meet with the program supervisor, Sean, to find out what was going to happen with my internship. We were supposed to get paid for our summer work through the native corporation in our region.

After a short phone call, Sean hung up the phone, a disappointed look on his face. The native corporation for my region, one that my dad was ironically working for over the winter and this summer, had refused to fund me.

If Sean could not find sponsorship for me for the summer, I was going to be shipped back home.

Mike, the operation’s supervisor and my host while  I was in Anchorage, drove me back to the BLM facility. We didn’t talk until we got close. He could see the disappointment in my face and said, “I am sorry. It isn’t right.”

I could feel the frustration rising and my eyes began to sting.

“I will….”

His voice was cut off by the ringing of his car phone. It was one of those phones that predated the modern cell phone and came in a bag. It had a cord that attached the handset to the base and had to be plugged into the cigarette lighter to work.

He pulled off the road and answered it. The conversation was brief and I did not pay much attention to him talking quietly and in short sentences.

He pushed the button to hang up the phone and said, “It looks like you may not be the only one staying behind.”

Without another word, Mike pulled back onto the road, only this time we sped along and reached his office in less than a minute.

I saw Carl and Sam sitting next to the warehouse drinking a soda. Mike parked the truck and quickly went inside his office without a word, so I wandered over to Sam and asked, “What is going on?”

Carl answered, “The job has been cancelled.”

I sat down on a wooden crate and said, “Looks like I am not going anyways. I don’t have a sponsor.”

Neither of them said anything, but Sam offered me a bag of Doritos and I grabbed a handful.

After the break, we wandered back into the warehouse and looked over the boxes we had packed. Sam and Carl had been nailing down the lids to the last of the wooden crates with equipment. Unsure of what to do, we went ahead and began to close up the cardboard boxes and weighing them.

About a half an hour later, John poked his head in the warehouse and yelled for us to meet him inside.

We dropped everything and anxiously rushed in.

John ushered us into a conference room where there was a map of Southcentral Alaska was laid out. We sat around the table and John began.

“Our job near Iliamna does not have all its permits ready, so that is cancelled.”

He moved his finger to a large island in the Gulf of Alaska and said, “When we proposed this summer schedule, we were originally going to go to Larsen Bay and survey a heritage site, but recent discoveries and excavation plans postponed that as well.”

He pulled out a different map that displayed Kodiak Island. He pointed to a small town on the south side of the island called Ahkiok. “They rebuilt the runway in this town last summer and put in a new relay tower. That tower was put on native lands, so we need to survey a new allotment for them. First however,” his finger moved north, “there is land in Olga Bay that was supposed to be surveyed last summer. The permits are in order and we can head out in two days.”

Carl and Sam grinned, but John continued, “We have a job, but it has to be approved for you guys to go. We will be very remote and I am not sure if it qualifies for the internship program.”

Mike interjected, “It is more dangerous than the other places. We just have to make sure we have our ducks in a row.”

John gave Carl a list of changes to be made to our packing list and we spent the rest of the afternoon unpacking and repacking boxes.

The next morning we arrived at the facility and John was not there. A list had been left with a last few minute items to be added, so we spent the early morning packing them up, then we waited.

About an hour before lunch, John showed up and called us into the conference room.

“We have been approved. There will be some precautions taken. At any point, if I feel we are in danger or if I feel you can’t do the job, it is over. We fly out.”

We all nodded our understanding. Carl and Sam had huge grins. I smiled too, but I was feeling a pit in my stomach.

Mike took us all to lunch for burgers at a local cafe called the Arctic Roadrunner before returning and going over the change of plans.

John pointed out the area where we were staying and the survey site in Olga Bay. He mapped out each section on a scaled map and wrote down the plan, including how long he expected it to take. The job in Olga Bay would take about six weeks. The job in Ahkiok would take only a week. After that, Mike said there were some other small jobs near the city of Kodiak to do.

John sent Sam and Carl to place the boxes onto pallets. Mike went to book tickets for the plane, and John asked me to stay behind to talk.

“I went and lobbied for you to go. I think it is a crappy thing they did to you. But without sponsorship, you can’t go with us.”

I felt the tears and the frustration rising again as my face began to heat up. He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I am sorry. If I had my way, I would take you. I appreciate all the hard work you did here knowing it was a possibility you may not go. Did you pack any of your personal stuff in the boxes?”

I took a few deep breathes to compose myself before replying, “Only my fishing pole.”

John walked with me to the warehouse. He shook his head to the other two who looked down or away. I felt the emotion rise to the surface again. I found the box that held my fishing pole and took out my knife to cut off the tape.

I had slit the tape down the middle when Mike poked his head out the door and yelled for me. Looking up, I could see a grin on his face and he motioned for me to come inside.

I stormed out of the warehouse and followed him inside. John was right behind me, walking briskly to keep up.

Mike was in the conference room and he motioned for me to sit. John sat next to me and I could see from his face that he did not know what was going on either.

Mike pushed a button on the phone and said, “We are here.”

There was the sound of someone dropping papers, then a thump as if someone on the other end had dropped the phone.

Sean’s voice came on and said, “I have good news. I got a call from resource officer at the native corporation and they said to go ahead and send you out. They will sponsor you!”

It took a moment for the information to sink in and I missed the next part of the conversation. John asked Sean a question and I came out of my stupor a moment later. I could feel the grin on my face. I thanked Sean and Mike hung up the phone.

Mike returned my grin and said as he got up,  “Looks like I need to book another ticket.”

He left and John walked with me back to the warehouse. As we entered, John yelled out, “Pack up the boxes and gear, we need to get this to the cargo drop this afternoon by five!”

Carl and Sam looked at me and I shouted, “I am going!”

They came over and slapped me on the back. Sam handed me the tape and I gladly retaped the box I had cut open.

A few hours later, a box truck was packed and heading to the airport. The next morning we were doing the same.

10 Weeks One Summer

The Adventure Begins

The twin engine Piper Navajo banked as it cleared the mountains and descended into the wide river valley below. Thermal updrafts buffeted the plane and I smacked my forehead on the passenger window as I tried to peer down into the wilderness. Tall dark spruce trees clawed above the tundra soon gave way to stands of birch and aspens as we neared the river.

 The Adventure Begins
The twin engine Piper Navajo banked as it cleared the mountains and descended into the wide river valley below. Thermal updrafts buffeted the plane and I smacked my forehead on the passenger window as I tried to peer down into the wilderness. Tall dark spruce trees clawed above the tundra soon gave way to stands of birch and aspens as we neared the river.

The pilot adjusted his course and in the distant I could see the morning sun glinting off of windows from stubby office buildings that made up the small city of Fairbanks, Alaska. Dirt roads that cut through the forest soon became interlocking ribbons of pavement with tiny toy cars zipping along.

Fairbanks is the second largest city in Alaska with a population of only 30,000. Compared to my hometown of Central, population 100 minus 1, Fairbanks is a metropolis.

We circled as the pilot lined up for the runway and brought the mail plane in to land with barely a bump. I had hitched a ride with the Warbelow’s Air which served as mail and passenger service between many of the small communities and villages in the interior of Alaska.

Disembarking, I shook the pilot’s hand, hefted my military surplus duffle bag, and jogged across the tarmac to the terminal. I checked my bag in with the Alaska Airline’s clerk before boarding my continuing flight to Anchorage.

The MD80 was a much different experience. I had grown up flying in small bush planes, but I had only been in a jet a half dozen times. The 300 mile flight took about an hour and soon I was sitting in the terminal in Anchorage waiting for my ride.

Shawn, the coordinator for the summer internship program I was participating in was supposed to be picking me up and getting me to my host family for the couple of days I was spending in Anchorage before continuing my trip to Larsen Bay with a survey crew from the Bureau of Land Management.

I stared out the window at the expansive city. With a population of 300,000, Anchorage was the largest city in Alaska and hosted nearly half of its population.

My duffle bag arrived on the belt and I snatched it before finding a seat near the display of the standing brown bear where Shawn had told me to meet him in the one brief phone call we had had a few days before.

I squirmed a bit uncomfortably because I needed to use the restroom, but I did not want to miss my ride either. I checked my watch and noted Shawn was already late. I gave him fifteen more minutes before I dug a notebook out of my duffle and found Shawn’s number written in it.

I found a pay phone bank along one wall and dialed the number. After a few rings, the call went to an answering machine. I left a brief message and went back to my spot and waited.

There was no way I could know if Shawn got my message of for Shawn to call me as this was before the time of cell phones. After another ten minutes, I could wait no longer and headed to the restroom hoping I would not miss him.

Relieved, I went back to my post and waited.

And waited.

And waited some more.

To pass the time, I watched as tourists and others came and went from the baggage terminal. I tried to guess where they might be from by listening to them talk, the clothes they wore and the amount of tan they had. Alaskans tend to be a pasty white unless you are native. I then wondered where they might be going and what they might be doing. Perhaps visiting family, going sightseeing, maybe even fishing.

Nearly an hour had passed and I still was sitting.

I began to fidget and I checked my watch, 4:07. I knew his office closed at 5 and it was a Friday so no one would be in on the weekend. I was sixteen years old, away from home by myself for the first time, in a city where the only person I knew I had talked to briefly on the phone.

Beginning to feel panic, I hurried over to the phone bank again. Dialing the number, I waited. This time however, a female voice answered and I asked for Shawn. She informed me he was out of the office for the day. I explained who I was and there was a short pause before she replied that she would call his pager. She put me on hold and I fed more money into the payphone.

I was down to a dime and nickel before she came back on and told me that Shawn had been at the airport and could not find me. She told me to make sure I was standing next to the Brown Bear.

I hung up the phone and hurried back to the bear. I took a couple of breaths to calm down the irritation and panic that had set in.

I watched as the time slowly crept towards 5, then slip past and continued on. I had been at the airport for nearly three hours and had not eaten since breakfast.

A young man walked by and I was certain I had seen him before. He wore a gray jacket and stood about six feet tall. Though he did not look much different than most, what I remembered were his shoes. Despite the black slacks and tie, his shoes were running shoes with a neon green swoosh down the side.

I was not sure if this was Shawn, but why else would I have seen this guy walking around nearly an hour before?

Standing, I grabbed my duffle and made sure he could see me by the Brown Bear.

He wandered a bit down towards the baggage claim before turning and heading back towards me. He pulled something from his pocket and shook his head. I had never seen a pager before and did not know what it was.

As he looked up, he squinted and quickly weaved his way through the crowd towards me. As he approached, he slowed and asked hesitantly, “Matthew?”

I smiled with relief and stuck out my hand, “Shawn.”

He took my hand and shook it slowly. “You’re not native.”

Puzzled, I look down and replied, “No.”

A look of shock came across his face and he just stood there for a moment. “Uhh. Okay then. Let me make a phone call.”

He cursed under his breath and headed for the phone bank. He pulled out a pad of paper from his jacket pocket and dialed the number. No one answered, so he slammed down the phone and dialed a different number. He talked in hush tones for a few minutes and I kept my distance to give him privacy.

Hanging up the phone he turned apologetically to me and said, “There was a mix up and your host family will be in to pick you up in an hour. Have you eaten?”

I shook my head no and he asked me, “Do you like pizza?”

That of course was a dumb question, because who does not like pizza, so he told me he was going to take me to Godfather’s Pizza and their all-you-can-eat buffet.

As we walked to his car and while I stowed my duffle in his trunk, he asked again, “You’re not native?”

Again I told him no and he asked how that was possible.

“Both of my parents are white. White families do not tend to have native babies.”

I found out on the ride that he was not being rude. He was new to Alaska and had, like many people, assumed most people who lived in the bush communities and villages were native. On top of that, the program I had signed up for was an internship program for native students funded by native corporations.

I informed him that my principal had gotten the paperwork and I was only one of two kids in the school that qualified. Nowhere on the form did it ask my ethnicity.

After dinner, we drove to a store parking lot and waited for my host family. They showed up in a big truck and Shawn asked me to wait in the car. He went to the window and they talked for a moment before he motioned for me to join them.

I grabbed my duffel bag and exchanged handshakes with a tall dark headed man who introduced himself as Mike. It turned out he was also the operations manager for the project I was going to be working on over the summer.

“That is if I can smooth things out on Monday,” Shawn said.

I looked at him puzzled and he continued. “I am not sure if you qualify for the program. I need to make sure they will fund you.”

I got a bit heated and said, “What do you mean qualify? I filled out the paperwork, I did the interview, I planned for the whole summer.”

Mike placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry about this now. There are hiccups in paperwork all the time. We can work something out.”

Shawn went to his car without a word and sped away.

The ride back to Mike’s house was nearly an hour and I had plenty of time to mull over my predicament. I normally spent the summers mining with the family, but we had made other arrangements. I could not imagine a summer of just sitting around.

Hiccups in paperwork. Little did I know at the time how ominous and prophetic those words would be for the summer ahead.