Coffee, Sand Dunes, and Polar Bears - Oh My!
Its 8:30 a.m. in late March and like most people, I’m drinking hot coffee and getting my day started. The only difference, my day consists of me gazing out my “office window” as I cruise across the arctic tundra of Western Alaska at 200 mph, 8,000 ft. in the air.
My name is Donovan and I’m an Alaskan Bush Pilot based in Kotzebue, AK and throughout my day I help move thousands of pounds of cargo to 11 smaller villages. We transport anything and everything; including common household goods, food of all kinds, drilling equipment, building materials, and even sled dogs and bovine…that’s right, we even move cattle. We like to use the expression, “if it fits, it ships”
Although March may be considered the start of spring for most people, winter tends to keep a firm grasp on Western Alaska for much longer. There’s a saying that if March comes in like a lamb, it goes out like a lion…that couldn’t have been truer for the month of March. The beginning of the month consisted of clear and sunny days, I guess you could even call the weather paradise…despite the snow on the ground and the temperatures being in the high teens.
When I think back to spring flying in Western Alaska there’s one day that stands out more than the others. It’s a day that began with bone chilling cold and hurricane like winds. If I remember correctly, the temperature was 35 below zero with the wind chill…cold enough to make you long for a nice sandy beach in a tropical paradise. But for that day, my paradise consisted of moving cargo up the coast along the Chukchi see to the village of Point Hope, and weather dependent hopefully a flight up the Kobuk River to the villages of Shungnak and Kobuk.
After finally getting airborne after a slight weather delay and making our way about 10 miles north of Kotzebue, I was thrilled to burst out of the clouds to be greeted by blue skies and the sun. It’s common in Western Alaska to have less than ideal weather in one spot, and it be the complete opposite a short distance away. The constantly changing and unpredictable weather is what makes flying in Alaska inherently more dangerous than many other locations.
Although winter still had a clutch on this portion of the state, you could tell that things were beginning to change. A large portion of the sea ice that lines the coast had begun to break up and move out to sea, revealing the jagged coast. Breakup is a sure and welcoming site that warmer weather was in our future, and it couldn’t come soon enough.
The rest of the flight to Point Hope was uneventful…which is a good thing when flying an airplane. We landed, unloaded the cargo, which consisted of soda, chips, some construction equipment, and an abundance of amazon boxes (which we move more of than anything else, when amazon says they’ll ship anywhere, they’re not kidding). Before we knew it, we were back in the air cruising back to Kotzebue quite quickly with the help of a favorable tailwind.
As quick as we were back on the ground in Kotzebue our plane was loaded up with cargo and we were rolling down the runway for the last flight of the evening up the Kobuk river to the villages of Shungnak and Kobuk.
The flight along the Kobuk River is one of my favorite flights we do out of Kotzebue. The scenery coupled with the abundance of wildlife you see make the 1 hour and 15-minute flight fly by (pun intended). The meandering rivers and wetlands, along with the rolling hills and spruce trees make it seem as if you’re watching a beautiful scene out of a national geographic documentary.
One of the most intriguing locations along the Kobuk River are the Great Kobuk Sand Dunes located within the Kobuk Valley National Park. When most people think of sand dunes they think of the hot dry desert in Africa…not above the arctic circle in Alaska. The Dunes rise unexpectedly out of the trees along the southern bank of the Kobuk River. These dunes, which are the largest active sand dunes in the Arctic, would look more at home in the Sahara rather than 35 miles above the Arctic Circle.
It is one of the most beautiful sites flying over large patches of spruce trees along the Kobuk River and being greeted by the rolling white sand dunes. Even though there’s still an abundance of snow on the ground and the temperature still hovers around 30 degrees, for a split second you get the feeling that you are somewhere much different.
It’s not uncommon to see people camping out on the dunes in the summer months or running their sled dogs during the winter months. It truly is a fascinating place.
It is amazing to have the opportunity to work in a part of the world that has such diversity. One moment I am cruising over the Chukchi Sea looking Polar Bears on the coast, the next moment I’m flying over Arctic Sand Dunes. I am extremely grateful to be able to call Alaska home and have a great amount of pride being to work in such a beautiful and unique state.