I packed for my trip to Alaska the same way I do a lot of things in life, which is to say incorrectly. Kat had warned me that it would be cold, but what did she know? She only goes up there every year, right? Besides, I live with her and I know for a fact that the woman is cold roughly 87% of the time anyway. I loaded my duffel bag with some jeans, work pants, boots, and a few long sleeve Old Navy shirts to layer under my usual wardrobe of "hilarious" tees. Then, to show I was prepared, I packed a fleece jacket and a windbreaker. What more would I need? It was JULY, for cryin' out loud.
My suspicions were confirmed when I landed in Anchorage for my first layover. It was a little chilly in shorts and a t-shirt, but chilly I could handle. I stared out from the curb of Ted Stevens Airport into the pale, sunny sky and checked my phone for the time: 11:45pm.
This crappy cell phone pic is only to show you what midnight looks like.
Of course I knew all about the long summer days of Alaska, where the sun barely sets for a few hours before returning to hover lazily in a circle over the land, but seeing it in person kind of fried my brain for a few minutes. I made it to my dingy hotel near the airport, shut the blinds as best I could (which was not very well at all) and tried to convince my head that it was actually night time and I should get some sleep because I had to be at the airport in like six hours. After tossing and turning to the sounds of a faulty air conditioning unit, I headed back to the airport.
The ride from Anchorage to King Cove was not aboard a traditional jet liner I'm used to flying, but a smaller commuter plane. Instead of three-wide aisles, we had one seat on the left and two across the aisle on the right. And instead of jet engines, there were propellers. I got lucky enough to sit by myself on the left side, but with the unfortunate bonus of sitting right along the wing. This meant that the gigantic fan blade chopping the air was right outside my window, but Alaska Airlines is kind enough to distribute ear plugs to everyone on these flights.
Like this, but moving. And louder. So. Much. Louder.What I learned all too late was that leaning my head on the wall while trying to sleep through the flight would transfer most of the vibration from the props to my skull, vibrating my tiny ear bones loose and re-inducing the horrific vertigo I had suffered at the hands of a shifty Haitian dentist months earlier. A lot of people think of vertigo as "feeling dizzy." It's not like that at all. It's an awful, stomach-churning feeling like the entire room is spinning vertically on an axis and you're just trying to hang on for dear life. Mine shows up any time I lie down or any time I get up from lying down, which means each night before bed and each morning when I get up I have to suppress the urge to vomit. This was not the sort of thing I wanted to deal with while on a boat in the Pacific. We landed in Cold Bay and I waited for my next flight in the airport lobby, a tiny waiting room about the same size as the one at your doctor's office, with a handful of other people headed out, including two girlfriends of other fishermen. I was in and out of touch with Kat via text when I could muster enough reception to send one, and she encouraged me to reach out and say hi to these two strange women as if I'm not the most socially awkward man on the planet.
But as luck would have it, one of them was adult enough to say hi and soon we were standing awkwardly but in slightly closer proximity, waiting for the plane. Or what PenAir would have me believe was a plane. The thing that showed up could have fit in my dining room.
"Hop aboard! Why are you crying?"
The Cold Bay airport didn't give a good god damn about who I was or anything the TSA might try to check. All they wanted to do was weigh me and my bags, because the plane was so small they had to figure out how to best distribute the weight. I wound up sitting in the front while the girlfriends sat in back. I literally had to hold my knees together to keep from knocking the stick out of the pilot's hand. Our pre-flight checklist included a brief explanation of where the flares and rifle were in case we were to crash and he would be incapacitated. I assured him if we were to plummet from the sky I would be too busy screaming to remember any of that.
We took off into a stiff headwind and immediately felt the ass end of the plane fishtail out from behind us. My stomach dropped. I'm not really a wimp about flying; I don't like being crammed into tiny airplane seats but the act of flying doesn't faze me. This, though, was a whole new animal. We fought and swerved and dropped as the pilot fought against the wind. I was trying to enjoy the adventure rather than worry about whether or not a fall from 100 feet up would be enough to kill me. "Hey," the pilot tapped my leg, "wanna watch for bears?"
"Uh, sure-" before I could finish my sentence we were corked over 180 degrees and I was trying to press myself off the window. The pilot gave us a little background: lots of grizzlies this time of year, very hungry, definitely don't want to run into one, etc. etc. We didn't get to see any. We did get to see some folks on the ground, which our pilot politely waved to. Yeah. We were low enough that he was waving to people as we passed by. After what was probably 20 minutes but felt like an hour and a half we landed in King Cove, or rather just outside of King Cove at a tiny gravel strip they called an airport. I asked why the whole thing was fenced in; since it was just a strip of rock and a shed there didn't seem like much worth stealing.
"Brown bears," the pilot said as he handed me my duffel bag. It definitely didn't look bear-proof. The three of us unloaded our bags and stood in the sun while a constant 40-50mph wind buffeted us mercilessly. We were nestled in a beautiful grassy valley, but there was not a single sign of humanity to be seen anywhere.
"I hope they know we're here," one of the girlfriends said.
"I'll try to call Kat," I offered foolishly before realizing we were in the middle of nowhere and there was no cell service to be had. I gave up trying to keep my ballcap on my head and hooked it to a belt loop.
We sat and waited for someone, anyone to come get us. So long as it wasn't a brown bear.