Thursday, November 20, 2008

Midnight Flight to Fairbanks

by Jean Henry Mead

We left Seattle, Washington, one cold early spring night on a midnight flight to Fairbanks. Our daughter Lynda had recently moved there with her husband and invited us for a visit. We were unprepared for the unusual trip, to say the least.

Why the only plane for Fairbanks left at midnight remains a mystery, but it was immedaitely obvious that Alaskans were the only other passengers. Dressed in plaid wool shirts and mucklucks, they immediately reclined, stretching their legs across the aisle into the opposite seats. They soon fell asleep. Ever try accessing the restroom in the rear of the plane under those circumstances?

I had flown many times before but was nervous about this flight, probably because it was Friday the 13th. I couldn’t sleep so I watched the snow covered terrain, forming an escape plan in case we had an emergency landing. My husband slept through the entire flight.

We experienced a bumpy landing and no one was there to greet us at the terminal. A miscommunication had us landing at four that afternoon. So we hung around the airport until after six that morning when we called our daughter, who came to pick us up. While we were there, Lynda's mother-in-law tried to talk us into a partnership in an RV repair shop. The 1,390 mile long ALCAN Highway was still a gravel road and recreational vehicles were usually in bad shape by the time they reached civilization. Fortunately, we declined because it wasn't long before the ALCAN was paved.

We were there during the four-day World Eskimo-Indian Olympics which we thoroughly enjoyed. Then held in March, it has since been moved to mid-July in Fairbanks. Natives from not only Alaska, but the Pacific Northwest and Canada compete in traditional contests which include some unusual events such as knuckle hopping, ear-pulling, Alaskan high kicking, Eskimo stick pulling and nalukatak or blanket toss. It's said that age and wisdom often defeat the young and strong, and we were witness to just that.

The Race of the Torch, a five kilometer road race, is held during the festivities and run by both male and female contestants. The winner earns the honor of lighting the WEIO torch for that year and a pretty Miss WEIO is crowned. All daytime events are free to the public but you'd better have your wallet handy for nighttime activities. Among them were dances, races and games.

Traditional native dancers perform throughout the games as well as every night. A potlatch, or pot luck supper, is served with traditional native foods. And we were glad to be there during early spring before Alaska’s native bird, the mosquito, emerged from hibernation.

Before we left, we saw Santa’s workshop at North Pole, Alaska, a few miles north of Fairbanks, and were disappointed that it wasn’t open that time of year. The old gentleman must have been on an extended vacation. We flew home with a huge, beautiful dark blue Alaskan flag and carved wooden Eskimo figure that is still here on display. We’ll return to Alaska one day, armed with plenty of mosquito repellant and enough film to capture the wonder and beauty of our northernmost state. We may even stop by Wasilla.


Anonymous said...

The trip of a lifetime, Jean! Your story really made it come alive. Thanks for sharing.

Beth Terrell said...

My grandmother and I always talked about taking a trip to Alaska. It was one of those things we just never got around to. Your post has made me determined to go.

Chester Campbell said...

My wife went on an Alaska coastal cruise before we were married, and we've talked about heading up that way again. Maybe when the economy perks up a bit. She really enjoyed the trip, and I'm all for going. My brother spent a few days in Fairbanks some years back and talked about visits from the native bird.