Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Nomeward Bound

“You know you’re in the largest state in the union when…” Michele Shocked wasn't kidding when she sang those words. I was floored by the grand scale of the peaks, ridges and fjords of the Alaskan coastline, even from the plane. Then of course, it took hours to fly to Anchorage and then to Kotzubue and then to Nome. (In fact, it took 22 hrs. to travel from Newark, NJ to Nome, AK.)

Airplane, by the way, is the only way to reach some towns in Alaska. Kotzebue, a tiny northern settlement just inside the Arctic Circle, is one of those places. Weather dictates much of what happens in Alaska. Passengers on my flight from Anchorage to Kotzebue to Nome had been trying to get to Kotzebue for a couple of days, but high winds and fog often keep planes from taking off and landing there. So people can’t get in and out of Kotzebue, but neither can shipments of food and mail. When we left Anchorage at 6:30 PM, our flight was going to land in Nome and then attempt to travel north to Kotzebue. En route, the pilot announced that the weather had cleared and we’d be heading to Kotzebue first. This was great news for the 50 or so passengers hoping to make it to see this year’s high school graduation – a major social event for the families that live in Kotzebue.

We left Kotzebue around 8:30 PM. The sun was shining brightly. (In fact, the sun is just beginning to set now at Midnight.) There’s still a lot of sea ice surrounding Kotzebue and along the coast where Nome sits, a 35-minute flight southwest. I sat next to a woman who grew up in Nome. She said she’s noticed a change in the amount of ice near Nome each year. She’s especially noticed a change in the number of seals and walruses on the ice. When she was a kid in the 1970s and 80s, she used to see seals and walruses galore (her husband and her father are both bush pilots, so she gets to fly around a lot). This year she said she’s seen hardly any. Maybe I’ll find out some of the reasons why when I board the Healy tomorrow.