SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


Winter Travel As Easy As (No) Pie


Februray 09, 2009

Ketchikan, Alaska - In the winter, you "takes your chances" when it comes to travel in Southeast Alaska.

The most calming ferry ride can suddenly turn into a wild bucking bronco when a ship makes a turn into a Southeaster hauling up one of The Straits or moves into "unprotected" waters.

jpg Winter Travel As Easy As (No) Pie By DAVE KIFFER

Dave Kiffer

And plane flights can end up - well, they can end up in somewhere you didn't intend to end up.

For example, some Alaska Airlines passengers ended up in Whitehorse, Yukon Territory recently. That must have been interesting for those not carrying passports or "loonies."

It could have been worse. I guess another Alaska Airlines flight recently left Mexico and ended up back in Mexico - after spending the night in Portland!

But, as usual, I digress.

Anyway, I had the pleasure of some travel re-arrangements recently. And no, I didn't get to go to Mexico on my Ketchikan to Juneau flight, although that is an "overhead" we can all get behind.

The fault was - naturally - completely mine. Primarily because my wife and I decided to play fast and loose with the air traffic gods. Charlotte was out of town for several days and I decided to schedule a trip north on the day that she got back.

But wait - there's more!

We decided to get all fancy and make it so that I would leave on the flight that she would come in on. Therefore, we wouldn't have to worry about getting someone else to look after Liam. I would take him to school in the morning and Charlotte would pick him up after her flight got in.

Easy peazy, lemon squeezy, as Liam likes to say.!!

Natch, the gods of air traffic didn't much care for our family assumptions about flights coming and going as scheduled.

Charlotte's flight from Seattle overheaded Ketchikan.

So I had to scramble to "rebook" my flight north for later in the evening and then make arrangements for Liam to bunk out elsewhere for the night (thanks Betty and Kerry!).

Meanwhile, Charlotte and others on the flight ended up in Juneau for a fun-filled one day visit.

The snow had stopped by the time for my newly booked flight to Juneau later in the evening so I was able to board and head north.

I was excited because it was a rare direct flight to Juneau and this time of year direct is certainly better.

Unfortunately, just shortly after we started our descent in Juneau, the engines roared back up and the plane started turning to the left.

Juneau had closed their airport, at least temporarily.

The pilot announced that we were going to land in Sitka, temporarily.

Now, I don't know about you, but when just about all the runways in Southeast are significantly "iced up" the last place I want to land is the one runway - in Sitka - that uses the ocean as "run out" space.

Fortunately, we landed safely in Sitka.

After we sat on the plane for a while, the "powers that be" suggested we get off and "visit" the terminal for a while. When several folks indicated they'd just as soon stay on the plane, the "suggestion" became a little more adamant.

We got up and started to shlep our carry-ons off. But then the flight crew said that we should leave them on board because we would be re-boarding "shortly."

So we deplaned (how some when you leave a ferry you don't "deboat?"). And then had to stand outside in the rain/snow/slush/sleet for about 15 minutes until some inside the terminal realized the door was locked.

Inside, we quickly discovered that the cafeteria was shut down for the night. So no pie. Which pretty much defeats the whole purpose of going to Sitka in the first place. But it wasn't like we had any choice, so we settled in for a long winter's night on the hard plastic chairs.

Time passed. But not quickly.

We heard several reports, each one indicating that the Juneau runway would be open soon.

Apparently the issue was "standing water" on the runway. And because of the snow and ice, it was not going anywhere. What a rare occurance. Standing water on runway in Southeast Alaska. The shock of something that never occurs. Apparently, it was something that Juneau could just not handle. I think Ketchikan has a giant runway squeegie.

Soon became well over three hours. Finally, at about 12:30 am, we were told that the flight had been cancelled and we should reschedule.

This, of course, created a bit of a "rush" on the single ticket agent who was still at the airport at 12:30 am. There was also the little matter of our carry-ons which now had to come off the plane

Natch, we weren't allowed to go on and retrieve them. We had to describe them to one of the crew members who then went looking for them. As it was late, I forgot to mention my gloves which were on the seat, so they didn't come off the plane.

Needless to say, this whole describing and retrieving of the carry-ons was a wee bit time consuming. Our checked luggage would also have to come off as well, but at least we didn't have to describe that.

It was well after 1 am, by the time all that had been taken care of. Now we were faced with a dilemma.

Stay in the airport until 4 am when it would be time to check in for the 6 am flight to Juneau.

Or try to see if there was an available hotel room that could be rented by the hour!

Once upon a time, I would have just curled up on an empty piece of carpet in the airport. I once spent four days "living" at Denver's Stapleton Airport in a similar situation. The food lasted three days, but the toilet paper was gone after two!.

But I am not an adventurous whippersnapper anymore. Besides, the terminal was packed and there would have been no sleep anyway.

So I got a hotel room. It worked out to only about 50 cents a minute to use it for the three hours.

Natch, when I got all tucked for my nap, a "frank discussion" broke out across the street outside the P-Bar and by the time the "shouting" and police sirens were over, I had lost one third of my deep sleep time.

Groggily, I returned to the airport at around 4:30 am and then had to wait until 7:30 to board.

But we got a new plane in the bargain, the Disneyland one! That's always a good sign because if Alaska Airlines ever allowed something bad to happen to the Disneyland plane, Megacorp Disney would squash AK Air like a bug on a 747 windshield.

I did get to Juneau eventually, just as my wife was leaving Juneau for Ketchikan and everything was hunky-dory.

For the time being.

My flight back to Ketchikan two days later was another adventure.

First off, the ticket agent mentioned that Ketchikan was socked in and that there was a good chance the plane would overhead to Seattle.

I knew it would never happen.

The plane only overheads to Seattle when I absolutely, positively have to get back to town for some reason or another. If I have some flexibility in my schedule and wouldn't mind spending the night in Seattle, the plane absolutely, positively gets in, come heck or low (cloud) cover.

It's the same thing on getting free tickets for agreeing to take later flights. They never ask when it's a time when I can take a later flight. They only ask when I know Charlotte would kill me if I call her from Sea-Tac instead of Ketchikan International.

Anyway, upon rising into the air out of Juneau we experienced a brief bit of turbulence.

Actually, Alaska Air must have thought I was still on the Disneyland plane because it was certainly a preview of one of those old E-ticket rides like Space Mountain or the Matterhorn.

Really, it wasn't too bad, if you don't mind feeling like your stomach is starting leak out of your nose.

We quickly (but not quickly enough) reached cruising height and wolfed down our snackie bits. Then it was time to descend into Petersburg.

More bouncing and yawing.

The engines came back on and we did one of the long slow circles. The pilot announced that we were going to try to again.

"Don't bother," someone yelled from the back. We all agreed.

More bouncing and yawing and then a sudden thump on the runway.

Then it was time to "visit" Wrangell.

Of course, the turbulence hadn't improved much as we did the short aerial slalom down Wrangell Narrows to Wrangell. You gotta love all that "unsettled" Stikine River air. Or not.

The captain only made one try there. It was socked in and bumpy and we headed on to Ketchikan.

One of my seatmates said she wouldn't mind overnight in Seattle.

But I knew better.

We floated gently through the clouds, there was little or no turbulence, just that little bit of wing rocking that is always so disconcerting when you can look out the window and count the leaves on the trees of High Mountain as you pass by.

With a spine-jarring "kabang" we touched down in Ketchikan.

One down. Two more trips to Juneau scheduled for this winter.

Call me an optimist, but I will take my passport and some sun screen (less than 4 fluid ounces!) in my carry-on next time.

And next time, the carry-on goes with me even though our "stop" in Sitka is only a :"brief" one.

And yes, next time, I'm bringing my own pie.



Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
Contact Dave at

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