Sunday, September 14, 2014

Up Up And Away To Kodiak Island!

Without ever having been there, I saw Kodiak as a special place. I have not quite figured out why exactly besides the fact that my grandfather spent much of his WW2 time on this awe inspiring island.   I could not wait to get my feet planted on that majestic soil.  First things first though, conquering my fear of small planes.  These tiny planes, also known as Air Taxi's, dot the Alaskan skies and are a very common mode of transportation between small villages. Quite frankly, I am not even sure if what I was scheduled to fly on would be considered an Air Taxi with its eight rows of seats.  The De Havilland Dash 8 Turboprop is part of the Ravn fleet of planes.  Ravn was formerly the conglomerate group of Era Alaska, Frontier and Hageland Aviation, which made up the largest air carrier in the state. They even used to have their own reality show on the Discovery Channel, titled Flying Wild Alaska. There you could catch a glimpse of the day in the life of the Tweto family, who ran Era Alaska. This show quickly became one of my favorites, because it allowed me to see what flying the Alaskan skies was like for my grandfather.  The company eventually went through a rebranding and sadly the show is no longer being filmed.  Sometimes, if your lucky though,  you can still catch the reruns. Remarkably, it is said that one in ten Alaskans is actually a pilot.  You would think that all this information would bring me some comfort. Nope.  Not so much. 

My air chariot to Kodiak Island, Alaska- DE HAVILLAND DASH 8 TURBOPROP

I arrived at the Anchorage Airport the usual one hour early, only to find no lines and a lot of pre boarding time on my hands.  The plane was so small that there were no assigned seats, and actual boarding time was only 10 minutes before the flight.  So I did what any nervous gal would do to calm the nerves, I hit the airport bar.  Parking myself in the only open spot they had, next to a friendly local gentleman, who had plenty of cash lying in piles on the bar in front of him.  He immediately engaged me in conversation about who I was and where I was off to, in the exchange for his own information. He, named Sam, was from the North Slope.  The North Slope being as far North in Alaska as you can be along the Arctic Ocean.  There is big oil all along the North Slope so it is, surprisingly to me, a busy place.  Oddly, Sam did not know where his final destination was.  Guess he was just going to hang out in the airport for days.... a whole different kind of adventure.  Beside him (at least according to him) were his new best friends, two native Alaskan women, Nastasia and Wilma.   One from Bethel, and the other from Hooper Bay. What a great, but brief time we had.  As I began to tell them what had brought me to their state, they expressed the importance of knowing how WW2 effected the Alaskan natives.  How so many of them were relocated and interned.  How families were separated.  How land was taken away.  Villages torn apart.  A whole other disheartening and often overlooked calamity of war.    Although brief, I learned a lot from my new friends.  It was one of my most memorable moments for sure.  As all good things must come to an end, so did my time at the airport bar.  Fifteen to twenty minutes before boarding, I said my good byes and headed over to the gate, only to arrive there and find the crew waiting for the last passenger to board: me.   Apparently they had been calling my name over the airport loud speaker. Evidently, airport speakers do not work in the airport bars.  Oops.  

My new friends.
 Sam, Nastasia and Wilma 

I boarded, and seeing as there was no allotted seating, I picked almost the first seat I could find which was not that difficult as the plane was half empty.  I chose a seat next to a girl about my daughters age.  Turned out to be a well suited partner for my first teeny tiny airplane experience.  She was a transplanted Kodiakian on her way home to see her grandmother, Barb, for the summer.  This brave lil girl was flying by herself, although I am positive she would not think of herself as courageous, as she has been flying this route solo, for years.  And as I looked around the plane, not one passenger looked the least bit nervous, except me, the wimpy outsider.  I chose to take some comfort in everyone else's calmness, at least momentarily.   

She talked the whole trip about this or that.  Showed me her fashion designs.  Told me about her parents, her siblings, her grandmother... it was the perfect distraction.  Until we landed.  Then her chipper tone turned into one laced with doubt about why we kept descending, without being able to see the ground, and how surprised she was, that we could not yet see land.  Oh boy.  Finally, several hundred feet above the water,  we were below the thick fog, and landed safely on the frequently wet Kodiak runway.  Albeit a bumpy landing, enough to make the flight attendants eyes light up,  I had made it.  Afterall,  I am on a mission to retrace my grandfathers steps, and flying in the fog is all part of it.  Why would it be anything different?

Top- Leaving Anchorage.

Middle- The view for 55 of the 60 minute flight.
Right- Finally through the fog, just  a 
 few minutes before we landed.

Top- A rainy Kodiak welcome.
Bottom- The airport.  That's pretty much all of it.
If you look closely, you can still see our plane outside the window.

Once in the airport,  I introduced myself to the grandmother of the little blessing that I sat beside on the flight.  In a typical small town fashion she then offered to drive me to my destination- Mrs. Potts Bed & Breakfast, whom she knew.  Of course.  Come to find out, everyone knows everyone in Kodiak.  Our drive home turned into a rainy tour of the most adorable and beautiful fishing town.  I would say, that the fog and the rain was a warm Kodiak welcoming, that was part of the authentic experience I was looking for.   I welcomed it.  In fact, when I arrived at the B&B I dropped my stuff off, suited up in my spunky new orange rain gear and hit the streets, to find myself a beer and a warm meal, preferably something freshly caught, like Kodiak cod.   

Top L-R: Foggy Kodiak Harbor, Mrs. Potts' B&B- my home away from home.
Second L:  The Mall; a U shaped section of a few stores and bars in downtown of Kodiak.
Bottom: View of a harbor where some Deadliest Catch boats dock when not at sea.
Namely:  Saga, Seabrook, Cornelia Marie
Note the thick fog we just landed in.  There is a large mountain hidden within it.  

Henry's Great Alaskan Restaurant in the downtown "Mall" sounded like just the spot.  The place was packed, mostly with hungry fisherman it seemed, all fueling up and letting loose after a long rainy day of hard work.  The food was scrumptious and the local beer was smooth.  Just what I needed at the end my day's adventure.  Before returning to my quaint little B&B, I leisurely strolled around the harbor in the rain, soaking the experience all in, and thinking about my grandfather and his comrades, and how they would have been strolling in this same spot 70 years ago.  Sigh,  I had finally made it. 

Top- Kodiak Harbor in 1943,  Bottom- Kodiak Harbor 2014

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Little More Elmendorf

Just thought I would share some of the other sites around Elmendorf-Richardson Joint Base.  It is very large base as you can imagine with both the Air Force and Army stationed there. Unfortunately, we went on a Sunday so the runways were quiet.  We'll try again next year to get an up close experience with an F-16.   One of the things we did see was some of their retired aircraft, both old and new on display.   The weather the day we went was so pleasant that we had absolutely no problem leisurely strolling around base enjoying the glorious sunshine and clean Alaskan air.  Clean is no over exaggeration, the smell of Alaskan air is so light.  It seemed effortless to breath.  A wonderful break from the thick, heavy moisture filled air that I am currently gasping for during this near one hundred degree Florida summer.

Top- A recovered & refurbished P-38 our guide, Col. Cloe helped recover from Attu Island in 1999.
Bottom- Little  ol' me and a enormous Hercules.   

Top L-R- Convair F-102 Delta Dagger, McDonnell F-4 Phantom,
Northrop F-89 Scorpion.

 Second Row- a Lockheed T-33 Tee Bird 
Third Row- an F-16

How many people does it take to capture the blowing of dandelion fluff....
 apparently too many.   Dandelion fun.   Something we don't have in Florida. 

Alaska National Guard Memorial Park.
Top L- tank, personel carrier,  Sikorsky CH-54B Sky Crane.

Top L-R- Yukla Memorial.  On a routine surveillance mission this flight crashed 
and all 24 American and Canadian airmen on board were lost,
Second Left- rescued eagles who now call the base home,
Bottom- the air park. 

Bottom- Top- "Wait up Ma!" A MOOSE and her darling babies
darting through traffic in an Anchorage suburb,
 a beautiful Alaskan evening at 10P.M.,
the late night view of the Chugach Mountains from my room.

That concludes day two in Anchorage.  Next up, a bit of work related research in the form of a visit to the Ice Spa, it's rough, I know.... Then, off to Kodiak Island!

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Elmendorf-Richardson Joint Base

I must say, it is very advantageous to know people who are familiar with the area when traveling.   Lucky for me,  on our trip we had 4 locals, one former local, and then us foreigners: me- the transplanted Canadian, an Italian and a Dutchman.   The local peeps were wonderful hosts picking us up and chauffeuring us where the group needed.  God Bless them, I mean really,  the cost of renting a car in Alaska is outrageous not to mention the effeciency and invaluable benefit of being with someone who knows where they are going especially on this type of trip.  So very thankful.

Colonel Cloe and his wife hosted a wonderful fresh caught salmon dinner
which started with reindeer sausage and Alaskan beer.  Delish! 

After I walked off my gooey yet decadent raspberry pinwheel I was picked up by Allison (former Anchorage resident) and we headed south east towards the base.  We were there a little early so we pit stopped at the Alaska Heritage Center gift shop.   Interestingly, there I found a Haida Gwaii scarf that I had regretted not buying last summer while thousands of miles away,  in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, at the Museum of Civilization.  Did not make that mistake twice.  Talk about a great use of 15 minutes, eh Allison?

We forged ahead and met the others at the front gate of Elmendorf-Richardson Air Force/Army Joint Base. Unfortunately once inside the guard station, we were informed that our non citizens needed to apply weeks in advance to be given access to the base which meant that our tight click would now have to split up.   It ended up that half went to the Aviation Heritage Museum with Col. Cloe and the other half moved forward with the base tour.   Happily, I was part of the latter group. 

Although combined in 2005 by the Base Closure and Reassignment Commission it was not until 2010 that the two branches of the military were merged into one location.  It currently acts as the headquarters for the United States Alaskan Command, 11th Air Force, U.S. Army Alaska, and the Alaskan North American Aerospace Defense Command Region. Major units to be found there are the Eleventh Air Force, 673d Air Base Wing, Alaskan Air Command, Alaskan NORAD region, United States Army, 4th Brigade Combat team (Airborne) 25th infantry division, 3rd Wing (USAF) and numerous other tenant units. 

My grandfather was stationed at Elmendorf for roughly 3 months and for the members of the R.C.A.F the base served as a place where they would primarily learn the USAF radio procedures before moving into the more active postings further west.   Bill Eull, who has spent countless hours researching the 111F Squadron has a super write up on what life was like for the Canadians who were stationed there.  Bill continues to amaze me on the work he has done on the behalf of service men.  Keep it up Bill, there are a lot of watery eyes looking down with grand appreciation.

While on base, my "To Do" list included a visit to the gravesides of my grandfathers fellow squadron members who died while serving in Alaska.  To even find the Allied section, which was not marked on the cemetery map, we had to fight off bird like mosquitoes for quite a while.  We finally located the section next to the Japanese grave markers and behind a hill, not even in plain sight.  Granted the section was not very big but still.... behind a hill next to the then, opposition?  Jeesh. 

Top- Japanese Memorial.
 Bottom- R.C.A.F Pilots:  S/L Kerwin, F/S Maxmen,  F/S Lennon, F/O Whiteside

Anyways, there they sat.  It was sad to see those gravesides.  So far away from home.  Made me wonder who visits them?  Who pays them any honor?   My way to pay tribute to them was to do what we do in Canada and that is to use poppies as a symbol of recognition for their sacrifice. I laid poppies alongside the sites of four of the five fearless airmen who died when they got lost in the fog and crashed into Unalaska Island.  F/O Gordon Baird, not pictured, was lost at sea and was therefore located in a separate section, a section for those missing in action.  My grandfather would have been flying with them that day but by the grace of God, he crashed landed his plane one day earlier and was forced to travel to Umnak as a DC-9 passenger with the ground crew.  Who would have thought that a plane crash would have saved his life. Luckily for me, it was just not his time. 

Goes to show you that we all have a time limit on this earth. Some are gone way too soon, some seemingly with out meaning, but for all of us, it is the only thing guaranteed in life. That alone, makes me want to go out and live my very best life possible while I am still blessed with actually being alive.  In some way, it makes other peoples loss a little less senseless.