Commerce in the Yukon

Commerce in the Yukon

My community has a little over 50 miles of paved roads. Consider that there are only one hundred times that amount of paved roadways in all of Alaska. Looking at a map of Alaska, you will understand that there are only so many places that you can drive. You can drive to Seward. You can drive to Homer. You can drive to Fairbanks. You can drive to Prudhoe Bay. These paved roads are equivalent to less than one complete road along a small portion of the coastline of Alaska. This also explains why at least one in seventy two people have airplanes. Some people have more than one. The number of pilots is closely the same, it is about five times the national average.

Alaska has expanse; approximately the same square miles as Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana combined. Alaska encompasses

663,000 square miles. The population in Alaska is about 730,000 (109,500) of whom are native peoples. This leaves the newest immigrant population of Alaskans at 620,000 or about four times the size of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. That works out to one person per square mile; the average throughout the U.S. Is 87 people per square mile.

Alaska is a curious place and the people are as genuine as any place I’ve traveled. You’ve heard all the descriptions: rugged individualists, woodsman extraordinaire, do-it -yourselfers. My experience drifted off in a slightly different direction when my niece’s husband asked if I would like to fly with him on a “mail run” to a remote Yupik village on the Yukon River. Willie Coon is a veteran bush pilot having flown to most every Inuit village in Alaska. His plane is a ten-passenger Grand Caravan, a work horse in the industry. A similar plane needs an annual mechanical check up and it resides in the small village of St. Mary’s on the Yukon. We intend to fly there and switch planes, then bring it back for servicing. Willies company decides to have him pick up mail and cargo to be delivered to St. Mary’s to defray the fuel expense of a four or five hour flight. Willie has cut his teeth in aviation with honors. His career has been spent in the wilds of this great state, meeting people and going places others just dream about. William Coon got his pilots license about the same time he received his drivers license. There is little room for travel romance in the work-a-day-world of a bush pilot.

We take off from Wasilla and fly to Anchorage International Airport to pick up our cargo that is to be transported to St. Mary’s. With a few sharp turns and quick descent that is dictated by flight control we alight next to a 747 Cathay International air freight liner. We are diminished by its size.

The loading crew immediately approaches with fork lifts and two pallets of mail and cargo. Our passenger seats have all been folded back and are ready to accept the cargo. It is time to take or cargo to the little village of four hundred Yupiks on the inner reaches of the Yukon. It is another day of work for the pilot and it is an adventure of uncommon merit for me!

Commerce in the Yukon - AlaskaWe left Anchorage International headed westerly with sunlight bright in our faces. Within ten minutes there was not a roadway in sight. All signs of civilization had vanished, stark foreboding mountains lay ahead. We wend our way through rocky peaks, not a blade of grass, lichen or moss seems to be found on the mountains below us. Not a goat, not a marmot, not any sort of animal could survive this mountainous terrain. We were in the “outback”, pure Alaska. I held my breath as we went headlong into sunrise or sunset? This was Alaskan summer and nobody seems to have a handle on the time sequence. The sun never sets so many people just continued to stay awake and do things. It is my fervent hope that they all exercised caution and good judgement.

After an hour of flight time we found ourselves in the taiga/tundra and we were in an area that looked and felt like the Florida Everglades. There are water and riverine type confluences in all directions, for miles and miles. The hum of the engine kept us focused on our goal St. Mary’s on the Yukon.

Soon we are following a large river and through my headset I am told that it is the Yukon. We follow it for another twenty minutes at one hundred seventy miles per hour, as I stare blankly at the auto pilot. Soon the village of St. Mary’s appears below on the banks of this great river. Houses appear all neatly oriented along the river and the boats are all helter skelter on the shoreline. There is a road….or maybe just an ATV pathway from the landing strip, in the upcoming distance a small gravel runway. We bank to the right, set down and come to a halt within two hundred yards. We then taxi onto a bituminous tarmac that denotes the main terminal.

The plane comes to a halt and we were met by a native that seemed to have anticipated our arrival. He brought us fresh smoked salmon. A startlingly realization takes place when I come to understand that we aren’t on a tourist trip. People have come to off load the plane so we can quickly return to Anchorage. I sat a bit beleaguered realizing that this was as close as I was going to get to this village and the inhabitants. It is time to return to Anchorage.

Bill Keitel

Tutus in Talkeetna (Part 1)
Commerce in the Yukon (Part 2)
Alaska the Columbian Exchange (Part 3)

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