Breakup Takeoff, April Sneak Preview

Watching drama amid everyday life in Tanana

Watching drama amid everyday life in Tanana

Adapted from “Alaska Bush Pilot Doctor”

I wiped off my camera lens and surveyed the set.

People congregated along the steep banks of the Yukon River, in front of the Tanana Hospital. They joked and placed bets on the anticipated action. Children threw rocks and sticks at a pop bottle.

One might assume the entertainment was the annual river breakup, but that was yet to come. For cheechakos, sourdoughs, and Natives alike, the thundering river breakup was something one never quite got used to. Once the Tanana River went out in Nenana, the Yukon villages were next. This could happen from the end of April to the end of May. An individual might run to the Episcopal Church and ring the bell, or a hospital staff might blow the fire whistle. At night, people scurried out for a “come‑as‑you‑are” riverbank party in bathrobes, nightgowns and slippers. If it was daytime, school was dismissed for a real‑life science exhibit.

But breakup had not happened, although muddy channels of water, 10 to 20 feet wide, ran intermittently between the shore and the solidly frozen ice in the middle of the river. Even so, all eyes were riveted to the river’s edge. Sandwiched on the shore, between the steep 15‑foot bank and the open water, crouched a Super Cub—on winter skis. Word was the pilot planned to take off from the 100-some-foot strip of honeycombed snow.

A cloud darkened the sky. The young mother cooed to her baby. Don leaned casually against a plane strut. I returned to my filming position and consoled myself that most of the hospital personnel were on stand‑by for an emergency.

Why was the plane still there? A month earlier, I’d flown my Piper PA-14 to the snow-covered village airstrip, and changed to wheels. Somehow, like a snow goose missing its signal to migrate south, this plane had missed its cue.

To read the full article, check out the  April 2013 issue on newsstands soon, or purchase a subscription online.

Get Our Newsletter

Devoted to bringing you the best of alaska