Saturday, June 12, 2010

Galena, Alaska ~ the Details

Galena is in what is known as "the Interior." To get anywhere in the Interior, you go to Fairbanks. From Fairbanks, you go...wherever. You cannot drive here, however, as there are no roads leading to Galena. Cars get here via barge and then stay in town. You can fly, hike (depending on the season), come in on the barge, or snow mobile. I'm not sure where the barge lets off, though, because I haven't seen waterways large enough for a barge. Possibly farther down river and then driven in. There are 2 scheduled flights into Galena every day, plus charters and private pilots. When you fly on one of the scheduled flights, you are only allowed one small bag in the plane with you and they ask you how much you weigh when you check in. Any checked luggage that goes over the weight limit goes on the next flight to or from.

Note, we are not in "the bush." The Interior has towns and villages. The bush does not. That doesn't mean no one lives in the bush; it just means there is nothing as official or organized as a town or village.

The mosquitoes are bad, especially at the beginning and end of the days. We use 100% DEET because the standard 28-30% just doesn't cut it. Even with that, my ankles are still mottled with bite marks. The days are long. Sunrise is about 04:30. Sunset is about 00:50, but it never gets completely dark. The sun is highest in the sky right now at about 14:00. It is also very close. I've been at altitude before but I have never seen the sun look this close to the earth. The clouds look like paintings. Actually, the clouds look like bad paintings that make you say "what an amateur; clouds don't look like that." Only they do here.
Sadly, my little camera isn't good enough to capture them. It may be time for an upgrade.

We are staying at an old Air Force base. It's good because we have the infrastructure left by the military ~ although much of it has that abandoned look and feel about it. We are in the old barracks. They remind me of dorms. One to two single beds per room; a sink in each room; and shower and toilet between two rooms. The person in charge of assignments tries to keep crews together, as much as possible. This makes it more comfortable because then you are, at least, sharing the bathroom space with someone you know. They are co-ed up here, so my presence isn't a big deal in that regard.

Lithus is on call every day from 10:00 to 19:00. Any time beyond that is considered "extended standby" and means more money. Needless to say, it's a mixed emotion about extended standby.

Breakfast is from 8:00 to 9:00. We walk over to the dining facility, have breakfast together, then he walks me home, picks up his bicycle and rides back to the helicopter. (Note, the red bike there next to the helicopter shack is not his. His is a baby blue that he catches some grief over but has come to love. I'll try to get a picture.)He and I disagree about how long the walk is. I say it's about 1.25 miles. He says it's 1.5. We are in agreement that it is no less than one mile from the room to the dining hall. Yes, this means that in order to eat 2 meals a day, I walk at least 4 miles a day. Lithus does even more than that, because the helicopter is beyond the dining hall, and he is back and forth further and more often.
That one mile takes you over sand, gravel, asphalt, sidewalk, dirt, and yes, tarmac.

Taxiing airplanes always get the right of way, but generally, you can stay out of their way by simply hugging the sides. It's easier with the scheduled flights than the charters, though, because of where they stop.

The meals are surprisingly good. Billy, Justin and Ed, the cooks, make as much from scratch as they can. Breakfast is eggs to order, several meat options, oatmeal, get the idea. Lunch (which I skip) is soup and salad. Dinner is always different and always includes a very fresh salad bar. Meals are served for exactly one hour: 8:00-9:00; 13:00-14:00; 18:00-19:00. If the pilots/crews are out, the guys will put up plates for them. Otherwise, if you miss your meal, you miss your meal. They don't accept cash here, nor do they have many visitors, so they weren't sure what to do with me at first. They figured out though that meals cost $7.00 so I sign in as Billy (the aforementioned cook), buy my meals through his account, and give him $7.00 in cash.

The town of Galena itself is small by the standards of the lower 48 but not so much by Alaska standards. The population is between 500-600, which is pretty typical for villages in the Interior. It's broken up into two parts: Old Town and New Town. Old Town floods almost every year when the ice breaks up. New Town was built up to avoid that. From here, you can get to Old Town by walking around the airstrip. I actually played chicken with a plane yesterday, crossing the runway. Nothing like having to pick up one's speed in order to make it across so the plane that is coming right at you doesn't have to call missed approach. But I digress.... in town there is a grocery store, a convenience store attached to the liquor store (this is where the ATM is), a post office, a bar ("Hobos") and a restaurant ("Restaurant"). The restaurant accepts Visa and Master Card. The stores will if they have to. The bar doesn't.*
Both the stores rent movies. 

Right now, you can get a better price on chips at the convenience store because the bags popped open when the plane bringing them in flew too high and she (the store owner) has had to tape the bags back shut. This is big news in town. Considering chips are $6.00, getting them for $5.80 is indeed big news. They try to price things so that, with tax, the price comes out to an even dollar amount. Generally, if something has change on the end of it, they will either wave the change or the change itself is an even amount (e.g. 50 cents instead of 54 cents). They don't always succeed but they do try.

There are two high schools here. One, the local school, is a standard high school. The other is here on the grounds of the Air Force base, and is a boarding school, that accepts kids from all over the Interior. Instead of being a college prep school, the boarding school is a vocational school. They offer classes in fields that the First Nation kids will need to get work close to their homes. It is also the only high school in the country where a teenager can get a full pilot's license.

There is a clinic and elders' center here as well. Both are privately owned but are a great source of pride for the people. Everyone waves to everyone else as you pass by, regardless of how far away you are when you pass.

Technically, we are supposed to be in Fairbanks for fire season. But considering we still don't know if the pilot who is *supposed* to be here in Galena has passed his check ride or not AND given that Lithus is currently in the bush fighting a fire, we're not sure.

I think there was ~ and still is to a certain extent ~ a lot of "not sure what to do with her" going around about me. Still, everyone has been very welcoming. And, because I do stick out (I do my best but...well, I don't really blend), people know me and have an idea of who I am. Total strangers have come up to me and given me information about Lithus, the helicopter, the schedule. Everyone is very nice about having this romance writing, crossword puzzle doing, black polish wearing stranger in their midst. I can only imagine what questions are asked when I'm not around but everyone's great when I am, and that's really what matters.

And that's Galena, Alaska.

Those are Pobble Thoughts. That and a buck fifty will get you coffee.

* Correction: The bar does indeed take credit cards. And also serves food W-Sun from 11:30 am until 7:30 pm. The continued existence of Restaurant is up for debate and has not been determined yet by me, personally. Thank you. ~ Ed.


Nemeria said...

Love the pictures!

Dreamer said...

I would love to visit Alaska one day...that'd be an awesome trip to just be able to see and feel the land and atmosphere.

And hey, at least the people are nice :)

Gay Soldier's Husband said...

Pobble! I've been in Fairbanks a lot lately - so close, but yet so far... Do you get cell reception there?

CrackerLilo said...

What a terrific write-up! I could practically see it, smell it--and swat away the mosquitoes! I'm glad you get to be with Lithus for this even if people aren't quite sure what to do with you. I know it's difficult for you to get to the Internet where you're at, but I'm looking forward to more posts!

nRT said...

BP, just caught up with May-June. You are amazing. I smiled when you stated "Let's drop you off in Dudley Square, or at the Ramrod, or in Beacon Hill and see if you can say the same thing at the end of two weeks". Having never left New England,your description of the sun, the clouds and life in the "Interior" makes me think its time to get out of Boston and travel.
I enjoy reading about your experiences...thanks for sharing.
take care

BostonPobble said...

Nemeria ~ So glad. And it's good for me too, to know that you have an idea of where I am. If that makes sense.

Dreamer ~ Yes, AK needs to stay on your list. It is an experience like no other.

DGSH ~ Naturally. *sigh* Text me. Sometimes it works...

Cracker Lilo ~ I'm so glad. :) Interestingly enough, while cell service is sporadic at best, the internet connection is strong here. Go figure. Anyway, posts will be regular events.

nRT ~ I actually thought of you as I wrote that line. :) And as much as I adore Boston, I do recommend travel. As you reminded me once, New Englanders are tough; Boston will be there when you get back.

Unknown said...

I worked as the dinner cook at the "dining hall" there in summer 2011 when I was retiring from the Air Force. Best job I ever had. Laid back, made nothing but scratch food, plus Ed, Billy, and that local hire native Gail were a lot of fun. And I lived in those old, musty 1970's barracks as well. Now I work at radar stations all over Alaska cooking, weather watch, and administrative stuff.8

Anonymous said...

Ed and Billy are still cooking, and Mike is the new cook. The food is still great! Galena was flooded this Spring, only the structures inside the dike resisted flooding. Oldtown and newtown both got trashed. The cleanup is still ongoing