The principal emailed me on Sunday and said that 77 basketball players were on an extended trip to Hooper Bay due to bad weather. He suggested I wait to come this week due to lows moving in across the ocean, so I changed my reservation from Sunday night to Monday night to Anchorage, early morning to Bethel on Tuesday, then to Hooper Bay by 10:15 am on Hageland/ERA.
Riding the pines at Hageland, I heard the number of cancellations- all around- Tuntutuliak, Tununak, Kipnuk, etc., but the clear skies and light winds were all around and the Scammon Bay and Chevak planes left so I boarded for Hooper Bay with 7 others. The guys next to me on the plane were Chicanos from Anchorage going out to do drywall. When I saw their sweatshirts and sneakers I asked if they were being met by anyone. "Gets cold out there" I told them. They laughed, "We're tough". Then I went to sleep.
When I woke up, we were being buffeted around and were about 15 minutes out of HPB. The only sign of a village was on the plane's locator grid. I never saw anything outside the plane until 30 seconds before we landed as the runway lights loomed up close directly ahead. When I got off the plane, the pilot threw the bags out on the strip into a complete white-out and roaring wind. The Chicanos disappeared from my view. My face was being sandblasted by the icy snowflakes and high winds. No school machine. No familiar face. I saw a young guy completely covered except for his eyes on a powerful looking snowmachine. My hero. I unhesitatingly asked him if he saw anyone from the school. "I'll bring you up" he said quietly. He strapped my suitcase on the back, I climbed in behind him and I held onto my cardboard file box full of food.
We took off into the whiteout while I huddled behind him. After about 10 minutes, he stopped. I peeked out from my human windshield as he said, "oh, the river". I asked, "do you know where we are?" to which he replied, "yep. the river". Then we switched direction and within another 10 minutes, started to see houses. When we pulled up to the school, he was icy from the top of his hood to his toes. I asked him if I could give him some gas money. He acted insulted and refused it. I think he saved my life. Vernon Tall, you're my hero!
Sadly, another person, Paul Kaiser died in that same blizzard later in the day, coming home from Chevak to Hooper Bay, about 5 miles. When his sno-go ran out of gas, he started walking. In the wrong direction. His frozen body was found the next day. All of Hooper Bay, Chevak and Scammon Bay are mourning this father and husband, nephew, brother and cousin.
You might ask, why did you fly when it was so bad? I have to say in my defense, once you get on the plane, you are in the hands of the pilot. You have to trust that they will look after your safety and know what they're doing. Bethel had clear sky and low winds. Hooper Bay reportedly had good visibility when we left an hour before we arrived. It's always a crap shoot.