14 August 2012

Anchorage: Day 1

All four of us woke up at 4am this morning in order to load up the bags I finished packing last night and run to the Sitka airport, where Seren and I would depart on our 6am flight to Anchorage. Since this was both Seren's and my first flight off the island since we moved out here, I'd like to share my observations of this experience

 Inter-Alaskan air travel is a whole lot like taking a Greyhound bus anywhere else in the country. TSA rules aren't relaxed, but they are streamlined in such a way that showing up half an hour before your flight is a normal habit Sitkans have developed. The line moves quickly and amiably. The TSA staff are courteous and professional. Once you are ushered past the screening area and into the gate area, the process moves very quickly. Boarding starts almost immediately and the line shuffles at a rates of about 2 seconds per passenger. What would normally appear to be a long queue is cleared out and loaded onto the plane in less than 20 minutes. Flight staff are competent and friendly. There is no time for confusion to set in or disagreement to take place about space or seating. It's almost exactly as practiced as walking in a straight line back to the classroom after recess. Our flight did, however, take 20 additional minutes to take off, due to a technical error regarding a fuse, but the Captain announced the delay well in advance and did not keep us wondering what was going on, as we continued to receive updates every 5 or so minutes until it was resolved.

The first leg of our flight was 22 minutes or 65 miles, depending on how you like to look at it. Either way, it was only long enough to get into the air before our descent was announced. Our flight stopped briefly at Juneau to pick up and drop off more passengers, which is normal for Northbound flights from Sitka. We did not get off of the plane, but were back in the air less than half an hour after we touched down.

Oh, and the landing! Stephen has described Alaskan landings to me many times, but it's an entirely different matter to experience one first-hand. Because the runways are shorter (and frequently surrounded by water) Alaskan pilots have become deft in using the landing itself as a means of slowing the entire aircraft quickly and efficiently. There is none of that gentle gliding onto the runway you've all become so used to in the lower 48. It's down, and brake, and that's it. The entire plane feels it when the tires hit pavement. A good landing is a fast landing.

The second leg of the flight was significantly longer than the first. Anchorage is more than 600 miles Northwest of Juneau. The Captain explained that we were both flying higher (about 18,000 ft) and faster than normal in an attempt to make up for the delay in Sitka. When the primary means of transportation between cities is the flight you're on, the flight must run on time (or as near to it as is safely and reasonably possible). Near the middle of the flight, the Captain pointed out Mt. Logan in the Yukon, the second largest peak in North America (second to Denali, which is in Alaska). So, I took out the camera and took some snapshots of the beautiful scenery we were flying over.

Mt. Logan, Yukon

Clouds and sky

Seren did very well during the entire flight. She sat next to the window and did not even attempt to sleep. Most of her time was occupied looking out the window or reading a Calvin & Hobbes book she chose to take with her. She actually read about 80% of the 176-page book during this flight, which is quite a bit of dedication for a sleep-deprived 5-year-old on an airplane. She didn't complain. Not once. She was happy, excited, and inquisitive the entire way there.

We landed in Anchorage at about 9:10am and had claimed our baggage and were waiting for our shuttle to the hospital to check in by 9:40am. We had a 50-minute wait for the next shuttle to arrive, so she and I sat outside at the shuttle stop and amused ourselves with flowers and leaves, buildings, and people. A very nice couple vacationing from the United Kingdom struck up a conversation with Seren and she willingly took advantage of the opportunity to share with the foreigners all she knew about Alaska and its wildlife.
Seren hamming it up for the camera, outside Ted Stevens International Airport

Note the "badge" sticker given to her by the TSA agents in Sitka.

We were the only people on the shuttle to the hospital and the driver was listening and laughing with me about Seren's many questions on the way there. The driver was very nice and helped us with our luggage both into and out of the van, even refused to allow me to help him load. More notably, he did his job with a sort of genuine pleasure, the kind I hope I never learn to take for granted from Alaskans.

Inside the hospital, we were quickly directed to the housing department, which has an entire wing to itself. It was explained to us that we would not be staying on the hospital campus, but instead at a Quality Suites in downtown Anchorage. There was only one problem: It was just after 11am and check-in at the hotel wasn't until after 3pm. The good news was that I was given a pair of allowance cards that will be supplied with $25 per day for each of us to use for food at the hospital cafeteria AND the cafeteria has prepped hot food on par with a mall food court (Stephen would compare it to the cafeteria offerings at a major university). So Seren and I spent an hour or so getting food, eating, and calling family members to check in, then we found the playground (which amounts to a couple of slides in a gravel pit) and played for an hour or so, then we went to the gift shop where Seren graciously accepted candy from an on-site artist, then we went outside so she could run in the grass, then we went back to the cafeteria to eat some ice cream before FINALLY finding our place at the shuttle stop to head to the hotel.
Cafeteria lunch

Seren chasing a group of boys at the playground

A seal gut parka on display at the hospital

Mind you, neither of us had slept since 4am and Seren had still been very well-behaved throughout the whole day. She even drew positive remarks from passersby and people she interacted with along the way. I'm very proud of the attitude and stamina she showed on a day like this.

The shuttle to the hotel was full. We ended up in the furthest back row, next to a woman (maybe in her 70s) and her 6-year-old granddaughter. Seren immediately made friends and they laughed and played the whole ride away. The grandmother and I had conversation about our reasons for being at the hospital, the length of our stay, the beauty of Sitka, the weather, family, and on and on. She's a graduate of MEHS and was very pleased to hear that Stephen has a full-time music program going there. She's had 3 daughters graduate from there. She has at least 2 nieces who are going to go there. She expects several of her 15 grandchildren to go there. It's a kind of legacy that we have encountered over and over again with Mt. Edgecumbe students and I'm still surprised every time I hear the stories of lineage and history that pass through that institution's doors. They are staying at the same hotel we are and she was eager to tell me about all the best places to take Seren to walk, play, hang out, and eat. Her granddaughter tried to arrange an impromptu play date for this evening, but I had to decline. We were just too tired from the long day of travel. I could see that the grandmother was eager to see us again, to spend time with us and let the children play together, and I genuinely hope we run into them again before we leave.

It's 10:15pm now. Seren and I laid down for a nap at around 4:30pm and I have only been awake for a few hours. Seren is still sleeping soundly. She needs it. We have an 8:15am pre-op appointment to keep in the morning.

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