On the Air in Alaska

I spent 2004 in the Alaska bush doing a morning radio show on the shores of Bristol Bay. It was my first big break after college, and I wanted to make a big impression. Unfortunatly that’s exactly what happened.

Even before arriving from the lower 48, I was in for a variety of surprises, starting with an Anchorage layover. Booking a 2-star hotel room was much cheaper than I expected. After all, it was managed by Chinese nationals serving flight crews flying air freight from Asia.

The next day, I took a 30-passenger turboprop to King Salmon. The in-flight meal was a candy bar, and coffee came from a thermos tucked under the co-pilot’s seat. It was only 80 minutes in the air, but the entire flight was over water. Don’t tell anyone, but I can’t swim.

We landed in King Salmon at what used to be the Naknek Air Force Base. Back in the cold war, it was part of the Distant Early Warning Line, the first line of defense against incoming missiles. Now it’s a commercial airfield serving the borough of Bristol Bay.

My first meal in Alaska was spaghetti with moose meat, shot, dressed, packed out, and cooked by the preacher and his wife. Meals after that were fish, mostly, and mostly because they were free. I had lots of fish, baked, fried, braised, and exploded. (Trust me, it’s a microwave thing). We were also sustained by occasional potluck suppers, ramen noodles, oatmeal, and grass.

I’m just kidding, of course. There wasn’t really any oatmeal.
I lost a ton of weight from daily walks into the town of Naknek. City center was an unmarked gas station, thirty-seat café, ten-room motel, and a school building. Students from across the inlet were bussed to school daily in a Piper airplane on a thirty-second flight.

My job at the radio station was doing a morning show, because no one else on staff wanted to get up that early. One of my earliest challenges was the opening prayer, because it had to be ad-libbed for sixty seconds. That’s a long time to think, let alone pray, and listeners got to sleep through it like the staff.
I never did know my audience, and wondered at times if I even had one, but it’s hard to do a head count in the Alaska bush. There could have been four…..hundred…..or it might have been just the sled-dog teams that lined Pen highway. Still, it was worthwhile, just knowing we were sharing the gospel, while I was spreading mayo on breakfast muffins.

One of my favorite memories happened outside the station, while I was on the air. Mister and Mrs. Preacher stopped by one morning on an errand. Taking a break, I rushed outside to meet them, but they weren’t there. It was as if they’d disappeared into thin air, and that’s what we had up there—thin air!
Suddenly they walked around the corner of the building, toting a couple trash cans towards that old pickup truck. Covering up my surprise with a joke, I said “Whoa. I thought for a minute that you two had been called up in the Rapture!” To which Mrs. Preacher responded, “Then why are you still on the ground?”

Alaska is truly the new frontier. I got to see it up close and personal, from wildlife to midnight sunsets, and giant flies to cramped airplane rides. Church was on Sunday, but the message we heard from the pulpit was the same one we were privileged to broadcast over the air.

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