This story occurred a few years ago. I was hired by a native clinic on St. Paul Island to fill in for a month for another provider. I had worked at the St Paul Clinic before and knew the lay of the land as well as the clinic routine. It was early November and this far north it was already getting cold. The winds off the Bering Sea never paused.
I was working with an African trained doctor who had recently completed a family practice residency in Anchorage, Alaska. She was a nervous type. We were rotating call after hours. She would call and ask me to come in and help her every after hours call she had. I was her security blanket that could suture. I am comforting like that.
Two weeks into my stay the clinic manager asked if I would be willing to go over to St George Island for the remaining two weeks of my contract. What these requests typically mean is that none of the regular staff are willing to go. I am use to this and don’t worry about it. As long as I am being paid, I don’t care where they send me.
The plane from St Paul to St George only bothers to make the trip a twice a week. I did not know it at the time, but flights to and more importantly out are frequently cancelled. Wind and fog are the most common culprits cancelling flights.
They were excited and happy in St Paul; the new guy was willing to go. It took the burden off of them and a couple of days later I was off to St George Island. The island lays about 40 miles south of St Paul Island in the northern Bering Sea. The history what I know of it is primarily Russian. The islands were uninhabited until the Russians brought in Aleuts to harvest fur seals that were plentiful on the island. Skins and fur for hats for the Russians back home at the expense of the fur seals. The United States ended up with the islands when they acquired Alaska. The harvest continued until the late 1970’s. The government put all of the workers on a pension and got out of the seal killing business.
There are less than 80 people on the island. The population consists of retired seal workers along with their alcohol or drug addicted children and grand children. The later have moved back to mooch off of their elders. There is no detectable activity that generates any income on the island. I cannot think of a good reason why people are there. It should be turned back into a bird and seal sanctuary.
During the plane ride over I am doing a quick health assessment on my fellow passengers. One guy on oxygen has seen better days. Please let his travels take him onto Anchorage. There are a number of other older folks in various stages of the dwindles. I am thinking to myself, this should be a perfectly lovely visit to St George Island.
Village airports and terminals are usually very modest in Bush Alaska. Here the baggage is unloaded from the plane and thrown into the back of a pickup. The pickup pulls around to the front of the storage shed/terminal and you retrieve your bags. I saw one of mine and grabbed it quickly. The passengers along with their family were frenetic in the quest to secure their bags. I backed off and decided to stay clear of the fray. I was in no rush.
The clinic secretary had come to pick me up. “Do you have your bags?” she queried. The tone of her voice had an undercurrent of impatience. I eased over to the truck to see if I could snatch my second bag. Slowly the pile began to erode. No bag. I moved around the other side of the truck, still no bag.
Mean while, Penn Air had the plane’s engines running. As they began to taxi off the tarmac headed for the runway. My bag was still on the plane! I asked the ground crew to get my bag off the plane.
“ARE YOU READY?” The clinic secretary was growing increasingly impatient with me. I am perceptive that way. No my bag is on the plane, I replied. “WHAT?” I pointed at the plane and began to walk towards the tarmac. I was either going to retrieve my bag or wave good bye to it as it flew away to Anchorage. I sensed the clinic secretary already needed a break from me. She was standing there with her hands on her hips glaring at me. Usually it takes an hour or two for me to have that effect on people. She was a fast study.
The rest of the town by now was heading to town in a caravan. The gravel road led away from the airport over the horizon with town out of sight. The cars all appeared to be speeding.
Just a side note while I am waiting for my bag to return. Did you know you federal tax dollars were used to move the airport on St. George Island? The federal government was concerned that an airplane would fall from the sky and hurt someone in town. They moved it 6 miles for the bargain price of $20,000,000 of your dollars. The 77 residents on St George Island are very appreciative.
A cheaper solution would have been to give each resident $100,000 and a one way plane ticket off the island if they agreed to never return. I am thrifty that way. Then the birds and seals could return unmolested as the rightful residents, everyone else are interlopers.
The tone of the engines changed, the plane slowed and turned back toward where I was standing. The clinic secretary is now right beside me, waiting. It takes a painfully long time for the crew to get the back hatch open and my bag located. The impatience next to me is palpable.
My bag in hand I return to the clinic vehicle and place it in the back. As I enter the front passenger seat, before I can retrieve my leg into the vehicle we are off like a shot. There was an elderly female in the back. It was the secretary’s mother. Pleasantries are exchanged as we speed along the gravel road. Gravel is flying as we slide around the bends in the road.
The secretary is giving her mother directions. “Get out and get in line and you know what I want. I will be back with money once I park”. Mom responds, “She understands the plan.” Our speed does not let up at all as we enter the ramshackle town of St George. We approach a building with a line of 30 people lined up outside. We screech to a stop and mom is off and running. She did not look that fast seated in the car, but she was putting them up and down pretty good.
When the car stopped completely the secretary turned to me and asked, “Do you want beer?” No, I am good. “It is only sold here on Tuesday and Thursdays for one hour, so if you want beer you had better get in line.” It was obvious by her look she was contemplating what an odd duck I am. No BEER! With that she was off like a shot for the beer line. I learned later you had to be in line when the doors opened or you were unable to buy beer. The following week was Thanksgiving. They opened an extra day that week for beer, but only for an hour.