Transport in Alaska: a flying affair

Blustery winds blow the high piled snow across the unprepared terrain at temperatures of -40 to -60 degrees Celsius. Nowhere in the United States are the weather conditions so merciless and brutal as they are in Alaska. It is the largest state of them all and at the same time the least densely populated. Mobility in such conditions is difficult, so how to move along, let alone transport things from A to B, in the state that is least connected in terms of road transportation? In the following, blog.alphabet.com looks at how Alaska copes with its business mobility issues.

Sledge dogs in Alaska – a cultural treasure

For centuries, sledge dogs/huskies have been the most convenient and often the sole means of transportation in Alaska. Referred to as “Alaska Husky “ or “Eskimo Dog”, sledge dogs are still bred for a couple of reasons: firstly, they are incredibly fast reaching 12 to 16 kilometres per hour whilst dragging the so-called “musher”, the human being directing their movement.[1] Secondly, sledge dogs are true long-distance travellers. During the famous Iditarod Trail Sledge Dog Race held each March (from Anchorage to Nome, Alaska) the canines cover a breath taking 1771 kilometres in just nine days.[2] Thereby, the dogs can keep a steady speed at temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees. Furthermore, sledge dogs are renowned for their leadership skills. They are whole-heartedly loyal with a tad of aggressiveness that will make them fight off anything that jeopardises the safety of the musher.[3] This is why a pack of sledge dogs always provides comfort in an otherwise merciless territory. It is therefore no surprise that Alaska respects her sledge dogs with gratitude appreciating them as the most reliable means of transport in her extremely adverse weather conditions.

Flying into the “Bush”

Alaskans refer to “the Bush” as those areas of Alaska that cannot be reached by road.[4] Inhabited mostly by the native population, “the Bush” can only be reached by snowmobile, dog sledge, or airplane. Most cities of Alaska have airports, which are serviced by the major airlines. Fascinating, however, are Alaska’s bush air services - an Alaskan speciality. These are networks of air routes, essentially covered by small plane services. Flying around in small planes is the most efficient and convenient way to travel in Alaska whereby even the most secluded places can be reached. And because often there is no real landing strip, Alaskans prefer to fly seaplanes. In fact, Lake Hood, a body of water close to the city of Anchorage, is the world’s busiest seaplane runway handling an average of 190 flights per day![5] It is therefore no surprise that Alaska has the highest number of pilots per capita of any U.S. state: a truly incredible 8,550 pilots out of 663,661 residents.[6]

The people and their land

Mobility in Alaska is much more plane-based than car-based. Although there are highways, they only comprise much of central Alaska and connect it to the land in the east. Airplanes are necessary to reach the largely abandoned west, for instance, to deliver bulk mail. The lack of car traffic and transport won’t be problematic until Alaska sees a more explosive increase in the number of inhabitants. The last decades have seen a moderate increase in population.[7] Sledge dogs have been mostly substituted by snowmobiles, which are also used in emergency cases. But if population growth takes up a faster pace, Alaskans will have to start incentive campaigns on how to achieve greater, faster and remoter mobility!

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