Chapter 1: The Frozen River, Kwethluk, Alaska 1980
“TAKE IT, CLOWN BOY. You can fly this crate until we get to the Kuskokwim.” The bush pilot lets go of her steering wheel, or what would be a steering wheel if we were in a car. I grab mine, pulling back a little too hard, and the Cessna swoops up sharply. “Easy, Clown Boy. Just keep us here at 500 feet and follow the shoreline.”
The Bering Sea, frozen thick, is almost indistinguishable from the tundra. Only ripples in the ice, solid waves, give me a hint of where the shoreline will be in the spring, after breakup. It’s February, the dead of winter, the only time the Alaska Arts Council brings performers up from the lower forty-eight. It’s the time of year when everyone is grouchy, bored with sub-zero weather and frozen salmon dinners and ready for a couple of clowns to fly in with 21 bags full of juggling balls, costumes, stilts, face-paint, a unicycle and peacock feathers for balancing.
It's our job is to bring some circus light and warmth to the frozen tundra.
We’re just starting our third week, out of seven, flying bush charters and mail planes in and out of Bethel, a town of 4,000 and Southwest Alaska’s biggest city. This is my first trip to Alaska in winter and my first long tour ever. It’s also my best-paying gig to date and a résumé item that I hope gets me into Dell’Arte International, a big-time theater school.
I grip the handles, trying to keep the plane above the last line of frozen waves, peeking at the instruments every few seconds. Jenny, the pilot, leans back, folds her arms behind her head and closes her eyes. I grip a little tighter. Jenny looks like Xena: Warrior Princess and talks like Dolly Parton. She’s our regular pilot and has been teaching me how to fly a plane since we started this tour, but I thought she was just filling the time and maybe flirting a little. Now she’s napping and I’m in control of a Cessna going 150 miles an hour over a frozen wasteland.
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