FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Flying on a bush mail plane in central Alaska feels like an experience out of another era: No one gives you a boarding pass, scans your lap-size carry-on, or asks you to pass through a security checkpoint. You just pay the fare to Rita at the front desk, step on a scale (the pilot needs to balance the weight onboard), and then follow an airline worker onto the tarmac to board the 10-seat plane.
Warbelow’s Air Ventures flies its twin-engine Piper Navajo Chieftain to seven towns within 110 miles of its Fairbanks base, delivering mail and packages for the US Postal Service and UPS. Even Amazon packages make their way up to these remote locales.
Catching a lift on one of the mail flights proves a fun and inexpensive way to get a bird’s-eye view of interior Alaska and meet some of the people who live there. The plane only stops long enough to swap mail and have a chat with whomever turns up at the airstrip, but it’s worth the adventure.
“Apparently I’m your pilot for today,” said Matt Anderson, as he walked up to our plane, parked beside a one-room terminal within eyesight of Fairbanks’s airport control tower.
“How many other pilots are there?” I asked him.
“You’re looking at him,” Anderson said.
Turns out Anderson is a legend in the area and a hero to some, according to a co-worker. He’s been a pilot for more than 40 years, used to fly Medevac aircraft, and moved to Alaska in 1990 so he could get more airtime. He even married a pilot. He’s flown all along the Alaska coast and to villages and remote outposts throughout the interior. Anderson joins a long list of passionate pilots who have linked off-the-grid communities with mail, food, medical services, police, and global news — and, of course, curious visitors like me.
To prep for our flight, Warbelow’s ground staff pulled unneeded seats out of the plane and loaded about a dozen boxes into their place in the rear of the cabin. Then a California couple (also along for fun), a local named Patrick, and I climbed in and sat behind Anderson for the 2½-hour journey. Locals get priority for empty seats, but passengers can pay to tag along for the experience when there’s space.
You don’t get snacks or drinks onboard and the in-flight entertainment means reading a left-behind copy of the “Fairbanks Daily News-Miner” or peering out the windows at the endless mountains, wild caribou herds, and rivers snaking across the landscape. Even the safety talk feels very matter of fact: Anderson pointed out the three exits, told us smoking wasn’t allowed, and mentioned the emergency locator transmitter situated on top of the fuselage.
“Turn on the switch by my left knee,” he said, suggesting that this would activate the ELT and transmit our position to rescuers, though he didn’t elaborate on that.
“How high do we fly?” I asked Anderson as we prepared to take off.
“Above the mountains,” he said.
That meant we cruised at about 3,500 feet as we flew over the snowy mountains. The loud whir from the twin engines made talking a struggle, so we mostly kept noses pressed to the windows. The 50-minute flight to Circle took us 110 miles northeast of Fairbanks. We flew over treeless snow-covered mountains where dozens of caribou dotted the landscape like sprinkles on ice cream and appeared so close that we could count them as we passed overhead.
We flew so low, at times, we could see the texture of the landscape — the shiny patches on the wind-scoured mountains, stumpy broccoli-shaped trees, a small waterway that squiggled across a valley, and a lone road that followed along a ridgetop for miles.
Anderson pointed out the White Mountains, so-called because of the light-colored limestone deposits that contrast with the range’s dark volcanic rocks. He also pointed out Eagle Summit (3,652 feet), a popular spot during the summer solstice when people come to watch the sun sweep across the horizon and never set — it’s the one spot below the Arctic Circle where you can experience the Midnight Sun.
Open mountains gave way to heavily forested hillsides with spruce trees and aspens and eventually a wide valley called the Yukon Flats. The Yukon River came into view, a huge frozen waterway hundreds of feet wide with a cluster of buildings on the west side of it — the town of Circle, population 100.
As we swooped down to land on the snowy runway, I noticed a mechanical gate across our path that was opening to allow us access to touch down.
“It’s for security,” Sam Swingle from Warbelow’s later told me. “Sometimes people will drive out onto the runway,” whether that’s for fun (“there’s not a lot to do out there,” he said) or because they don’t realize this half-mile strip is a runway. “We try to limit that, to mitigate the risk,” he said.
Patrick hopped out and within five minutes Anderson had stuffed a couple of mail sacks into a compartment above one wing and handed over multiple boxes — including an Amazon Prime box barely held together with string — to two women who had pulled up in a pickup truck.
“It will get to 60 below [zero] here,” Anderson said, though it was considered a balmy 20 degrees on the February day we visited.
We stayed relatively low for the 10-minute flight to Central, a town with 40 people located at the edge of the Yukon Flats between the White Mountains and the Crazy Mountains, as they’re called. The plane briefly swayed side to side because of crosswinds as we descended and then landed on a tiny airstrip hemmed in by massive snow mounds — any kid’s dream.
Dee and Warren Hodge came to meet our plane when it landed. They had moved to Central from Florida more than 40 years earlier.
“We ain’t up to no good,” Dee said when I asked her last name. “We’re not running from the law or anything,” she added with a big smile.
Dee and Warren are contracted by the government to collect the mail. They take it to the post office in town, which also has a small mining museum and the Central Corner, a one-stop shop with a bar, a restaurant, gas, guestrooms, groceries, and a laundromat. Central serves as one of the checkpoints during the 1,000-mile Yukon Quest dogsled race each year. The town comes to life as mushers and their dog teams briefly stop here on their journey from Fairbanks to Whitehorse, Canada (or on the reverse route, depending on the year).
The arrival of the mail plane around the holidays also creates a buzz.
“It’s a circus when the plane comes to town,” said Dee. “Christmas lasts about two weeks here.”
Dee told me the town is home to people who work in Prudhoe Bay (in the oil industry), senior citizens, people on disability and welfare, and people who work for local businesses.
I asked Dee if she had e-mail so I could send her a note.
“No, I’d have to buy a dish and have a tech person come in from Fairbanks,” she said. “You still have to wait until 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. for service. And then pay $7.50 for a token if you go over.”
Apparently, few people have Wi-Fi in these remote towns.
“Don’t feel bad for them,” said Anderson, after we took off again. “Some of the people living here have time-shares in Florida. Or you hear ‘Oh, I just got back from Hawaii’ so they’re not as isolated as you think. For the most part, they love their privacy and [sense of] isolation.”
We climbed back into the plane — up the two stairs built into the clamshell back door — and Anderson said, “Dee is my most dangerous person,” motioning “chitty-chatty” with his fingers. We were 20 minutes behind schedule, but with just three mail flights per day, we wouldn’t exactly cause a backlog at the terminal.
On the flight back to Fairbanks, we cruised over the Fort Knox Gold Mine. Anderson dipped a wing and angled the plane so we could peer down into the gaping hole in the earth. We could see trucks slowly snaking their way up a road inside the crater. The mine has operated around the clock, 365 days a year, for the past 25 years and produced 7.5 metric tons of gold in 2021 — more than any other gold mine in the state.
While much of the bush mail run experience feels like it hails from another era — with people who live without the Internet and the most laid-back, trusting operation (when was the last time you flew without passing through security or having an actual boarding pass?) — hints of modernization creep in. After all, Amazon Prime members can still get free delivery out here — just like anywhere in the country — regardless of how far-flung the destination.
Kari Bodnarchuk can be reached at email@example.com.