The only state-funded air charter to and from school runs between South Naknek and Naknek. More than a dozen students daily used to take the flight; now it's down to two.
For decades, the Bristol Bay Borough School District has relied on a unique form of pupil transportation; a daily air charter brings students in the village of South Naknek to the north side of the river to attend school in Naknek.
According to the state Department of Education and Early Development, it’s the only daily air taxi to school in the state of Alaska. And it's down to just two passengers.
When school lets out 3:30 p.m., Peter Gaffe and Amy Angasan climb into a fifteen-passenger van. Both brother and sister put in their earphones for the one-mile drive from the school to the small gravel landing strip that is the Naknek airport.
Now teenagers, Peter and Amy moved to South Naknek from Anchorage when they were in elementary school and have been flying to school ever since. Though the twice-daily flight seemed fun at first, Peter says the novelty wore off pretty fast.
“As time moved on it got a little more boring,” he says. “And nowadays its just something I do.
Amy says she enjoys getting to see her two hometowns from the air every day - especially in the spring when everything greens up.
Operated by King Air, it's a short flight; the plane will touchdown on the south side in less than five minutes. And besides being fast, the air taxi is the most reliable and safest way to get across the Naknek River.
Twenty-foot tidal fluctuations make it impossible to launch a boat at the same time day after day, and the river doesn’t freeze consistently enough to drive vehicles across in the winter. An effort to build a bridge between the two communities never got enough support or funding.
Of course, there are times when Peter and Amy can’t fly back across the river after school. Sometimes they get weathered out by fog or wind, or they have to miss the flight to stay for sports practice.
“I have to stay over here most of the time during basketball,” says Peter.
When they have to stay school-side, Peter and Amy sleep at a friend's house, or at their Aunt Nola Angasan's place, a big, cheerfully noisy house in Naknek.
Nola and her husband have hosted South Naknek students for the last 30 years. Between her own four kids, foster children, adopted grandkids, and a popular daycare business, Nola has always had a full house.
“I really liked it, too," says Nola. "You know, kids these days always seem to want to be somewhere else or take off. With my kids I never had to worry, they always wanted to be home. Because there was always someone here for them to play with or something to do."
Nola’s husband Steven grew up in South Naknek. He and his siblings took the air taxi to school in the 70s.
“Can I ask you what that was like back then?”
“Like nothing! Like riding a bike! It was everyday life.”
Back then, South Naknek still had an elementary school for grades K-5. Still, Steven says there were enough middle and high school students to fill four plane loads every day.
But then, just over a decade ago, the primary school closed too. South Naknek has been shrinking ever since.
It’s a familiar story around Bristol Bay – communities like Portage Creek, Ivanof Bay, and Clarks Point have lost their schools in recent years to low enrollment.
“For some it’s an instant decline,” says Steven Angasan. “After the school, then the mail planes quit coming, then everybody moves out to bring their kids to school. There’s a few villages in this region that’ve shut down over the years.”
Recently, the Trident Seafoods plant in South Naknek closed, taking with it a few more jobs and facilities. But the village is still hanging on, with 30-50 residents at any given time.
I ask Steven if he thinks the air taxi is keeping some families around who would otherwise have to move to put their kids in school.
“Yeah, probably,” he said. “Probably.”
The daily air service is funded by a grant from the state Department of Education and Early Development. Each district gets a different amount per student – it’s a number set years ago based on factors including fuel costs, how much road there is, vehicle maintenance, and local wages. The number for each district has grown at times, with inflation and legislative action.
At nearly $3,000 dollars per student, the Bristol Bay Borough School District has the highest per-student transportation allocation in the state, by a margin of hundreds of dollars. For comparison, the Anchorage School District gets about a sixth of that per student.
It’s a figure that may cause some to cringe in a time when the state is grappling with a massive budget shortfall.
But what’s important, says Superintendent Bill Hill, is that all the students in the Borough have access to school.
“Students do have a right to an education in the state of Alaska,” says Hill. “This service provides South Naknek students the education that every student deserves. So we appreciate the fact that this can happen.”
Peter Geffe and Amy Angasan are the last school-age kids in Naknek right now. After Peter graduates next spring, Amy might be doing the river hop alone senior year.
But South Naknek isn’t a ghost town yet. There are still families who come and go, from Anchorage or Naknek or elsewhere, and as long as there’s state funding, the Superintendent says the air taxi will always be an option.