Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Flying to Kokhanok, Alaska

By Father Scott Joseph Garrett
Pastor Holy Rosary Mission

On a crisp cold snowy morning in March, 2010, I flew to Kokhanok, Alaska.

Here is our Cherokee Warrior II parked at the Kokhanok, Alaska airport, March 16, 2010.

When I fly into a village for the first time I am always on a reconnaissance mission. When venturing into new territory as a flying Catholic Priest, there are a few things I need to feel comfortable with before I actually visit a village to offer Mass. So I drop in unexpectedly just to get an idea of the friendliness of the villagers and the need for the sacraments.

On this trip I flew to Kokhanok (airport code PFKK). The village is actually about 116 miles from Dillingham but I took this picture of my GPS in route. With a 25 knott head-wind it took me an hour and a half to get there and an hour to return. For more information about this small Alaskan Village, CLICK HERE.

Believe it or not, some villages will not let you come into their village unless you have a pre-arranged meeting with one of their residents. For example, one religious group without permission entered a village and basically terrorized it with damnation and hellfire. Most villages, however, are friendly and open to visitors, as was Kokhanok.

On a reconnaissance mission, it is nice to know the surrounding village terrain. On this trip I learned that in order to reach Kokhanok, Alaska from Dillingham, there are a few mountains I have to watch out for. Using the GPS runway 06 approach, I was able to clear these mountains safely at 4,400 feet. As an alternative, I could have flown around these mountains and hugged the shoreline of Lake Illiamna. Below is a picture of the mountains I flew over to get to Kokhanok from Dillingham.

When checking out a potential village, the location of the runway is valuable information. This is important because in a single engine plane I do not like to spend time over large bodies of water, i.e. if the engine fails I land in the water and freeze to death, as opposed to taking my chances on solid ground. If the weather goes down on my journey to an airport I want to know if I can safely navigate through the mountains without having to go too far out into the water. Kokhanok airport is in a safe location to approach from either the West (runway 06) or from the East (runway 24). I am approaching runway 06 from the West just after flying over the mountains at 4,400 feet.

I also like to check out the distance the airport is from the village. It is nice to know first hand how long I may have to walk if I cannot hitch a ride with one of the natives. From the airport to the village is at least a mile, possibly a mile and a half. On this trip a native Kokhanokan by the name of John gave me a ride to the village on his four-wheeler. I hoofed it back. Here John stands by his four-wheeler after dropping me off at the school.

All gravel runways are not created equal. The gravel runway at Kokhanok, I realized after landing, gets soft when things start to thaw out. I knew this because, although things were cold and frozen, there were two to three inch hard ruts all up and down the length of the small strip. The tires on my Cherokee Warrior are small and my landing was a little tenuous.

Here are a few more pictures of the beautiful and quaint Alaskan village. The first is a typical dwelling in Kokhanok, including dogs, snow machines, a satellite dish, and a few burning barrels thrown in for good measure.

Although there are no Catholic Church buildings in Kokhanok, several villages in Bristol Bay have a Russian Orthodox church.

Away from the Lake Illiamna shore, several houses are nestled into the thick trees in the village.

Most villages, although very remote, somehow find a way to import heavy equipment, either on a plane or barge. There are no roads connecting any of the villages I fly into.

Here are some of the houses along Lake Illiamna. In a couple months those frozen and snow filled boats will be catching fish.

Safe flying out there!

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