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Mistress of the Mix: The Christmas Eve Rescue of Flight 64

Have I got a story for you!

First off, it’s been a hell of a week, eh? After everything my sump pump has been through, I should probably buy the poor, tired little guy a beer. And my tree – the tallest tree in the neighborhood, a huge evergreen, is still standing. Not all of it, mind you, but most of it. Considering that just 6 blocks away, a 70 foot tree came crashing down into the roof of a house, I’m considering myself lucky that I only had to clean up an armload of 4-foot long branches off my sidewalk.

The weather over the past few weeks is taking me right back to my 13 years in Petersburg Alaska, where it rained 184 inches the first year I was there. That’s 3 1/2 inches a week. That’s half an inch a day.

Every. Single. Day.

That got pretty dull after awhile, but the alternative – I found out after a few winters on the island – was 6 feet of snow. I remember the winter of 1998, trying desperately to shovel the driveway with baby Sophia along for the ride in a backpack, only to realize when I got to the end that another 6 inches had fallen behind me as I shoveled that I had to start all over again.

And then there were the hurricanes.

We never called them that, but that’s what they were. Huge storms with winds of over 75 mph that pummeled the region every year. We just called it weather. Weather happened so often. It never halted our day to day lives, although many times the daily jet service was cancelled (once we didn’t receive a jet for nine days). We ran out of milk and lettuce, but otherwise? We just weathered the weather. We never shut down school because of snow or wind or rain. We just started a little earlier than usual or put chains on the tires, and drove a little more carefully. Neighbors who had plows on the front of their trucks were gracious enough to help out those who didn’t. Everybody had rain boots and foul weather gear. And people knew better than to go out on the water in that weather, but every year we’d lose friends who went out fishing because that’s how they made their living, and never returned.

But this story isn’t about loss and sadness. This story is a testament to how a community can come together in amazing ways and accomplish incredible things. And it’s a great holiday story.

It was Christmas Eve 1992, and I was feeling a little sorry for myself because I was missing out on all the fun and excitement.

Christmas truly is the most wonderful time of the year in Petersburg, Alaska, despite the weather. It’s mainly because of the julebukking. Julebukking is a centuries old tradition in Norway that’s a cross between Halloween and a progressive dinner party, and used to involve the head of a goat on a stick. I’m not making this up! Check out the wiki page on Julebukking  if you don’t believe me! It started out as a pagan tradition, was gobbled up by Christianity as a lot of pagan traditions were, and in the Norwegian settled island village of Petersburg, it eventually morphed into a community wide open house every Christmas Eve, mainly hosted by businesses. Starting at about 11am, you could start making your way around the island, going from business to business, filling up on food, drink, and holiday cheer. There was always a huge line for pastrami sandwiches at Rexall Drug, and spiked egg nog up in the office of the Trading Union grocery store, and there was always a nice spread at Bank of Alaska and pickled herring at Lee’s Clothing.

It was a great time to catch up with young adults who’d left the nest for college or jobs down south, but always made sure to return home to the island for the holidays by Christmas Eve so that they could join their family for julebukking. Also, the one day of the year that Alaska Airlines grounds their fleet is Christmas. So if you’re not there on Christmas Eve, you’re not getting there.

Back to 1992. I was working at KFSK-FM (which wasn’t just the best radio on the FM dial, it was the only radio on the FM dial). It was early afternoon, and starting to get dark. The weather was awful, and had been all day. The morning jet had overheaded Petersburg on its way north. At around 2pm, the entire staff of the radio station decided to walk two blocks through the snow downtown to julebukk. But someone had to stay. And that someone, on the air that afternoon, was me.

So I was feeling kind of sorry for myself, all alone, trying to spread cheery holiday music on the radio, while everyone else was downtown feasting on meat platters and lefse and chunks of gjetost (caramelized goat cheese) on apple slices, and downing hot toddys.

As soon as school let out across the street, Melinda Foote, then a high school junior (now she’s the mother of high schoolers herself), came over to the station to host the country show at 3pm. So I wasn’t completely alone. Good thing, because in the next hour and a half, Melinda and I ended up coordinating the whole town in Operation Banana Point: The Christmas Eve Rescue of Flight 64.

It all started when we got the phone call from Mike Gates.

Mike and his wife were stranded, and didn’t know what to do.

They’d started out from Ketchikan that morning, headed to Petersburg on the “milk run.” That’s what we called the daily schedule of Alaska Airlines flights that bring fresh milk, produce and people to Southeast Alaska. The back half of the jet is reserved for passengers; the front half for cargo. It starts in Seattle and lands in every small town on the way to Juneau: Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg and Sitka. Then it turns around and does it all in reverse. That way, if the weather’s bad, you’ve got two chances to get wherever you’re trying to go.

Unfortunately, two chances weren’t enough that day.  Petersburg was so socked in with fog & drizzle that the jet missed Petersburg heading both north and south. Instead, Flight 64 landed in Wrangell on the next island south of ours. Mike and about 20 other Petersburg-bound passengers were informed that they’d be spending Christmas Eve right there. So close, yet so far away. 30 miles as the crow flies. That’s 15 minutes in jet time…3 hours by boat.That did not sit well with Mike. He did not intend to spend Christmas in a hotel in Wrangell. So he found a dime and a payphone, and called the radio station in Petersburg. He said he was stuck in the airport with a whole mess of people desperate to get back home for the holidays. Was there any chance, he said, that we could put a message out on the airwaves and ask if anyone was willing to take their boat down to Wrangell and pick them up?

Excitement! We broke into our regularly scheduled programming with the urgent newsflash. Moments later the phone started ringing. Julie & Scott Hursey heard the plea, wanted to help, but their yacht was in drydock. It was quickly brought to our attention by another caller that it would take much longer than 6 hours to get a boat there and back because the tides were all wrong. There were hundreds of large fishing and cruising boats in Petersburg, but none of them could make the trip at low tide on Christmas Eve in the dark through the famous Wrangell Narrows, a very thin channel lit up by more than 60 buoys that’s difficult to pass even at high tide in broad daylight.

But within 10 minutes, we had a plan. Well, half a plan. A generous fisherman from Wrangell had offered to make the trip from his harbor, across Sumner Strait to Banana Point at the southern tip of our island. It was about a half hour trip between those two points, and no dock, just a boat ramp. But that didn’t matter. They could get to the island. All we had to do was arrange a party to pick them up and drive them 30 miles back to town.

So Melinda and I went back on the air again, and shared the developing story with listeners. Immediately an off-duty policeman (followed by three or four more people) rang me up and told us the road to the southern end of the island was only plowed for 18 miles, and there was no way anyone could get through the next 11 miles of deep snow.


I opened up the mic again, and explained the situation to the town, and told them what we needed. Once we did, the phones began ringing off the hook, and Melinda started fielding the calls as we helped put together the people and the supplies needed for the Christmas Eve Rescue of Flight 64! Really, this could make a great movie on the Hallmark Channel.

Within minutes  a rescue party was organized. First there were the 4-wheel drive trucks. Then there were trailers. And then there were enough gassed up snowmobiles for each and every passenger on the boat headed from Wrangell to Mitkof Island, and snowmobile suits and boots and extra gas cans for an 11 mile trip in the snow.

They took off in a caravan, headed out into the storm, and that was the last we heard from them until they got back to town hours later.

Meanwhile, back in Wrangell, there wasn’t enough room on the boat for everyone. The stranded passengers had a powwow about who would go in the first trip across, understanding that there was no guarantee that the weather would allow for a second trip. So they discussed who really needed to get home, and who was willing to stay. Sam Stockton, for example, was a young parapalegic living in Seattle who was trying to get back home to his mom, dad, grandmother and sister. He was traveling alone, only coming home briefly for the holiday. So Sam was on the first boat. I’ve always wondered if he had to leave his wheelchair behind, or if someone managed to strap it on to one of the snowmobiles that greeted him at Banana Point. I’ll never get to ask him. Sam’s life ended a few years later, but due to the incredible holiday spirit and generosity of the people of Petersburg and Wrangell, who came together in some really bad weather, he got to spend that Christmas with his family. And so did about 10 other travelers.

Mike Gates, by the way, did not.

Like I said earlier, the weather was really bad. The ride from Wrangell to Petersburg was harrowing, and the captain was thankful just to make it back across Sumner Strait after dropping off that first load of passengers. There was no way they could make another go at it, at least not that day. Instead, Mike and the handful of Petersburgeronians had each other for company that Christmas Eve, and while they missed out on julebukking, they had a wonderful time, and shared a wonderful Christmas dinner together in the dining hall at the lodge in Wrangell. And they probably never attempted to travel in Alaska on Christmas Eve ever again.

Next year, I’ll share another amazing yet true Alaskan winter weather rescue story.

Right now, I’ll share with you this week’s playlist: a testament to all the crazy weather we’ve experienced together in the past few weeks. And in the meantime, I’m preparing for the end of the world, exactly two weeks from today.

Remember friends, if you can’t stream the playlist by clicking on the play button below, try going directly to the Winter Weather playlist link on Grooveshark.

  1. Singing In The Rain – Gene Kelly Directly from the movie! I love this line: “This California dew is just a little heavier than usual tonight.” 
  2. What If This Storm Ends – Snow Patrol This is my new favorite song this week, and I couldn’t be happier that this one fits perfectly into this week’s theme! During the Thanksgiving holiday we saw Life of Pi (See. This. Film.) and this song was used in a trailer for an upcoming animated film. I loved it immediately!
  3. Why Does It Always Rain On Me – Travis
  4. Ill Wind – Ella Fitzgerald
  5. Stormy Weather – Etta James
  6. Rainy Day – John Lee Hooker
  7. Storm – Lifehouse
  8. Ballet For A Rainy Day/1000 Umbrellas – XTC All of the songs on Skylarking (one of the best albums of all time) are connected and crossfade into each other, so this one’s the perfect twofer!
  9. Rainy Day – Coldplay
  10. Good Rain – Trevor Hall
  11. Riders On The Storm – The Doors
  12. The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie – Red Hot Chili Peppers
  13. Set Fire To The Rain – Adele
  14. The Rain Song – Led Zeppelin
  15. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
  16. Red Rain – Peter Gabriel
  17. Raincoat – Crash Kings
  18. Rainy Day – Plain White T’s
  19. Raincoat Song – The Decemberists I think it’s a requirement for any band from Portland, Oregon to have a song in their arsenal about rain.
  20. Can’t Stand The Rain – The Rescues This song made my list of favorite songs last year for great use of harmony, a toy piano and the sound of a coat being zipped up.
  21. Windy – Cal Tjader
  22. Rain – Bob James Back in the 80’s I hosted a late night jazz show on JPR, and this song was one of my favorites to play on a dark and stormy night.
  23. A Mighty Wind – Soundtrack To The Film A Mighty Wind
  24. Thunder Remix – Nuttin but Stringz
  25. Ridin’ The Storm Out – REO Speedwagon The boyfriend begged me to share this one….I couldn’t deny him. It was either this or Tesla!
  26. Virtual Thunderstorm

Valerie Ing-Miller has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for nine years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She’s the mother of a teenage daughter and a 7-year-old West Highland Terrier, and can’t imagine life without them or music. Valerie wakes up with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.