For the past six years, I have gotten up early and headed down to Alaska Cargo, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, to welcome the first Copper River Salmon of the season. It has always been one of my favorite yearly events, but I was hoping to do something different this year.
When I was invited to fly up to Cordova, Alaska to catch a ride with the first Copper River fish of the season, I said “yes!” When I was asked if I wanted to fly a “milk-run” to Cordova on the unique Boeing 737-400 Combi, I said “hell yes!” I had never flown on a Combi before and I wanted to get onboard before they retire from Alaska’s fleet.
My adventure would take me from Seattle (SEA) to Juneau (JNU) to Yakutat (YAK) and finally to Cordova (CDV). Bring it!
MILK RUN IN A 737-400 COMBI
The journey began by boarding an Alaska Airlines Combi at SEA and I found it odd that Alaska stuck to standard boarding procedures; pre-boards, VIPs, then rows 20 and higher. Thing is the plane only has rows 17-28. Whatever… with only 11 rows, it boarded quickly no matter how you did it (even weirder was in Juneau, where they boarded 17-22 first, then the rest).
Because it has cargo up front and passengers in back (there is some mullet joke here), you must board from the rear door. This means no gate boarding, but I always love being able to board on the ramp and get up close to the plane.
It was obvious that this bird had lived a long life. It looked like a dated 737-400 that was having minor improvements to run out its remaining (short) life. That sort of makes sense. Alaska will be retiring the Combi out of the fleet later this year. There will not be a direct replacement, but there are a few 737-700s that are in the process of being converted into cargo variants. So, if you have wanted to fly one of these aircraft — you’d better do it soon!
Before the flight, I thought it would just feel like a shortened 737 and nothing that visually different. I was wrong.
It was very odd not seeing a forward galley and especially not seeing the flight deck. Instead there was a big black wall with an access door. I really have no comparison. The nose of a 747, you see the curvature and even a bulkhead row, you can see there is an aisle that keeps going. This is just BAM, end of cabin. It wasn’t a bad thing, just hard for my senses to process.
Taxi and takeoff was just like any other aircraft and soon we were on to Juneau. But first, I fell asleep — for about two hours of our two-hour-and-twenty-minute flight. Hey… I had to get up at 4:30am!
A while back, when I did a tour of Alaska’s flight simulator, the trainer told me how difficult Juneau’s approach is. Then he showed me. Flight simulators are pretty realistic, but it is totally different when you are banking steep and fast, looking out and seeing trees level with your plane (on a mountain, when you are high up) and then — suddenly — you’re on the ground, and stopping as quickly as you can. I could tell most passengers flew that route often, because no one flinched.
We parked and most people got off. Those of us continuing on had the option of the staying on the plane or hanging out at the terminal for a while. I wanted photos, so I headed off the plane. As I walked in, I could see them starting to unload the cargo and prep for loading the new stuff.
I was quite impressed with the quality of the terminal. Most of it seemed new and spacious. It was comfortable for about the 30 minutes I was there before they started boarding again. Our flight out of Seattle there were no empty seats, but out of Juneau, it was about half full (or half empty, if that’s more your thing).
We quickly lined up on the runway and started to roll. Then GOOSE IT – full throttle, we quickly lifted off and ascended into the clouds. At that point, I wasn’t sure if the aggressive flying was because of the airport or maybe we had a cowboy flying.
The leg to Yakutat was about 35 minutes. For the short hop, they only offered water or orange juice. Oh yea… and some pretzels.
The aircraft actually has three flight crew, but I only saw two. The third is assigned up front, where there is a galley and lavatory by the flight deck. This is to make sure that there is never just one person in the flight deck at any given time.
As you can imagine, many flight crew love this aircraft. You have a small plane, which means more of an intimate relationship with the passengers. For my flight, the crew were very friendly, joked around, and got to know the passengers.
There was no in-flight entertainment; no screens, no plugs, no WiFi (wouldn’t work in Alaska anyhow). You have the window (which can be beautiful when not cloudy), you have the in-flight magazine, and you have staring at the seat-back in front of you. I used all three. It was not that big of a deal because it didn’t take long until we were at our next stop.
Yakutat is… small. The population changes seasonally (due to fish season), but it can be about 650 people. When you land a full Combi, with 72 passengers and five crew, you are increasing the population by about 12%. Let that sink in.
We were told once again that those going on could stay on the plane or go to the terminal, but that there were no services, no amenities, no food, and no smoking (i.e. don’t get off the plane). Just like before, we left the airport fast and furious — I was getting used to it.
My last leg to Cordova (the flight was continuing to Anchorage) was also short — which meant reduced service. “Oh yes, I shall have the OJ on the rocks, with pretzels on a napkin please.”
We had another beautiful approach and I was holding on to my phone and camera tight this time — preparing for our landing. The captain did not disappoint.
There were only two of us who got off the plane and I headed outside to meet a big Alaska pick-up truck to take into Cordova to learn about fish.
GETTING THAT PRIZE COPPER RIVER SALMON
I know we are not SalmonReporter here, so I won’t go into too much detail on this, but I can say the whole process is quite complex and interesting.
Turns out that there are about 550 licenses for boats to catch the Copper River salmon each year. I was picturing these huge boats (like on Deadliest Catch), but the boats were quite small and most are family run.
Biologists keep a close eye on the population and manage when the waters can be fished. Typically it is “open” for 12-36 hours, twice per week. The start of the season was 7:00am – 7:00pm on May 16th (when I was there).
When caught, most fishing boats meet up with tenders (bigger boats) and the fish is sold. Those tenders then bring them to processing facilities, like Copper River Seafoods.
After watching the hundreds of boats return to port, we headed over to Copper River Seafoods to check out their operation (I was not able to take photos of most things), and more importantly see which fish was chosen.
In one blue tub, there were some of the prize fish to be inspected and one was to be eaten in Seattle (is that a winner or loser then?). They looked at the size, the coloring, and if it was damaged (one had a seal bite). It didn’t take long for there to be a “winner” selected and he was pulled aside, put in a special cardboard box, and tagged to be the VIP for Seattle.
After our visit to Copper River Seafoods, we had a few hours before our flight. We decided to head over to the Alaska Cargo facility (attached to the small terminal at the airport) to await the fish being delivered. It didn’t take too long before trucks from different companies started dropping off pallets of fish. Each pallet was taken off the truck, via a forklift, weighed, prepped for transport, and then loaded up onto the plane.
Even though this was a special flight, with the only passengers from Alaska Airlines, two media, and representatives with Copper River Seafoods (about 15 of us total), we still had to check in, and go through TSA security. Since 2:00am is not a normal time for any flights to depart, I salute all those who showed up to process our group.
GETTING THE COPPER RIVER SALMON TO SEATTLE
I selected seat 19F and had an entire row to myself (like A-F). I got all settled and started to drift off to sleep. Then the captain came on and said there would be a delay due to weight balancing. 15 minutes later, he came on to say we would be furthered delayed. Overall, we ended up being about an hour late. Not that big of a deal for me, because it just meant more sleep, but there were lots of people waiting for us in Seattle and it could throw off the celebration.
Soon enough it was time to leave. I was half asleep as the right engine started to power up. Even though I had my head on the wall and was not fully aware of my surroundings, I smiled, because that sound was so beautiful.
We took off into the darkness. I left my sun shade open, since we took off at about 3:00 am and were landing at about 7:00am Seattle time. I forgot where we were. At about 3:45 am, the sky started to come alive and it was beautiful. I remember thinking it would make a great photo, and I should reach over to my camera sitting next to me. Instead I just closed my sunshade and went back to sleep.
Next thing I knew, we were almost there. I opened my shade and saw the beautiful Mt. Rainier outside… I was almost home.
After landing, we all got up, gathered our things, and lined up to head out the rear door. I was moving kind of slow, so I ended up at the end of the line — bummer. But then I heard some sweet, sweet words. “We are deplaning from the front.” Not only was I now first in line, but this meant we were going through the center cargo area.
The large cargo door was wide-open, providing some nice views. After walking across, I had to push through a small door to the front galley and then down the stairs and we headed on over to the Copper Chef Cook-off.
THE COPPER CHEF COOK-OFF AT SEA
Because we were on the plane, we didn’t see the fish being presented up-close. That’s okay; I had spent plenty of time with him already. By the time I saw him again, he was already filleted. He looked good, but in a very different way. Then it was time. There were some raw pieces for people to try. Sure, it was delicious, but the reality just hit me.
I got to be there when he was brought in by the fishing boats, saw Copper River Seafoods folks choose which was going to be flown to Seattle, hung out with him in the Alaska Cargo office for a while, watched him be carried onto the plane, flew with him down to Seattle, and now I was eating him. The power of the Combi!
Since it is unknown exactly what time he was caught, it was either 12 to 24 hours from the time he left the ocean to the time I was eating him at the airport in Seattle. Aircraft like the 737-400 Combi help make that sort of thing a reality.
There were 20,000lbs of Copper River Salmon on our flight, and Alaska Airlines will fly about 20 million pounds of seafood (in all forms) from Alaska this year. That’s a lot of seafood.
After I had my little moment with the fish, I turned my attention to the Copper Chef Cook-off. So, the basic run down of the competition: multiple local restaurant chefs cook up the salmon in different ways, and a few local celebrity chefs judge the winner.
The chefs were: Ethan Stowell, executive chef and owner of Tavolata, Anchovies & Olive; executive chef John Howie, owner of Seastar Restaurant and Raw Bar & John Howie Steakhouse; and Chef Sam Burkhart of Etta’s and Seatown Seabar Restaurant.
Then the judges were Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Jermaine Kearse; Lauren Bushnell, Alaska Airlines flight attendant and winner of ABC’s ’œThe Bachelor;’ Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Jay Buhner; and Mike ’œTotality’ Kentrianakis, the astronomer and internet sensation who created a video in April of a total solar eclipse aboard an Alaska Airlines flight.
The entertaining emcees were Seattle culinary icon Tom Douglas and local media personality John Curley.
This part is always a good time. Lots of fun little contests for the guests that were there, you can watch the chefs cook their food, and then I was able to try samples. After everything was said and done… Ethan Stowell was announced the winner (he won last year as well).
What a great (and delicious) journey.
Note: Alaska Airlines provided transportation to and from Alaska, all opinions are my own.