The village of Quinhagak has not had a shipment of food in over two weeks due to a damaged runway, bad weather, and a change in air carriers. While deliveries have been less than reliable over the last two years, people say that this is the worst it’s been.
Walk into the village store in Quinhagak and you’ll see empty shelves where food should be.
“There’s no bread, no eggs, all the little things you expect in a store,” said Warren Jones, who runs the store owned by the local native corporation.
Jones says the food has been coming in slower and slower since the U.S. Postal Service, which subsidizes the freight in Western Alaska through its bypass mail system, changed Quinhagak’s staging area from Bethel to Togiak. Jones says this is when shipments began to slow down. Then Ravn Alaska, which was delivering the goods, had a crash in the mountains between the two villages, causing them to give up the route.
Part of the issue was that Ravn was using small planes with low maximum altitudes to do the trip. When the weather is bad, this can make traveling through the mountains dangerous or even impossible.
ACE Air Cargo took their place, with larger dual engine planes that could do the trip safely, but they also ran into issues and stopped running the route.
“ACE is the one that wants to fly it. They’ll fly it any time the runway's ready,” said Dave, who works in Togiak, loading and unloading freight for shipment to Quinhagak. He didn’t want to give his last name, saying he's not authorized to speak for the carrier.
Quinhagak’s runway has an unlevel patch, or a dip, which can make it hard for some planes to land safely. The Ravn planes that flew there were small and didn’t use the whole runway. ACE, with its medium sized planes, won’t fly the route until it’s fixed.
The route changed hands again to Everts Air Cargo, with bigger planes than ACE, that can handle the dip better.
“Everts will do it. They don’t like it, but they do it every couple weeks,” Dave said. “These guys aren’t getting their groceries. We’re sitting there holding them.”
The problem is that Everts will only fly when planes are carrying orders that fill the large planes. This takes time, often weeks. During that time, food is just sitting in a warehouse. When it makes it to Quinhagak, Warren Jones unpacks it.
“The bypass that’s coming in, several times we have found mice nests in bread loaves,” Jones said.
Dave says his warehouse is clean, but Jones insists that some of the food is bad on arrival.
The responsibility for fixing the runway falls to the tribe, who owns the land and runs the airport in Quinhagak. Patrick Cleveland oversees those operations.
“The work that was requested to take care of the dip was very late this year,” Cleveland said. “It was after freeze up, and there’s nothing we can really do about it.”
Cleveland says that the request came from ACE in October, after only flying in a few times. The dip has been around for years, but according to Cleveland, "the last three years it’s been more and more noticeable.”
This part of the runway is built on a low area that Cleveland says has been sinking more in recent years. The tribe is having trouble keeping up with it.
Cleveland says that melting permafrost could be one reason for the change. Jones says that erosion might be playing a part.
Jones says the best solution would be for the Postal Service to return to using Bethel, rather than Togiak, as the hub for Quinhagak's bypass mail.
It was safer before it was changed in 2014, he says, and the village was getting a delivery per day. He says that as of Friday, Everts and the Postal Service were in talks over the issue.