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Hovercraft delivers mail, couches and coffins to Alaska
AP photo - Crew members from Alaska Hovercraft Ventures deliver mail to the village of Napaskiak, Alaska, along the Kuskokwim River in this undated photo provided by Lynden Inc.

bBy ROBERT HOWK - Alaska Journal of Commerce

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Each year, Glen Van Valin and his crew wait for a good stretch of nice, cold weather to descend on the Bethel area -- cold enough to freeze the muddy waters of the Kuskokwim River into a wide open, frosty-white freeway.

Van Valin is the Bethel-area manager for Seattle-based freight hauler Lynden Inc. and its subsidiary, Alaska Hovercraft Ventures.

The company is gearing up for its seventh winter of hauling mail, freight and passengers to and from eight remote riverside villages in southwestern Alaska by hovercraft.

''The Craft," as they call their 70-foot, 30-ton British-built AP 1-88 hovercraft, has evolved from being a curiosity to being a profitable and reliable operation, Van Valin said.

Under contract with the U.S. Postal Service, the hovercraft runs year-round, except for about a week during spring ice breakup and a five- to six-week pause in late fall while the rivers freeze solid.

''We need the ice to be about 18 inches thick, then we're on the road again," he said. ''It's not because the hovercraft can't operate (during freeze-up), but it would break the ice," and create hazards for villagers using snowmachines in early winter.

The annual layovers haven't hurt the bottom line.

''It's making money," Van Valin said.

The usual cargo for the hovercraft service, more than 1,500 tons a year, is fourth-class and ''bypass" mail, including groceries, dry goods and other supplies sent directly from stores to Bush residents without going through a post office.

The service also hauls all the stuff that people have a hard time fitting into a small airplane, Van Valin said.

''Usually we get the oddball freight, oddball sizes," he said. ''We can handle fairly large stuff. Mattresses, beds, couches, coffins. We'll haul snowmachines."

One freight run a while ago included four 30-foot long telephone poles strapped to the side of the vessel, he said.

The vessel also has proved itself as a river-borne ambulance. It's been used for more than a dozen emergency missions.

''When the weather was down, or the airport runways were not useable," the vessel can get through the inclement conditions, Van Valin said.

When the service began in July 1997, some villagers were worried that the high-speed craft would frighten birds and disrupt fish spawning.

But a three-year ecological monitoring program conducted for the Postal Service by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that ''the hovercraft had an insignificant impact on subsistence gathering of waterfowl and fish."

There were also concerns about noise pollution. The hovercraft is powered by four diesel engines that pump out a total of 1,780 horsepower. Two of the engines provide lift, and the other two push the craft along on a 3-foot cushion of air at speeds of 30 knots or higher.

That doesn't bother Jack Wassillie, assistant manager at the Napaskiak Inc. Village Store. He said they welcome the Craft as it arrives at the village along the Johnson River, about seven miles southwest of Bethel.

''I've never heard anybody complain about noise," Wassillie said.

He said the hovercraft generally make two visits a week, and he's pleased with the mail and passenger service.

''It's a lot faster and a lot cheaper," than using aircraft, he said.

Fifty miles upriver from Bethel, Middy Peter helps run the Tuluksak Native Store.

He said the village of about 500 people gets most of its groceries via hovercraft.

''The stuff gets here with less damage. We have fewer problems now that we are going through the hovercraft," he said.

Peter said it also provides much more economical passenger service in the region, compared with the cost of flying.

It took a couple of years and a lot of cold-weather modifications to the air duct and engine cooling systems to make the hovercraft more efficient in a sub-arctic environment, Van Valin said.

''It took trial and error. A lot of trial and a lot of error," he said.

''We've been stuck out for the night only once in the past six years. It will come back on only two engines, but they've got to be the right engines. With one lifting and one pushing, you can bring it back."

Van Valin said, as far as he knows, the AP 1-88 based in Bethel and a sister ship in Anchorage are the only two of their kind in the country certified for commercial and passenger use by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Lynden's current contract with the Postal Service runs through June 2006.

''We are entirely satisfied with it," said Steve Deaton, network operations specialist at the Postal Service in Anchorage.

''From a service standpoint, it's been more reliable than air, because it can go during times when aircraft can't. And it takes larger volumes in to the customers, so the shipment doesn't have to be broken up."

Dave Haugen, vice president of Lynden Inc. in Anchorage, said Alaska Hovercraft Ventures is a joint venture with Cook Inlet Region Inc., with Lynden owning 60 percent of the operation and CIRI controlling 40 percent.

''It's something that we consider to be a success, and it's now developing into a commercial operation. It's zipping right along," Haugen said.

The Bethel-based craft can haul a total of 12,500 pounds of cargo. Alaska Hovercraft Ventures also owns and operates 15 larger, LACV-30 model hovercraft, capable of hauling 30 tons, he said.

The heavy lifters have turbocharged engines and use 260 gallons of fuel per hour, compared with 60 gallons per hour for the AP 1-88 model in Bethel.

''They're scattered all over the place," Haugen said. ''We've got a half dozen of those in the Lower 48, some in Anchorage, two over in Valdez and two up in Prudhoe Bay."

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