JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- For six days a week, a small 30-passenger, chartered plane touched down on the runway in Galena, Alaska, carrying a team of contractors with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, their equipment and supplies for conducting environmental investigations at the former Air Force Galena Forward Operating Location.
Recently, the flight manifest boasted a few unusual passengers ... sled dogs.
It's been four months since Galena was nearly wiped out by the icy flood waters of the Yukon River. As the town scrambled to recover and return to some level of normalcy before the start of the harsh winter season, sled dog owners that had evacuated with their teams to Fairbanks faced the unique challenge of trying to find a way to transport their dogs back to the isolated town.
"A majority of the dogs were evacuated to Fairbanks by private charities with some assistance from the National Guard," said Andy John, a team leader with the Federal Emergency Management Agency Corps. "As recovery has progressed, some of the locals are ready to return, and naturally, they want to be able to bring their dogs home too."
As the water began to rise back in May, Jon Korta and his family faced a difficult decision.
"I couldn't bring myself to evacuate and leave my dogs behind. First, we moved them to higher ground, then onto our deck and then finally the water got so high that we had to put them into a boat with us."
Korta, his wife, son and entire sled team spent two nights on the boat before the water began to recede.
"I sent my son ahead when there was an opportunity for him to evacuate to Fairbanks, and then we were fortunate enough to not only have local pilots that were willing to evacuate our dogs to safety, but we also had a friend at Trail Breaker Kennels in Fairbanks who housed our dogs the entire summer." Korta said.
As the summer passed by, Korta, like many of his neighbors with sled dogs, couldn't quite get used to life without his team.
"You get used to having them around ... going out and feeding them in the morning, it just wasn't the same," he said. "I was more than ready to bring them home."
Initially, many families were using a cargo plane that flew supplies into Galena twice a week, but with full sled teams waiting to return and limited cargo space, there was too much uncertainty.
"It was very frustrating for the families -- they just wanted to bring their dogs home," said John. "We were looking for alternative solutions when we turned to the Air Force."
The Air Force Civil Engineer Center has been facilitating the environmental cleanup of the former Galena Forward Operating Location since its closure in 2008.
In July, with little-to-no housing available after the flood for AFCEC's environmental contractors, the agency began chartering daily flights with Freeborn-Chapman from Fairbanks in order to continue with the cleanup without burdening the recovery efforts and using up valuable resources.
"We're there each summer trying to get as much accomplished as we can before the extreme winter conditions set in," said Paul Bernheisel, a regional field engineer with AFCEC. "We have a job to do and we have a short window of time in which to do it each summer. Chartering a daily flight between Fairbanks and Galena was the best solution."
When approached with the request to transport the dogs, AFCEC's on-site crew was very supportive of the idea, said John.
"There were a lot of different organizations involved that needed to sign off on the plan: AFCEC needed to assure excess cargo space was available, and then make sure the plane's flight crew and captain were okay with the extra passengers, the families needed to fill out paperwork and we were depending on the various shelters the dogs were being housed at to transport them to the airport."
Seeing the devastation the flood left behind first-hand, Bernheisel knew a lot of the issues residents were dealing with.
"It was far worse than just water damage; a lot of homes were completely knocked off their foundation by large chunks of ice, many homes are condemned and people are in a very urgent mode to get their homes repaired and ready for the approaching winter season," he said. "Sled dogs may not be the sole means of transportation around Galena anymore, but they are an extremely important part of the winter culture -- it just wouldn't be the same without them."
Back at AFCEC headquarters in San Antonio, the mission logistics were facilitated by Espi Carrera, an AFCEC real property consultant.
"Everybody involved wanted to get the dogs home, there was no question about that," she said. "It was just a matter of making sure it was done the right way."
The "right way" included making sure the temperature in the cargo hold would not drop too low for the dogs, gathering veterinary paperwork and organizing a flight line up that worked for the families and the shelters.
On Sept. 16, Tiny and Cruger became the first canine passengers to return home to Galena.
"It was quite a special moment to be a part of," said John. "These people have been through so much over the past few months; it was nice to see the joy and excitement, not just from the families, but also all the people who had a part in making it happen."
Carrera considers the entire mission a model of success.
"Multi-agency operations don't always go this smoothly. This was a great example of state, local and federal agencies banding together for the common good and accomplishing something we can all be proud of," she said.
The end of September brought the first snowfall in Galena, a sign for AFCEC that their seasonal work was at its end, at least until next summer.
"Although the flood wasn't predictable, the snowy conditions that set in around October are," said Carrera. "When we set up the charter we set the last flight for the end of the month, knowing that our crew would soon be battling some frigid conditions."
With the final flight date fast approaching, AFCEC and FEMA ramped up their efforts to make sure that there was enough cargo space available to safely transport the remaining members of Korta's sled team. And on Sept. 25, the final five dogs returned home to Galena.
"It's great to have them back," said Korta. "I really missed them, and I am just so grateful to have them back. It just didn't feel like home without them."
The end of each work season often leaves Galena project leaders feeling anxious about the work that's still left to do.
"We could always use more time," said Bernheisel. "Unfortunately, the weather dictates our timeline."
Although this year's window was even shorter due to the flood, Bernheisel said they departed with a different attitude.
"We accomplished a big part of our mission -- we put the people of Galena first. After the flood they encouraged us to find a way to continue with the cleanup. Not only did we do that, but we were also able to give something important back to them -- part of their family."