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ANCHORAGE - 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 freezeup), 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."