Our Stories

All in an Alaskan COOP Day
Elfin Cove, AK

All in an Alaskan COOP Day

By NWS Heritage Projects Editorial Staff

Editors Note:  The following first-person account from Kimberly Vaughn is republished from the Spring 2006 edition of The National Cooperative Observer.


Another typical Coop trip is about to begin with a stop by the office to check on weather and pick up equipment and paperwork. 

So far so good, weather is cooperating and there should not be any problems getting to our sites and back today. My coworker, Brian, and I arrive at the airport at 7:30 a.m. for our 8 a.m. departure. There’s no need to arrive 2 hours before check in; just walk up, give the ticket agent your credit card, and don’t be shy—they need to know your weight as well.

As soon as everyone has paid and the luggage is loaded into the van, the people are loaded up, too. We drive from the terminal to the float plane pond, located on the other side of the airstrip. The van stops next to a dock. Everyone piles out and grabs their luggage; there are no baggage handlers here.

This trip is usually from Juneau to Pelican to visit a Coop site. We get about 90 minutes for the stop in Pelican then fly to Elfin Cove, where we have about 2 more hours before the last flight departs. This day was going to be different. Elfin Cove had a lot of mail so we were going there first. We load up the plane. The first passenger climbs into the copilot seat, next to the pilot. Two more passengers climb into the seat behind them. The engines are fired up, we start to float out to the main part of the pond then up we go. The view is spectacular! This is my second year going on these trips but I still have a camera on, clicking away. 

I get pictures of the Mendenhall Glacier, Douglas Island and Auke Bay. Once away from Juneau, the view is unlimited with mountain, sky and ocean. I have yet to have a flight in which I don’t see at least one whale blowing spray.

Mary Jo Lord-Wild and husband Jim
Mary Jo Lord-Wild and her husband Jim

Once in Elfin Cove, I get off while Brian continues on to Pelican. Most Coop visits do not require two NWS staff members, but like so many people in rural Alaska, Mary Jo has many jobs. In addition to being a mom, wife, and tour guide, Mary Jo is an A-Paid weather observer and Coop observer.

She’s been faithfully serving NWS for 29 years. Her husband has been the NWS backup for 24 years. Jim and Mary Jo are a reliable, knowledgeable and accurate team. They start our trip by picking us up from the float plane dock in their 19 foot skiff with smiles and a helping hand.

We navigate past the main docking area where large and small fishing boats are tied up. This is also where the fueling station is. There are a few fishing lodges, the family’s homes and the general store built along the steep hillsides surrounding the cove.

We tie up at the Wild's dock. It’s so peaceful, it’s like stepping into a postcard. OH NO, its low tide! The dock is connected to the walkway by a self adjusting ramp that gets very steep at low tide. Up the ramp we go, everyone grabbing a bag.

The visit is much like any other: check equipment, answer questions, have some tea and talk shop. After finishing with the Coop items, I move on to the A-Paid side of things. I check more equipment, ask and answer more questions.

Now the plane is due in, and we leave to pick up Brian. This time we cross to the other dock and tie up there. We’re going to walk through town.  It’s about a city block long with a museum, post office, restaurant, bar and more lodging. 

The last building on the left as we head toward the float plane dock is the school. In the fenced yard is playground equipment, which of course
includes a small boat, 'cause every little kid wants to grow up and be just like Mom and Dad. On a more somber note, there is also a memorial to those who were taken by the sea. The float plane lands and we meet Brian and go to lunch. The local café has fresh seafood and really good cheeseburgers.

After lunch, it’s back to work—we still have to change the wind equipment. This is where Brian and I need each other and that 100 lbs of  baggage we’ve been hauling around.

Kimberly Vaughan repairing weather equipment
Kimberly Vaughan, Observation
Program Leader at the Juneau
NWS office, changes equipment
on the wind tower

The wind equipment is attached to a 40 foot tower. For this trip, we need to contact the State Troopers and inform them what we're going to be
doing in case of injury. If a serious injury occurs, the Troopers would contact the Coast Guard for emergency transport.

The safety spotter becomes key because you can not only die of injuries resulting from a fall, but also from extended time dangling from the harness. The Coast Guard is dispatched out of Sitka and may take up to an hour to reach the area. Sounds scary, it’s not; we just need to be careful.

Brian and I are both qualified to climb and trust each other's ability to use the equipment and conduct a rescue if necessary. It’s my turn to climb. After suiting up in the climbing harness, up I go. 

It takes a few minutes to climb to the small platform at the top. After getting all the straps adjusted, I send the rope down to Brian. He attaches the canvas bucket to it and sends it up. I detach the old wind equipment and replace it with serviced ones, first the direction and then the speed. Before climbing down, we check the sensors inside to confirm that everything is working right, e.g., reading north, when the vane is pointing north. Getting things right the first time becomes critical on trips like this one that cost hundreds of dollars and lots of time to get out to. This is also a great time to take some pictures from the top of the tower. From this viewpoint, you can see the entire back cove out to the outer cove and into Cross Sound.

Back down the tower I go, with just enough time to pack up the gear before getting dropped off at the float plane dock. The plane takes us back to Juneau around 5:30 p.m. We go back to the NWS Juneau office and unpack our gear. Just another typical day