On the Milk Run through Alaska

IMG_3942The weight of my duffle bag tips the scale at the Alaskan Airlines counter but remains a sly measure below the 50 pound allotment. The bag bulges with items requested and items required to make the next month on Baranof Island comfortable. Without surprise, I will find the TSA placard acknowledging their search of my belongings when I unzip the bag several hours and many thousands of miles later. Maybe the polenta or the jar of pesto or the packets of cumin, coriander, and turmeric have piqued their security curiosity. Or perhaps the smell of coffee beans seeping from the canvas calls to them. My cache also includes lemons, ginger, apples, beans and the specially requested whipped cream.

I have returned from down south, my down south: North Carolina. In Alaska, anything located below the 49th state is considered south. If you leave the island and do not go toward Juneau or Anchorage, you are going south. This provides a new viewpoint for me…like how I used to consider Portland part of the Northwest. Now it is just another southern city.

Mixed in with the new is an old term brought back to light. Milk Run. As a kid in the Midwest, the constant of the milk man routine bore the same familiarity as the newspaper delivery. We had our own box built into the side of the garage where the milk man (he was always a man) opened one side, took the empty glass bottles and replaced the vacant space with creamed-topped whole milk, a carton of large curd cottage cheese, and on good weeks, a quart of chocolate milk. When I reminisce with friends of my generation there is a nostalgia for this old delivery practice, even now while we sip almond milk lattes or spoon up organic greek yogurt.

In Sitka, I have not found home milk delivery, but the Alaska Airlines Milk Run serves the same delivery wishes.

Take the early morning flight from Seattle to southeast Alaska and you may be one of the herd on the Milk Run to Anchorage, stopping in Ketchikan, Wrangell, Petersburg, and Juneau. If you are heading out of Anchorage, the milk run stops in Cordova, Yakutat, and Juneau before hitting that southern city, Seattle.

Ketchikan by window seat

Folks speak of the Milk Run route, but I did not think it was a real thing until I overheard a flight attendant speaking to a co-worker, “I’m on the Milk Run today.”

She piqued my curiosity. Really? There is still a milk run? I mean, do they run milk? I was dubious, but who was I to question, I had four pints of whipped cream in my satchel.

When home base is an island, there is obvious need to retrieve supplies from the mainland. Many necessities in Sitka are either flown in or shipped in. Some wait on delivery and others hop over to Juneau or combine trips to see family and friends with their mission to stock up their pantries. One friend takes her car on the ferry to Juneau, loads up at the Costco, and then heads back on the Alaska Marine Highway with her rations for the next few months. Last year, when a huge delivery of bananas was unloaded off a barge, the town went…ape? Price per pound got close to what they are in the lower 48. Bananas were everywhere, including freezers where wise souls stored their bounty in case banana rations ran tight.

In the aviation world, the Milk Run term refers to a scheduled flight with several stops. It’s routine and typically uneventful. If you are a passenger on a clear day, it can be quite the treat. A flight along the Inside Passage sweeps over the islands to reveal high dollar views of the snow covered mountains, frozen lakes and sweeping glaciers which can put Google Earth to shame.

While every plane will carry supplies to the islands whose roads are limited to a few pavedIMG_3949 miles, some flights are split cargo planes. This makes me think of my grandfather who piloted a plane in WWII and took supplies from India to China on a route called flying The Hump. It was reported that those flights included everything from hundred pound barrels of fuel and food rations to herds of cattle. In Alaska, it’s a bit more tame. Often there actually is milk on board, as well as other domestic necessities: tires, mattresses, boat parts, and of course fish. I did read that one flight carried a walrus and another took an entire truck. These cargo split planes contain only several dozen seats for two legged passengers which allows ample space to carry larger items.

An insider tip advises to book a window seat on the right side of the plane (when facing forward) on trips North, and on the left side when heading South, so you may capture the best views. While the stops are quick without time to deplane, many folks use the route to jump off for the day and hitch a ride on the next Milk Run pass. It sounds like an interesting way to visit the outposts along the southeast of Alaska and maybe I’ll try it one day. For now, my supplies are set as I sip on my TSA reviewed coffee and crunch my tasty apple imported from down south.


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