Story last updated at 5/3/2013 - 7:41 pm
It's almost time to see couples wading down the streets of downtown Southeast Alaska towns, wearing matching safari clothes, holding large bright red bags stuffed with T-shirts, miniature totem poles, more T-shirts, boxes of fudge. They're herded onto buses weighted with cameras and brochures to places like the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. The lucky, privileged or smart ones may opt for a more adventurous endeavor: Helicopter tours.
Most of the helicopter outfits run some of their fleet year-round, providing transportation for telecommunications staff and equipment or skiers and snowboarders looking for fresh snow. But with the cruise ships on their way, unloading thousands of passengers daily, the heli-outfits begin preparing mid-winter.
Derrick Grimes is the tour manager at Coastal Helicopters. This will be his fourth season as the tour manager. He began when he was a student at the University of Alaska Southeast. Grimes, who handles the tours and reservations, works year-round, in addition to a human resources manager, accounts manager, safety manager, operations manager, chief pilot and general manager.
After a month or two rest period through December the work begins. Grimes and the other staff spend January and February managing calls and tour bookings.
"That's when my focus is sorting through applications and trying to narrow down the sea of applicants," Grimes said. "People do apply from all over and want to be considered. You whittle that down in January and February."
Grimes hired 24 tour employees and six additional staff members to assist in operational work. He said most of his applicant pool consists of people between the ages of 18 (Coastal's minimum age), and 25.
Grimes said there are plenty of critics who believe that this age pool is comprised of unfocused, over-casual, unprofessional and difficult-to-manage young people, but he takes a different view.
"They have a ton of enthusiasm and they want to find out how to work," he said. "They haven't really had a job; they're not president of a company or a manager, they need to know how to work in a work place. A summer job is a great place to do that while you still have some fun."
Grimes said he enjoys assisting with fostering positive values in young employees, and he tries to provide an atmosphere that will bring back former employees.
"You'd like them to come back year after year and bring friends, people they would endorse as coworkers," Grimes said.
His employees will often figure out that their best friend in school might not be the best person to work side-by-side with in a work setting.
"Just because you're best buddies doesn't mean they can pull their weight in the work place," he said. "Our best scenario is that we hire someone fresh, they come back the year after that and the year after that and then they become a right hand man, a dependable employee, and bridge the gap between the managerial level of staff and the front line work level."
Tim McDonnell, Temsco's vice president of tours and marketing, first came to Alaska in 1971, working as a tour bus driver in Fairbanks. He visited Juneau, but moved to the city permanently in 2000. His ground staff will consist of around 45 to 55 people, of which 80 percent to 85 percent are local college students. He also stressed the importance of instilling a strong work ethic and customer service skills to his employees.
"Customer service training is the key, teaching young people how to talk to people and treat customers," McDonnell said. "We'll (conduct) four or five intensive training days, and then in the first 45 days we'll have another day of training. We have classes in safety, loading and unloading the aircraft, customer service classes, basically, how to talk to clients. What their expectations are."
Craig Jennison, the general manager for Northstar Trekking, said the holidays are generally a strategic time to scout for summer employees. Though he hires up to around 40 staff members for the summer season (Northstar has around 10 year-round employees), and some are into their 60s, the majority are college aged.
In March and April Grimes and his staff begin work on permitting, getting their vehicle fleets together and the tour office prepared.
Though both companies have year-round pilots for chartered services, (flights for contracted services and special request trips), they hire additional pilots for their tour season.
In addition to the eight pilots Coastal has on staff for year-round charter work, the company hires seven more for summer tours.
McDonnell said Temsco employs 16-year round mechanics and an additional 23 pilots for the summer season. The pilots undergo a 45-60 day training period in Ketchikan.
"Pilots come at different levels of training," McDonnell said. "They have to have a minimum of 1,000 (flight) hours to get an interview. If you have many more, you still go through a 45 day training.
Coastal provides a variety of tours that fit with the cruise ship passengers' schedules. Most of the tours involve landing on the Herbert Glacier.
"Most of our customers pre-book tours, though we see significant sales on the day-of," Grimes said.
McDonnell said more than 90 percent of Temsco's tours are pre-booked.
Both Grimes and McDonnell said that ground staff greet people after they disembark the vessels, assist them into company vehicles, and then drive them to the company bases, which may include a brief ground tour along the way. The passengers then have safety briefings, where they can raise questions or concerns.
"If you really want to watch organized confusion, come out here on a busy day," McDonnell said.
The passengers are then outfitted with overshoes called Neos, studded large rubber boots that fit over the customers' shoes.
"Passengers are very excited to land and walk on the glacier, and the boots give them extra traction," Grimes said.
The boots are called Neos.
"You should have them in your car," McDonnell said, holding up a pair.
As Northstar specializes in more mountaineering-type tours, their clients gear preparation is a little more involved.
"We gear everyone up in hard shell boots, crampons, ice axes, helmets and harnesses," Jennison said. "All the tools you need to explore the glacier."
Temsco and Coastal both offer two types of tours, and Temsco operates tours in Skagway, as well. McDonnell said they have an agreement with the city that they won't begin flying before 8 a.m.
For Coastal's basic tour, the pilot is the guide. He or she lands the helicopter on the glacier, guides them around for around half an hour, and brings them back to the base.
"The Mendenhall Glacier tours are probably the most famous," McDonnell said. "You fly 15 minutes up to the glacier with commentary from the guide. You land; the helicopter departs, so you are there alone with guides."
Both companies also offer dog sledding tours on the glacier. It's about a 15-minute trip up to their dog sled camp.
"You are actually getting a tour from a professional musher," he said. "These people are extremely passionate about what they do, about their dog teams. It's the only place in the world where they can train their dogs in the summer in the snow."
Towards the end of April, Grimes said that Coastal begins shuttling dog houses and tents for the glacier guides and dog mushers and handlers. It takes about a day, sometimes two, to haul all the gear.
"The dog camp (consists) of about 100 dogs," Grimes said.
McDonnell also pointed out that they take special precaution to fly out all the waste. The dogs need a lot of food.
"The dog sled is the tri-fecta," McDonnell said. "You land on a glacier, you are in a helicopter and you're with a dog sled team. What three things say 'Alaska' more than that? It's extremely popular."
Grimes said that Coastal hires a dog sledding company.
"We facilitate their construction of a dog camp on the glacier, fly up their supplies, and then bring passengers up to them. That's an hour-long landing at a higher level of the glacier."
On these trips passengers have the experience of riding with experienced dog mushers around the ice.
"It is so quiet you can hear your heart beat," McDonnell said. "These people who come from Los Angeles and New York are in awe of the beauty. It's unbelievable.
"It's rare to not to see smiling faces," Grimes said.
Temsco also offers a tour called the "Pilot's Choice," a tour with 50 minutes of flight time. McDonnell said that on these trips, the pilot is the guide, there are two landings, and the pilot chooses where to go based on the weather.
"Usually in the morning we map out where we might land," he said. "People come back actually crying, because (they) will see parts of the glacier and wilderness that only (they) and God see that day. They return literally crying."
Northstar offers three adventure-style tours, all of which begin with a flight-seeing trip via helicopter.
"We have a six-to-one guide-to-client ratio with a lot of instruction and interpretation," Jennison said. "We get up into the ice falls."
Northstar's guides have special requirements: mountaineering experience in particular, and Jennison said he had people on staff with medical first responder and rescue training, as well as Emergency Medical Technicians.
"It's high adventure for sure," he said.
The mildest of Northstar's tours is a one-hour "walk-about."
"It's more of a mellow tour over the rolling terrain," Jennison said. "You're still in crampons but it's for participants of all physical ability levels."
The two hour trek, he said, is more technical, and participants get into steeper terrain and explore ice falls.
"The three hour (trek includes) vertical ice climbing with top ropes," he said. "Everyone gets a chance to climb."
Neither Grimes nor McDonnell were shy about pointing out that it's a small percentage of the cruise ship passengers that are in a position to shell out the cash to take such trips.
"Cruises are expensive and then to top that off helicopter tours are expensive," Grimes said. "This year we've seen a humongous increase compared to last year's numbers and we hope that bears out through the season."
"People who buy the high end tours have usually done a lot in their lives," McDonnell said. "To meet or greet their expectations is hard. You never can describe it well enough. A camera can't do what a human experience can. When a customer returns crying, you know you're doing the right thing."
Jennison said the experience is very satisfying.
"It's a once in a life time experience," he said. "We keep a comment book in our facility. Every day you can go through that book. We blow minds on a daily basis. We get nothing but satisfaction from our customers at the end of the day. It's a lot of fun to sit and great them as they return from the tours."
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.