In a roadless Eskimo village on the western Alaska tundra, amid buzzing snow machines and barking dogs, a car horn is blaring impatiently.
Your taxi is here.
Roland Nose Sr., river cabbie, is at the wheel of a three-seat Chevy Blazer. He pulls into a yard in front of a nearby house as if to turn around, but he does not stop. He continues past the plywood house and crunches across the snow in the back yard, past a driftwood-gray steambath house, past a dog team staked in the willows, around two skiffs and onto the frozen Kuskokwim River.
Next stop: Bethel, 23 river miles away.
Spring weather may have arrived in most of the lower 48, but Roland Nose is wearing a windbreaker and sunglasses on a bright, pleasantly cold Alaska day. In the front seat beside him, his wife Carrie writes passengers' names in an account book. The fare will be $10 a head.
Business opportunities are limited for a 43-year-old entrepreneur in the Noses' village of Akiachak. Back home, there are several little Noses: Robert, Roland Jr., Rita, Rona, Roxanne, Ryan, Ray, Regina, Ronald, Rosane and Randy: 11 reasons why the Noses went into the tundra taxi business several years ago.
This is not a year-round operation. Maybe four months of the year, beginning in January, the river is frozen thick enough to support a family man in a three-seater.
"When it's dangerous, we don't have to drive down," Nose tells you with a reassuring smile. "We don't want to disappear."
Those things happen on the Kuskokwim. Last year, a hole swallowed the front end of a Ford pickup that was frozen immovably by the time help arrived.
Come breakup, the Ford floated out with the ice and is now "down by the ocean someplace," which is the way residents along the Kuskokwim speak of ice-fishing nets and other implements of river life lost in springtime.
Several years ago, a ski plane crash-landed on the river at Akiachak shortly before breakup and seemed destined to take the familiar trip to the Bering Sea. The pilot frantically repaired the plane's skis, then hired an Akiachak man to sit beside him in the cockpit as a guide to the river ice. Together they taxied down the melting ice all the way to Bethel.
Some holes, created by currents and warm springs, stay open all winter, the subject of citizens' band radio bulletins in Kuskokwim villages.
Last December, a 50-year-old trapper from the village of Lower Kalskag disappeared into a river hole one night while riding home from checking his traps on a three-wheeler. Friends and relatives searched the open holes downriver, but his body was never found.
The river has always been a transportation corridor between Eskimo villages, winter and summer. But in the last few years, river residents say, the river traffic has taken on a new character.
More villagers have been buying pickup trucks and four-wheel-drive vehicles. The winter trail into Bethel, once used mostly by dogsleds and snow machines, has become a major one-lane highway. But state troopers in Bethel won't give highway advisories on river travel: This is not a practice they wish to encourage.
So the villagers take care of the ice road themselves: checking the ice depth with chainsaws, marking the way with spruce trees and reflectors planted in the ice, plowing the snow with village-owned road graders.
Nose carries no shovel or emergency equipment other than a VHF radio -- not on a morning like this, with plenty of traffic and no wind blasting across the delta to push drifts of snow ahead of him.
Where the ice beneath his tires is smooth, he cruises at 45 mph in four-wheel-high. When a car is approaching he slows, pulls into the snow and waves.
Halfway to Bethel, the ice road veers into Church Slough, a narrow, curving channel that cuts off a big bend in the Kuskokwim. The snow is spotted with brownish green patches of what appears to be water. One patch is steaming.
"Overflow from the tide in here," Nose explains nonchalantly. You are getting nearer to the sea.
He sails around a curve, spots overflow in the middle of the road and fishtails to the left as he swerves around a green pool of slush.
"You thought we was going in a hole," he observes.
The channel opens wide again, and soon the river cab is approaching the long blank erosion-proof wall in front of Bethel, a regional center of several thousand residents. The passage from Akiachak has taken less than 45 minutes.
Nose maneuvers around a ski plane parked on the river and drives up a ramp into the neighborhood of Bethel known as Lousetown. He halts at a stop sign.
There is no oncoming traffic, but he hesitates before pulling onto the main street.
"You have to tell me how to get where you're going," he says. "I'm not too used to driving in town."