Every morning, South Naknek's 14 schoolchildren eat breakfast, kiss their parents goodbye and head to the airport for the daily flight on their school bus in the sky.
A two-minute air taxi ride across the Naknek River takes them to the north shore, where a bus waits to take them to their first class, or if the winter darkness has delayed the flight, their second.
When the final bell rings, the South Naknek students head back to the airport. Those who stick around for basketball practice or to visit with friends arrange to catch a later flight.
The quirky commute has been a way of life for older South Naknek students since the 1960s. Last year, they were joined by the younger students when the elementary school's enrollment dropped below 10 and the school closed down.
Eva Nielsen-King hates the flights. The 38-year-old mother of four hates having to worry about her kids' safety during bad weather, the trouble arranging overnight stays when the plane cannot return and the monthly $300 bill for after-school flights.
But what she hates most is feeling abandoned.
"I feel like I have no children a lot of the time because they have to stay over so many nights," she said.
About five years ago, when the village gave its support to building a bridge across the Naknek River, Nielsen-King was against the idea. Then, she said a bridge connecting South Naknek with Naknek and King Salmon would change the way of life of the Aleut native village, about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Hunters already ride across the ice trail when the river freezes, and they litter, get drunk and waste the animals needed for subsistence, she said. She thought year-round access would make it worse.
But since then, she has watched the commercial fishing industry go into a tailspin, South Naknek's population shrink from 130 to about 88 and the elementary school close down. That has been enough to change her mind about the bridge, along with that of anyone else who had doubts.
"I wish to God one would appear, because our village is failing," she said. "I don't know anybody who is opposed to it anymore."
A ferry cannot be relied upon because of the 18-foot tidal shifts every day that leave sandbars as obstacles to the north shore. Over the last two winters, the river has not frozen long enough to provide a safe ice trail to move vehicles across.
The river dividing South Naknek and Naknek near Bristol Bay is less than a mile wide, but the economic divide is much greater. Naknek, the seat of government for Bristol Bay Borough, has 600 residents, a 9 percent unemployment rate and 4 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census.
South Naknek is predominantly Aleut, whereas Naknek is about half Athabascan and Yupik. About a quarter of South Naknek's population is out of work, and 27 percent live below the poverty line. Many residents have had to move across the river or out of the area to find work since the fishing industry's downturn.
Restaurants and other services are on the north side. South Naknek residents flew across the river about 4,400 times in 2003, according to the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.
If South Naknek residents do not feel like traveling across the river for dinner, they can order a pizza from D&D Restaurant for delivery. A large pizza with all the toppings costs $28. Added to that is the $6 cab ride for the pizza to get to the airport.
If King Air Inc. already has a flight scheduled, it will carry the pizza for free. If not, it costs an additional $40, the same as flying a person. Total cost of a large pizza for South Naknek: $74.
A bridge linking the two towns and King Salmon, a village of about 400 that is about 15 miles from Naknek, would bring the communities together, encourage former South Naknek residents to return, and save the residents, borough and state hundreds of thousands of dollars every year, according to a recent study by the Department of Transportation.
Having land access also could spark economic development and industry on the south shore, said Bristol Bay Borough Manager Fred Pike.
"That side of the river has a large area of property that has not been developed and is prime property for industrial operations like we have on the north side," he said.
The state's study, released in May, concludes that the preferred plan would be to build a bridge, shut down one of the three state-run airports in the three towns and transfer operations of one of the remaining airports to the borough.
It would take six to eight years for an environmental impact study -- the route goes through wetlands, permafrost and prime wildlife habitat -- and to secure the $26 million to $40 million it would cost to build a 2,300-foot bridge and a 14,500-foot road leading to it, the study said.
The bridge would not be open for traffic until 2014 at the earliest.
The House version of a giant congressional transportation bill includes $3 million to start the Naknek crossing project. The final bill is being worked out in a conference committee, with about $10 billion separating the House and Senate versions.
Keith Ashdown, a spokesman for the Washington-based watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, sees a $40 million federal highway project that would serve 1,100 people as a prime example of federal pork.
"It's just a boneheaded, shortsighted idea," Ashdown said.
He said he sympathizes with the plight of getting the children to school and South Naknek's economic problems, but the community and the nation would be better off giving each resident a check instead of building a public works project that would be underused and likely need to be rebuilt in 20 years.
According to the state study, the bridge would save the borough an estimated $100,000 a year by consolidating facilities and services. The air taxis for students cost the school district about $128,000 a year on top of $1,200 per student paid for by the state. Running a bus across a bridge would cost between $75,000 and $80,000, for a savings of about $50,000 a year.
Although Nielsen-King knows her children will be adults by the time the bridge is built, she said the link would save future parents the worry of their children flying in the harsh Alaska winter weather, and the long nights when they are not able to return home.
She looks at the other Alaska transportation proposals that have gotten more attention, such as Knik Arm and Gravina, and says Naknek is more worthy.
"Gee, whiz, how can they even think of spending money that isn't necessary, when there is a community that really needs a bridge?" she asked.