It's 4:30 a.m. Tuesday, and Chris Crawford's day is about to begin.
She pulls in to the First Student bus yard by about 5:20 a.m. Tuesday was the first day of school for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and marks Crawford's fifth year driving a school bus. The route she will be driving is the same one she's been driving for the last three years. Route 41 takes her around Cohoe Loop Road back to Soldotna for the Soldotna Middle School and Skyview High School route, and then back to Mile 105 of the Sterling Highway to Tustumena Elementary. The total trip, Crawford said, is about 94 miles.
Across the district, school buses transport nearly 3,000 students some 7,725 miles to and from Peninsula schools every school day.
At 5:55 a.m., she backs her bus up from her designated parking spot with two honks of the horn.
"So off we go into the abyss," Crawford said. "That's what we call Kasilof, because there's no street lights once you pass TJ Seggy's. It's moose haven."
As the route takes her around Cohoe Loop Road, she greets some familiar faces and some new ones. After a few stops, one thing is clear: Crawford has the childrens' respect.
She remembers an incident two years ago where she "kissed" a moose with the bus. She said it was a day like Tuesday, which happened to be dark and rainy.
"I was going about 45, the visibility was horrible," she said. "The momma went by me and the calf didn't make it across."
Rest assured, the moose survived, Crawford said.
As she remembers, the kids in the front rows of the bus were on the lookout.
"I think we were all a little excited," she said. "Especially the ones sitting in the front. I think we all yelled ‘moose!' at the same time."
One of the difficult aspects of driving a school bus, Crawford said, is maneuvering with ice on the roads. Her route is one of the most difficult ones in the district, because of the icy areas. Her route and five others, she said, take precautions to deal with the ice-heavy areas.
"We have steering chains, all the other buses just have rear chains," she said.
Another challenge, she said, is dealing with motorists that do not respect the flashing lights of the bus. She said when she turns her amber lights on to come to a stop, motorists will attempt to pass.
"It makes it real dangerous for everybody," she said. "They'll run your (red flashing lights) because they're in a hurry."
As the rain falls, Crawford talks about why she came to the Kenai Peninsula in 1990 from Southeast Alaska.
"I came here to escape the rain," she said while laughing. "I think it followed me."
Some stops along the route have yielded no riders, but Crawford has to stop the bus and open the door regardless. Opening the door, she said, allows the GPS to register that she did in fact stop the bus. In minus 20-degree weather, that practice can become daunting.
"You definitely have to like the outdoors and dress very warmly," she said with a smile.
By 7 a.m. the bus turns left on to the Sterling Highway from Cohoe Loop Road. The high school students depart the bus by 7:15 a.m. at Skyview High School.
After the high school students leave the bus, Crawford does a quick walk to the back of the bus to make sure there are no children left on the bus. She said this is required after every stop.
Now Crawford will have Soldotna Middle School students join her from other routes. Skyview High School acts as a type of hub, where riders transfer to other buses.
The intersection at Redoubt Avenue and Kobuk Street is jam-packed with vehicles for the first day of school. The traffic itself does not frustrate Crawford, except when motorists do not follow the rules just to save a couple extra minutes. Crawford points out vehicles dropping off in areas not meant for such, the staff parking lot of SMS and the side of the road before the actual parking lot.
"They just start clustering around and breaking the rules because they're in a hurry," she said.
As she doubles back to the Sterling Highway, she recalls one of the strangest occurrences on her bus.
"A couple of years ago, I had a kindergartner who said ‘Mrs. Chris, I need to move,'" she said. "I said, ‘Why?' He said, ‘Because the kid next to me is eating his earwax!'"
Crawford got a kick out of the incident, and said she asked the hungry student to stop what he was doing and everything was back to normal.
She said one of the most enjoyable parts of her job are her bus riders.
"The kids, they can be vermin sometimes," she said. "But they're good."
At 8 a.m. the bus passes TJ Seggy's for a third time. This time the bus will be filled with Tustumena Elementary school students. Some climb on to the bus for the very first time.
This part of the route requires Crawford to stop along the Sterling Highway. As she stops by each road, she apologizes to the line of traffic that has accumulated.
By 8:20 a.m. she turns onto Tote Road.
"Now we can relax, we don't have to worry about all my friends behind me," she said.
Tote Road is also a difficult road to maneuver after the weather grows cold.
"This is a real fun road in the winter, too," she said.
At 8:40 a.m. Crawford arrives at Irish Hills Avenue where at least five cars have lined up waiting for Crawford to take their students to school. This is the last stop before Tustumena Elementary.
As the bus pulls in to Tustumena Elementary school, principal Bob VanDerWege is outside to welcome the students. Crawford said this is part of the daily routine.
By 8:50 a.m. Crawford is taking another walk to the back of the bus to make sure no one is left behind. Her next walk will take place after she returns to the bus barn.
At 9:15 a.m. Crawford pulls back into her designated parking space. She takes one final walk to the back to make sure no student is left on the bus. If there is a child left on the bus, she said, it could be a fireable offence.
While she is back at the barn, she fills out her paperwork, and waits until she needs to leave for the afternoon run instead of driving home to Sterling.
"I'll get something to eat, I have my laptop with me," she said.
High school lets out at 2:15 p.m., and she will run her route again.
"I'll be done about 4:30 p.m.," she said. "I'll stop at Mile 105, do a little paperwork and get back there (the bus barn) around 4:45-4:50 depending on the lights."
After her 188 miles and about six-and-a-half hours, Crawford's route will be done. And it will be time to do it all again tomorrow.