BETHEL (AP) -- Inside the lower cabin of what looks like a very strange tugboat, dozens of cases of pop sit next to shrink-wrapped orders from Wal-Mart and Kmart. In front of the cargo, eight passengers sit in three rows of worn airline-style seats.
The floor starts vibrating. Then the hovercraft -- a basketball-court-sized aluminum behemoth weighing 30 tons -- lifts gently off the ground. In an instant, it glides down a boat ramp and onto the muddy brown Kuskokwim River, floating atop a 3-foot cushion of air.
The vessel started operating four years ago, amid protests. Some river villages even sued to keep the strange vessel off the river. Villagers worried the new mail carrier would scare birds and ruin spawning beds. They also expected air taxi fares to skyrocket because the hovercraft would take away bulk mail business that once helped to subsidize flights.
Today, most of the complaints have vanished and the hovercraft has become another link in a transportation web that connects the far-flung settlements of southwestern Alaska.
With black rubber skirting its blue hull, big aluminum pipes along its sides and two propellers fixed to the back deck, it's easier to picture the craft skimming across a ''Star Wars'' movie set than gliding past tundra along the Kuskokwim.
''It's become handy, and when the airlines can't make it out, the hovercraft will be there,'' said Susan Motgin, an assistant bookkeeper for the Napakiak Village Corp.
When it started running to the villages, breakdowns were common. The craft was built for travel in the English Channel, not for skimming over ice in minus 40-degree weather, said Glen Van Valin, Bethel manager for Alaska Hovercraft, which the vessel for the U.S. Postal Service.
''I was a little dubious the first year,'' he said.
Alaska Hovercraft is owned by subsidiaries of Lynden Transport and Cook Inlet Region Inc.
The company's mechanics modified the craft for the cold. For one thing, they moved the air intakes away from the ground and up the side of the hovercraft so they wouldn't suck in snow.
Breakdowns are now rare. Van Valin said the craft has had just one breakdown so far this year, and only once since it started operating has it had to spend the night outside its hangar.
The company employs seven people, including two mechanics and usually a staff of three on board during runs: an operator, a navigator and a deckhand.
Van Valin is one of the pilots.
''It's a weird critter,'' Van Valin said. ''But believe it or not,'' he added, ''this area lends itself to a hovercraft.''
The craft carries fourth-class and bypass mail -- packages sent from stores that never pass through a post office. Before the arrival of the hovercraft, such mail was stuffed into small mail planes. These days, pallets are loaded directly onto the hovercraft for delivery to seven villages up and down the river.
Postal officials say the hovercraft saves the post office money on operations, but the environmental study was costly. Last year, the hovercraft carried a total of 1,500 tons of mail to seven villages, Van Valin said.
The hovercraft delivers first-class mail when weather prohibits flying. And in four years of operation, the hovercraft has also been used more than a dozen times to evacuate people during medical emergencies when weather made flying impossible.
The hovercraft operates year-round except for six weeks around freezeup and one week during breakup, Van Valin said. The long break allows the river to freeze in fall. And during breakup, the surface of the ice is too jumbled for the hovercraft to operate. Air cushion vehicles require a relatively flat surface, Van Valin said.
Besides taking the mail, the hovercraft also takes up to 18 passengers. The fare is $20, one-way or round-trip. Kids younger than 12 and senior citizens older than 65 travel for free.
(Distributed by The Associated Press)
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