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Mike Denker: “Sometimes we’re not just an essential service; we’re the only service…we’re the sole provider of fuel – for transportation and heat – for the people of Haines.”

Delta Western’s Haines Terminal Manager Mike Denker was determined to fly.

Born in Germany in 1966, he lived in Bitburg, West Germany, until his father was transferred to Tinker Air Force base in Oklahoma City when he was a child. He started accumulating flight hours when he was a junior in high school.

“I caught the bug early and made it happen,” he said. “I saved up all my money from working at a golf course and a grocery store and learned to fly my junior year. After high school, I went ahead and got my instrument, commercial, and flight instructor endorsements.”

In December of 1987, Denker received a call from Aero Tech Flight Services in Anchorage, Alaska, to be a flight instructor.

“I was a 21-year-old pilot with adventure in his eyes – I showed up in Anchorage two weeks later.”

He was offered a flying job for a small air carrier six months later and moved to Homer. Here, he flew small bush planes from village to village. In 1992, Denker joined L.A.B. Flying Service in Haines. He returned to Oklahoma for Christmas that year, where his parents, brother, and sister lived. His father was a career civil servant working for the U.S. Veteran’s Administration from an office on the fifth floor of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City. Denker’s brother – a “big outdoorsman” – was working seasonally for UPS.

“I remember saying to him, ‘Chris, you’ve got to get out of Oklahoma and come up to Alaska,” Denker laughed. “He came up the following spring and started working for a river-rafting outfit.”

On April 19, 1995, the Murrah building was the target of a bomb so powerful it remains America’s deadliest and most costly domestic terrorist attack, killing 168 people – including 19 children – and injuring more than 800. Denker’s father was sitting inside his office on the fifth floor when the bomb was detonated.

“He was in a fifth-floor column on the north side that didn’t collapse,” Denker said. “My brother and I were in Alaska – and this was before cell phones. We knew a federal building had been hit, and we both headed back to Oklahoma. He was okay, but he lost many friends that day.”

Rejoining Delta Western

Denker started his first tenure with Delta Western later in 1995. He’d taken the summer off from flying to spend some time enjoying the summer in Haines. Later that year, he picked up work as a fuel truck driver for Delta Western before deciding to go back to flying in 1997. The following year, he rejoined Delta Western as the company’s Canadian Division Operations Manager. Just when the flying bug began biting him again, the airline industry screeched to a halt in the aftermath of 9/11.

“I wanted to get back into commercial aviation, but 2001 ended up not being the best year to try,” he said. “But by 2017, I was getting contacted due to a pilot shortage.”

He joined Horizon Air in 2018 and flew for two years before Delta Western reached out again last spring.

“I was contacted early last year about a terminal manager position here in Haines,” he said. “With Horizon, my wife and I were living here in Haines, but I was flying out of Boise, so it wasn’t ideal. I’d kept in touch with Delta Western and North Star – I’d stop by the office sometime.”

Denker officially rejoined the company in June of 2020.

“It’s been great so far,” he said. “I can walk to work now.”

Lit by a streetlamp, water pours down the street ending in a crater that once was a road. The road is shattered in tons of pieces.

Essential services

Some 50 inches of snow fell in Haines during October and November of last year, setting the stage for a December crisis of epic proportions.

“It’s not unusual for southeast Alaska to have snow in late October and November, but it was heavier than usual this winter,” Denker said. “Our tank farm outside the city is perched 300 feet up on a hillside, and we had two-to-three feet of snow up there.”

Everything would have been fine, though, Denker said, were it not for the weather pattern that formed during the first week of December.

“It was warm, and it was wet,” Denker said. “we got a lot of rain in two days.”

A chunk of a hillside lays barren as debris floods into water below.

Haines received 10 inches of rain in 48 hours – a lot of water on its own, but when combined with more than four feet of melted snow, it quickly turned life-or-death. The town experienced record-breaking flooding and a series of mudslides, one so catastrophic that it pushed several houses from their foundations directly into the bay. Two young people perished in the slide. One was a former Delta Western scholarship recipient who had returned to town after college to teach kindergarten.

It was a tough, tough period for the town,” he said. “Something like 50 families lost or were displaced from their homes because of the flooding and slides. Roads were cut off or destroyed” – including the road to Delta Western’s tank farm located approximately five miles outside of town.

“A lot of us in the Saltchuk family – we’re essential services,” Denker continued. “Sometimes we’re not just an essential service; we’re the only service. That’s what we are here in Haines. We’re the sole provider of fuel – for transportation and heat – for the people of Haines. The landslides damaged the road and cut us off from our tank farm for periods of time, but we needed to provide the fuel for the equipment to clear the roads and provide emergency services. It was all-hands-on-deck for everyone in town, including at Delta Western.”

Denker and his team quickly reached out to nearby businesses they knew to have accessible tanks in town. They created a small stockpile of fuel to provide the diesel necessary to get the roads open again and keep the town’s electrical generator in fuel.

“The tank farm itself was okay, but we had a tremendous amount of water we needed to pump out of the tank farm’s containment areas,” he said. “We spent six days dealing with the excess water, and the whole time we were nervous there was going to be another big slide that was going to cut us off entirely.”

Denker and Lisa pose close together on a beach, Lisa's arm rests around Denker's shoulder.

The big picture

Denker and his wife, Lisa, married in December of 1995. She was born and raised in Haines. They met during his first winter in town. He appreciates the community he’s come to call his own.

“Alaska can be a tough place to live, a hard place to live,” he said. “But there’s nothing like small-town Alaska living – it’s worth it.”

He said he rejoined the aviation industry for the final time in 2018 because he knew he’d regret it if he didn’t.

“When I was a little boy, I saw the older kids riding their bikes, and none of them had training wheels,” he explained. “My parents got me a bike that had training wheels. I didn’t want to ride it. I stayed in the backyard, learning to ride it without the training wheels. I just kept at it. By the end of that evening, I was riding that little bike. That drive has carried me my whole life. I believe if you can see it in your mind, you can do it. I thought I’d lost that little boy for a few years. Getting back into commercial aviation, I had to work harder than I’ve ever worked before to get through Horizon’s training program. Through that experience, I recaptured some confidence in myself and my ability.”

But as rewarding as that experience was, Denker said giving up flying and settling back down in Haines has allowed him a connection to his community that he lost.

“I did lose that over those two years – I started to lose my connection to Haines,” he said. “To the people here and the place. It was a big deal. It revealed some things that I didn’t realize were so important to me. Now I’m getting that connection back through my position here. It’s a job, but really you’re serving people. Saltchuk’s value structure is important to me: safety, reliability, commitment. I’m a big-picture guy.”

Denker said he plans to spend the rest of his career innovating at Delta Western.

“You always have to think outside the box,” he said. “You can’t assume that because it’s always been done one way, it has to stay that way. We’re the only fuel game in town, but we’re not going to act like that. We’re going to act like there’s competition right next door. We won’t serve the people of Haines properly if we don’t think that way.”

Most important, Denker said, is to let the value structure – not money – be the driver of innovation.

“If we follow up on those values, the rest will come,” he said. “We’re doing something here in Haines that’s never been done before, starting with a discount to all of our customers through January to help them recover from this crisis. We didn’t have to do anything, but we’re driven by our values to serve people and always do better. Our challenge is to always do better.”

Hilary Reeves

Hilary Reeves spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining the Saltchuk family of companies as a consultant. Since People of Saltchuk launched in 2014, Reeves has interviewed more than 200 Saltchuk employees from operating companies all over the world. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Reeves is a former president of both the collegiate and local professional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, a graduate of the Society’s Ted Scripps Leadership Institute, and a Toastmaster. When she’s not writing, she loves to read, ski, and practice the piano. She lives in West Seattle with her husband and two young daughters.