Wild Ride!

Posted by on Jun 12, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Wild Ride!

Tom & family invited me to tag along with them on a small tour of some of the backcountry strips nearby, so I readily accepted. Tom has a lot of experience in the area, having flown into all or almost all of the famous strips here. We departed around 8:30 this morning, with the air temperature in the mid 40’s, calm wind and a clear sky. The cub climbed quickly with most of the weight out and we left Johnson Creek, elevation 4900, and leveled at 6000 which was well below the ridges. We flew in a loose formation, taking some photos and video. I don’t yet have a way to post the video from the cockpit camera, but I hope to find a way soon because if the video is anything like the flight, it should be amazing. Skimming along the benches and through the saddles of the peaks lining the Salmon river is simply awe inspiring. We turn up one of the forks and descend towards our first strip at Reed Ranch. This is a 2000 foot grass and dirt strip used for firefighting operations and by pilots looking for a secluded place to camp.

After a short walk around, we departed for our next stop at Mackay Bar. Although the ranch and airstrip at Mackay Bar have been in existence for many years, a young couple has just purchased the property and is restoring the lodge and grounds. The setting, right on the Salmon river, means they can offer guests a variety of experiences from jet boat tours, to guided hunting and fishing trips. Many guests arrive via the lodge’s jet boat from the closest road access 20 miles away. Their website is www.mackaybarranch.com. The approach is typical of many of these strips. get down low in the canyon, fly over the strip to check for problems and reverse course to enter the pattern. The difference is that you are surrounded by really big mountains really nearby. The general rule is to land upstream and takeoff downstream. This works well unless you decide to go around late. In many cases there is no going around once on short final because you can’t outclimb the terrain. It seems very challenging because it is, but it gets easier with experience. We make the turn, and touchdown on the 1900 foot grass strip. After meeting the owner and the resident hound “Dauber”, we get the grand tour and settle in for a wonderful breakfast of pancakes, bacon and fruit.

After an hour or more of relaxing, it is time to head a short distance away to another remote landing area, Wilson Bar. This is a 1500 foot strip with a steep uphill section at the end. The approach is blind, meaning that after you pass over the strip and turn upstream you need to remember where it is because coming back, you cannot see it until you round the corner on very short final. If you are too high or too fast, go arounds would be tricky at best. There is a very useful book called “Fly Idaho” which has descriptions, photos, history and a “hazard index” for many of the backcountry strips. For Wilson Bar, it says “use at your own risk. recommended for use by mountain proficient pilots using high performance aircraft. No go arounds. Strong downdrafts prevalent on approach.” Johnson Creek, where we are camped is rated as a “14” on the hazard index. Wilson Bar is a “27”. By now the day is warming up and a breeze is building. We decide to get going, knowing the air will be getting rough as the winds pick up. So, Tom tries to start the engine in the Maule, which will not start due to vapor locking. This is a common problem which goes away with a bit of time for cooling. We talk it over and agree that I should go ahead since the Maule is so much faster and Tom will likely catch me before I get back to Johnson Creek. So, I start up, take off, turn around and begin climbing to gain the necessary altitude for the return. As I climb above 5000 feet into the increasing wind at the ridge tops the air becomes very turbulent, bouncing the little cubmobile mercilessly. Plus the strong wind means significant updrafts and downdrafts so we gain and lose altitude constantly. After about 30 minutes of this, I make the turn across Yellow Pine, enter the pattern and fight my way through the bumps to an uneventful and relatively good landing. The combination of terrain and rough air made for a dramatically challenging ride back, proving the importance of flying only when the winds are light and trying to finish early in the day before the thermals get going. All in all, a real learning experience. Tomorrow it is back the McCall for gas and then maybe a couple more strips. One sounds particularly interesting with natural hot springs nearby.


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