Naknek to Soldotna

Posted by on Jun 28, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Naknek to Soldotna


As we awoke and glanced outside the tents, it was obvious we were not going anywhere soon as the ceiling was only around 200 feet. We took our time getting started with the day, and decided to walk into Naknek for breakfast at the Red Dog Inn. We met Andy, the cook, who after a slow start, told us stories of life in Naknek. He also fixed a great breakfast which we took our time consuming. On the way to the Red Dog, we passed a group of folks putting up a large handmade sign in front of the local car repair facility announcing that mechanic services were unavailable. After visiting with Andy, we found out the mechanic had been arrested for a DUI on a four wheeler and was beginning a 14 day jail sentence. Hence the sign.

After catching up on all the Naknek gossip, we returned to the airport and struck camp in preparation for flying out. We taxiied to the fuel pumps where we checked weather. Mike and Lou are heading further south then planning to loop around to Nome, Kobuk sand dunes, Unakaleet and back to Fairbanks. I am heading back to the northeast towards Soldotna and the Anchorage area to meet Judy on Saturday. So, once again, our group is splitting apart for awhile.

The weather looks okay towards my first planned stop in Iliamna so I takeoff and fly for an hour, land and visit with the FSS briefer from the day before. We check the Weather Cams through Lake Clark Pass and they show some marginal conditions in the beginning of the pass, with improving conditions further on. The advent of Weather Cams has made a huge improvement in flight safety throughout the state. Being able to see an up to the minute view of the routes allows the pilot to make a far better decision.


As I pass Pt. Alsworth, the visibility and ceiling are dropping again, and the possibility of a divert increases. I decide to fly up Lake Clark to the beginning of the pass and see if things improve. It is a bit disconcerting to be flying over water with few or no landing choices, and have the ridgelines be hidden in cloud. Visibility underneath is good, and as I reach the end of the lake, the conditions are definitely improving. I climb to 1000 AGL and visit with a floatplane pilot coming out of the pass, who assures me things are definitely better ahead. Both Merrill Pass and Lake Clark Pass have claimed many lives as pilots make a mistake in navigation and turn up the wrong canyon. There are many side canyons that appear to offer routes through the mountains but only lead to cul de sacs filled with high terrain. The task is much easier today with GPS and terrain displays, but it is still a challenge. The scenery is breathtaking with hanging glaciers and tumbling waterfalls that rush to the river below. There is not much time for pictures, with the opposite direction traffic and the need to navigate precisely. After about 30 minutes, with the weather steadily improving, I exit the pass onto the flatlands around Cook Inlet.


Across the Inlet lies the Kenai Peninsula. I descend and land at Soldotna for the evening. Buying gas at the self serve pump, I see the Pilot Lounge and inquire about staying here for the night. This seems like it will work out so I tie the plane down and move some gear inside. The small building houses a bathroom and shower so I have all the amenities necessary.

During the evening, several pilots stop in to use the facilities. I visit with Dave, a retired teacher and school administrator who is going to move his Super Cub from a tiedown into an open hangar. He is tired of the hassles of wing covers in the winter. I also listen as an air ambulance pilot describes how they just finished a flight in a King Air. During the flight they discovered a bat flying around the cabin and cockpit with them so the co-pilot is out there on a bat removal mission while we visit.

Things quiet down afterwards and I am finally getting some time to catch up the blog entries. I am a bit anxious about Lou and Mike in the desolate country with poor weather. I am also looking forward to having my bride join me on Saturday as the adventure continues.

Into the Katmai & Southwest

Posted by on Jun 27, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Into the Katmai & Southwest

We break camp at Picnic strip and set out to explore the area southwest of Anchorage, along the Katmai. We cross the Alaska Range through Merrill Pass. These mountains are not particularly tall, topping at 6000 to 8000 feet for the most part, but they come up almost from sea level and are steeply sloped, full of glaciers and waterfalls. The pass is narrow and as we get deeper into the range the visibility drops to around a mile due to smoke from the forest fires nearby. The smoke makes it difficult to see the terrain and I was having difficulty maintaining VFR conditions for the remainder of the transit through the pass. As we exit and approach Lake Clark, visibility begins to improve until we can descend into Port Alsworth for fuel. The runway is covered by a layer of fine dust that blows into enormous clouds whenever an airplane or any other vehicle goes by. Soon, we and our airplanes are coated. We visit with a pilot working on a beautiful Beaver. Turns out to be Jason Elam, who was the kicker for the Denver Broncos in the NFL. Jason has a summer cabin here and spends his time flying and doing missionary work to help the native villages with the rampant problems of alcohol, drugs, suicide and sexual abuse. It is a daunting challenge and it is delightful to visit with an athlete doing his best to make a positive difference. Samaritan’s Purse also operates a lodge for wounded warriors here along with a summer bible camp for village kids so the air was filled with laughter and excitement. Good works being done all around.

After refueling and an ice cream, we depart for Iliamna. Lake Iliamna is Alaska’s largest deepwater lake. It also has the only population of freshwater seals in the U.S. We check out the islands and finally Mike spots 30 seals hauled out on a gravel bar. Very cool!

We land at the Iliamna airport for a weather briefing from the friendly FSS specialist who provides a good report for the weather ahead. This is also the local headquarters for the Pebble Mine which is thought to contain one of the largest copper deposits in the world. It also is generating tremendous controversy among the fishermen, environmentalists and local Alaskans.

With all in order, we take off for Bristol Bay, King Salmon and points south. We decide to land for the night at Naknek village, which is a major salmon cannery and fishing center. The first cannery opened here in 1890 and it is the center of the commercial fishing operation in this area of Alaska. Only about 700 residents are here in the winter, but now, with the fishing fleet operating, the town has many more folks around. We decide to camp with the airplanes, so we throw up the tents and head into town to find something to eat and drink. We stop at the local watering hole, where the barmaid offers to call in an order of pizza to the hotel and restaurant across the street.

The outside of the bar is decorated with interesting and colorful murals. However the most interesting and colorful character is waiting for us inside. Dave is seated at the bar, and it is obvious he has been there awhile. Turns out, he is semi-famous as the guy on the popular show, Deadliest Catch, who severely injured his hand in a fireworks accident during filming of an episode last year. He regaled us with tales of his misadventure until we moved over to the restaurant. The pizza was wonderful and the shower we negotiated from the hotel staff was sorely needed. We waddled back to camp and turned in around 11 PM.




Knik Glacier!

Posted by on Jun 26, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Knik Glacier!

After breakfast with Jay and Sandy, I fueled at Wolf Lake and took off for a rendezvous with Mike and Lou up by the Knik glacier east of Anchorage. We were able to communicate via radio and went searching for a landing area close to George lake at the foot of the glacier. This large lake is full of icebergs calved from the glacial face. As they melt in the summer sun, they form fantastic figures.

Mike has worked for years to acquire the equipment necessary to allow him to get on the water and up to the glacier. He purchased a Zodiac inflatable with a 15 hp motor which we packed in to the lakeshore which required a 1.5 mile hike through alders, across shale covered hills and valleys. We finally got everything organized and began to take turns riding across the 7 mile wide lake among icebergs melting into fantastic shapes until we reached the face of the glacier. We zip along the face, mesmerized by the sight of a 20 story tall ice face filled with veins of deep turquois and amethyst colors. There is some danger in doing this, because if the glacier calves a big berg, we could easily be swamped. Survival in the 33 degree water would be very difficult, so after a few more minutes of oohing and ahhing, photo and video shooting and laughing out loud, we return to the far shore.


Everyone gets a boat ride before Mike has to make a return flight to Birchwood in order to drop off a friend who has been with us this morning. While he is away, Lou and I set up our camp for the evening at a nearby strip called Picnic. Mike flies back in and he a Lou go for another voyage to the glacier. Their photos taken in the evening light are even better.

After they return, we turn in for the night.



Training with Jay

Posted by on Jun 25, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Training with Jay

Our small group separated for today. Mike and Lou flew to Anchorage to re supply while I flew to a small strip near Palmer where I met Jay Baldwin who is a very well known flight instructor who teaches a bush flying course that I wanted to investigate. Jay is very experienced, a great communicator and a lot of fun. He spent the day teaching a client while I sat in on the briefings and followed along in my airplane as we practiced landing on river gravel bars below the Knik glacier.

After a couple of hours, we stopped for a light lunch of wonderful smoked salmon and some further discussion before heading out again for some mountain flying. We soar along the steep mountainsides, searching for lift from rising air while practicing “canyon turns” and other escape maneuvers that are sometimes necessary.

We return to the airport, put the planes away and share a meal and more stories before retiring for the night. Tomorrow, I plan to rejoin Mike and Lou as we plan to fly out and camp on the Knic glacier. It should be fun.



Posted by on Jun 23, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Talkeetna!

Lou and I just landed at the Village strip in Talkeetna. We flew in from Gulkana where we fueled up. Mike has split off temporarily to fly up to Fairbanks to watch the finish of a famous powerboat race called theYukon 1000. He’ll catch up with us later today. I have a lot of updating to do from the last couple of days’ flights, including a spectacular mountaintop landing. We will spend some “down time” this afternoon, getting a shower, doing some laundry and charging up our phones.


Right now, we are at the Denali Brewing Company waiting to visit with Don Lee. Don is a friend who I met a few years ago when he visited in Burnet and needed a checkout in one of the rental airplanes. He owns Alaska Floats and Skis which is a flight training company specializing in advanced training. Don has been flying in Alaska since the 70’s and is very well known as a great teacher and aviator. I plan to do some float flying with him next week during Judy’s visit. Don let us crash in his cabin for the night and helped Mike and Lou get their oil changed on the aircraft. Once again, the folks we meet have been wonderfully kind and helpful. Visiting with the business owners, waitresses and pilots has been a real treat. Lou and I had a long chat with Tricia Costello who owns the Roadhouse in town. She has been the proprietress for seventeen years and does an impressive job of managing the near chaos of providing a variety of services to tourists, travelers and climbers. We watch a European team packing and weighing all of their food and gear in preparation for an attempt on Denali. Trisha is a bit worried for them because it is late in the climbing season and the warm temperatures increases the avalanche danger. Alaska roadhouses are a tradition in Alaska and I enjoy hearing her story.

We turn in as tomorrow we will split up for a day to let us each take care of some chores.



Posted by on Jun 22, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Wolverine!


We climbed out of Peavine at a field elevation of 2300 feet for a mountaintop 4000 feet higher to attempt a landing at a secret strip called Wolverine. Mike has been searching for it for a few years and finally figured out where it is located. We circle around, make a couple of low passes before Mike leads us in for an uphill landing. As we shut down and try to calm down from the pulse pounding approach and landing I realize that we are parked on this tiny landing spot with shear drops only a few feet away along with stunning vistas of snow capped peaks across the deep canyon.

Not for the faint of heart or folks with a fear of heights. Almost too much fun once again. After collecting some photos and trying to get our pulse rates back to normal, depart Wolverine and begin a grand tour of backcountry strips around the area. Lou calculated that we landed at some 28 different runways in the last few days. Some were typical airports with services while others were basically an ATV trail serving a hunting camp. Many are not marked but Mike has researched the area extensively and found their locations. I’ve included some photos to give you a sense of the places we’ve been.





Cordova to Peavine

Posted by on Jun 22, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Cordova to Peavine

After another short night, we grab breakfast at the local cafe, check out of the Prince Willy and hike about a mile to the airport, carrying our gear. No cab today. I think the driver had other things to do. We spend over an hour fueling including filling our spare fuel bags so we are again very heavy. The wind is 15 knots and we are at sea level so we get off quickly despite the weight, and head toward the Copper River drainage. We cross the Million Dollar Bridge which was almost destroyed by an advancing glacier. The use of huge amounts of explosives were needed to stave off the encroaching ice. The bridge served the copper mines in the area around McCarthy. Eventually, the ice receded and the mining died out until now the bridge seems to be mostly a tourist attraction. Flying upriver, we climb to 8500 to clear the mountains between us and the Chitina River drainage.

This area holds several backcountry public use cabins located along or near gravel landing strips. These cabins are very basic, containing sleeping platforms and a wood stove. They all have an outhouse nearby as well. The main benefit provided is bear protection and a quick, comfortable place to camp. In the winter, they can be a lifesaver for stranded pilots and hikers who need to get warm and dry. We land at Peavine where one of the larger cabins is located. It has three bunk bed platforms, a table and a stove. We will use this as our base camp for two days while we explore the area.

Four trips are necessary to move my gear from the airplane, but the resulting weight reduction means much better performance in and out of these short, rough strips. Peavine sits up a side canyon from the main river channel. The canyon, while comfortably wide enough for us to maneuver for a landing, rises four thousand feet or more above the cabin. The scale and scenery are magnificent. Once again we find ourselves shooting photos and video in a feeble effort to capture the images of sunlit rock walls with waterfalls cascading downward to deep green slopes below.

After a camp lunch of Mountain House meals and trail mix, we take off for a round of backcountry strip visits. First up, Glacier Creek, where we hike to across the gravel moraine to the edge of the creek. The water is fast and high, full of silt from the grinding glaciers above.




Towards Cordova and Into Trouble

Posted by on Jun 22, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on Towards Cordova and Into Trouble


We departed Skagway down the Lynn Canal, on our way to the Pacific coast, under clear, beautiful skies that gave us incredible views of the coastal mountains. First stop, Gustavus where we meet a friendly young woman who offers us the use of her truck to drive out a few miles to the site where a Pennsylvania Air National Guard DC-3 crashed on takeoff back in 1957. We walk into the rainforest across spongy vegetation to the scattered wreckage. Photos get taken, we explore a bit and drive to the Clove Hitch cafe for a lunch of halibut nuggets and wonderful visiting with Mariah and her mom. Mariah was delightful and entertaining as we sit in the sun outside for an hour before heading back to the airport.

We takeoff for a fuel stop in Yakutat where we visit the Yakutat Lodge briefly before heading out to the Pacific ocean beach. Our plan is to land at a derelict barge buried in the sand. On the way, we cross huge glacial valleys emptying into tourquois lakes which run to the ocean carrying loads of silt along. Dropping to 50 feet above the beach, we fly for miles shooting video of each other’s airplanes, scaring shorebirds and dodging several hundred bald eagles who are resting on the shore. The weather remains good, although there is a developing marine layer not far offshore.

As we approach the barge, we circle and land close to the surf line where the sand is firmest. All down safely, we spend nearly an hour exploring and taking photos. Suddenly, we realize the incoming tide has begun to put Mike’s airplane in danger of submerging. That’s when things get interesting.

My airplane is also vulnerable due to the smaller 26″ tires. I need the relatively firm sand for takeoff and landing, the same sand that is quickly disappearing under the incoming tide. We all run to the airplanes, crank up and prepare to depart. I am in front of the line with Dawson next, so we lift up out of danger and turn back over the barge. Mike’s airplane with the small tires, is firmly stuck, wheels now awash in seawater, in imminent danger of being trapped by the tide. Lou and Mike desperately grab lengths of driftwood, shoving them beneath the wheels for purchase. Lou calls us back, needing more people to assist in the rescue. As Dawson turns, we hear “hey guys, there’s a bear and he is heading for the barge.” I ask Dawson to fly down and try to run the bear away. He makes a couple of low passes and appears to have the bear convinced to go home. I line up to land on the firmest remaining area, trying to get down in time to help Mike and Lou. Because the firm sand is now all underwater, I try to be as close to the tide line as possible. As the wheels touch, the airplane decelerates rapidlyd and I am almost sure that I will be stuck when I stop. Lou has thrown on a headset and urges me not to stop, so I quickly add power and takeoff again and climb back to safety. As I turn, Lou suggests that I fly back to a remote strip to seek help. I check the bear, who has stopped as if considering his next move. One more low pass and he accelerates through the shallow lake headed away from the beach. Meanwhile Dawson is able to land and help get Mike unstuck. Finally, I hear Mike on the radio, then Lou. After a very close call, all of us are safely off the beach and headed for Cordova.

The weather is questionable with the ceiling low and mostly solid. We stay high for a bit before descending underneath for the forty minute flight. With the daylight dimming, the clouds and visibility uncertain, we press on until we enter the narrow pass that leads to the gravel runway. Finally,after way too much excitement, we land, taxi in and shut down at around 11 PM. Fortunately we call a cab driver who reluctantly comes out and takes us to a hotel in town. We check in, walk down to the bar for some food and drink as well as a chance to decompress and discuss the day’s events.

It had been a near thing and we were lucky to get away unscathed. We had let the excitement of the moment distract us all from the changing situation. None of thought about the rising tide nor had we noticed the firm sand area we needed going under the waves. Disaster can happen very quickly anytime, more so in remote areas like we are in. Quick thinking, doing just the right thing without panicking can salvage a tough situation, but it is far better to see the problem developing in advance. Lesson learned.


A Window of Opportunity

Posted by on Jun 19, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on A Window of Opportunity

We departed Watson Lake mid morning headed for Skagway, Alaska. The original plan was to go to Northway then on to Fairbanks. If you check the map, this is much further north than what we have chosen to do. The weather has given us a rare opportunity with a forecast of several days of good VFR along the southern coastline. We plan to explore some of the small communities and islands as we make our way towards McCarthy. Mike was explaining how rare this weather window is, saying that in nine attempts, he has only been successful once. Generally, the remoteness of the region coupled with almost constant rain and low ceilings makes for very difficult flying.

Even with the good weather, we found ourselves cruising at the base of the overcast at 6000 feet with many of the mountain tops in the clouds. The temperature is right at freezing and a light mist is coating the windshield. Perfect conditions for carb ice or even airframe icing. Mike had a carb ice issue for awhile, but it cleared and we proceeded to Teslin for a quick break. Dawson and I empty some of our fuel bags into the main tanks in preparation for the flight to Skagway.

After departure, we fly through immense valleys and along mountain ranges filled with breathtaking views. With Mike and Lou scouting ahead, we feel our way along. We cross the U.S. border and make the turn to Skagway.

Skagway sits at sea level at the end of a fiord with high mountains all around. As we get within 10 miles or so, we begin a steep descent from 6000 feet down through the pass, with the incredible sight of the town and harbor in the distance. We dive down, twisting around the rock faces, past hanging glaciers to a landing. I wish I could convey the beauty and scale of this aerial sleigh ride. I have flown for a lot of hours and for many years, but almost nothing compares. Following three other aircraft with the camera rolling and trying to take pictures while holding the stick with my knees down, down into the fiord into Skagway is simply overwhelming.

After landing, we clear customs, find some lunch and some time to reflect on the flight. The shared joy and excitement makes for a rollicking hour as we laugh and giggle like youngsters at play. In large part, it is this sharing of experiences, both of the time we are together, as well as stories from our past, that make this such a unique time.

We find a hotel for the night, return to the airplanes to collect our gear and jump on the excursion train.

After the train ride we walk to the harbor where the cruise ships are preparing for departure, find the Harbor House restaurant and spend time eating and planning the next day’s travel. Then, back to the hotel and a quick call home before calling it a day.

I know it sounds a bit over the top, but each day builds on the ones before, ever more interesting, challenging and exciting. I keep thinking it just can’t get better than this but somehow it does. I hope you can gain some sense of what this amazing journey is like.





McKenzie to Watson Lake

Posted by on Jun 18, 2013 in Alaska 2013 | Comments Off on McKenzie to Watson Lake

It is 10:30 PM in Watson Lake. We are “camping in the airline terminal so we don’t have to sleep outside tonight. Another day filled with overwhelming scenery, dramatic weather shifts, wonderful camraderie and events that will take time to fully blossom into indelible memories of this amazing journey. As we fly along for hours, we share sightings of waterfalls and wildlife. We discuss and reflect on how lucky we are to be together in this adventure. I can feel all of us becoming friends who will have an uncommon bond forged from having shared this time. Just when I thought nothing could top yesterday, today’s journey up the Alaska Trench has easily surpassed it. McKenzie was our first stop where we filled the tanks and fuel bags for the flight through the “Trench”. We got ice cream and hugs from Vickie. She is the attendant and resident “character” who has found her calling and lost a couple of husbands along the way. We made a stop at a native village, Fort Ware, to empty the fuel bags into the main tanks. The weather is deteriorating and we may have difficulty getting to Watson Lake. After a couple hours of dodging rain showers through the valley, and with worse weather ahead, we decide to land at an outfitter’s strip at Scoop Lake. Sam, who is a resident guide and caretaker, invites us in for coffee and cookies. His friend and fellow guide, Charlie keep us entertained with stories of hunts and bears. A 14 day sheep hunt costs $35,000.00. The season begins in late summer so things are quiet now and I think they enjoy the company.

I have attached a few photos. The picture of the turquoise pond is special. Look closely at the moose tracks along the bottom. In another you can see the extra fuel bags we fill to provide the needed range when weather and distance can make a joke of flight planning. We stopped and filled the tanks from the bags at unattended gravel strips.

I wish I could share more, but it is late and we launch early tomorrow.