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Dave & Fred’s Alaska adventure (part 1)

By Dave Phillips

 

Two of us “flatlanders” decided to get brave and go to Alaska, in Fred Tonge’s Beechcraft, back in 2000. We contacted John Dale of Flynorth.com and started planning.

 

Back them I was not a licensed pilot, but I kept a diary at that time and looking back now from the perspective of a somewhat new licensed pilot, our Alaska trip now seems quite amusing.

 

July 5, 2000: The list of supplies has taken on a life of its own as planning proceeds. Perhaps a train of pack mules would be more appropriate to transport the contents of the list; survival gear, camping gear, fishing gear, clothes, food and coolers full of the comforts of life.

 

Then rain gear, cold gear, hot gear, information, books to read, etc. How to get all of this into a Beechcraft Sierra B24R?

 

Also, a stop at Oshkosh AirVenture 2000 fit in nicely with our trip, so we planned to leave Windsor, Ontario on July 27, and stay at Oshkosh until July 31, before flying onto Springhouse, B.C. for Aug. 3.

 

Thursday July 27: Rendezvous time 4:30 p.m. We didn’t make it of course. The plane packing took place the night before, but it’s funny how half the stuff doesn’t appear until the last minute.

 

It is a muggy crappy day, but the forecast indicates some holes in the clouds between Windsor and Oshkosh. Fred files the flight plan and reports to U.S. Customs and Immigration that we will arrive at Detroit City Airport, the Point of Entry to the USA, at 6 p.m.

 

We are out of the hangar at 5.30 p.m. ready to go. After a short 10 minute flight we are in Detroit City.

 

We taxi to the Custom’s holding area and wait in 30C temperatures for 10 minutes and after some calls to ground and tower, an official appears. Everything is in order except Customs confiscates Fred’s bananas. Fred is not amused.

 

We head off enroute in muggy, skuddy weather to quote my esteemed pilot. Ran into some showers which were not heavy enough to blast off the thick layer of bugs which have accumulated. What the hell are bugs doing flying around at 2,500 feet ASL?

 

I am most impressed by the Flight Following and all the VOR, ground radar, altitude encoders, GPS stuff and the Air Traffic controllers. They track us and advise us of other traffic, airport locations etc. as we made our way through Chicago airspace.

 

How come these services aren’t made available to ailing parents tracking the whereabouts of their delinquent teenagers?

 

They hand us off as we progress, but we are too late to get into Oshkosh and stay over at Fond-du-Lac, by which time the air traffic control system appears to have also informed every mosquito in the area that we are camping overnight.

 

We lost chunks of head, face, legs and arms to the little beasts before putting on coats for protection. Members of Flynorth.com wondered, five days later, about what weird disease we had brought from the East. Many kept their distance from us for days into the trip. We thought it was just because we were Easterners!

 

Friday July 28: We head over to Oshkosh in lousy weather and to join the thousands of aircraft already on the ground. We then set up our three-day home in the camping area, roamed around looking at all the neat stuff and then departed Oshkosh, Sunday evening for St. Cloud, Minnesota.

 

Monday July 31: By 11.30 we are in the air enroute to Bismarck, N. Dakota and our first experience of higher altitude landing at 2,592 feet ASL in hot and humid weather. At the airport we were greeted in a friendly fashion and loaned a Dodge Caravan to go to Applebees for lunch.

 

After lunch at 80F and clear skies we took off, taking much longer than usual to get off the ground - filed for Great Falls, Montana.

 

We were both amazed at the lack of habitation and the vastness. An occasional ranch or back road flashed by underneath the wing.

Approaching Great Falls, it began to rain heavily, although it seemed to be clear blue sky. Big lumps of old rain bombarded the now bloodless windshield stowaways. Approach control seemed continuously confused as to whether we were landing or flying through the area.

 

We land on Runway 3, 3,677 feet ASL - getting used to the thin air. Checked in to the Best Western and planned an early start next day for the Flynorth.com rendezvous point.

 

Tuesday August 1: Awoke at 7.30 a.m. breakfasted well and set off to the airport. Notified CANPASS of the anticipated arrival and customs clearance at Penticton, B.C. Filed the flight plan and set off for the first real test of mountain flying.

 

Leaving Great Falls on Runway 21 we climb to 8,000 feet to clear the first mountains, higher ones beyond.

 

What is the maximum altitude of this plane at gross weight? We do not know, but make it up to 10,500 feet for the next stretch.

 

First view of the Rocky Mountains; awesome! Dumbstruck with the beauty of the scenery we rummaged through the baggage for the camera for the first of way too many pictures of mountains.

 

Snow still covered all the peaks and there did not seem to be anywhere to land in an emergency.

 

Confident in the aircraft’s ability to fly at 10,500 feet, we headed direct to Penticton via Idaho and Washington State. Suddenly we realize that Penticton runway is only at 1,129 feet ASL and we will need to get down.

 

We descend with the aid of landing gear down, with a descent that was akin to the world’s largest roller coaster - 3,000 fpm with ears popping and Fred’s arms aching from pushing that control column forward.

 

We fly into the valley and enter the right downwind for 34. What a sight; clear blue skies and 28C temperature. All we wanted to do was exercise our legs after 4C at 10,500 feet, for a couple of hours.

 

Lunch enroute consisted of soda water, granola bars, and the last of the corn chips, all of which I ate, much to Fred’s wrath, which lasted the balance of the whole trip. After immigration, we walked down to the lake for pop and ice cream.

 

Back to the airport and depart runway 34, north through the Okanagan Valley and up over mountains again.

 

Again for the “flatlanders” of Ontario these mountains and forests are awe-inspiring, but by now we are mountain flying experts! Penticton to Kamloops, 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House and on to Springhouse, our day’s destination.

 

The mountain flying is much more relaxed in the interior. Springhouse was easy to spot, as there is a clearing on the plateau and a plume of smoke from a nearby mill. Once over the airfield, we are in for a landing on 33.

 

The grass strip came up at us rather quickly but Fred handled it with ease, it is an uphill strip, at least at the near end. On taxiing in to the parking area we are met by Larry Chambers of Lawrence Aviation, who offers us the choice of parking and camping locations. We are the first to arrive.

 

Camp is established and we are in for the first real camp supper of lentil soup and salad. Man is the air fresh here; just the mooing of cows and the naying of horses to break the silence. The “bug tent” saves us from the mosquitoes but they seem bigger than ever.

 

Wednesday Aug 2: John and Diana of Flynorth.com arrive and set up camp and prepare to greet all the arrivals. We all head back to town to the supermarket to purchase fishing licenses. They cost $16 per day.

 

Back at camp we decide to go for a hike. We travel miles northward on my advice, instead of East (do all pilots get lost on the ground without GPS assistance?) and then head back to town, in search of Duggan Lake.

 

Back to camp for supper. At midnight its still dusk, we gaze in amazement at the Aurora Borealis and satellites which are observed streaking across the midnight skies.

 

Thursday Aug 3: Everyone has arrived except one 206 which is meeting us at Dawson Creek.

 

Friday Aug 4: Everyone is up early and taking advantage of various offers for morning showers at nearby houses. After breakfast we are off via Runway 33 to Barkerville. We land in sequence on runway 11 at 4,060 feet ASL.

 

Barkerville is a gold rush city from 1862, with dirt streets and boardwalks and actors for the summer. We have lunch at Wake-up Jakes hotel and hike back to the runway.

 

Hard climb straight over the mountains to Dawson Creek, where we establish camp in the foot long wet grass. The bug tent really worked to advantage here.

 

The airport manager, Ian Darling, is hosting a steak dinner tonight and the city kindly sponsors a school bus tour of the area.

Dawson Creek is most hospitable. Reporters were out for our “serial safari” story and Fred and myself do an interview, published in the “Peace  River Block Daily News.” Fame!

 

Saturday Aug 5: The airport restaurant is open at 6.30 a.m. for breakfast. We are privileged, normally, opening time is 8 a.m. Wash in the airport washrooms and off to break up camp.

 

We depart runway 24 en-route to Ft. Nelson at 9:30 a.m. Today’s route with fuel stop at Watson Lake, took us over hundreds of miles of wilderness with literally no sign of habitation; railroads, roads, trails, or power lines. There was absolutely nothing except trees, mountains and valleys. Awesome!

 

Now, the airport facilities at Watson Lake are nothing to bewilder, but the sign above the toilet indicates priorities in this remote location: “Conserve water, if its yellow let it mellow, if its brown flush it down.”

 

Destination today is Whitehorse, Yukon. The scenery between here and Whitehorse reminds one of the levels of isolation in some parts of the world.

 

Thinking of overcrowded countries and communities we stare out of the cockpit of the Beechcraft to literally no signs of human habitation - just raw nature.

 

We are feeling so privileged, when all of a sudden we find ourselves with the right wing pointing to the ground and the left wing pointing to the sky. Fred corrects the attitude quickly - a stark reminder of air movement between the mountain peaks.

 

The landing in Whitehorse is on runway 31L at an altitude of 2,317 feet.

 

The intention was to camp, but rooms at the North 60 Degrees airport are $45. So we relent and take a room.

 

After dinner, we wonder the streets of Whitehorse and view the S.S. Klondike riverboat. A sign at the riverboat terminal building indicates: “Dog sled parking only, violators will be peed on.”

 

The north is known as the land of the midnight sun. It was still light out when I turned in for the night.

 

Sunday Aug. 6: There was a cold west wind blowing. We dine on porridge, cheese, rye bread and home brewed coffee. Once our chores were completed we set out from runway 31L in a northerly direction, flying low along the Yukon River to Dawson City.

 

At 1,000 to 1,500 feet above the water all the way to the destination, we are look for the elusive wildlife. Nothing; no bears, wolves, or moose. We do see canoeist’s en-masse heading down river to Dawson City and remote native villages.

 

The approach to Dawson City airport features several miles of old mine tailings. We thought it was some residue from a natural weather phenomenon. Looked like “wash” from the great flood.  It appears the miners just dumped the tailings at the nearest location beside the road and just worked their way down to the river.

 

A Gulfstream landed ahead of us at Dawson City airport on the gravel strip kicking up dust in its wake. This was the first time Fred has landed the Beech on a gravel strip. Runway assignment was 20 at an altitude of 1,214 feet.

 

Transportation from the airport to the 5th Avenue Bed and Breakfast was by way of the proprietor. Nice house, nice room, nice people, Tracey and Steve. Tracey is in the show tonight at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s. We grab a late lunch of soup and a sandwich at Klondike Kate’s with other members of our tour - Joe, Jeff, Diana and John.

 

Walk around Dawson City; buy a copy of Snowshoes and Stethoscopes for signature by the author, and our host, John Dale. Then mail postcards from the “old” post-office.

 

The post office was closed for years, but has reopened for tourist purposes in the summer. No heating, running water or sewage facilities at the old P.O.

 

Observe the “biggest crow” perched on the fence at the rivers edge and wonder what “she” is doing this far from home.

 

Back to Klondike Kate’s for dinner with the entire group. Don’t think the staff was equipped to deal with the masses. Have to bribe the waiter to cash out before the show starts at Diamond Tooth Gerties. Six dollars for all three shows.

 

No camera for shots of the girls in the show, so we trek back to the B&B for camera, then revisit for the second show and take a few photographs.

 

Oh, all the legs. Different show with different photo poses this time. Legs everywhere.

 

Monday Aug. 7: Breakfast and off to the airport, seven in the vehicle plus baggage and all. The Gulfstream is there again and takes the full length of the runway to lift off.

 

Our caravan took off from runway 20 for Northway, Alaska. Elevation 1,716 feet, landed on runway 22 and met Customs for entry into the USA.

The Customs officer was a real pleasant guy, willing to be photographed and take a group photo.

 

With full tanks, off we go to Mt. McKinley. The forecast is for clear skies and perfect visibility. Think we are on a roll where the weather is concerned. McKinley approaches from about 50 miles away, clear as a bell with a “skirt” of cloud between summit and base.

 

Think we are going to find out how high the Sierra will climb. We’re at 13,500 feet by the time we approach the mountain, free of cloud. The aircraft still appears willing to climb, but the inhabitants are concerned about breathing.

 

The altitude creates illusions on the relative height perception. Which peak is actually McKinley? There’s 3,000 feet difference in height, but we can’t tell which of the three peaks is the highest, Mt. McKinley, Mt. Hunter or Mt. Foraker.

 

Into the Kahiltna base camp and a 360 degree turn, before heading down the glaciers to Talkeetna airport with an elevation of 358 feet.

It takes me 10 minutes to figure the elevation of Talkeetna. The flight supplement repeats the three-digit number, but still I’m doubtful.

From 20,000 feet to an airport below 1,000 feet in close proximity, can’t be! Fred becomes impatient as the ground is still coming up fast from the decent and I’m still questioning the reference points.

 

Landed runway 18. The altitude/time difference sure plays havoc on the ears. They won’t return to normal for days after this.

From the Alpine Hotel we walked downtown in search of bear tours. Tours are publicized, but everywhere we go they’re closed. How do we schedule this?

Disappointed we talk the girl in the local café into brewing double strength coffee and enjoy a really relaxing cup and apple pie on the deck.

Later, a walk through the local campsite to the river and Walla! We stumble upon the returning river tour. Gleeful passengers tell stories of black bear seen on the trip.

 

Excited, we attempt to negotiate a 10 p.m. tour, but meet with resistance from the tour guide, who appears to want to turn in for the night, but we are insistent and push the envelope.

 

The guide strategically places his rifle on the table in front of us, which perhaps helped change our viewpoint.

 

“OK, in the morning if you insist.” The only way we’ll make a riverboat trip tomorrow is if the weather is unsuitable to fly.

 

Tuesday Aug. 8: The morning air is clear with perfect visibility. The mountains offer a perfect view. Why the confusion yesterday? McKinley is clearly higher.

 

Set off from runway 36 in the direction of Homer. Fred is insistent on a side trip to Merril Field in Anchorage. We’re so close and can’t pass up the opportunity to land at the centre for general aviation.

 

Merril field is the largest general aviation facility in the world. What pilot would not relish the opportunity to land here just to say you’ve done it? Fred absolutely had to.

 

Where are we? Disorientation, the GPS must be wrong! We throw a lifeline to the airport traffic controller who straightens us out. Never doubt the instrumentation, why did we?

 

Back on course, 600 feet over the bay headed for the shipyard. Never mind the ships, what about the high-rise buildings?

 

For those of you who have never flown into Anchorage there are three airports in very close proximity to each other. Merril Field is the least conspicuous of the three with an elevation of 137 feet. The landing is on runway 24.

 

Safely on the ground we taxi to the transit parking. Here we see Arthur and Debbie Earsom’s aircraft, so we stick a “hi-there” sticker on the pilot’s door. Spend 30 minutes in the aviation store, and then meet Arthur in person at his plane as we prepare to leave.

 

Now to depart for Homer, the ATIS warns of cranes on departure. Nobody made mention of the flat sided 30-storey structure positioned at the end of the runway.

 

Only astute piloting helps us to avoid sticking the nose through the 19th floor window - surprising employees inside.

 

Guided out of Anchorage by the International air traffic controller who forgets we even exist by the time we’re 30 miles out and still flying at 1,500 feet. Let’s assume he forgot he was controlling us and make an independent decision to climb in altitude before we bury the nose again. This time, into the side of a very rapidly approaching mountain. Boy, we can use our initiative when we try.

 

Next month’s installment of Dave and Fred’s Alaska Adventure, the flying duo meet back up with the rest of the Flynorth.com group and continue on their Alaska adventure.

 

Note: Following the COPA convention in June 2005, Flynorth.com is offering a unique 40% reduction to joint Flynorth/COPA members. See www.flynorth.com or email copaalaska@flynorth.com for further details.