By Diana Haschke
When we first purchased our 1960 Cessna 210 John and I started dreaming about flying to Alaska with it. I had fond memories of a camping trip to Alaska when I was a child and John’s adventure stories of flying in the north combined to get me pretty excited about going. In the summer of 1999 a friend suggested that John act as a guide for a group of aircraft going to Alaska. John thought it would be fun to get a group together and floated the idea on an Internet newsgroup. Within a few days we had almost a hundred responses. Flynorth.com was born.
John spent the winter using various flight planning software and flight sim programs to come up with routes, fuel and overnight stops. He contacted various communities and FBOs en route to arrange fuel discounts and decide where to go overnight. We compiled lists of hotels and B&Bs from tourism centers and tourist brochures we had requested by mail. By spring 2000 we had two groups of aircraft heading North to Alaska. We were a little worried about how the group would work out – but it turned out to be great fun.
The trip would take us from central British Columbia to Dawson Creek, then follow the Alaska Highway to Whitehorse. Our route: as far north as Dawson City, Yukon, around Mount McKinley, south to Homer and back to Whitehorse via Valdez and Northway, Alaska. From Whitehorse, we took the "Cassiar" route south back to Quesnel in central British Columbia.
John’s calculations showed that a typical 182 would require approximately 35 hours to complete the route. Since the route is almost identical to the route I had taken on our camping trip many years ago I was really excited.
On August 2, we flew up to Springhouse, B.C., the official starting point of the tour. Springhouse is an Airpark on a turf strip near Williams Lake in central British Columbia. Other than Dawson City, which is gravel this was the only non-paved strip on the tour. We had arrived after Fred and Dave in their Beech Sundowner from Windsor, Ont. They had already borrowed a vehicle and headed off to a successful fishing trip nearby. We just wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly when all the other aircraft arrived the next day.
By early afternoon on August 3, all but one aircraft of the group had arrived. We numbered 11 in total and included a Cardinal RG, and several Cessna 182s. The Luscombe, with newlyweds Torrey and Chris arrived from Langley, near Vancouver. This leg was a taste of the challenges to come as it was turbulent and due to the headwinds it took the Luscombe over three hours.
Most of the rest of the group had taken two days or more to get to this starting point, as they came from Oklahoma, Arizona and California. Everyone was very impressed with how straight forward clearing customs into Canada was. Even having a gun on board wasn’t a problem.
A few years ago, Canadian Customs instituted the "CanPass" system. This makes clearing customs very easy. All that is required is a toll free call ahead to a CanPass agent, who asks all the standard customs questions, you are given a number which is recorded in the aircraft journey log. CanPass may, but usually does not, meet you at the airport of entry.
The Springhouse Flying Club put on a barbecue and potluck that evening.
Conversation eventually drifted to deciding how best to get into Barkerville. John hadn’t been to the Barkerville strip, which is over 4,000 ASL and only 2,700’ long, in a few years. Charlie and Karol, who had arrived a day early to explore the surrounding Cariboo Country in their 182, had scouted the Barkerville strip for us. Word was there would be lots of room to park all 11 aircraft. We asked the local pilots to help brief us on this one.
Lyndon, from California in the only twin engine aircraft in the group, was a little worried about getting the 310 with four people on board back out. Some careful calculating and a test with no passengers indicated that it would be fine. This was probably the most difficult runway on the trip. Since 11 is slightly uphill and the runway is tucked into a valley, we decided the best approach is over the town of Wells, essentially a blind right base for 11, then around the corner onto finals.
It was a short hike into the ghost town of Barkerville where you can step back into the Cariboo Gold Rush. In the 1850s, Barkerville had a population of over 10,000 and fortunes were made and lost. We had lunch there then spent an hour or two visiting the historic China town and bakery.
We took off on Runway 29 out of Barkerville and flew over some spectacular terrain to Dawson Creek, B.C. It was a little turbulent due to day time heating – making us think it would be better to fly this leg at a different time of the day.
Here, the last members of the group joined us – Joe and Jeff had arrived from Fort Worth, Texas in a Turbo 206, following a more eastern route that the rest of us. The city of Dawson Creek hosted a barbecue for us at the airport and put on a bus tour of the area.
We had our pictures taken at "Milepost 0" then settled in for the night, either camping under the wing or in motels.
The next morning we followed the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson over fairly flat terrain. This is the same route taken by pilots in the Second World War when delivering aircraft to Russia. We flew over the Prophet River and Sikanni Chief airstrips before landing at Fort Nelson to refuel and snack at the little cafe. Geordie and Coral Fife were very friendly. This leg over relatively easy terrain gave all the pilots a chance to get into the habit of letting everyone else know where they were.
GPS was invaluable in helping us find each other. We agreed to all enter the same destination so that we could relay how far we were away – if we were within five miles – we knew we had to look out for each other. The first person would relay weather, waypoints back to the rest of the group. In higher terrain, someone would have to be AWACS for the day to be able to relay information.
About half of the rest of the group followed the highway via Toad River and Muncho Lake. The highway is definitely the safer route, despite the more mountainous terrain. John elected to try the direct route hoping for less headwinds and turbulence. Map reading on the direct route is very difficult and the terrain is swampy with no really good emergency landing options. We still hit the headwinds at about 40 knots. We landed at Watson Lake around noon for a quick lunch break on whatever was handy in the aircraft.
Then it was off to Whitehorse, following the highway again. The highway is now all paved – the dust and mud-caked vehicles and tent trailer from our camping trip are now just a memory. Close to Whitehorse, the Yukon River is dammed. I remembered the stories of sternwheelers being pulled through rapids by ropes, manned on the shores of the Yukon River, near Whitehorse.
Most of the group had booked hotel rooms in Whitehorse and we met in town for dinner of Arctic Char and stories of the headwinds and reading milepost signs.
The next morning, the weather was quite gray and we didn’t take off until nearly 11 a.m. for Dawson City. The route took us past Lake Laberge ("Cremation of Sam McGee") along the highway and the Yukon River. About half way to Dawson the highway and river split. The first aircraft in the group elected to follow the highway and reported back that there was a rain shower, but reasonably good visibility. Lyndon in the 310 elected to follow the river and radioed back that there were the occasional rain showers – but overall the visibility was ok. He also let us know where good emergency landing spots either in the form of sandbars or abandoned strips.
It was really comforting to know that the rain shower ahead was only a couple of miles long and that the visibility would improve again shortly. I wonder what all the people in canoes and kayaks thought when a half a dozen aircraft passed over head within a quarter hour of each other.
Dawson City had also been on our itinerary when I camped as a child. It was a bit of a tight squeeze to park all the aircraft at the airport. That accomplished, we headed to various hotels and B&Bs in Dawson – the airport is too far out of town.
All of us explored the town during the afternoon. We had fun that evening starting with dinner on the deck at Klondike Kate’s and followed up with the Dancing Girls and Casino offered at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s.
On August 7 we met early at the Dawson Airport, it was quite cool overnight – only about two degrees. This was the furthest north this trip would take us. By the time everyone got gas and filed customs flight plans it was 9:30 a.m. before we took off for Northway, Alaska. We took off from Northway to circle Mount McKinley before landing at Talkeetna nearby.
We were incredibly lucky to have such great weather and decided to skip Fairbanks to take advantage. This was the first day in weeks that the weather permitted a flight around the mountain. Traffic around Denali is busy with up to 200 flights a day around the mountain. Most are sight seeing flights or shuttles for climbers. It pays to do your homework ahead with one frequency for the north side and another for the south side of the mountain. We headed toward the mountain at 12,000 feet and had to climb to almost 13,000 to clear a cloud layer on the north side. It was a very intimidating sight, with more than another 7,000 feet of mountain to look up at. Surprisingly, there was no turbulence and we had a breathtaking tour of the mountain before descending to Talkeetna.
Most of the aircraft didn’t have any oxygen on board, but no one suffered any ill effects from the high altitude.
On takeoff the next morning, we were treated to a virtually cloud free view of Denali. Some of the group headed for Merrill Field in Anchorage, but most headed over the flat lands and ocean to Homer.
The next leg provided us with some of the most beautiful views of the whole trip. We headed past Harding Glacier and Whittier to Valdez. We took some extra time to circle over the Columbia Glacier just west of Valdez where a cruise ship was in the same bay. The route out over the Thompson Pass was beautiful as we left the next day, but not one to take unless the weather is good. Our flight took us past some of the highest mountains and glaciers we had seen so far. On that camping trip, I distinctly remember pouring rain for days in the Thompson pass and drying out sodden footwear on the grate of the fire in a roadside shelter.
We landed back in Northway to get gas and file customs flight plans.
We had an interesting flight, as our gear doors wouldn’t stay closed with the gear up, so we made the flight over the ever-windy Kluane Lake and Burwash Landing with gear down. The mechanics at Whitehorse were able to sort out a broken wire in the nose gear.
Most of the group elected to take advantage of the great facilities at Whitehorse. I didn’t want to go home with all the same food we left with, so we decided to have a little cookout in the shelter. Everyone contributed something to the meal and we had a lot of fun around the campfire.
August 10 was a long day of flying. John had planned the alternate route back to the British Columbia interior. We flew south via Atlin to Dease Lake where we refueled and chatted with the northern RCMP pilot who arrived at the same time in a Caravan on Amphibs.
Just south of Dease Lake there was a little tricky navigating on the way to Smithers. I started feeling more relaxed with navigating as John learned to fly out of Smithers and flew a lot around the Burns Lake area. I could tell he always knew exactly where he was. The scenery was lovely on the lower Cassiar Highway and around the Seven Sister’s Peaks along Highway 16 between Terrace and Smithers.
At Smithers we had lunch and debated whether to overnight there or continue on south. Since the weather was so nice we elected to continue to Quesnel.
Quesnel turned out to be the only airport where everyone decided to camp. The camping area is really pleasant and there is an old terminal building, which is open to pilots for showers etc. The local flying club provided a barbecue and it was another potluck.
It was time to say good-bye to all our new friends. Most of the pilots were very experienced and John’s job as "guide" was a lot easier because of that. I think all the pilots were happy to discuss the route plans at breakfast or the night before and be able to check winds at various altitudes.
Just having someone else to talk to all the time was comforting in an area where you would otherwise fly for an hour or more with no flight service station in radio range. The GPS was almost essential to keep track of everyone and certainly made the navigating a lot easier.
John and I are both looking forward to next year’s adventures with new groups.
Dr. John Dale and his wife Diana, both licensed pilots, run Flynorth.com, a company, which maintains a database for pilots venturing north and runs "guided" tours. Alaska was the only tour offered in 2000 but plans for 2001 will also include a tour to the Canadian Arctic and a whale watching tour to Vancouver Island. Dr. Dale, who has about 2,600 hours has also written a book "Snowshoes and Stethoscopes" about his time as a "Flying Doctor" in the Canadian North. It is available online. Visit the Web site at www.flynorth.com.