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Dave & Fred’s Alaskan adventure (part 2)

By Dave Phillips

 

From Merril Field, Anchorage we arrive in Homer on runway 21, elevation 84 feet. We get a chance to stretch the legs on the two-mile hike from the airport to the Lands End Restaurant on the spit. Who said it was only two miles anyway? Nobody accepted the blame for that misjudgment when interrogated later.


We never actually made Lands End, however, we walked into the rest of the troops at the Salty Dog Restaurant awaiting the return cab to the airport. Obviously well rested and well fed. We find out they hadn’t walked there in the first place.


Fred and I assumed this was some subversive punishment for the unscheduled side trip to Merril Field.


Today’s destination is
Valdez. What a tremendously scenic trip over the mountains and glaciers it was! The vastness of the Harding Ice Field and the Whittier Glacier.


We descended from 8,000 feet from the mountains to the Gulf of Alaska and at 1,500 feet Fred spots whales in the ocean, bobbing and diving.


At this time he is so confident with the mountain piloting capabilities that he descends to just a few hundred feet above the water and circles over the whales which we determine to be sea lions from this altitude. Ah well!


The Columbia Glacier, as it flows into
Prince William Sound, is a magnificent site as it reaches the sea and dissipates as icebergs into the ocean.


We fly in and make a left hand circle over the bay to the point where the glacier meets the sea. What a wonderful sight. This is the famous location for Alaska cruise ship viewing.


Into the Bay at Valdez we fly, completely encapsulated with mountains this is a tranquil location. The airport, with a 120 foot elevation, is wedged between mountains to the east and north. We land on runway 24.


Fred and I had planned on camping here. It appears nobody else did. There is no campsite at the airport so we relent once again and phone the Downtown Bed and Breakfast where Teri, John, Chris and Sheldon have booked rooms.

Seven of us together with baggage climb into the “A”-car and cruise into town.


Now we know what a 280-pound halibut looks like. While walking around the harbour, the fishing competition was in full swing; everyone is weighing in the days catches. Fish entrails everywhere. We notice the sly seal floating on his back in the water looking for the easy pickings.

 

WEDNESDAY AUG. 9


Leave Valdez from runway 4 for Northway. Flew past Mount Drum and Mount Sandford en-route. Funny how everyone got lost in the Mentasta Mountains prior to arrival in Northway.


Could have sworn we were somewhere other than where we were. This time we had faith in the instrumentation and calculated our position from the VOR. Reorientation, then things turned out fine.


The calls to the Canadian Customs and Immigration Service for pending arrival and clearance in Whitehorse are accompanied with specific questions regarding size of weapon and type of ammunition. Customs threaten confiscation of weapons, personal effects and aircraft if weaponry turns up in Whitehorse.


The Canadian Customs official at Whitehorse turns out to be a pay phone nailed on to the outside of the terminal building.


Again, it appears only Fred and I have aspirations of camping at Whitehorse. John Dale and Diana Haschke have had trouble with the landing gear on the Cessna 210 all day. The gear retracts, but the doors don’t close.


For fear of stripping the doors from the aircraft in flight, they fly the whole route with the wheels down. The control of the landing gear is complicated on the older Cessna 210, however, the mechanic in Whitehorse only needed to fix a broken wire.


After setting up camp we walk to town via the airport perimeter. The airport in Whitehorse is about 200 feet above the City. After a number of attempts to find the trail to town we successfully descend to the lower elevation into a back street.


If it had been left to Fred’s decision we would have scaled down the face of the mountain and risked life and limb.


Here, in the middle of the back streets of Whitehorse we stumble upon an Alpine Bakery, the best German bakery that I have experienced anywhere - including Germany.


We peruse the shelves and buy a loaf and pose the question – “if you are a German bakery, you probably sell good coffee?” Not exactly, but the French Canadian server directs us a half block down the street to the Midnight Sun coffee shop.


We truly have found heaven in the Yukon. We sit on the sidewalk on plastic picnic chairs in the late afternoon sun and enjoy the Java. The downtown mall provides us with the opportunity we need to stock up on the souvenir shopping.


Everything under one roof, remember the sweater deal, 4 for 3. The server confirms that the folks in Whitehorse truly understand good bread and good coffee. She confirms the presence of the Alpine Bakery and the Midnight Sun coffee shop. The world is OK here. Back at the campsite the rest of the group is well into the communal cook-out. Pasta and sauces, wine and beer - what else is there to wish for.

 

THURSDAY AUGUST 10TH


John Dale finally gets the promised porridge breakfast today. As usual, we are the last to leave. After all, we were the only ones to camp last night, so I guess it figures that the process takes longer.


Finally we are ready for take off. Runway assignment 13R south through the valley of the Yukon River - next stop Dease Lake.


As we depart Whitehorse Charlie and Karol who left 15 minutes prior are circling over Atlin, waiting for us and contact us by radio. They just know we are going to be spotting the wild life today don’t they?


We experience some wonderful mountain flying. By this time we are picking our way through the scenic valleys instead of flying over the highest peaks. Yes, I guess you can say we are feeling a little more confident in our mountain flying abilities.


Disappointed that we have not seen any wildlife so far, especially disappointed that no grizzlies have been spotted, we fly about 1,000 feet above the ground, eyes glued for movements amongst the trees, in the open grass land and in the lakes.


About 159 miles out of Whitehorse, in the Jeslin River Valley, Fred notices movement in a lake below us. We go take a look and circle the disturbance in the lake at about 500 feet - Charlie and Karol now behind us following suit.


Yes it’s a grizzly bathing or just having fun in the water. As we circle close overhead it stands on its hind legs and lifts its front ones into the air. When we radio to Charlie to confirm the gesture he replies, “yes, he’s waving to Karol.” Boy were we excited at having spotted our first grizzly.


About 23 miles further along at the edge of the Jeslin River Valley in the foothills of the Kawdy Mountains, the exact same lake disturbance is spotted. So we swoop again to a few hundred feet above a lake and low and behold we see our second grizzly, again being disturbed from having private fun in the lake. We are truly excited about experiencing the privilege of what has just graced our eyes.


This is truly wilderness. Animal trails can be clearly spotted in the meadows beside the lakes in the clearings between the trees. Again, noticed because of disturbances in the lake waters we see moose. Again we swoop within 500 feet of the lake for an amazing view of moose drinking.


By the time we arrive at
Dease Lake and refuel, we have spotted 2 grizzlies and 5 1/2 moose. The 1/2 was a baby. It is cool in Dease Lake as we land on runway 02. Elevation 2,600 feet.


This remote airport probably has not experienced such traffic and fuel business for the longest time. In addition to the Alaska 2000 tour planes, a Cessna Caravan is lining up for gas.


Today’s destination is Smithers. We leave Dease Lake on runway 02 flying in tandem again with Charlie and Karol’s Cessna. The scenery is indescribable. For anyone who is ever presented the opportunity to view the landscape from this perspective, take it.


The landing in Smithers, elevation 1,712 feet, is on runway 15. Construction work at the airport dissuades the group from staying the night, so we fuel and head for Quesnel (pronounced Quenel for those of you/us who don’t, didn’t know).


Just prior to our departure, a yellow Cessna 172 lands and punctures the nose wheel tire on the runway.


Quesnel is a mere 225 miles from Smithers. We land runway 31 - elevation 1,789 feet. This location is well equipped for camping so we populate the campsite. Everyone who’s still with the tour (the Cessna 310 twin being the exception) camps out at Quesnel.


The incentive to camp was the Charlie and Karol salmon cook-out. But, there was no barbecue. John Dale raises the airport administration manager, Harlene and her husband. Not only did they provide us with a barbecue, but also with the beer and wine transportation and the tour of downtown. Thank you both.


With barbecue roaring and beverages available, Charlie adopts his role as chief chef and prepares the salmon and rice gumbo special. Everyone is just chipping in with support and food.


Keith and Sonia set up the aviation fueled oven and bakes brownies for desert - what a life. Even the mosquitoes join the fun, in spite of the citronella candles and the smoke from the fire pit.

 

FRIDAY AUGUST 11TH


The rain and the low cloud hinder the early start for some. This is the first inclement weather that we experienced since departing Oshkosh. The rain starts at 4 a.m. and is finished by 8 a.m. It takes a while for the clouds to clear and the gear to dry, but what the…


Everyone departs from here for their journeys home. The Beechcraft needs an oil change and it is planned to do this at the Springhouse Airpark on route of the home leg.


John Dale and Diana Haschke plan to visit Springhouse for an oil change and a final repair on the gear. As usual, Fred and myself are last to leave. The active runway is 31 and, by the time we reach Springhouse, John and Diana are already away and flying.


We have an invitation to call on them in Nelson B.C. before we finally depart for Windsor.


The oil change and refueling goes well at Springhouse and we depart runway 33 for the leg over the Rockies east bound.


Again, we marvel over the beauty of the landscape. It is difficult to describe unless you have personally experienced it.

We shot many photos and are aware that future viewers of them will see them as just another Mountain View with part of the aircraft’s wing in the picture.


For Fred and I, they will bring back vivid memories of the mountain flying experience.


We decide to call on John and Diana in Nelson, and plot our course in that direction. En-route we are avidly watching for the tell tale signs of wildlife and sure enough Fred spots the lake disturbance to reveal a moose.


We circle numerous times and this time decide a photograph is worthy. At the time of finalizing this journal these last photographs are still undeveloped.


The approach to Nelson is spectacular, narrow steep valleys between 9,000 feet mountains. Nelson lies at an elevation of 1,755 feet. The airport is designed for a right approach to runway 22.


We land, taxi and park. I put a deposit on a floatplane parked next to our location. A quick phone call to the Dale/Haschke residence and the disappointment is evident in John’s voice as he realizes he hasn’t shaken the “Flatlanders” yet, and we actually took up his invitation!


He does commit to picking us up at the airport in 20 minutes though. During the wait the yellow Cessna 172 with the damaged front wheel from Smithers lands and parks close by. By the time John and Diana arrive there are four nomads requiring a ride, food, drink and a bed for the night. Burger stuff and Nelson Brewery beverages are procured en-route to the Dale/Haschke mansion - they live in a wonderful wooden home on a 1 1/2 acre treed lot - nice place.


British Columbia
living does certainly have its advantages. Fred and I are both wondering if there is a future for automotive engineering types in the mountains out west.

 

SATURDAY AUG. 12

Our return plans leave little to the imagination now. So, we set off and plan to fly as far today as we can without flying while fatigued, of course. John and Diana are both awake early to give us a ride to the airport.


At the airport we fuel and say farewell to John and Diana. Departure is on runway 04 and straight out eastwards over the lake along the valley. John Dale is listening to our departure on the hand held radio. Whilst eastbound over the lake we pass by the house and wave farewell.


Got lost traversing the mountains to Cranbrook. Well, as lost as one can get with the sophisticated navigational technology at ones disposal. Some quick vectoring reveals the true position, corrections are taken, and we are en-route for Lethbridge - today’s first refueling stop and hopefully breakfast.


In spite of favourable weather forecasts for the eastward journey, the approach to Lethbridge is through the proverbial can of pea soup. We are cleared for a right base on runway 05.


Lethbridge’s elevation is 3,047 feet. In spite of the runway 05 clearance, Fred is insistent on putting down on runway 12. Called the tower on final for 05 and was promptly corrected by the controller. We taxied for gas and found out that Lethbridge airport offers no restaurant service, so we unpack the supplies from the plane and eat breakfast at the airport parking, on the wing of the plane.


The weather forecast indicates clearing skies. We depart for Regina, the next stop on our route east. Landing is runway 31. We taxi for fuel and eat the “leaded fish burger” in the airport terminal for lunch, where I leave my coat.


The weather is absolutely beautiful now, blue skies and temperatures in the mid-twenties. We think we can reach Kenora Ontario today, so we set off via Winnipeg. The airport at Winnipeg is directly along our flight path.


We indeed make Kenora at dusk. Well, it is actually dark by the time we put down at 1,344 feet on runway 25 with a cross wind and the warning of deer on the runway.


Finding a hotel room in Kenora on the weekend of the bass tournament proves to be difficult. None of the named hotels have vacancies. The Kenricia offers the last room available in Kenora, a smoking room, we become suspicious.


The cab driver doesn’t break into euphoria as we request him to deliver us to the said hotel. We think he is just trying to be amiable when we request his humble assessment of the establishment.


He makes a quick escape after dropping us outside of the lodging. He is not about to suffer our wrath as we establish just how amenable the establishment is. We walk around town and establish the lie of the land.


We thought that Kenora was the epitome of a sleepy backwater nestled in the Lake of the Woods. How disappointed one can get when illusions become tarnished. We eventually settle on Christoph’s Kneipe and sample the Warsteiner beer and Jägermeister to assist in the digestion of breaded shrimp, onion rings and cheese sticks. I slept standing up in my clothes, absolutely afraid of what company I may encounter in the bed.

 

SUNDAY AUG. 13:


I am up and on the street at 7 a.m. in search of milk. No breakfast planned at the Kenricia. Breakfast at the airport on the picnic table outside the Flight Service Station appears more attractive, especially as the weather is glorious.We finally break into the Whitehorse Alpine Bakery bread and are not disappointed.


The Flight Service personnel were very helpful in Kenora. We depart runway 07 heading over the Lake of the Woods.

This is unique scenery. The land is divided equally between water and land. It is difficult to tell whether we are flying over a lake with many islands or a landmass with many lakes. Lakes in islands in lakes or vice-versa.


The nuclear power plant buried in the landscape, near Atikokan is very predominant with power lines radiating like the legs of an octopus. Visibility is at least 60 miles as we see the cliffs at Thunder Bay approaching in the distance.


We land runway 30 and fuel prior to departing for a journey south across Lake Superior and a view of the Picture Rocks on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We traverse the southern shore of Lake Superior before crossing back into Canadian airspace and a landing for fuel in Sault St. Marie.


Here we encounter the only weather related difficulty of the entire flight. Twelve miles west of the Sault we are confronted with a 300 feet ceiling and are forced to circle over the lake whilst the air traffic controller applies for a special VFR on our behalf. For which they incidentally invoiced Fred $13 Canadian.


Approval granted from Toronto, we are requested to fly south over the Michigan U.P. until we pick up the I75 interstate highway, which we follow north until our approach to the airport becomes visible at about 6 miles. We fuel and find ourselves stranded for the next hour or so.


The weather clears within the hour to reveal perfect blue skies. The weather reports indicate VFR conditions over
Michigan so we plan our departure for Windsor accordingly.


As we approach the Michigan mainland it becomes obvious again to me that VFR conditions can be pretty grotty and still be within limits. The weather did not really clear until south of Bay City.


From that location on, the visibility was perfect, but we were reminded of the luxury of air quality experienced in B.C., the Yukon and Alaska as we were confronted by the yellow and purple band of smog surrounding Detroit and Southern Ontario.

 

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