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Book: Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots

June, 2016

Cover (Large)My book Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots.  Epic Adventures, Romance and Outdoor Fun in the Western USA, has received great reviews (thank goodness) and is available at www.fiftyclassics.com and from Amazon. As a West Coast Flying Adventure blog reader you can use coupon code “blog20” to get 20% off on the price of the book.

– Thanks – Ney

Alaska Day Eight Part III, The Midnight Sun – Darn it

August, 2016

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Anaktuvuk River

As I hike out of Anaktuvuk Pass village, over a slight rise and down to the Anaktuvuk River I’m struck with how immensely vast this place is and how incredibly small I feel. I follow Argo tracks for about 4 miles before they disappear and then I’m cross country on lumpy, hard-to-walk on tundra until about 10 or 11:00 pm when I decide to stop for the night. Here are some things you may wonder about:

Mosquitos.  Yes.

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It felt like every square inch of me had mosquitos. A headnet was a must.

Bears. Whereas while kayaking I felt OK with pepper spray because the bears had plentiful food with salmon and other kayakers around.  Here, it’s different.  There are no polar bears because they don’t come this far inland, but there are grizzly bears and they are hungry. Statistically there is a significantly greater chance of a bear encounter in the Arctic north with solo hikers over groups.  Which to me infers they HUNT you. So I brought a .357 Magnum revolver along with pepper spray.  I vow to keep calm during any “false charge” that grizzlies are known for and to use the pepper spray first, but I acknowledge it is impossible to really say what one would do without actually being in that situation.  I yell, “hey bear” when I’m bushwacking through thickets along the river, but I’m not really sure if what the bear hears is, “Hot Dogs, git yer hot dogs here!”.  It turns out it was good I brought a gun because on day 3 I realized I didn’t bring enough food so I shot a caribou and ate it for dinner.

 

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Ah, a shady place to sleep.  For an hour until the sun popped out.

 

The Sun.  The sun plays a cruel trick on me.  Although after some thought I decide it probably does that every night but I just didn’t anticipate its movements correctly.  The summer temps average in the low 60s but it is in the 70s and because I need to be in my sleeping bag and bivy sack due to bugs, I would really like some shade.  After some effort I find a flat gravel bar along the river next to a stand of alder trees shading the sun.  It is also a great place for a bear to sneak up on me, but I decide it’s more important to have shade. However, the sun not only didn’t go down, it swung quickly along the horizon.  So after about an hour, maybe around midnight, the sun came out from behind the alder trees and I was in the sun the rest of the night.  The good news was that a bear didn’t come out and eat me.

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Soft beautiful tundra, but not that easy to hike on.

Flying to Alaska Day Eight – Anaktuvuk Pass

August, 2016

After a lengthy but enjoyable flight over the Arrigetch Peaks I landed on a gravel airstrip in Anaktuvuk Pass, a native village just on the north side of the Brooks Mountain Range and inhabited by the Nunamiut, the only inland Iñupiat (Eskimos) in Alaska.  Anaktuvuk Pass is often reported as the coldest place in Alaska during the winter and although experiencing the midnight sun is pretty awesome they also have 72 straight days of no sun in the winter, which is hard to even imagine. The Nunamiut were a nomadic people following the Caribou and didn’t settle down until the 1950s.

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On left downwind for landing in Anaktuvuk Pass

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I was the only plane around, although they do have daily service from Fairbanks.

Although it is gaining popularity as a place for hiking and even rafting (the John River and Anaktuvuk Rivers are floatable), visitors are still rare and the General Manager of the regional native corporation (most villages are set up as native corporations in order to provide an ability for them to be – or at least try to be – economically independent) saw me fly in and met me at the airport.  He started as a tour guide and explained they have a store, café, etc. and a bit about the history.  However, when he found out I’ve worked in an Alaska native village before and I’ve also worked with some native corporations in my business life we are soon in a lengthy discussion of the challenges and woes of native life.   A fascinating discussion that we’ll continue over lunch when I return from backpacking.

We did agree it is a wonderful place for outdoor activities (even backcountry skiing in the spring) and they need to somehow get the word out.  The village is in the process of remodeling their “lodge” from something best described as a “man camp” for construction workers to something more pleasant for tourists.  Ultimately they would like to build a new lodge on a bare ridge above town.

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Anaktuvuk Pass

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The General Store

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Multi-wheeled vehicles called Argos that don’t sink in the muddy summer Tundra tracks. Note ATVs on the left and snow machines on right.

I’m a little late heading out of town on my planned solo backpacking trip, but heck, you can walk all night if you want in the sun so I finally hike out of town at about 3:00 pm and put in 6 miles before stopping for the “night”.

Flying to Alaska, Day Eight, The Arrigetch Peaks

August, 2016

I camped next to the plane in Nenana a short distance away from a wrecked C-54 (DC-4) and the next morning I decided I really wanted to get a photo of myself in the cockpit, but I only had a 10 second self-timer to work with. I cleared a path in the wreckage debris inside the plane so I could run from the camera to the cargo door, leap in and run up into the cockpit to stick my head out.  However after about 10 attempts all I had was 10 photos of the plane with an empty cockpit window.  I finally gave up and fortunately right before I left a woman came by on a bike and took the photo for me.

I learned the story of the plane later in the trip: It developed an engine fire while delivering fuel to a mining operation in 2007, and it was fairly well known how many minutes you had before a fire burned through the wing.  The pilot had diverted and was heading for Nenana but ran out of time and decided to put it down on the tundra before he lost a wing.  It ripped up the bottom but no one was injured.

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“Campsite” at Nenana

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From Nenana I couldn’t help but detour to fly over more mountains, so I flew over the almost mythical Arrigetch Peaks on my way to my destination of Anaktuvuk Pass. The Arrigetch are an extremely remote and hard to reach area of brutally beautiful granite spires.  My original plan was to hike to these peaks but that would entail more time and money than I had planned since a float-equipped bush plane charter and lots of time are needed.

Climbing trips to this area are truly committing because of the time and effort involved.  Huge backpacking loads, bushwack approaches, weeks of effort and seemingly endless climbing pitches describe the  climbing here.  I love to dream, but the fact is I may never get there.

After this amazing fly-over I headed through smoky skies (lots of fires) to my destination.

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Amazing!

Next: Alaska, Day 8.5, Anaktuvuk Pass

 

Flying to Alaska Day Seven, Denali Flight!

August, 2016

My weather flying luck so far has been fantastic, and the route up north was clear so I flew direct, right over the Chugach mountains and some spectacular views of Columbia, Harvard and Yale glaciers.

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Mt Thor perhaps, at the head of Columbia Glacier.

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Harvard and Yale glaciers, up College Fjord.

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I wasn’t really planning on flying near Denali because I assumed it would be covered with clouds.  However, it was clear and my 210  seemed to naturally climb and veer left until I was over the famous Ruth Glacier and Ruth Amphitheater, where most climbing assaults on Denali are staged. I tuned into the local radio frequency and listened and watched as ski planes flew below me on the way to a ski landing.  For me that was thrilling. I wanted to follow them, but it would be my first and last glacier landing.

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The endless granite walls of the Ruth glacier

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Denali!!

I stopped for the night in Nenana, a place made famous for the annual $300,000 spring derby on guessing the date, hour and minute that the river ice breaks up.  But unless you happen to be there that day at that minute, there isn’t much happening in Nenana.  I felt lucky to get decent cheese and fruit for my backpacking trip starting the next day (I already had freeze-dried food, granola, etc.), then rode my folding bike back to the airport to camp next to the plane.

The next day would take me further north, above the Arctic Circle and past the Arrigetch Peaks, to the most remote village in the US according to the US Postal service.

Next: Alaska Day Eight: Arrigetch Peaks

 

Flying To Alaska, Day Six, The Pink Salmon Opener

August, 2016
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Shoup Glacier

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Hoping the upcoming high tide isn’t too high

It was fourth and last day on the water as I paddled up into Shoup Bay to see the glacier and spend the night before heading to Valdez.  There is an actual river coming out of the head of the bay that I can’t paddle up, so I have to wait for after dinner when the high tide overwhelms the river and reverses flow, allowing me access to the glacial bay.  Luckily some salmon fishermen told me this because I hadn’t done enough pre-trip planning to know the high tide will do that.  Fortunately, you just don’t have worry about darkness so a “night” paddle up to see the glacier works just fine.

It was also an “opener” for Pink salmon so on the final paddle back the Prince William Sound was full of purse seining boats and their noisy skiffs, jockeying for position and dropping/dragging their nets around.  I drifted around watching the full cycle of fishing before using the incoming tide and a lucky tailwind to paddle back into the harbor.
I spent the evening sorting gear and flight planning for the second half of the trip starting tomorrow – flying above the arctic circle to backpack in the Brooks Range.

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Fishermen using “plunger poles” to make noise, hoping to chase salmon into the net

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Pulling the purse tighter

Next: Alaska Day Seven – Denali Flight!

Flying to Alaska, Day 4-5, Whoops, I Almost Die

August, 2016
Day four of my adventure I spend with peaceful, beautiful paddling in the Prince William Sound. Waterfalls, flowers, bald eagles, otters (but no bear sightings except footprints).
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Yes, Mosquitoes. Just have to remember the net when you try to eat or brush your teeth.

On day five I almost die.  Seriously.  You worry a little bit about a grizzly bear eating you, but not this.
I needed to camp near fresh water and unfortunately the only place I found to stop was near a steep creek.  The only two places to actually sleep was either on an obvious bear trail, which seemed like a bad idea, or on a high, flat rock. I was worried about maybe rolling off at night onto rocks or into a high tide but that isn’t what happened.  It rained.
So I zipped up the bivy sack (small one person bag/tent) I had purchased at REI for the trip.  I woke up later with a panicked feeling and very rapid shallow breaths.  Seriously suffocating.  Even groggy and mostly out of it, I knew I needed air and managed to get the zipper open.  That gave me immediate relief, but then I got sopping wet from the heavy rain for the rest of the night.
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Stupid Bivy Sack (Outdoor Research Helium).

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I even noticed the warning, but assumed if I read it it would say not to let children crawl inside.

Really, they sell a bag with a full zipper that if you use it you die?  And if you don’t you can’t keep the rain out?  I acknowledge I didn’t fully read the tag (it didn’t come with directions), but I’m still stunned that there is a product like that.  In the photo you can see the head of the bivy sack, with the hoop that runs over your head to keep the fabric off your head.  I guess I was not paying attention to realize that there is no venting at all in the bag.

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Sea Otter cruising by camp

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Flowers next a snow field

Next: Alaska Day Six, A Salmon Opener

Flight to Alaska, Day Three, Columbia Glacier

August, 2016

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Today I got dropped off by a tour boat near Columbia glacier on a gravel bar, more than 50 miles from Valdez.  I spent about an hour assembling the used folding kayak I bought on the flight up to Alaska and I was really happy to learn it floats.  Especially since the tour boat was gone and the captain informed me that even though they list this kayaking trip on their website, I was the only one so far this year to do it.  I knew it would be a nice solo wilderness adventure, but I did expect more kayakers around.

In fact, part of the reason I wasn’t too concerned about grizzly bears is that I thought between the salmon and other kayakers there was plenty for them to eat.  Now I seem to be the only one on the menu under the human section.

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My just-assembled kayak after being dropped off. Now if I can fit four days of food and gear into it…

I discovered the kayak is a really nice little (small for a touring kayak) boat, which is good since it will be taking me four days in it to get back to Valdez.

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My “new” Feathercraft Wisper Kayak

I paddled up to see the famous Columbia glacier icebergs (The Exxon Valdez went off course to miss one when it hit the reef).  The wind picks up and I was really hoping for a day or two to get used to the kayak before I’m really tested in it, but luckily it turns out to be quite stable.  I’m still careful to not take my hands off the paddle for quite a while so I’m ready to brace, and every now and then a wave crashes over the bow.  It finally calms down after an hour or two of blowing.

I should note that I’ve sea-kayaked before, otherwise this may seem a little crazy to think I could get dropped off 50 miles out with a new boat and jump in and paddle away for four days. Remember, my prognosis is that I’m going to live, not die, so I’m trying to stay relatively safe during this journey.

While playing among the icebergs I see in the distance a real, live Alaskan bush pilot land.  It takes me about 90 minutes to reach the spot but I climb out and hike up to see if I can see the airstrip.  It turns out the plane was right there behind a hill, and there is no airstrip, only a tidal gravel beach with some fairly big rocks visible.  I was impressed.

I find the pilot (from Palmer or Wasilla, I forget which)  and he is surprised to see me because he’s never met anyone there before.  We talk about the landing area and he confesses that it has been groomed by rolling off the large rocks in a certain area, and only he a few others know of it and most importantly, they know which landmarks to use to make sure you land at the right spot.

I’ve seen the YouTube videos of Super Cubs landing on boulder-ridden gravel bars, but I’m still impressed.

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I can’t believe I ding my props on a level gravel runway yet he can do this. I’m jealous.

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High tide landing area. Rather, don’t land at high tide landing area. You can barely see the tire marks.

Next: Alaska, Day Four, I almost Die

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