Flying Low and Slow in Alaska

While kayaking at Columbia Glacier. Lucky shot.

Bets and I rendezvoused in Gulkana Alaska on the way to Valdez for some kayaking. I also had to fly to Anchorage to get Ney-J and Kathy who flew commercial to spend a week or so with us.

It would be the first of many low-level flights in Alaska. I had no idea how much lowland/tundra and river valleys there are that you can fly over at about 1-2,000 feet.

I decided to fly to Anchorage via Valdez so I would have flown the route when I flew Ney-J and Kathy to Valdez. I first experienced the value of the Alaska weather cams. I’ve heard they are used more extensively than METARs (specific airport weather) or any other weather product.

From Gulkana you fly down the massive Copper River, head over Thompson Pass and down a smaller river into Valdez. From Valdez you are flying over the Prince Willam Sound (water) until you reach Whittier where you pop through Portage Pass into Turnagain Arm (water and mud) with a straight shot into Anchorage.

Salmon fishing boats in Prince Willam Sound

Betsy took off in the van and I sat in my plane for over an hour, just watching via weather cam Thompson Pass and Portage Pass. When they were visually clear enough to fly through I launched. The Copper River is so massive you can comfortably fly in the river valley or just above. It was fun. When I came to both the passes it hadn’t changed since I was viewing them through the weather cam so I flew right through, under a layer of clouds, to lower terrain on the other side.

I flew into the smallish gravel runway (the first of many small gravel runways) at Lake Hood where Ney-J and Kathy had been dropped off by an Uber.

I was glad I had flown the route because approaching Portage Pass from Turnagain Arm is scary looking. You are basically flying straight at Portage Glacier until the last minute when the pass appears on the left. I flew on the right side of the arm, over the glacier in a left 180 turn so that if the pass was closed up I was already in a turn to head back the other way. Luckily it was just as it was an hour before and we flew through a gap in the pass, carefully watching for other traffic.

My son later told me he didn’t like that part. I don’t blame him – it was safe flying but it didn’t feel like it. It did keep my attention which is why I don’t have any photos of that trip.

We then had a great 4 or 5 days in Valdez, and took another low-level flight to Cordova where we met a jet boat at the mouth/delta of the Copper River and rode up to Miles glacier to watch it calf.

However there are some things that you probably just don’t know unless you have experience flying there. For example we happened to fly near the town of Cordova on our way back and must have passed over a cannery. All of a sudden there were three or four of sea gulls whipping by us and Betsy came eye-to-eye with a bald eagle. I didn’t like that at all.

On the way to Cordova
Ney-J and Kathy

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