Flying in Alaska: Packrafting

Betsy and I originally had planned on flying up to the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle to packraft, but fires (Fairbanks was constantly 3 miles visibility in smoke) and then weather kept us away. Our backup was to head out to Lake Clark which I’ve heard great things about. But weather there too was a problem.

I hatched a plan. I would fly the plane (low once again in the rain) from Wasilla down past Anchorage, across the low-tide mud of Turnagain Arm and down across lowlands to Soldotna. We’d leave the plane there, ready, and take the van to some rivers for rafting. Should a weather window open, we could dash back to Soldotna and fly across the bay to Katmai and Lake Clark National Parks.

Turnagain Arm Mud

The standard way to get to Lake Clark is through Lake Clark Pass, so flying low at 1,000 feet wasn’t going to work. I could see openings in the pass using the weather cams and also could see airplanes flying through the pass on the FlightAware iPhone app. But when I looked up the tail numbers these were air-tour operators taking people out to see the Grizzly Bears. They knew Lake Clark Pass extremely well and I didn’t, and the pass is notorious for wrecking airplanes. So I decided to wait until the pass was completely clear of any ragged clouds and, well, that never happened. Lake Clark will have to wait for another day.

While we waited for Lake Clark Pass to clear up Betsy and I had a lot of Fun. We packrafted the Kenai River with it’s stunning blue water, we took a water taxi from Homer across Katchemak Bay to hike a mountain (saw bears, both black and grizzly) and packrafted two more rivers.

The most fun packraft trip was hopping on the Alaskan railroad with all our gear. They do a “whistle stop” where they stop on the tracks and basically throw you and your stuff off the train before they continue. Then it’s a hike to the headwaters which is a glacier-filled lake. After a fun paddle and about 10 miles you come to a bridge. We had stashed a mountain bike in the bushes there and I used that to ride down the road to the train station where we left the van. All in all an awesome adventure. It rained hard but fortunately we had dry-suits on so a great day to do something in the rain.

Soldotna – showers in the pilot’s lounge!

After a week of fun we decided to do one more adventure at Girdwood on our way back up to Wasilla. For one, xxx is supposed to have the BEST sourdough pancakes around. One of my goals for the trip was sourdough pancakes and everyone said this is the place.

Also, when I whined about how small the runways were in Alaska, two separate pilots told me I should fly to Girdwood, as the runway there is long. Well, the runway at Girdwood is 2,095 feet. To me and many other pilots I know that isn’t long. Man, I was getting an inferiority complex talking to other pilots.

Girdwood. This makes it looks worse than it was…

My “fly at 1,000 feet” plan almost didn’t work in this case. Girdwood is in a dead-end valley, and the clouds in that valley were lower. At 1,000 feet I couldn’t see the runway so I set up a straight-in guidance on my GPS system. As I flew by the valley, still out in the Turnagain Arm, I only turned in when I was lined up with the runway. I was nervous. If I had to go around it would be tight with clouds piling up at the end of the valley. But completely doable and if I had to do some emergency in-the-clouds flying for a few moments I could do that.

Fortunately it wasn’t a problem. The runway came into view right in front of me like it was supposed to. I love it when that happens. I chopped the power and came right in over some trees for a landing on the *long* gravel runway.

Betsy of course drove the van in and we did a spectacular hike up the ski mountain.

The real bummer? The sourdough pancake place was closed in the morning! It was a Tuesday and they were supposed to be open. Sad.

After Girdwood I flew / Betsy drove up to Wasilla to recharge again at Jeff’s house. I never did get any sourdough pancakes even though in desperation Jeff, Jan, Betsy and I setup a phone bank and called around Wasilla and Palmer to try to find a place before we left for good. Nope.

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