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Flying To Alaska, Day One, Coastal Route

September, 2016

After a quick stop in Siskiyou airport for a 10:00 conference call (its kind of a working vacation) I flew up California, Oregon and through the Olympic mountains of Washington (a preview of the mountain flying to come) in order to pick up a used folding kayak I bought off of Craig’s List.  After handing over an envelope of cash and stuffing a big black 50 pound backpack into my plane, I refueled, activated my international flight plan and within minutes I was over Canadian airspace over a layer of clouds.

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My office for the morning with Mt. Shasta in the background

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Surprisingly symmetrical logging operation in Washington

I wanted to start out VFR under the ample ceiling of about 5,000 feet, but I knew the ceiling was lower later and I didn’t know how easy it would be to convert VFR to IFR in the air in Canada, so I just filed IFR and started on top straight away, above a layer flying at 10,000 then later 12,000.

Hours later, I heard the words, “Cross Annette at or above 6,000 feet, cleared for the Ketchikan RNAV Runway 11 Approach, contact Ketchikan Radio 20 miles out”.  No vectors to final, no gradual step downs.  Cleared for the approach, buddy, you are on your own.  Yee haw.

I dropped into the clouds while the cockpit became darker as drizzle, then rain hit the windscreen.  My new Avidyne 540 GPS took me through two 90 degree turns then on final the glide slope needle came alive to lead me down the final approach into Ketchican – through a fjord.  Man, I love the new (new for me) WAAS approaches!  I had installed a GPSS system and could have had the auto pilot fly the approach, but, well, I wanted to.  A dark shape loomed out my right window and with a glance I saw trees and rocks whizzing by, but shortly the bright approach lights at the end of the runway came into view.  Gear down, flaps down, and just like that, I’m in Alaska.

The instrument approach was exhilarating. A clear mind without distractions, being present in the moment with a singular focus on one thing.  Many people participate in sports or meditate to get this same feeling.  It was a great way to start the trip.

But then, 10 minutes later, the adrenaline was gone and I was sitting on the ramp in the rain in Ketchikan after a very long day of flying.  Exhausted.  I almost just slept in the plane but knew if the weather held I’ve have big day of flying the next day and I’d better get a good nights rest.  So I took the ferry over to town and got a room.


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Welcome to Alaska!

Next: Alaska, Day Two


Flying to Alaska, Day Two, Flying the Inland Passage

September, 2016

LeConte Bay

It is over 600 miles up the coast to today’s destination, Valdez, and not many airplanes fly this route without two engines or floats as there are few beaches, few airports plus notoriously bad weather.  There is some added risk, and one reason I wanted to do this trip alone was so I could enjoy the trip without worrying about anyone but myself.  The forecasted good weather did hold out, and when the glaciers, mountains or inland bays beckoned for me to come and take a closer look, I did.

I didn’t fly wearing a lifejacket because the one I had would be very uncomfortable, but I did have it handy on the seat next to me.

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Somewhere near Glacier Bay / Mt. Fairweather

The forecasted weather at Valdez was supposed to be 3,000 overcast, which can still mean an exciting approach – one that ends at a waypoint in the bay, not at the airport next to a mountain.  Once you reach the waypoint (1,900 feet above the bay if I remember) then you can visually continue on to the airport and land if it is visual conditions, otherwise to missed.  I had enough fuel to get to Valdez, but with sightseeing and the fact there isn’t much near Valdez as an alternative, I stopped at Petersburg anyway for fuel so that I had about 40 gallons landing at Valdez.

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The weather at Valdez ended up being clear so doing an approach or worrying about an alternative was a non-issue. In fact instead of flying the long way up the Prince William Sound I took a shortcut through some mountain passes, passing a float plane along the way.

It was one of the most memorable flights I’ve ever had.  Fantastic.


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Not really a glacier you want to land on.


Unloading kayaking gear at Valdez

Next: Alaska, Day Three

Flight to Alaska, Day Three, Columbia Glacier

September, 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

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

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 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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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 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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Arrigetch peaks (Large)


Next: Alaska, Day 8.5, Anaktuvuk Pass