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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 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”.

Next: The Midnight Sun – Darn It

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.

Next: A Magical Moment in the Brooks Range

Flight to Alaska Day Nine, A Magical Moment in the Brooks

August, 2016
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This looks like a peaceful, awe inspiring moment. And it was.

I suppose you can easily tell the passage of time during the night by how far the sun travels across the horizon.  For me it was a little disorienting so I’m glad I had a watch so I knew when “morning” was.  I started the day on the banks of the Anaktuvuk river in the bright sun, ate some oatmeal for breakfast and then hiked upstream a ways.  Then I turned up a tributary toward high ground to climb some of the nearby peaks. I like peaks.

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Tundra flower

After climbing a lower peak and identifying a good high peak to climb the next morning, I just sat in a high saddle, with a nice breeze to keep the bugs off with a forever-view of the Brooks. I stared at the view for a bit and read my kindle for a bit.  It was one of those magical moments and I’m glad there was a rock I could balance my camera on to get a photo.  It didn’t last though, as the clouds got lower and lower and finally turned the forever-view into a two-foot view.  And darn cold.  I went to bed, read some more and listened to the drizzle on the bivy sack. The unzipped bivy sack. Also a pretty fine moment.

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Clouds sweeping in.

Next: Day Ten – Escaping the Weather

Flying to Alaska Day Ten, Escaping the Weather

August, 2016

The next morning, day ten in Alaska, I climbed the peak next to my camp, about 7,000 feet (Anaktuvuk pass is about 2,500 feet) for some great views.  However I was starting to think about flying again and I was able to get some basic text-based weather on my satellite device (DeLorme InReach) and that showed storms were coming in.  I wouldn’t know it yet, but within a few days it would be snowing around here. I also had this crash report in mind from June.  I decided to hike out that day and even fly out that evening to get ahead of the storm.

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On the summit of something, looking southwest into the heart of the Brooks Range.

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Looking north, where the mountains turn to flat tundra and eventually, a few hundred miles later, the Arctic Ocean.

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I was able to glissade on my boots for about 1,500 feet of vertical. That sped the hike up!

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Hiking cross country back into Anaktuvuk Pass.  You can see the clouds starting to come in.

I dropped down a different valley into the John River valley and followed that back to Anaktuvuk Pass. There I met Brad again, the general manager of the village corp., and he wanted me to experience the great burgers at the café.  Interesting, because previously he said they had a restaurant but from walking around I never found it. This time he drove me the two blocks to get there and it turned out to be an unmarked and rather unappealing trailer with a sewage problem.  I couldn’t help but suggest maybe they put a sign on it for tourist’s sake.  It was a great burger though and I even saw they had halibut and all kinds of stuff. I wouldn’t say it was a romantic sort of restaurant, but it was clean (inside) and had good food.

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The Anaktuvuk Café. Seriously, some good food inside.

For the sake of being a good tourist I bought an Anaktuvuk Pass jacket at the store, then preflighted my plane and took off.  Unfortunately, because of numerous fires just south of the Brooks Range the visibility soon went to almost zero and I was flying on instruments. There were also increasing clouds and I was in the process of trying to figure out where they were so I could fly under them if possible, or over them – keeping in mind the freezing level of about 9,000 feet.  Not really a problem but certainly a time of high concentration.

Then a red light came on and warnings started to flash on my engine monitor display.  Oh my, what timing.

Next: Inflight Emergency

Flying To Alaska, Day Ten, Inflight (Semi-)Emergency

August, 2016

When I signed up for this Alaska kayaking, hiking, flying adventure I must have checked all the boxes, and now it is clearly time for the inflight emergency portion of the adventure.  It is extremely smoky. Even though it is legally VFR and I can barely see the ground if I look straight down, I can’t see the natural horizon so I’m flying on instruments heading for Canada in one of the most remote areas in the US, and I have low-voltage alarms going off.  I’ve lost my alternator.

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I didn’t actually take any photos that day. I modified this one to white out the windscreen.

I reset it a few times to no avail, so I’m on battery power and only until that runs out.  I turn off the easy stuff like outside lights and one radio, then I turn on my autopilot so I can relax a little and try to calmly think about my alternatives and what my plan should be. I should note that the engine runs on two magnetos so there is no danger of engine failure (so it is really a semi-emergency.)

Typically, you would land at the nearest airport but that would mean returning 30 minutes to Anaktuvuk Pass.  Getting stuck at the most remote village in the US with a mechanical problem did not sound appealing and I was also wondering if the weather was closing in behind me.  The question really was, was it safe and sane to try for Fairbanks, over one and half hours away? Also considering that Fairbanks may be under instrument approach conditions?  Theoretically that should work and I decide that is my plan – so I turn everything I can off to save power and I even pull the circuit breakers to my autopilot and electric-trim system.

I’m occasionally flying on instruments I do need to know which way is up, and fortunately the artificial horizon is driven by a vacuum pump, not electricity.  For navigation I use an Apple iPad mounted on my yoke and in fact that is precisely what it is there for.  I monitor the battery voltage level and it stays high, so I’m fairly confident I’ll have enough power for what I need to do to land, but if Fairbanks is under instrument landing conditions that will make it much more complicated.

I end up between cloud layers and at one point it clears up a little and a hole appears in the clouds below.  I do a spiral dive to get under, thinking I can fly, Alaska bush-pilot style, under the clouds all the way to Fairbanks.  But when I get under the clouds above the trees the smoke is thick, the visibility is crap, and the iPad shows more mountains ahead.  I’ve read enough accident reports to know that this is how pilots die – it would read”CFIT” on the accident report – Controlled Flight into Terrain.  Basically flying blindly into the side of a mountain.  So I climb up into the clouds and then eventually pop out on top with better visibility.  This maneuver isn’t exactly legal, but contacting ATC at that low altitude likely wouldn’t work and really I needed to concentrate on just getting it done safely.

Once on top I’m VFR and every now and then I turn on a radio to try to get Fairbanks airport weather and finally about 50 miles out I get it and learn Fairbanks has decent visibility under a 3,000 foot scattered cloud layer. That is a great relief and there will be no need to do an instrument approach.  About 25 miles out I “light myself back up” by turning on my transponder and a radio so I can talk to Fairbanks approach and get into the airport. I lower my electric-driven landing gear early to make sure I don’t have to use the emergency hand pump and it comes right down. Yippee.

On final approach I looked left and see a wonderful airplane campground in the trees, so after I land and the ground controller asks what my intentions are, I say “I want to go to that cool campground I saw on final approach” and she gives me directions.  There I pull into a site, shut down, pull out a camp chair, a box of Triscuits and go searching for that bottle of wine I knew was in the back of the plane somewhere.

Next: Stuck in Fairbanks

Technical note: Typically you would want to leave your transponder during an event like this, but newer technology doesn’t always work like you want.  It turns out the new Avidyne transponder automatically puts itself in “ground mode” when it doesn’t get a signal from the GPS unit that it is airborne.  The Avidyne GPS (the IFD 540) with its nice big screen is a power hog and there was no way I wanted to leave that on, especially when I may need it for an instrument approach later into Fairbanks.  So I turned it off, then went ahead and turned off the inactivated transponder as well.

Flying to Alaska Day 11-13, Stuck in Fairbanks

August, 2016

I’m stuck for a few days in Fairbanks, not only because of the alternator problem, but the weather has caught up to me and it is raining day and night – not flying weather.  Fortunately, I also have a real tent and don’t have to use that stupid bivy sack so I’m dry, and there is a community camp shelter with a wood stove and free firewood so I’m warm.

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Sweet Fairbanks airport camping

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Community shelter complete with stove and a pile of firewood!

The campground even sports a real bathroom including a shower. There is a couple, Ken and Debra, also in the campground and between us we keep a fire going for three days.  Ken and Debra flew a Piper Cub up from Anchorage on the way to a small horticulture conference in Barrow, which they will eventually miss because of the weather.

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Ken and Debra’s Piper

A local aircraft mechanic, Dave Stoots, stops by and even among his teasing about me being from California and my “cute” little red folding bike, he jumps in and starts working on my alternator problem.  Dave runs Stoots Aviation and he holds STC’s for High Performance Lycoming Engine Conversions. I’m not the first stranded pilot he’s helped and has friends around the globe.  He takes all of us on a tour of Fairbanks and the next day to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska. It was an unexpectedly fun time in Fairbanks.

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Alternator replacement should be pretty simple, right? Not quite.

Dave claims one of the last Californians he’s met flew into Bettles in the Brooks Range to backpack similar to what I did at Anaktuvuk Pass.  He made it ¼ of a mile before twisting his ankle in the uneven tundra, calling the trip off, then crashing his plane on take-off at Bettles.  But, Dave pointed out, I don’t wear tights like this guy did (he wasn’t hurt in the crash).  They fixed up the plane enough to ferry it under special permit to Fairbanks, where it had major work done before it could be flown back to California.

Next: Into the Yukon