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When we first purchased our 1960 Cessna 210 John and I started dreaming about flying to Alaska with it. I had fond memories of a camping trip to Alaska when I was a kid and John's adventure stories of flying in the north combined to get me pretty excited about going. In the summer of 1999 a friend suggested that John act as a guide for a group of planes going to Alaska. John thought it would be fun to get a group together and floated the idea on an internet newsgroup. Within a few days we had almost a hundred responses. Flynorth.com was born. John spent the winter using various flight planning software and flightsim programs to come up with routes, fuel stops etc. He contacted various communities and FBOs enroute to arrange fuel discounts and decide where to overnight. We compiled lists of hotels and B&Bs from tourism centers and tourist brochures we sent off for. By spring 2000 we had two groups of planes heading North to Alaska. We were a little worried about how the group would work out - but it turned out to be great fun.
Here we have some differing accounts of trips to the north and we welcome other members stories.
1:-Diana Haschke's account of Trip 1 2000 ---on this page.
2:- Fred & Dave's excellent adventure (Click) --2 Flatlanders from Eastern Canada who came on Trip 1 2000 also.
3:- Joan and Ulli Hauser's excellent account of the 2002 trip to Alaska, great photos as well.
Flying the Alaska Highway.
(Diana Haschke's account of the first trip in the summer of 2000.)
Throughout the early summer, we sorted camping gear and made lists of what we needed to take. The bulletin board for the website was filled with discussions of survival gear and what Canada's gun regulations would and wouldn't allow. On August 2nd we flew up to Springhouse, BC, the official starting point of the tour. Springhouse is an Airpark on a turf strip. Other than Dawson City, which is gravel, this was the only non-paved strip on the tour. The hospitality from the airport managers, Judy and Larry Chambers as well as the local residents and flying club was great. We had arrived after Fred and Dave in their Beech Sundowner from Windsor, Ontario. They had already borrowed a vehicle and headed off to a successful fishing trip nearby. Charlie & Karol arrived in their 182 shortly after us. Fred and Dave had come from Oshkosh and Charlie & Karol, who wanted to take a day to explore the cariboo country, arrived one day early. We just wanted to make sure that everything went smoothly when all the other planes arrived the next day.
August 3rd was a full day of getting to know everyone else, as well as call signs. One by one, planes arrived. Three more 182s: Dani & John from California, Sonia & Keith from Washington and Debbie & Arthur from Oklahoma. Terri & Al from California in their Cardinal RG, Chris & Sheldon arrived from Phoenix in a 180HP 172 and Lyndon & Tawni came with friends Jeannie & Bill in their 310 from California. Torrey & Chris arrived in a Luscombe with "Just Married" painted down the side - it had taken almost 3 hours from Langley against some nasty headwinds and turbulence. I was glad to see that most of the other planes had elected to remove the back seat to make room for all that gear. We were packed to the ceiling, and the first thing I did between trips was to get rid of a lot of excess gear. The Springhouse flying club put on a barbecue and pot luck that evening. Everyone had a chance to compare notes about how easy it was to clear Canadian Customs - even with a gun on board. Conversation eventually drifted to deciding how best to get into Barkerville. John hadn't been to the Barkerville strip, which is at over 4000 ASL and only 2700' long, in a few years. Charlie & Karol had been there on that day and the word was there would be lots of room to park all 11 planes. We asked the local pilots to help brief us on this one. Lyndon was a little worried about getting the 310 with 4 people on board back out. Some careful calculating and a test with no passengers indicated that it would be fine. This was probably the most difficult runway on the trip. Since 11 is slightly uphill and the runway is tucked into a valley, we decided the best approach is over the town of Wells, essentially a blind right base for 11 then around the corner onto finals.
It was a short hike into the ghost town of Barkerville where you can step back into the Cariboo Gold Rush. In the 1850s, Barkerville had a population of over 10,000 and fortunes were made and lost. We had lunch there then spent an hour or two visiting the historic China town and bakery. As Dani found out - don't leave your food unattended or the resident ground hogs will stash it.
We took off runway 29 out of Barkerville and flew over some spectacular terrain to Dawson Creek, BC. It was a little turbulent due to day time heating - making us think it would be better to fly this leg at a different time of the day. Here, the last members of the group joined us - Joe & Jeff had arrived from Fort Worth Texas in a Turbo 206, following a more eastern route that the rest of us. The City of Dawson Creek hosted a barbecue for us at the airport and put on a bus tour of the area. We had our pictures taken at "Milepost 0" then settled in for the night, either camping under the wing or in motels. The next morning we followed the Alaska Highway to Fort Nelson over fairly flat terrain. This is the same route taken by pilots in WWII when delivering planes to Russia. We flew over the Prophet River and Sikanni Chief airstrips before landing at Fort Nelson to refuel and snack at the little cafÈ. Geordie & Coral Fife were very friendly. This leg, over relatively easy terrain, gave all the pilots a chance to get into the habit of letting everyone else know where they were. GPS was invaluable in helping us find each other. We agreed to all enter the same destination so that we could relay how far we were away - if we were within 5 miles - we knew we had look out for each other. The first person would relay weather and waypoints back to the rest of the group. In higher terrain, someone would have to be AWACS for the day, to be able to relay information.
As the first planes from our group were taking off from Fort Nelson, the Luscombe arrived. This was the last we saw of the honeymooners. Strong headwinds were in the forecast. We later heard that they had to stop at Liard River. In a way they were lucky to be in a real bush plane - the rest of us in nose wheels wouldn't have wanted to land there. I remember the hot springs in Liard from my trip as a child and was a little sad that we had to miss them. About half of the rest of the group followed the highway via Toad River and Muncho Lake. The highway is definitely the safer route, despite the more mountainous terrain. John elected to try the direct route hoping for less headwinds and turbulence. Map reading on the direct route is very difficult and the terrain is swampy with no really good emergency landing options. We still hit the headwinds - about 40 knots - no wonder the Luscombe couldn't keep up with the higher powered planes. We landed at Watson Lake around noon for a quick lunch break on whatever was handy in the planes.
Then it was off to Whitehorse, following the highway again. The highway is now all paved - the dust and mudcaked vehicles and tent trailer from our camping trip are now just a memory. Close to Whitehorse, the Yukon River is dammed. I remembered the stories of sternwheelers being pulled through rapids by ropes manned on the shores of the Yukon River near Whitehorse. Most of the group had booked hotel rooms in Whitehorse and we met in town for dinner of Arctic Char and stories of the headwinds and reading milepost signs. I recall that the town of "101" had quite the reputation - so I asked if anyone saw the sign for it - the response was that they were mistaking the speed limit signs of 100 km/hr for mile posts. It sounded like everyone was having fun!
The next morning, the weather was quite gray and we didn't take off until nearly 11:00 for Dawson City. The route took us past Lake Laberge ("Cremation of Sam McGee") along the highway and the Yukon River. About half way to Dawson the highway and river split. The first planes in the group elected to follow the highway and reported back that there was a rain shower, but reasonably good visibility. Lyndon in the 310 elected to follow the river and radioed back that there were the occasional rain showers - but overall the visibility was ok. He also let us know where good emergency landing spots either in the form of sandbars or abandoned strips. It was really comforting to know that the rain shower ahead was only a couple of miles long and that the visibility would improve again shortly. I wonder what all the people in canoes and kayaks thought when a half a dozen planes passed overhead within a quarter hour of each other.
Dawson City had also been on our itinerary when I camped as a child - this is where I first panned for gold - I think I still have the grains of gold that came out of that gold pan. They had taken the gravel for the gold pan out of the miles of slag that resemble giant ground hog tunnels. From the air - this is even more impressive. No creek was in its original state. It was a bit of a tight squeeze to park all the planes at the airport. That accomplished we headed to various hotels and B&Bs in Dawson - the airport is too far out of town. We all explored the town during the afternoon. We had fun that evening starting with dinner on the deck at Klondike Kate's and followed up with the Dancing Girls and Casino offered at Diamond Tooth Gertie's. John & I took the opportunity to gather information for next year's Midnight Sun trip at the NWT visitor information center. The weather was perfect, if we hadn't been with the group - we might have headed to Inuvik the next morning instead!
On August 7th we met early at the Dawson airport, it was quite cool overnight - only about 2 degrees. This was the furthest north this trip would take us. By the time everyone got gas and filed customs flight plans it was 9:30 before we took off for Northway, Alaska. Tom, the customs officer there, was very friendly and even took group pictures for us. We took off from Northway to circle Mt. McKinley before landing at Talkeetna nearby. We were incredibly lucky to have such great weather and decided to skip Fairbanks to take advantage. This was the first day in weeks that the weather permitted a flight around the mountain. Traffic around Denali is busy with up to 200 flights a day around the mountain. Most are sight seeing flights or shuttles for climbers. It pays to do your homework ahead with one frequency for the north side and another for the south side of the mountain. We headed toward the mountain at 12,000 feet and had to climb to almost 13,000 to clear a cloud layer on the north side. It was a very intimidating sight, with more than another 7,000 feet of mountain to look up at. Surprisingly, there was no turbulence and we had a breathtaking tour of the mountain before descending to Talkeetna. Most of the planes didn't have any oxygen on board, but no-one suffered any ill effects from the high altitude. The official rules say that without oxygen, you shouldn't fly over 13,000 feet at all and you shouldn't spend more than half an hour at over 10,000. Since we fly a lot in BC, we do most of our flying at over 8,000 feet in order to clear the turbulence and mountains. I don't think anyone was very worried about the half hour rule on that flight around the mountain.
On takeoff the next morning, we were treated to a virtually cloud free view of Denali. Some of the group headed for Merrill field in Anchorage, but most headed over the flat lands and ocean to Homer. In Homer we took a taxi to Lands End at the end of the spit and had lunch on the outside patio where the skies were blue and the views of the glaciers spectacular. The next leg provided us with some of the most beautiful views of the whole trip. We headed past Harding Glacier and Whittier to Valdez. We took some extra time to circle over the Columbia Glacier just west of Valdez where a cruise ship was in the same bay. The tanker base across the bay from town reminded us of the Exxon Valdez disaster.
Our B&B hosts told us horror stories of pilots being stuck in Valdez for days on end. The route out over the Thompson Pass was beautiful that day - but not one to take unless the weather is good. Our flight took us past some of the highest mountains and Glaciers we had seen so far. On that camping trip, I distinctly remember pouring rain for days in the Thompson pass and drying out sodden footwear on the grate of the fire in a roadside shelter. We landed back in Northway to get gas and file customs flight plans. The CanPass officer on duty that day got all excited about the guns on board some of the planes - but it turned out there was no customs officer to meet us in Whitehorse anyway. Generally, group members concluded that the CanPass system of clearing customs into Canada was very user friendly. We had an interesting flight as our gear doors wouldn't stay closed with the gear up, so we made the flight over the ever windy Kluane Lake and Burwash Landing with gear down. - the 172 even passed us. The mechanics at Whitehorse were able to sort out a broken wire in the nose gear. Most of the group elected to take advantage of the great facilities at Whitehorse. The campground on the airport has running water, a cook shelter and an outdoor firepit. There are also two showers, laundry facilities, a pilot lounge and four rooms for rent. I didn't want to go home with all the same food we left with, so we decided to have a little cookout in the shelter. Everyone contributed something to the meal and we had a lot of fun around the campfire.
August 10th was a long day of flying. John had planned the alternate route back to the BC interior. We flew south via Atlin to Dease Lake where we refueled and chatted with the local RCMP pilot who arrived at the same time in a Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats. Ed gave us lots of helpful hints on the route. Sadly, Ed was killed just a few days later in that Caravan. Just south of Dease Lake there was a little tricky navigating on the way to Smithers. I started feeling more relaxed with navigating as John learned to fly out of Smithers, and flew a lot around the Burns Lake area. I could tell he always knew exactly where he was. The scenery was lovely on the lower Cassiar Highway and around the Seven Sister's peaks along Highway 16 between Terrace and Smithers. At Smithers we had a little lunch and debated whether to overnight there or continue on south. Since the weather was so nice we elected to continue to Quesnel. John and Keith had a lot of fun on this leg, flying low over the gently rolling terrain, looking for moose and following each other. Quesnel turned out to be the only airport where everyone decided to camp. The camping area is really pleasant and there is an old terminal building, which is open to pilots for showers etc. The local flying club provided a barbecue and it was another pot luck. Charlie and Karol generously provided fresh Russian River Salmon, Sonia & Keith baked brownies and foccacia and little bit of something came out of everyone's food stores. In the morning Dave rescued me once again with a really good cup of coffee.
It was time to say good-bye to all our new friends. Most of the pilots were very experienced and John's job as "guide" was a lot easier because of that. I think all the pilots were happy to discuss the route plans at breakfast or the night before and be able to check winds at various altitudes. Just having someone else to talk to all the time was comforting in an area where you would otherwise fly for an hour or more with no flight service station in radio range. The GPS was almost essential to keep track of everyone and certainly made the navigating a lot easier. John and I are both looking forward to next year's adventures with new groups.