Alaska & Canada to Wisconsin, July 2007, part 2

Monday, 16-Jul

The friendly Illinois couple also said that the Fairbanks International Airport was a great place to camp under the wing with hot showers even (which was starting to sound real good). So we broke camp and headed for Fairbanks. The weather was better than we had seen so far, so we thought this might be our best chance to fly up the glaciers on Mt. McKinley. Soon we could see that McKinley was completely clear (a rare event).
Pictures taken enroute to Mt. McKinley.

We started flying up the Ruth glacier maintaining 7000 feet until forced to climb by rising terrain. It was somewhat intimidating seeing these huge walls of granite rising well above on both sides, but I could see that there was generous space to turn around in case there was some kind of trouble. I was also glad that Kimball had given me a map of McKinley with the frequencies and reporting points used by the tour operators (although I admit to not knowing exactly where I was most of the time).
Pictures taken flying up the Ruth glacier.
Pictures taken circling the rest of McKinley.

While circling the mountain it looked overcast towards Fairbanks as far as we could see and there weren't any obvious holes to duck under, so we went to Anchorage (Merill Field) instead. Just after we called Anchorage approach my slate computer moving map display lost its position. Later I realized why - ever since we left James' house in OR, I had forgotten to charge or swap batteries in the bluetooth GPS puck velcroed to the glare shield. It would have been handy negotiating the complicated Anchorage airspace. At least the old (and currently intermittent) panel-mounted GPS (Northstar) was behaving itself. Also the controllers were quite gentle with us after I said "unfamiliar with the area".

While we were refueling at the cheapest self-serve, one of the workers at the FBO was bubbling over with amazement to see a Skywagon with wheel pants. He claimed that he had never seen that before. I can understand that with the kind of flying most Skywagon pilots do up here, but I told him it is not nearly so unusual in the lower 48.

We booked a hotel room right at the field (Ace Hangers) and rented a car. Today was mostly a day to regroup ... restocking our supplies at the grocery store, getting an airline reservation for Marty's return, going out for lunch (fantastic fresh salmon and halibut - but not cheap), checking email, etc.

At 9pm we left for a few hour hike along one of the coastal trails - our only real activity for the day. It still amazes me that we have so much daylight. Small kids were out on their bicycles with their parents even at 11pm.

Back at the hotel we made dinner from our grocery supplies. Then I took advantage of the internet connection to research cameras. I only asked Marty to bring one thing (a camera), but it had only one postage stamp size battery, and he didn't bother to bring the charger. (Gee we were already nearly out of battery power).

    Tach: 2.7     Hobbs: 3:10     Gallons: 48.61     Cost: $194.41     Track: (200.2 / 411 nm) McCarthy-Anchorage.kmz

Tuesday, 17-Jul

In the morning I was moments away from ordering the Casio S770 online with overnight delivery to the Ace hanger when the power failed. The power was restored but the internet connection never was. I didn't even have their phone number so I abandoned the idea. We checked out, returned the car and departed for Minchumina, a town (population 16) on a lake about 1.5 hours to the north. Took us a little longer however since we deviated west (over Rainy Pass) so we could stay under the overcast (barely). Not being in a rush, we throttled back to 10gph - the power setting I always used to use before getting the turbonormalizer.
Pictures taken enroute to Minchumina.

Landed on 25, the main dirt runway, taxid past the parking area (with 2 planes), turned left on the old runway along the lake to the picnic table at the far end. A beautiful camping spot all to ourselves (another tip from the Illinois couple). We set up camp and walked into town ... i.e back to the main runway. Astonished to find an open and staffed post office as well as a library with a computer (compliments of Bill & Milinda Gates we were told). No running water however - Only in AK :)

We walked part way around the lake in the hot sun, so the short swim back at our camp site was quite refreshing. (Didn't manage to talk Marty into joining me however.) I thought the water would be glacial, but there wasn't even a shock jumping in. Quite pleasant. The rest of the day we just hung out and relaxed and finished reading yesterday's newspaper. The bugs were just about getting to the nuisance level, so I got out the insect repellent for the first time. Quite effective (thanks Susan!).

At about 9pm the winds picked up suddenly and drastically. Hmm ... maybe we should have tied the airplane down after all. Scurried around to get the airplane well chocked and everything under the wing before the rain hit. Marty had the bright idea of moving the picnic table under the wing, which made cooking and eating quite comfortable. The storm soon blew away and it got light again. In fact it never really seemed to get dark. This was at 64 degrees latitude, as far north as we got. I was reading until 1:30am and never even considered getting out the flashlight.

    Tach: 1.6     Hobbs: 1:56     Gallons: 0.00     Cost: $000.00     Track: (173.7 / 214 nm) Anchorage-Minchumina.kmz

Wednesday, 18-Jul

Woke up to overcast skies, but soon we could see a bit of encouraging blue sky to the north east. Not enough sun to dry off our tents, so we rolled them up wet and threw them into the back of the airplane. Pretty good weather once we climbed above the broken layer and once again we were lucky to have clear weather over the mountains as you can see from this picture. The camera battery just gave up the ghost so this is the last picture for awhile. This was an older Casio ultra-portable camera not known for its exceptional picture quality, so I hope the pictures came out well. So far, I've just viewed them on the small screen of my slate computer.

There were breaks in the clouds over Anchorage, so not much trouble descending for the landing. It was easier this time since we now knew the expected approach over the sunken ship and the downtown buildings to stay out of the military field's airspace.

We rented the exact same car we rented on Monday and decided to go off somewhere to camp. We took one suggestion (from the hotel office manager) to go to the Portage Glacier in Chugach State Park - just an hour or so to the south east. We walked several of the trails in the on & off again rain and even walked a little ways up the Portage Glacier. That was cool. (Ok, Marty, now I'm REALLY regretting not having a camera).

About the time we were looking around for a good campsite, another light drizzle began. The thought of putting up our sopping wet tents suddenly seemed less appealing. So we did a bit more sightseeing in this beautiful area (including an unintentional trip thru the tunnel to Whittier where all the cruise ships arrive and depart) and then drove back to Anchorage. The office at the Ace hanger hotel was closed but our call was forwarded to the office manager. She told us that our old room was still unoccupied and our credit card is still on file, so just go ahead and use our old access codes to get in. This hotel seems to be little known and the best deal in town. (Everything else that we checked out was already booked.)

    Tach: 1.4     Hobbs: 1:37     Gallons: 36.48     Cost: $145.88     Track: (173.7 / 181 nm) Minchumina-Anchorage.kmz

Thursday, 19-Jul

Today Marty has to catch his United flight back to SFO. As I prepare to depart for Juneau, Marty laments that he is going to go into Cessna withdrawal. As he helped me load up the airplane, we talked about how we made a great flying team. If at any point one of us had doubt about what to do next, the other was sure to have a good idea. We also talked about how well the trip went - covering a lot of interesting ground over the last five and a half days while adding 18 hours of time to the tach - and how random it seemed. If we had departed an hour earlier or later, we would have talked with different people along the way, heard different suggestions and probably would have gone to different places. We decided it was a good thing that neither of us had enough time to do much actual planning. Having no plan made it easier and more necessary to seek out the experience of those around us, and to be open for whatever. It seems that preconceived plans don't work well in Alaska anyway because of the vagaries of the fast-changing weather. The other thing that helps this discovery process is that there are so many pilots and airplanes here. The guy renting us a car had a C185 in his hanger. The guy sitting next to us at the fish restaurant said he had several airplanes (including a C185) and his girlfriend was a student pilot. Aviation is simply everywhere you look.

The flight to Juneau was stunning. It was one of those "VFR not recommended due to Mtn. obscurement" kind of days, according to flight service, yet the flying was not difficult. Just some low clouds over the coast - nothing that would affect the flight. Cordova was fogged in, but Yakutat (a popular fuel stop for this route) was clear despite the report otherwise. Approaching Juneau, it sure looked overcast and I was tempted to fly under the overcast layer 50 miles out and scud run the rest of the way. However Juneau was reporting just broken layers, so I trusted the report and took the easy way in. The trust panned out. Sure enough by 15 miles out, things opened up for an easy arrival. The 4.5 hour flight was my longest of the trip. Only 490 nm, but I was going slow (10-11gph) to save gas and there was a 8-9 knot head wind besides. That's ok, since I enjoyed every minute! Fortunately I had stopped at the Office Max before departure from Anchorage and picked up a two pack of 27 exp. disposable cameras. With great restraint, I managed to use up only the first camera on the flight to Juneau. You can tell that these pictures were taken thru a lens on a $10 camera, so it takes even more imagination than usual to visualize the true splendor. Note the float plane landing area parallel to the pavement runway at Juneau airport.
Pictures taken enroute to Juneau.

I had noted some interesting trails nearby, and my plan was to rent a car and find a campsite, and check out some of the trails. However the weather convinced me otherwise. Shortly after I landed the sky turned dark, and it started raining. It never stopped the entire time I was in Juneau. So I stayed dry and comfortable in the Super 8 - what appeared to be the last hotel room available in Juneau.

    Tach: 3.9     Hobbs: 4:44     Gallons: 43.00     Cost: $236.97     Track: (490.5 / 502 nm) Anchorage-Juneau.kmz

Friday, 20-Jul

Woke up at 6:30, took one look out the window (rain, fog, mist, indefinite ceiling, yuck) and went back to bed. Still pretty much the same at 9, but the FSS thought there would be some improvement. Another hour or so it improved to 1300 and 4mi, so I filed a flight plan and headed to the airport. Unfortunately the hotel driver couldn't be found. Eventually I got someone from the FBO to pick me up, but I had missed the small window. Some planes were taking off as I pre-flighted, but by the time I started the engine, the ATIS was reporting 700 and 3mi and nobody was taking off. Walking around in the rain until 4pm, I finally called the Super 8 to see if my room was still available, but I just got a busy signal. While I was dithering the wx went back to 1300 and 4 and some planes were taking off again. It was hard for me to see where in the heck they were going, but I decided to at least do a pattern circuit. On downwind I could see that the visibility over the water was better, so I ventured out of the pattern.

My route can be seen in the picture to the left. The middle picture is a closer view of the first half of the flight, and the one on the right is of the second half. Click on all these pictures for a larger image. To see the route in even more detail, install the free Google Earth and click on the kmz below.

The flight briefer did not recommend VFR, especially after he figured out that I had never flown the route before. Yet I knew that I would not get lost in the channels, and that I could find my way back to Juneau if I could not make it to Sitka. A local pilot told me there were no clouds below 600 ft over the channel. (I considered IFR only briefly. Icing seemed likely.) As I proceeded over the channel, the only thing that really worried me was the possibility of an engine failure. One can't survive in this cold water for long. I was wearing my life jacket and I put my GPS personal locator beacon in one pocket and my strobe light in the other. I was able to remain within gliding distance of shore or a ship most of the time, so I pressed on (never getting higher than about 1000 feet). 1.5 hours later when I finally reached Sitka, I couldn't remember being more pleased to find the airport - even including my first student cross country flights.

Since it was not a long flight, I didn't take on that much fuel, yet the FBO offered me the courtesy car. Very handy. I thought I might be sleeping in it, (Like Juneau, the hotels fill up fast during prime tourist season.) Each hotel I drove to sent me to another purported to have rooms left. On the fifth one, there was one room left which I gladly took.

    Tach: 1.2     Hobbs: 1:22     Gallons: 19.10     Cost: $106.96     Track: (82.4 / 155 nm) Juneau-Sitka.kmz

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