Where is north? Tony Turinsky.
It was getting cold in Anchorage when my phone jumped to life. The weather on the other end of the phone was at least eighty above with gentle onshore Maui breezes.
Larry is a transplanted Alaskan. He called from Hawaii about some part or piece for his 185. It turned out that he had lived in Anchorage for the last twenty five years, and now splits his time between the warm and the cold. It would be here on the phone where we would meet. I have met many 180/5 friends this way. Being the Alaska director for the International Cessna 180/5 club and having written an article or two for the club news letter, I do get a good share of calls. Some are people wanting to know about flying to Alaska or someone looking for parts and pieces.
Larry and I talked and it came up that I was planning on flying south with a friend, Larry said that he was thinking of making the trip to and I suggested we make it a flight of two.
We visited over the phone numerous times, and as it turned out my flight fell apart and I lost my ride. Not wanting to miss a chance to fly the Alaska Highway, I offered to be his copilot and I fly with him. We nailed that down. It would a flight of one for Larry and I south down the Alaska Highway. It is called hitch hiking. I would much rather ride in one of Clyde Cessna’s greats than the middle seat on a Boeing. No Question.
November was a grey day with fresh falling snow, when I met the Larry. It seemed that we had known each other for years even though we had just talked on the phone. That’s aviation, it seems that there is that unspoken kind ship among pilots. We both speak the same language, airplane, with a Cessna dialect.
It was noon when we would be leaving for our winter flight down the Alaska Highway. I have driven the road south in the late months of the year numerous time, and it did not seem exceptionally difficult to be flying during the time of the year when most people have parked in winter storage.
I had been one of the Iditarod pilots in the late eighties and early nineties. It was during this stage of my flying education where I gained my winter flying experience. Before the exposure to Iditarod, I would never consider a winter Alaska Highway flying trip. It would be from my baggage compartment full of Iditarod experience that made this trip as exciting as some of my summer adventures.
We called 1800wxbrief for a weather brief for our trip south. We were good to go. Looking over our shoulders and up we could see a classic front moving in. We had a chance to make our brake and head north. To go south, the trip starts with a northerly heading. Anchorage Merrill field to Whitehorse would be our first leg. The ceiling lifted, we were fueled and loaded and we were off. We were leaving fairly late in the day, for this time of the year, but I figured that we could always stay at Northway if we ran short of daylight.
Our route from Anchorage takes us north along the highway one toward Fairbanks and the Alaska border. Flying past the town of Palmer through Chickaloon pass, we had IFR(I follow roads) conditions, and the Matanuska river to follow. This pass would be our first winter weather challenge. The pass starts at sea level and climbs past the Matanuska Glacier to around three thousand feet. It is not a difficult pass. With the highway and the river and several good strips and the gentle climb to Eureka, this pass is not one that I would consider extreme. It is important to remember that weather can make the most benign flying extreme. Always do the good pilot thing and watch the weather.
It is a good idea to keep that narrow band of asphalt in your sight when the temperatures of winter can be seventy below. We would not get to see those temps and really did not feel that we missed anything, we did get forty below. This is the case where less is more.
Our first day took us from Anchorage through Chickaloon Pass, Eureka, (a road house on the highway that has a great hamburger and cream pies) Glenallan, Slana, and our next pass. Mentasta pass our second challenge, winds through the mountains to Tok Junction.
Mentasta like any pass it is only as good as its weather. If the weather allows, I like to climb to around six thousand feet and cut across to Northway. With this being winter and the daylight being on the short side we opted to cut across, we did have the weather and I called Northway flight service and gave them an update on our route. It is always a good thing to talk to someone and let them know where we were, and what our plans were. It was like flying over water, I like to call when I start out over the water and call again when I get to the other side. This was not water we were going over but lonely cold winter terrain and I wanted Northway to keep an eye out for us, when we left the friendly road and cut across. I checked in with the flight service on the other side of our short cut and we continued on to Whitehorse in the Yukon.
We passed Northway which is the customs checkpoint when coming north, and picked up the highway south of Beaver Creek .All that we had to do was to follow the white line to our first stop for the night. Except night came to us faster then we really wanted. Our weather stayed good and actually got better. We had Cavu (ceilings and visibility unlimited), and moonlight instead of Ol Sol. We were both happy with the conditions. It was beautiful flying in the early moon rise and the late sun set. Larry is instrument rated which is required in Canada for night flying, which made us legal. We did debate over stopping but with the clear skis and a full moon we went on.
We made it but kind of wished we would have stopped. We picked up fog. You could see for miles, and we had the Alcan Highway below, but what looked like snow cover was fog coming from the Mighty Yukon River. It was drifting in and out and around Whitehorse. I think the saying goes “To Hell in a hand basket.” As we pressed on, dark did start to close in closer and fog which was not in the forecast was being foggier, it started to make the flight quieter. I think most flyers know what I mean quieter. We both were looking, Larry at his instruments and I was looking out and down for headlights of commuters heading for Whitehorse. I had my trusty Gamin 295, which had Cyxy plugged in and the highway in bright red (thanks Gamin).
Larry squeaked the wheels and we rolled into the end of our first leg. It was good to be at Whitehorse, down and locked. The weather had caught up to us the next morning, and we would become residents in Canada’s northwest community for the next three days.
I tend to do my flight planning on food along the way. Some pilots look for cheap gas, I look for good eats and Georgieos is a great place to have dinner and debrief. When in Rome do as the Romans do, well the best we could do, and was do as the Whitehorseings do and we did. Georgieos, is just one of the many great restaurants in Whitehorse.
Whitehorse was good to us; we stayed at the Shell hanger at the airport. The FBO has several rooms at reasonable prices. With the difference in their dollar and ours, reasonable is reasonable. They include power to plug in our engine heater, and tie downs.
We visited friends of mine. Over the last forty years of flying and driving that dang highway I have ended up with a number of friends in the various cities and towns. I started in 1960 driving my first trip and have logged over one hundred drive trips and about twenty five flying trips. I think it may be more, but who is counting.
We enjoyed our time in Whitehorse, taking in the winter sights, going to the movies, and of course testing the quisene throughout town. We did spend a good deal of time at the flight service station. We were on first name basis with the different flight service crew, and shared weather flying stories.
One recent event of having to get going was a pilot weathered in at Watson Lake, he was discouraged from going but did not listen. He was later found on Lake Teslin on the ice. He could not wait and pushed the weather. He had his last case of gethomeitis.
The locals at Teslin heard a very low flying plane, and then quiet. The next morning his plane was found. He lived long enough to crawl out of the plane, leaving a blood trail completely around his 206, and crawl back into the plane. By default, he closed his final flight plan. His body was still warm when they found him.
I know that there are pilots who are the best pilots we will ever know. They have thousands of hours and are known as some of the best pilots around, and they are dead, killed in an airplane. Flying is inherently dangerous, but people also die, crossing the street. All we can do is learn, listen, and do the very best we can, but we cannot quit flying.
Be safe do our best, do not push weather and fly. We drew in the lesson of our lost weather pushing pilot, hoping that his loss would give us conviction to wait patiently.
The third day gave us good skies. We were off. Whitehorse in our prop wash, we had Watson Lake in my Garmin and the Alcan Highway below. The forecast was good, not anything to be concerned about, but certainly not a blue bird day. We decided on Watson Lake even though it was only two hours of flying for us, because we were leaving around eleven in the morning. It is like eating an elephant; we decided to take one bite at a time. Had the weather opened its gate and let us out earlier we would have tried to get farther south. But wanting to be old pilots and not bold we would stop at Watson Lake.
The Alcan Highway and the Cassier highway meet at Watson Lake. The Alcan was built in the 1940’s during the war, after Japan attached Pearl Harbor. The powers that were during war years wanted an overland route to supply Alaska with supplies and troops. The Alcan is much like one of the Seven Wonders of the World. In today’s standards it is like building the Trans Alaska pipeline in six months. It was a great challenge overcome. There are some good books on the building of the highway.
I had the opportunity to meet one of our 180/5 club members who in his early twenties, was flying DC 3s, supplying the Alcan when it was being build. Paul was based in Whitehorse. His stories were great. He later became an Ace flying Spit Fires for the Canadian Air force. He is a whole separate story. It was great to meet a person of history. For me with my love for the Alaska Highway to meet Paul and listen to his stories of flying when it was being built was like taking a ride in a time machine.
The flight from Whitehorse follows the shores of Marsh Lake, which served the gold rush travelers coming into the Yukon. We flew south to Jake’s corner which is about fifty miles from breakfast. The road in front of the lodge has served me well as an airstrip on one of my flying ventures north. Just past Jakes is a pass. When the wind is doing its thing it can get very bumpy? The pass is about twenty five miles long and comes out at the north end of Teslin Lake. This time of the year the lake is great for, you guessed it, ice fishing. Usually except for a weather stop, I pass Teslin and head through Pine pass to Watson Lake.
The term flying the highway is exactly that, you can stay over the asphalt, snow in the winter and use it for a place to land almost the entire trip from Cyxy to Watson Lake. It is legal and an excepted practice to use the road to land.
Everything stayed in the green and as we flew closer to Watson Lake you can see the airport from a long distance out. The airport is huge. During the war there were a series of airports built. I mean airports, which are large. They were built for the lend lease program. There were thousands of air planes flown up to and through Alaska to Russia. The legacy for us is the stepping stone airports that were built. These airports were like the railroads were in opening the west. Towns built up around these airports. If you look at a map of the route you can see these major airports because that is where the now major towns and cities are.
The two hour trip was fantastic. This winter wonder land is just that. There are miles of frozen rivers and lakes. The snow covered mountains, are incredible to behold. It is really difficult to imagine the beauty as well as the history we would be flying through.
We tied down, covered and plugged in our Cessna 185 for the night. That one night turned into three; yes the weather caught us again. It was forty below F. And that is cold. We managed a ride to town, settled into a nice hotel, which would be our new Watson Lake home for several more days.
Whitehorse is a major metropolis compared to Watson Lake. There are not a lot of choices of anything. We did have a nice hotel and restaurant. As luck would have it we arrived just in time. The town of Watson Lakes was having a major winter event. This was a dress up event. They were having the Chamber of Commerce annual awards banquet. They had VIPs who had flown in just for this night. Everyone who was anyone was in attendance.
We bought our tickets to the event and we had a super time. We met the mayor and town council, their national legislator, and all of the town’s people. We did the eat drink and be merry thing. It was a unique look at a small town in the early winter in the great Yukon Territory. Just think, the millions and millions of people everywhere, and we were set down in this wonderful setting. Larry and I were able to share in these people’s lives.
It was great to listen to all of the speeches of the past, present and the future from the people who called Watson Lake their home. As I listened to their talks of where Watson Lake had come from, where it was now and what they wanted it to be in the future, I could not help but to be drawn into their glory. As I sat there, I could understand their feeling for this great frontier town, because I was part of its history. I first drove into Watson Lake in 1960, and had been a small part of their town’s history. I had seen forty years of change in all of my hundred or so trips on the Alaska Highway. I had watched Watson Lake grow from what would be considered just a wide spot in the road to a now thriving northern community. It was a great time for me to be celebrating with them when in reality I was part of their past, present, and future.
I was swepted up in the spirit of their event, and surprised Larry when I asked the mayor if I could share a few thoughts about my forty year history with their town. I have always said that I am supposed to be where I am supposed to be, and this night I was supposed to be there sharing their history and mine in their town that night.
Larry told me that he thinks they gave me a seat on the chamber of commerce and that I should probably run for some sort of office. It was truly a wonderful time. There is not any travel or tour company that could have ever planned such a great time. Memories, Memories, Memories, we gained that night. We made large deposits into our memory bank accounts.
For the next two day we settled in with our new found friends of Watson Lake. One of us would get up early and call 1877wxbrief to check weather. Watson Lake does not have a flight service station to hang out at.
I travel with my sat phone, and one morning I borrowed a car and drove out to check the plane, it was fifteen miles from town. When I was half way to the airport I realized that I did not have my Sat phone, and believe it or not I was nervous being out even driving, and not having my phone with me. That morning the temps were colder than forty below. My Sat phone is one of the most important items of my extensive survival supplies. I make it to check on the plane with needing help, but it did remind me of the severe weather conditions that exist in November in the Canadian Yukon.
The next morning, we had great weather news. Actually we did not even need to check the weather on the phone. We had sunshine in the window. We did make our call to check down flight conditions.
At our flight planning breakfast I exercised my seniority, Larry by this time knew that I did have some experience with the Alcan, after all he had to listen to me at the banquet.
From Watson Lake, there are three basic routes. There is an airway between Watson Lake and Fort Nelson. This is a good route but not a forty below and no roads. I also do not like to follow the road route to Fort Nelson because of the extreme mountainous terrain. The second route is one people like to talk about. This would be the famous Trench. It is just that a trench south of Watson Lake direct to Prince George. On this five hundred mile route there are a number of strips, on the northern end, and roads and strips on the southern end, and a very long lake. I think the lake is one hundred twenty five miles long .The trench route is a good way to go but not when it is near forty below. The Alaska Airmen’s have a publishing of the Alaska Log Book which has a great deal of information on flying the various routes to Alaska. The Alaska Airmen’s can be reached at www.alaskaairmens.com to order a copy.
On our chart was a picture of a dog squatting at forty below, and we got the message. The trench route gets very lonely even in the summer when all you have to worry about is bugs. Not a fun place to fly at forty F even for dogs.
The third route south follows the Cassiar Highway. The Cassiar leaves Watson Lake twenty miles north of town and has good places to land on the road almost the entire length. I know this from a prior trip north in a severe rain storm and having to land on the road. I spent a Canadian Thanksgiving in a logging camp which was near the highway. Remember to watch out for cars, moose and power lines. I also have landed on the road at the junction of the Cassiar and the Alcan and taxied to the gas station and filled up. I did get my picture taken by a number of tourists.
Our flight took us to the junction of the Alcan and the Cassiar highway, to Dease Lake, which is about half way and then on to Smithers. We planned our first stop at Smithers after four hours of flying time on this leg, and would stop for fuel and a restroom and then fly onto Prince George British Colombia.
We did need to get out some special equipment for this leg. We pulled out our sun glasses. We had severe clear and cold weather to fly through.
We set out following the highway and my Garmin south to Smithers. I have seen pictures of the earth from outer space and we all know that the view is breathtaking. Our view was not from outer space we were at a lower altitude, but the scenery this day was every bit as breathtaking as that from outer space. With the sun and clear cold skies, the mountains, rivers and lakes, all covered in winter splendor our four hour ride was to short. We had the Cassiar Highway, incredible winter weather, and my trusty Stanley thermos, and full fuel. I think the term HOG HEAVEN crossed my mind.
The temperatures were starting mellow, we were getting into the minus twenties and thirties, and we were picking up extra day light. I think we were close to seven hours on that leg.
The Cassiar route is one of my favorites. The highest point is only twenty five hundred feet. Following the road, it passes through several small villages and there are a number of road houses that have straight stretches with plenty of room to land.
We opted to stay close to the four hindered mile long runway to Smithers. We had plenty of fuel, but in the event that we would need to stop, Dease Lake is half way. Dease is a good size community, smaller than Watson but larger than Hog River. The airport here is one of the wartime strips, nearly four thousand feet long, paved and wide. There is jet fuel and 100 low lead. It is not cheap, except when your gauges on the low side.
Smithers is one of my favorite small cities flying or driving. It used to be a town but today it deserves the city status. Good places to stay, good food, and world record Steelhead fishing not to mention a great ski area. We fueled and grabbed a bite, checked weather and blasted off to Prince George. Sometime I bypass Prince George when day light is not in short supply, I will often go direct to Kamloops. Today our name was on a good steak at one of the five star restaurants that have grown up since the early sixties when I first drove through.
Larry rolled his 850s onto runway 14 Prince George airport. We had a great day of flying. Disney would call it an E ticket. I called it triple E ticket.
Prince George was good to us. We had an airport car at our disposal, and found a nice room and had many choices of places to eat. We were in civilization again. Prince George is a major metropolitan area. Forty years ago it was a lot smaller. I sure wish I would have bought land back then.
We would have one night and the next day in Prince George before we were able to head south. Our weather would not be a repeat of the weather we had the day before. It would be VFR until Frazer River. The Frazer River runs south from Prince George to Hope and Vancouver. It is a standard flying route along the highway. The farther south we get, the number of roads increase, and flying the road becomes more difficult. If you depends only on the highway to navigate be careful, up north we only had the one road to follow, but the farther south you go the number of roads increase and can be confusing..
We flew south and started into the canyon of the mighty Frazer River. Of all of my flying in Alaska and the trips up and down the highway, the Frazer River Canyon in my least fun place to fly. The road follows the river down to near sea level, and the mountains rise up on both sides to over ten thousand feet. The coast weather moves in quickly and even when it is clear there area strong on shore winds that burble over the peaks down into the canyon. On a sunny day the trip is ok. But when the weather is dicey and it was today, it is far from fun. I now have several alternate routes that I think are easier and more fun.
This day our trip down the canyon would be one of those where that part of your anatomy that you sit on get very tight, and the conversation in the cockpit is limited to just the current flying conditions. Needless to say we did get through to Bellingham, but the term scud running did come to my mind. I kept thinking of our fellow pilot crawling around his 206 on Teslin Lake. We never did lose site of the river or the road or the canyon wall, but I guarantee it certainly was not a fun day of flying.
We made Bellingham Washington in four hours from Prince George, tied down for the night. Larry and I would part company the next day. He needed to go to Portland and the weather was marginal VFR in Seattle and he could by pass there without a problem so I rented a Ford and drove to Renton. I did spend several days with my friend Jerry an expired Herk and 747 pilot before picking up my 185 parked at Renton field. I had flown 81E down that same highway earlier that fall. I was heading to Scottsdale Az, to spend sometime at the Mayo Clinic School of surgery. It really is not a school but I did learn some of the finer points of being one of their best patients.
I spent the next three months in the Southwest. Three weeks recuperating from my visit to Mayo. While I was getting better, I received a call from another 180/5 club member from Texas. Tom called about some part of piece and the rest is history. I ended up flying several of Tom’s friends to the state of Chihuahua Mexico. They were doctors and had an annual surgical trip to the village of Sahuaripa. The village is located at seven thousand feet. This is another story. From there I took a short side trip to Florida for Sun and Fun, and then pointed 81E north.
I flew the coast back, the whole coast from California to Anchorage. On a flight plan, I think that the term “Round Robin” is used. I left with the Robins and returned with the robins. I had the good fortune to use my flying skills in only ways that some people just dream of, and believe me this adventure was truly a dream come true.
Where is north? When you are standing on the south pole everywhere is north, for me my personal north is somewhere in the far recesses of my flying mind. I was able to tumble like a tumble weed on this great adventure and make lots of memories. Fly safe, fill up your memory account. Share the wealth.