Animals, airplanes and alps, oh my!

Pictures - Volume I (FL to AK)

Pictures - Volume II (Fairbanks, AK to Denali)

Pictures - Volume III (Denali)

Pictures - Volume IV (Kenai Peninsula)

Pictures - Volume V (Kenai Peninsula)

Pictures - Volume VI (Kenai Peninsula)

Pictures - Volume VII (SE Panhandle, AK)

Pictures - Volume VIII (Canadian Rockies)

Pictures - Volme IX (Kalispell to Yellowstone)

Pictures - Volume X (Heading back Home)

Where in the world will Wild Mama wander?
Blast Off: Well, the Mystery Trip blasted off a day ahead of schedule ... but not for any particular good reason. While running the last of the errands necessary to prepare for departure, I got a telephone call that my Mother had AK101.jpgfallen and broken her hip. So much for the last minute preparations. Vern and  I threw everything in the plane, fueled up and headed right back to Westminster, MD to see Mother.
As we departed Florida, the normal afternoon build ups yielded no rain but it was a different story by the time we reached Georgia. We dodged storms all through Georgia an on into South Carolina where we landed at Newberry to refuel. Our goal for the day was to make it as far as possible to we could get to Mother. Her heart has not been good but the break was severe enough that surgery was a must. I called my sister, Michelle, for a status report. Mother is in a lot of pain but hanging in there. They will have to do a heart work up in the morning to clear her for surgery then operate right away.AK102.jpg
The skies were getting dark as nightfall was approaching so we filed and climbed up to 5,000' to catch a  nice little tail wind that started at about 6 kts but gradually increased to over 30 kts. There were still some build-ups lingering through North Carolina but they gradually dissipated as the storms moved quickly off to the east. We were coming in on the back side of the front and the ride was pretty good now. As sunset AK103.jpgcame, we were rewarded wth a little glimpse of the brilliant colors over the mountains and under the clouds. There was a  just sliver of clear enough for the sunset to wink at us as it slid behind the mountains. The last glimmer of sunlight exposed the radiation fog that spilled over the western slopes of the mountains trying to slosh out on to the leeward side. We dipped back into the bottoms of the cloud deck above us and lost sight of everything until we were cleared for the descent. We had been headed to Carroll County via Martinsburg VOR when ATC asked us where we were going. Apparently no one sent the memo that we hadAK104.jpg the Nottingham 6 arrival with the EMI transition. We were re-routed to EMI and headed in that direction trying to scramble to get the arrival procedure. When asked the approach, we asked for a visual to runway 16 as we had descended far enough below the clouds that we had a clear view of the runway from 4000'. "Oh, well direct Carroll County, then." So much for Nottingham. We reported airport in sight and cancelled so we could continue to descend and get on the ground without further delay.
Once we landed, we got the report from sister that Mother is peaceful and on serious pain medication for the evening and that there was nothing to do until early tomorrow morning. We were expected at the hospital by 8 am. I am happy we made the trip tonight so we can get a quick start in the morning. Vern will be able to use the day to re-organize the plane while I stay with Mother.
Good news: Although considered a moderate heart risk for surgery, Mother, at 92, came through like a trooper. She has a new hip and will require extensive physical therapy but she is up and feisty - just like Mother!!! The Mystery Trip will resume shortly.

June 15th Marathon: No, we are not in Marathon in the Florida Keys. We flew a marathon today - 12:34 in flight! Boy do we feel it.

We got an early jump to the day - fortunately for us. Wheels up at 0700 local time from Westminster, Carroll County heading generally westward and slightly northward. The first toAK201.jpg greet us this morning was the fog, all nestled in the low lying areas just to the west of Westminster. We were not so concerned about the fog as we were the strong storms that were forecast across our path. We originally wanted to head over Lake Michigan but the line was very solid through the Great Lakes making us opt for a more southerly route to our destination for today. We stayed fairly low to stay out of the wind but high enough to stay out of the fog. The haze was incredible and almost played tricks with your eyes trying to see the distant images. But we pressed on.

day202.jpgThe first fuel stop was Rochelle, IL. We had been hard at it for over 4 hours and were ready to stretch our legs. The wind was now picking up a bit and our tidy little 140 kts of ground speed had been slowly disappearing throughout the trip but not too badly at this point. We made a quick stop in Rochelle and pressed on. Again we tried to stay low. We were passing the front so the fog and the hazy gave way to green fields and blue skies ... and headwinds. Oh, the headwinds. We were not safe from them at any point. They managed to remain fairly steady at between 35-40 kts, topping out at 42 kts at one point. We had planned another 4 hour leg but we were not feeling too happy with the delay in the leg. By this time, the scenery was getting way too familiar, the drone of the engine was melodic but enough to lull you to sleep in combination with the heat. I took a brief nap while Vern flew. I was awakened by Vern's laghter as he saw the corn and wheat fields "flowing" like rivers. The winds across the ground were strong enough to put the crops near horizontal. I wonder what the wind sock looks like.

We decided to make a precautionary stop in  1D1. Again, we needed to stretch our legs and get a different view than the bug flled windshield and the Midwest farm lands. The winds were quite brisk and presented a cross wind on the asphalt runway. We did not want to land on the turf not knowing its condition as we will be making many less than great runway landings at the Mystery Destination. We came in pretty well crabbed but had plenty of rudder left to make a smooth transition and touchdown - but it was a fight to the ground.

The next leg was to be a "short leg". The winds were now picking up a bit more and we longed for the times of only a 20 kt headwind. we decided to go full racing power ( note that I did not say "speed" ) in  order to try to power our way through the winds. We settled in at 120 kts ground speed under full power - it felt as if we were making the cross country AK204.jpgattempt in a 172 instead of a 182RG.  We stopped as planned at Y19. The fellow at the mechanic shop mentioned to Vern that he hoped we were not heading west as the last guys who came through told of wicked head winds. Yeah, right, tell me about it. I wanted to stretch again and use the facilities. No one was in the building so I had to guess the mystery code to get inside. I was brain dead and ended up laughing so hard that itAK203.jpg nearly caused me to use the "exterior facilities". I had to call Vern to come fix it and get the door opened - note to self: keep the mechanic handy.

The last leg of the trip found more of the same scenery althought the number of farms became fewer and farther between as we pressed on. To the north of course, we found what looked like the ND/MT version of the SD "bad lands" so we sashed over to get some photos and fly through the rather craggy landscape. Finally we hit our last navigation point (S71) where we ended up following the railroad, the creek bed and a series of raods through some small towns on the way to Cut Bank, MT.

Cut Bank was a welcome sight but required another one of those little practiced cross wind landings. Three fighters in one day - almost like March in LaBelle again. We unpacked Wild Mama, got the courtesy car and headed off to bed. After just over 12.5 actual flight hours, we were beat, wanted some real food an a comfortable bed.

No Toys: Departing cut bank this morning was a piece of cake. Eapis filed, canpasss notified and flight plan filed. Weather is typical montanna big blue skies and uncharacteristically light winds. We departed VFR saying goodbyes to our new friend, Leon. As we started our climb out the hsi failed. Not a deal breaker but a pain in the head. We AK301.jpgmade the 30 minute trip to Lethbridge, called Lethbridge radio and plunked down on the runway without incident. CanPass customs was a phone call and done. I liked that one.

We called Tomlinson's to see about quick diagnostics on the hsi but it is not working as the gyro went bad. We will press on and try to get a fix later while we are in another location. In the mean time is it beautiful and clear and we get to pretend that we are back in a normal airplane again. Time to enjoy the scenery. ButThe scenery was not long to be enjoyed.

We started with a nice little tail wind but shades of yesterday crept back into the flight plan. Our tail wind was short-lived as were the expansive blue skies. A low layer of clouds soon crossed our path and we dipped low enough to go under until the cloud bank opened up to 8'000 feet. As we pass west of Edmonton, we hear a radio broadcast of a sigmet with tornado and hail activity. Lovely. But we are now in the clear on the way to Whitecourt. Gasing up at Whitecourt was a bit different as well. Gas was $1.63 CAD per litre and they do not take Discover Card. We made a brief stop to file the next VFR flight plan, check weather and be on our way. This goes back to the old plotting and planning now. No direct to, no multiplicity of landmarks to choose from when working on the flight plan. It is pretty much follow the road or follow the river. Both take you to the same place so it really does not matter except for the scenery below.

We made our departure calls and headed NW deciding to meander between the highway and the river as they cris crossed along the way. OneAK302.jpg cannot comprehend the vastness of the Canadian wilderness area until you fly over at 4500' and see nothing but timberland as far as the eye can see in all directions with the distant horizon S W being the Canadian Rockies. Our original thought was a stay in banff this evening but with 30-50 kt winds forecast through the mountains we thought better of it. We will watch the weather for wind tomorrow as we will have a required mountain day and will not be able to go through the mountains with ripping winds.

Off of the mountains, we find ourselves with only a 20-30 kt headwind. Thinking back to yesterday, we are ok with that. Our path took us over Grand Prarie, then Dawson Creek, NW to FortSst John then the last leg to Fort Nelson which was our intended overnight. As we rounded the bend to Fort t John FSJ radio advised that seveal planes had turned back for weather and that we might want to call flight services for a weather report. Vern hopped on the frequency and got a report of reduced ceilings, rain but otherwise VFR. We decided to go on. 

Canada has 126.7 as the enroute frequency where folks make pireps as they fly along. We monitored the frequency and heard airplanes ahead heading to Ft Nelson and ony 59 AK304.jpgmiles out passing Mt Bigfoot. They dropped down to 4,000' but were otherwise going forward. We called FSJ radio and told them we would go on. If they saw us again, they would know the weather got too bad to pass. When we were only 60 miles out of Fort St John, the visibility dropped significantly and we headed for lower terrain to get below the clouds with a comfortable margin of airspace beneath us. We continued on zigging and zagging looking for lower until we reached the Mt Bigfoot area and found the higher ceilings and lower valley below. We were only about 40 miles from Fort Nelson and knew we made it.  Fort Nelson was very crowded with many planes coming for for Century Club annual flight across Canada. They are all here tonight and will finish the trek in Whitehorse tomorrow night and remain there for a few days. AK303.jpg

We came in high over a ridge and did a dive bomb for the runway. We pulled off all power, put the carburetor heat and pitot heat on as the rain had started again, threw out the gear and full flaps and snuck in ahead of the masses to come. We lost another hour so we are here early enough to relax and plan for tomorrow. We were awakened by our body clocks at 0300 this morning. We are hoping that this will not be a trend.


Flyin' Down the Highway:   The day was beautiful as we were awakened by our body clocks at 2 am; but we managed to go back to sleep until 5 am. We had asked about catching a ride over to the airport early. We wanted to get ahead of the mass of Century Flight airplanes but also ahead of the weather that was forecast for the route for the late afternoon. We caught a cab early at 7 am and got off an hour earlier than we had planned. The eapis was set for arrival at the border at 1330 local time so we might be a bit early for that. This leg was from Fort Nelson to Whitehorse. Two of the century flight planes lifted off just before us but we knew we would outrun them shortly enough. 

This was the first of the legs to go through the mountains. We started with a more "direct to" route then switched over to the highway about half way to Watson Lake as the graniteAK405.JPG clouds got higher and the white puffy variety got lower. In no time we passed the other 2 planes then led the pack to Watson Lake. As we approached Watson Lake we heard another plane coming in. Apparently one of the Century Flight planes got a real early start; but he stopped for AK406.JPGfuel leaving us and a Comanche, HPF all alone on the next leg. HPF was still 25 miles behind us. The trip through the valleys was the best scenery that we had seen thus far. Even the 30 - 40 kt headwind did not bother us this time other than requiring an update of the flight plan for the 45 minute late arrival. The mountains were dotted with the last remaining snow in the area. The valleys below were lush and green. The highway was intertwined with the river throughout this portion of the trip like a tangle of ribbons adorning a secret package on Christmas morning.

We passed a mountain at 5166'. Never saw it as Mother Nature took a cloud bowl and placed it upside down on top of the peak. It was very deceptive to think that the cloud, so soft and fluffy looking, was hiding such a deadly surprise. We were solidly on the highway now. The direct to route was not any longer a viable option. We crossed over Pine Lake and Teslin then approached a very narrow saddle just 20 miles from Whitehorse and the Comanche was hot on our tail. We chatted back and forth for a bit before we both needed to switch to tower and come in to land. He remained behind us as a gentlemen AK408.JPGwelcoming strangers to his country.  This is our final stop before crossing the border. We visited the live people at the Canadian Flight Service Center. They were helpful, friendly, organized and full of useful information. .... From a government agency??????? We filed our customs, checked weather and made our way back to the airplane. This leg will be very lonely: no Century Flyers, no friends, no other airplanes, rarely place to stop along the way. 

 For this last leg into Northway, we had to follow the highway. The clouds were far too low and the terrain far too high to try to go over. There was no benefit to trying to go direct either. As sparse as the conditions are in this neck of the woods, the road is the best place to try to land.AK407.JPG Occasionally there is an old abandoned airstrip nestled up against the side of the highway; and this route did present us with a few airports to overfly in case of weather or other unforeseen problems. But we were truly on our own. We talked about what it must have been like to be the first of the surveyors heading out to map this great territory. Wilderness and AK404.JPGruggedness surrounds you. The vastness of the mountain ranges and the daunting task of trying to scale those giants must have, at times, seemed quite overwhelming. But here we are today: GPS, terrain mapping, everything you could need to make a safe trip. All you have to do is fly the plane.

Now we were getting into the higher hills and following the road was no longer an option. It was the only way through. Flight services had cautioned us about the 15 kt forecast headwind. We laughed and thought that would be a blessing. We came though running 140-150 kits the whole way. So much for that headwind! This was a point, however, the we really did not care. We came to see the mountains and they were laid out all around us. There were high peaks with glaciers hanging high, their silty runoff forming a glacial river below us. There were other peaks not as high but very barren devoid of trees, ofAK403.JPG snow, of any discernible life. We meandered down the highway past Haines Junction, Silver City, across Klaune Lake,  Burwash then Beaver Creek where we crossed the border into Alaska. Our destination at last! We cleared customs in Nothway in AK409.JPGless time than it has taken me to blog today. The customs agent was courteous and had us do virtually no paperwork. Pffff. That was easy. We stopped in and spoke with another live person at the Northway Flight Services station. He gave us some good weather information for heading into Fairbanks and sent us on our way. There are not serivces in Northway so we stopped in Tok for fuel before making the final 1.5 hour trek up to Fairbanks.

This was another nice part of the trip but not nearly as spectacular as the leg from Whitehorse to Northway. The landscape had flattened out around us and the grand muntains were off in the distance, leaving only the Alaska foothills towering over our little plane. We meandered along still at 4500' and well above the ground below.

As we approached the Fairbanks area, we decided to call in to the TRSA. We heard reports of a storm over Murphy's Dome moving to the northeast. We needed to locate that peak as the storms were moderate to severe. We located the point to the west souhwest of Fairbanks and figured that weAK402.JPG would get little more than the light rain that we saw coming in.

We were clered for a left downwind to 20L but as we approached they gave us right base to 2 right. Strange. We looked off to the approach end of 20 and saw a monster of a rain shower. We saw a flash here and there and figured we had better get to the rnway ASAP. As we land and taxi to the ramp we hear the ping, ping, ping of hail hitting Wild Mama and the rains pounding in large drops on the airplane and the pavement. We just sat and waited, hoping the hail would get no larger.

Soon enough it cleared enough for Vern to make the break for the car so we could unload the plane and head to the hotel for the night.

AK410.JPGOne of our new found Century Flight friends suggested Circle Hot Springs as a possible overnight spot. We checked wth the flight service fellow in Northway and he suggested not but offered the alternative of Chena Hot Springs Resort. We called and they had a room available for the weekend. We will relax here after the 30 hour trip to Fairbanks and get an early start Monday to get the gyro repaired or replaced so we wll have it for the REAL mountains.

We stoppede at Pike's Landing Restaurant for some salmon and halibut. Mario would have been pleased as he always ate the halibut once he dscovered how suculent that fish was compared to the salmon. He never ate anything else when we came to Alaska back in 1995. We started our drive off to Chenna Hot Springs alsong the Chena Hot Springs Road. The Guidepost Book was a huge help pointing out the sights as we crossed each mile post. As we passed post 28, I read aloud: "Watch for moose in the Slough Lake". "Yep," Vern commented as we sped past "... there i one drinking fro the lake." STOP!!!! How can you drive by a moose and say nothing. Go back, go back. It was pouring rain by now but who AK401.JPGcares. This is a moose. Our first moose and I wanted a picture.

We spotted several others along the way. What a nice drive. We finally came to the end of the road and the lodge. It is a rustic family place with an adult only hot spring rock lake. This is my kind of place. Without further ado, we were there. Basking in the 100 pus degree water while the outside temperature remained a cool 55 degrees. We found heaven.

Lights are on: It was really strange not having it get dark at all. We tried to see if there was any period of dark and the front desk said this was about it. To us, it looked like 5 o’clock in the afternoon all evening with a sunrise, if you could call it that, once the clouds cleared . . . so much for the Northern Lights.


AK501.JPGThis was a day of exploration around the Chena Resort area. We started with a 30 minute horseback ride, figuring that would about be the limit for butt fatigue. We were right. The trail was very serene and scenic. Laura was an outstanding guide giving us a good narration of the wildlife, vegetation and the area. We meandered around a small pond with a beaver dam, listened to the sounds of nature and saw some wild, exotic and HUGE mushrooms sprouting about the fields intertwined with the wildflowers. The horses, Buckshot, Rio and Yukon, were very well behaved andAK504.JPG needed little prodding and correction.


Our butts signaled that the 30 minute ride was about to end as we crossed the runway and headed back to the lodge where we stopped for lunch. This lodge is completely self sufficient using geothermal technology and hydroponics for electricity, power and basic food needs. All of the greens, tomatoes and herbs are grown in the greenhouse … and does it ever make a difference in the salad. I had a spinach salad with the crispest green leaves of spinach ever seen. Vern ate a tomato and mozzarella salad and a pear and apple salad – both extremely good. I have always said that AK503.JPGyou cannot ruin a salad. Well, I was wrong. It seems that all other salads that I have ever eaten have been ruined and today I finally got a good one. I am not sure what I will do from now on.


The afternoon found us touring around the ice museum – a one of a kind experience. There is a couple who are multi-time world champion ice carvers. They put on a small display then granted us a tour of the facility where we saw the ice overnight rooms, ice bar where you can get anAK502.JPG “appletini” in an ice glass (just don’t spill your drink or it will literally melt the bar!) and the various sculptures including the gladiators, naked woman, Coca-cola bear and spiral stair case. The tour was 30 minutes and, at 20º inside the tour, that was plenty long enough. My fingers and I were frozen even with gloves, 2 shirts, a sweat shirt, jacket and parka.


One of the highlights for Vern came this afternoon with the geothermal tour. We saw the industrial chiller units working backwards to turn a AK505.JPGgenerator that supplied all of the power to the complex of hotel rooms and 65 residential units for the employees. Quite impressive. They turned their energy costs from $0.30/ kilowatt hour to $0.06/ kilowatt hour. Again, quite impressive; but it also allowed the facility to turn a profit for the first time in many, many years.


Historically, the hot spring is over 100 years old and was discovered by 2 aching miners. They formed a community around the spring; that community eventually becoming a resort that was never really profitable as long as fuel had to be trucked in for energy. Once the were able to tap into the geothermal power that sits on the site for free, the free enterprise system took over and a profitable business was born.AK506.JPG


The remainder of the day was spent in the hot springs again and relaxing for tomorrow. We also had another good salad. We will check out early to make our way back to Fairbanks to attend to Wild Mama and her broken gyro. We have discussed the “plans” for flight seeing and have determined that a properly working gyro is most desirable in high terrain AK507.JPGand questionable weather. Most unfortunately, the gyro repairs might be the determining factor for the journey for the remainder of the trip. Fingers crossed for tomorrow.


There’s gold in them thar hills:  Bright and early we departed from Chena Hot Springs to make the trek back to Fairbanks with the hope of getting Wild Mama repaired in shortAK601.jpg order. The morning was cool and relatively clear. Here “clear” is a strange concept and it really depends what you are doing as to how you might define “clear”. The drive was clear; the roads were clear (except for the occasional moose that wandered onto our pathway); but looking toward the sky to determine possibilities of flight, well, we were not so clear.


Back in Fairbanks, it started to rain again – not so clear. But Vern had some repair work to do. We pulled everything out of the airplane and he fetched the malfunctioning gyro. We were fortunate to get it to the local avionics shop before anyone else go hold of the technician, got the unit tested and determined that it was broken. They have no spare.  They have no way to fix the gyro. We call Tomlinson’s. They have taken care of Wild Mama; they have kept her running and they know her panel. They also have a spare that they can overnight to Fairbanks so we can get it replaced and get on our way. We are pleased.


AK602.jpgFairbanks has a campground adjacent to the airport where you can camp with your plane. We drove to the campground to check out the site – very nice; but it was pouring rain again. I do not feel that adventurous and I need good internet service to check email and update the web. We opt for the Comfort Inn instead. With the hotel arrangement made, we are off to be tourists for the day and head to North Pole for a visit with the worlds largest Santa; a stop at the Notty Pine Shop and a little tour of the town of North Pole.


For the afternoon activity, we decide on the train to the El Dorado Gold Mine. The Alaskan pipeline viewing station was enroute to the gold mine. It gave us a good opportunity to take a peak and read a little about pipeline history. We boarded the train to the sounds of the conductor singing Johnny Cash songs and telling old miners tales. He was a hoot. He entertained us on through the permafrost tunnel where a “miner” joined us to describe the old days of mining; the mining techniques and equipment and the men who forged ahead with the gold rush in Alaska. The finalAK603.jpg demonstration was extracting the gold from the soil and the panning techniques. This was done so we would all be able to pan for our own gold from the pouch provided.


AK604.jpgVern and I obliged and did our dead level best to coax gold from the bag of dirt handed to us. . . and much to our amazement, we came up with about $27 in gold flakes!!! Probably, in all reality, not even enough to fill a baby tooth but it was fun and the flakes make a truly authentic souvenir from Alaska.


The last gasp of our day was spent at Pioneer Park adjacent to the hotel where we participated in the Salmon Bake – all the salmon, halibut, prime rib and fixings that you can eat. Thank goodness for the park – we walked off our dinner afterward exploring the Alaska Pioneer Air Museum before retiring to the hotel room – complete with (gas) fireplace. My kind of place!


Tomorrow we wait for UPS to arrive and see what the repairs and the weather bring. No plans, no worries.

How low do you go?: IFR, MVFR and fog are terms that we are hearing a lot of. There is a low trough parked over our area. While there are periods of VFR, you will catch theAK701.jpg occasional low cloud deck coming by. In Florida, this is a cake walk: drop down a bit skirt under the clouds and pop back up in a minute. Here it is not the same. We have spent the morning mapping out our course for the trip out of Fairbanks, anticipating the arrival of our gyro momentarily. Checking the weather, there is MVFR over Talkeetna. This means that you can land at the airport ... if you can get through the pass. The passes are reporting MVFR as well with 1500' ceilings and periods of 500' or lower ceilings. Hmmmm. I don't think so.

Plan B: The first order of business was still to make sure that we had an airplane. The gyro finally arrived just before noon and within an hour Vern had that gyro our ring like a kitten. Next was the weather. With the long range forecast not set to change we decided to keep the rental car and drive down to Denali for spend some time wildlife viewing.
We set off under overcast skies down Parks Highway 3. There was ample look out spots here we could pull over for a photo opportunity. On one such stop we met Harry and his wife who had driven their motor home from North Fort Myers, FL. Small world.
The drive was a good thing. Since we are completely unfamiliar with the lay of the land, it is giving us a good opportunity to get a sense of the clouds and weather in relation to the mountains and the passes as the route is the same that we will take in a flight to Anchorage. As we pass Nenana, the skies turned to a brilliant blue with scattered clouds. I was ready to scream. Perfect VFR. I should know better than to out any faith in a forecast. We can only hope this is a trend that will continue by the time we get back to Fairbanks to pick up Wild Mama.
The drive is lovely, majestic mountain vistas, wide open valleys and a smothering of wildlife. Nearing Julius Creek we spy 2 red tailed fox sunning on the side of the road. We think it is road kill until they were awakened from the dead and ran off. Needless to say, we missed that photo op!
The mid afternoon temperature remains a cool 70 degrees - just right to avoid both the heat and A/C. It is apparently just right for the wild flowers that line the highways. I remember from the last trip to Alaska in 1995 that there were so many wildflowers and that surprised me, thinking that would not be the case in such a cold climate. Nenana was full of wild AK702.JPGflowers and planted flowers that we enjoyed as we stopped at the Alaska Railroad Museum. This museum is special as it marks the location of where the golden spike was hammered in as the final spike to open the Alaska Railroad. Nenana is als the site of the annual Ice Pack contest. Each year people pay $2 per guess to guess the minute when the winter ice pack will break apart. This is al local tradition since 1917 and the purse now runs about $300,000!
At the Tatlanika Trading Post a lady who moved to Alaska from Texas two years ago began to chat us up for a bit. She was telling about the changing Esther and how this area was so pretty but to the south it could get quite violent and wicked raining and dark. . . something for us to think about.
As we neared Denali Park we could see the sky change. The bright blues gave way to more clouds: more lower clouds or, possibly, must higher terrain. We dropped down into the Nenana Canyon and the wind started whipping around. There were signs along the road and even on the sectional charts warning of the winds. The perfect VFR was not looking so perfect again.
Finally, the park entrance was in sight. We decided to make our first Denali experience a real wilderness adventure and got a camp site at the Denali Grizzly Camp grounds. We got a nice root filled site on the Nenana River. The camp sites are immediately on the river; then up the hill are the tent sites and the RV sites and cabins. We heard some of our up theAK703.JPG hill neighbors talking but by the time we were at rivers edge, all sounds ceased but the rushing rapids. Good thing we do not sleep walk lest it be a rude awakening.
Dinner was across the street at McKinley Village Lodge. We opted not to bring all of the cooking gear for camping to try to save on weight. We figured that getting food was not going to be an issue; after all, we are in salmon country and we have fishing tackle!!!
The evening will be cool so we have all of our blankets and long johns ready to go. Good night, hope we sleep tight!

Head in the Clouds: We retired early last night amongst our other campers. We were pleased tat they were a quiet bunch although the bottles of beer on the table were a bit of a worry at first. It is still very strange that it never gets dark. In a hotel, you can pull closed the blackout shades and pretend that there is an obnoxious street light right outside of your bedroom window. Such is not the case camping as you are keenly aware that theAK804.JPG darkness never quite arrives.
It was cool last night so we brought out all the blankets including the down comforter that we had. Normally unusable because of how warm it is the comforter was perfect last night. The temperature was dropping steadily all night. Vern woke up at 3 o'clock to locate the outhouse. I passed as it was just too cold to move out of the cocoon. There was a small amount of dew on the tent and the ground but tat was nothing compared to the rains that soon followed. Around 4 a.m. we heard the pitter patter of rain drops; then the pitter patter soon turned to a thunderous roar of water hitting the top of the tent but we were snug and dry inside (kudos to Eureka Tent Company). The sounds of the rushing river AK801.JPGand the rain were comforting . . . So long as no flash flood warnings sounded!
We stayed in the tent until nearly 6:30 a.m. to give the rain a chance to subside so we could pack up camp with relative dryness. Packing was done in short order thence headed south to get some apple, cinnamon and pecan pancakes with reindeer sausage at the McKinley Creekside Cafe. Hot cake and warm coffee cured the coldness from this 48 degree morning.
We are heading farther south toward Talkeetna. We will have a chance to get a good look at the pass and the terrain that we will cover when we fly. One thing is for certain: morning flight brought these mountains is not the thing to do. The passes and mountain tops are shrouded in fog. Low clouds are passing periodically letting the peaks play peek-a-boo with here visitors. The atmosphere is very enchanting but gives us a real appreciation for the trek ahead. It is still out hope to be able to flyAK802.JPG around Alaska through the mountains but Mother Nature will be the final authority on the part of the journey. For now, we will be content to be land bound and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature reserved for those glued to this earth.
We meandered our way down the Park Highway toward Talkeetma watching the fog tickle the tree tops barely 100' AGL. All along the route there are signs touting the break taking mountain views but we have yet to see more than the tree line. The Guidepost book notes the Alaska Veterans Memorial at mile post 147. There is a nice memorial and visitors center where we meet a couple from Idaho hosting the kiosk. They tell us they have not seen Denali in over 2 weeks. All of the Talkeetna flight seeing operations have been shut down because of the low ceilings. They also tell of the weather starting to break and they are hoping for a trend toward higher ceilings and great ere visibility. We join in their hopes! They also direct us to Byers Lake behind the memorial for a scenic stop on a serene lake. This instance we can see the small hillside that cradles the lake in her belly. Quite beautiful.
We go back to the low visibility near Trapper Creek so we are left to watch for wildlife and road signs and rain. We see signs that wwe have missed ten Talkeetna Moose Droppings Festival and we might miss the Fireweed Festival unless wew stick around for the July 24th weekend. Darn, I hate when that happens!
The afternoon in Talkeetna was spent wandering around this unique and very historic town. We ate caribou burgers, fresh halibut and a carrot cake from the Talkeetna Roadhouse that would knock your socks off. We visited the Alaska Adventure Museum and peeked into the little artisin shops along the main street of town.
The evening was time to rest, shower and study the flight plans. We had the chance to speak sit many pilots as Talkeetna is the primary hopping off AK803.JPGpoint for flight seeing around Denali. All have universally told is how unusual this weather pattern is and they have not flown in days. They are joking for a change soon. Yes, well, we, too, are hoping for the change. Even the Alaska Airmens Association Logbook talks about the unlimited visibility and wide open skies where you can see storms coming for miles ahead of you. We are still waiting for that.
Tomorrow we I'll make a stop at the Ranger Station and talk about flying with them before we head back. To Denali Park for our foray into the park where we I'll do some critter spotting and hopefully see some mountains while we are here.


If  I only had wings: Low tech method of weather forecasting was good this morning. As we looked outside, all we could see were high clouds and relatively clear skies. Maybe this is a start to the trend. We are due in at the Cedar Lodge this evening as the first of the 2 night Denali adventure. We have to be there to catch the bus into the park at 0'dark 00AK901.JPG tomorrow morning so we will make our way back from Talkeetna today.
The drive back north is already looking better. We have seen a mountain; not just next to us but way off in the distance. This bodes well for the possibilities of flight. If we can keep the ceilings off the deck, we will make a run for the passes. Keep your fingers crossed and do the sun dance to the weather Gods.
AK902.JPGThe whole trip through the passes this morning has been outstanding and I view the scenery with mixed emotions. I wanted so desperately to be flying today but here we are land bound with a tour scheduled for the next 2 days. *sigh* I keep talking about the trend improving. The rangers said that this is more typical of the August scud that has come early instead of the big, clear blue skies of July. Let's keep praying to the weather Gods that this continues.
The mountains are a spectacular sight with a rainbow of colors posed against the dark brown soil and evergreen trees. We take a detour on highway 8, Denali Park Road to the east. This is a 135 mile stretch of highway between Cantwell and Paxton, most of the road being dirt andAK905.JPG otherwise unimproved. The Mile Post book said the scenery is well worth the effort. Although we are.not making the whole trip, we venture forth about 15 miles along the road and are rewarded with the promised beautiful vistas. Our wildlife count has been low for the last couple of days. Other than mosquitoes we have only seen one lone rabbit dart across highway 8.
Upon returning to the Denali Park area we stop at Salmon Bake Restaurant for some halibut and chips and a halibut burrito. Stuffed and happy we AK903.JPGwill wander around the local shops for a bit before heading toward the park for some local sights. We have to check in a 3 pm for the beginning of the tour package that we got for Denali. As the park is tightly controlled, there is only a short section of road that guests can travel on their own; otherwise, one must take the bus system through the Park. We opted for the 12 hour round trip ride back to Kantishna Roadhouse and Wonder Lake 95 miles into the park. It is the best opportunity to see Denali and to get a good glimpse of wildlife, maybe even the elusive bears.
For tonight we do the mundane: reorganizing the car and repacking the camping gear so it will fit in the plane with the hope of flight soon.AK904.JPG

A departure from Civilization: We departed Denali Rail Station on the Kantishna Roadhouse bus with Gary, our driver of 37 years. He assured us that we would not get lost ... AK1001.JPGespecially since there is only one road in and out. The trip is 91 miles in to the Roadhouse on mostly a dirt road. There are 5 mountain passes to cross on the way and, hopefully, lots of critters.
The first 34 miles of the journey is to be relatively animal-free as the terrain is lower and the people more plentiful. But just a few miles off theAK1002.JPG paved road (14 miles into the park) we spot a caribou buck with a beautiful rack. He stands and poses for us on the ridge - a spectacular sight!
The trees we see are white spruce trees with growth rings so close they literally tough each other. The root system is horizontal so there is no tap route and it is not uncommon for the spruce to get blown over in heavy wind. There are also even smaller black spruce that grow well in wet rocky areas. Cottonwood, birth and Aspen are the 3 deciduous trees in the area.
Shrubbery consists of dwarf birch and willow. There are 27 different varieties of willow in the park that are already turning yellow. For some AK1003.JPGreason, the fall has come about 2 weeks early this year. The grasses are starting to yellow, the berries are ripe and ready for the bear to eat, and the trees are starting to turn. The wild flowers are disappearing rapidly. The fireweed is already changing and will explode with color soon.
The valley in the park sits between the Alaskan Range and the Outer Range. The weather is quite uncertain and ever changing as the convergence of the two mountain ranges plays havoc with the frontal systems that pass by.
We pas over a series of braided rivers on the north side of the Alaska Range. Only about 3 feet of a very dry snow falls here annually. Even a large rain or the spring snowfall will not fill up the river beds. There is a low volume of water with a high concentration of silt so there are not any fish in these braided rivers.
We stop on a bridge over a little creek to spy 3 dall sheep - 2 ewes and a ram. We need the binoculars to see the horns on the ram but they areAK1005.JPG clearly visible from the bus. Around another corner, we see 2 buses stopped. They give the bear sign. The bus pulls up to expose a mother and older baby grizzle bear foraging through the willow bushes.
At mile 45 we stop for a foot path to the top of the pass. As we approach the top of the path we spy the ghostly images of a heard of dall sheep shrouded in the fog bank that passes by. On the next ridge is another large ram playing king of the hill as he grazes.
The narrow roadway clings to the hillside so precariously that the buses must tenderly pass each other along the ditches that are used for the shoulder. Dwarf fireweed poke out through the jagged rocky cliffs adding a splash of purple to the otherwise dark background. We climb to only 3,700' but the tree life is nil. The frost layer under the ground is getting ever so closer to the top where the vegetation can no longer thrive as it does in the lower elevations. We ate getting closer to the caribou habitat as they need wide open spaces to use their speed for protection. We stop at the ranger station at mile post 53 for a short break. We have been on the road for a little ore 3 hours and still have 38 miles to go!
AK1004.JPGAs we pop up over the next ridge a passing bus signals that a wolf has been sighted and we soon see the lone wolf asleep in the tundra. We keep climbing into solid IMC as the clouds hang stubbornly in the crevices of the mountains. We stop at Eielson Visitors Center where a lone ranger remains to answer questions of the visitors. We are 68 miles in on the park road. What a peaceful existence for this ranger. Quiet evenings and days punctuated by a small bus load of curious onlookers. As w leave the visitors center we climb eve so higher into the clouds but our driver says "no worries" we can trust his instrument navigation!
As we exit grassy pass we depart from the alpine tundra area to the moist tundra area where there are very dense shrubs - willows and alders - horrible for hiking but very good moose habitat. There she is: a momma and her baby mouse resting in the grass next to the small lake. We have seen all of the big 5 of Alaska: moose, grizzly bear, caribou, dall sheep and wolf. This make the ground bound portion of the program much more "bear-able"!
The Kantishna Lodge is a recluse dream- no phones, no TV, no Internet and wilderness galore. The Lodge is situated next to a river just 3 miles from Wonder Lake. We passed the lake on the way in and learned that it was a glacier formed lake or "kettle" over 200' deep and over 2 miles long. There is a hiking and naturalist program for those with an extended stay or just the peace and solitude for those of us riding back to civilization tomorrow.


Our escape: The rooster crowing at 4:30 this morning was the first sound we has heard all night. No, this was not a lone Alaska roost ere, but Vern's alarm clock to be sure we were AK1101.JPGup and ready for the 6:15 am morning departure. We had breakfast and set off. Not 10minutes into our journey we were surprised by a lone moose in a small willow patch next to the road, followed by a family of ptarmigan crossing our path. Then we quietly disappeared into the soup of IMC as w ascended to the first pass.
The fog is really persistent this morning, not wanting to give up her treasures. As we stop at the Eielson Visitor Center we see a glimpse of aAK1102.JPG distant snow covered peak and a faint glow of the sun giving us hope that the fog will give up the ghost soon.
In time, the fog starts to reveals the secrets hidden within Denali: a small herd of about a dozen caribou grazes on the far side if the braided stream; another small herd of 3 adults and a baby next to the road; field birds are taking flight and the valley below comes into focus. You can tell a little about the history of the area by the shape of the valleys: U shaped valleys are formed by glaciers cutting their way across the landscape while V shaped valleys are forged by water making here mark of erosion over time.
There is a battle this morning between the fog and the sun, each claiming temporary victory. The sun momentarily prevails to expose the Polychrome Mountains and a golden eagle. In the sunlight you CSM see the mountains dotted with delphinium, fireweed and potentella.
As we top the polychrome pass the wind begins whipping around removing tourists hats and making the willows and flowers perform a ritualistic sun dance. The good news is that the wind will blow out the clouds. The bad news is that. The wind might be high enough that flight through theAK1103.JPG passes will be impossible.
Another large herd of caribou appears on the distant ridge line and bear scat in the road rich with blueberry is but no grizzly this morning.
AK1104.JPGThe fog gives way for a bit and we see Double Mountain at 5900'. Most of the tops of the mountains are barren as the tree lines ceases between 2700-3100'. We turn the corner to see another bus perched on the side of the road, tourists looking downward. It is a mother grizzly bear with here spring cub munching on soapberries in the river bed. We linger for a bit until she comes too close to the bottom cliff age where she is obscured by the tall trees.
We make the final rest stop before the remaining hour back to the train depot and the winds are now howling; the port-o-johns are quivering in the winds and it makes us wonder what the wind is like in ten Nenana Canyon Pass.
We finish our trek into the Park on a high note with the grizzly sighting and we high-tail it north to go fetch Wild Mama. The conditions on the driveAK1105.JPG north look good. We call various automatic weather reporting stations along the route and they look good. Let's hope this hold until we can get back through the passes and into Anchorage.
We get delayed in Fairbanks with the rental car return and getting fuel. There was actually a line for fuel. I keep checking the AWOS reports and make the final call to flight services for a weather briefing. All continues to look good except through the Chulitna area where the ceilings are AK1106.JPGfluxuating down to 1500’ with occasional scatted layers between 600 and 900 feet: still doable as the layers have been very thin. We decide to make the run for it.

Almost immediately upon lift-off we hit the light rain falling in the Fairbanks are. No worries. We have plenty of space between us and the mountains and this is not the worrisome part. As we near the pass we feel the wind pick up and see that is is approaching 33 kts. We cinch the belts down, drop the speed to closer to maneuvering speed and enter the pass. It is a bit bumpy but not nearly as bad as we figure. At the Nenana Canyon, the ceilings are still very high – over 5,000’ – and the visibility is good. We head for Windy Pass and Broad Pass and skate through with no problem. We talk to a couple of other plane who have come up from Anchorage and they tell us that Chulitna is low – they came through at 200’ but say they are a Cub so low and slow is the name of their game.

As we near Chulitna we see the issue. The scattered layers are not going to be easy to go through and we are not dropping down to 200’. We elect to go over the scud and settle in at 2500’. We have lost sight of the road but the braided river is prominent below us and runs in a low section of the valley just west of the road. We are OK with this. We continue in toward Talkeetna. The weather is reporting 1700’ broken then 1400’ broken. We decide that it will be best to land there and file IFR for the last part of the trip in to Anchorage. WeAK1107.JPG would have gotten flight following in to this busy area anyway and the MEA’s are low enough that we do not have to climb to the freezing level at 6,000’. 

We talk to flight services and get our clearance, departing to the south and heading to 3,000’ where we are solidly IMC all the way to Anchorage. They give us a visual approach and, once we drop to about 1800’, we are able to see the airport and make our way in. We did not make any plans for an arrival today so we are a bit lost for a room and a car. Ace Hangars has a courtesy car and the nicest “hotel room” over the hangars. We stop here for the nice happy to have Wild Mama with us and out of Fairbanks!


Heading South: Once again the rental car companies are the ones getting our business rather than the aviation fuel companies. Although the weather in Anchorage is flyable, it isAK1201.jpg another rainy day with occasional low ceilings and it gets worse to the southwest along the Kenai Peninsula where we are headed. 
AK1202.jpgWe stop at the Potter Creek Marsh and the Chugach Ranger Station. There is an old train display with THE BIGGEST snow plow I have ever seen. The tide is out at Turnagain Arm exposing the quicksand-like mud flats bottom. Many warning signs are posted to avoid the tempting walk out onto the mud flats. There is a bore tide at Turnagain Arm and we try to check to see if we can see the tide as the water is choked down coming into the inlet. There is a 32' tide for Friday, July 30th on our way back but nothing mentioned for today . . . except the winds at 40 kts gusting to 50 kts along the inlet. We can feel the wind rocking the car as we head south on Seward Highway.
About 40 miles south of Anchorage is a little town called Girdwood where we found the Aleyeska Resort. We rode the tram to the top of Aleyeska Mountain where we could see 7 hanging glaciers in the neighboring mountains. It was a brisk 43 degrees at the top of the mountain and the annual snow was still melting. It is the coldest summer on record with only 2 days of sun in July. Normally they get about 2 rainy then 2 sunny days during the month. They expect no change for the month of August! The view from the top, even through the fog and low clouds was spectacular with a sweeping view of Turnagain Arm.AK1203.jpg
We turn off of Seward Highway toward Whittier, a small town that, until 2000, was only accessible by train or boat. In 2000 they made the trainAK1204.jpg tunnel available to cars. It is one lane and you can only get across every hour ... that is, unless the train is coming then you have to wait.
But before heading to Whittier, we wanted to see Portage Glacier and took the hour long cruise to the glacier. This is a fresh water glacier that terminates into Portage Lake, the lake that was formed by the glacier about 100 years ago. This is a dead lake meaning that because of its depth (600' or so) and the short summers, insufficient light can reach the bottom to make photosynthesis to make fish food so nothing lives there by glacial silt.
We step to the window to purchase our ticket in time to hear the captain on the incoming cruise talk about the 50 kt winds he has for docking. It is also a hard steady rain by now but we go anyway as the conditions are perfect for glacier viewing. Sunlight clears the glacial ice and you cannot see the deep blues as much as you AK1205.jpgdo when it is foggy and rainy. I am glad the weather has served us well for something!
The MV Ptarmigan approaches the glacier within 300 yards, close enough for us to hear the "white thunder" - the sound of the cracking andAK1207.jpg calving glacier. We see 2 large chunks break off and come crashing into the water. After being battered by the wind and driving rain for 30 minutes are come inside happy and drenched and make our turn for the 6:30 pm train tunnel and Whittier.
The tunnel crossing was interesting as we drove on the train tracks for the 6.5 minute crossing. We exited into the quaint little village of Whittier on Prince William Sound. Obviously a fishing oriented town with many fishing charters, glacier cruises and sea kayaking as the principal activities. Most of the town lives in the Begish Towers, a 15 story condominium building originally built by the military for BOQ housing years ago. It now also houses many of the government offices and a few other businesses. This was also our lodging for the evening as we rented one of the condos, complete with dry sauna - something we both really appreciate after being cold most of the afternoon – a complete kitchen and an 8-track tape AK1208.jpgplayer and tapes. Now that is an antique! We have a great glacier and water falls view from the condo. The mountain, which rises about 2,500', is lush and green with numerous smaller waterfalls and one large falls cascading down it's side.
After dinner of halibut and shrimp at Swiftwater Seafood Cafe we walked back out along the harbor. The wind was blowing so hard that i was not sure if we were being pelted by rain or salt watt coming on off the Sound. Either way, we felt like the walking versions of "The Deadliest Catch".
All of the fishing and outer water charters are canceled because of the weather. No one has run for a week. They are hopeful that the weather will break on Tuesday for a change. Again, we were told this has been the most rainy and cold summer seen in a long time. We will all look for improvement tomorrow.

Another day of rain: Our awakening this morning showed no promise of a prettier day. The Whittier Glacier that we saw from our room last night was completely obscured and the AK1302.jpgrain was pounding hard on the car as we left the condo. We would not be able to do a glacier cruise today so we decided to move on farther down the peninsula. We did, however, stop at the local Whittier town museum to see the local displays about Whittier events and heroes.
Heading south on highway 1 toward Seward, we were followed by low hanging clouds all along the mid-ranges of ten mountains. We would get an occasional glimpse of the snow covered top but the views were few and far between. A planned stop was Moose Pass at the seaplane base to get some more float plane time in. The best they could do is to tell us to call when we passed back to the north to see if the ceiling was high enough to fly. They were grounded today and had been for the last several days.
The turnoff for Exit Glacier was on the way to Seward. This provided and excellent opportunity to stretch our legs, get in a nice mile log hike and get up close and personal with a hanging glacier. The rain eased off enough and the hike was really nice and the glacier spectacular. Exit, likeAK1303.jpg other glaciers, has been retreating lately - this one since ten early 1900's. There were marks along the path to see where the far marl of the glacier once stood. It was quite alarming to see how far it retreated in just the few years since 1998 - well over 50 feet.
Looking for food, we decided to head on to Seward and find some salads. Both of us were about "fish and chipped" out and wanted those nice, fresh salads like we had back at Chena Hot Springs. I had a Nellie's Grandview salad, named after a famous Alaskan woman, and Vern got a rather different version of a Caesar salad with blackened halibut.
With the remainder of the cruises still shut down from the heavy rains and high winds' we wandered the town and finally decided to find a place for the night. Everything was booked solid. I guess folks are waiting around for the better weather. We opted to tour the Seward town museum and then head to Cooper Landing where there was a lodge with evening availability.
Heading back out of the Seward Highway over to Cooper Landing, we spy a pull out on Upper Trail Lake. There is a beautiful view of the mountains shrouded by fog and a picnic AK1304.jpgtable: the perfect spot for a roadside camping retreat to pitch your snack sack for the bear that frequent the area. Finally, nearly 5:30 this after noon we see the first sunlight we have seen in a couple of days...maybe a new trend.
We turn the corner on Bean Creek Road to the Kenai Princess Lodge on the Kenai River. Boy, when life turns good it really turns. We have aAK1301.jpg beautiful bungalow suite overlooking the mountains with some blue sky in the background, a wood burning stove, serene surroundings and the sun came out. Does it get any better?


Dreamed and done: Our excitement from last night fades when we awakened only to have our heads back in the fog … another rainy day. We had heard the rain pounding on the AK1407.jpgAK1408.jpgroof last night but hoped it was only a dream. Instead of fighting it today we wandered off to Soldotna and toward the town of Kenai. Enroute, we stopped at many of the local artisan shops along to the way to see carvings of horns and tusks, rocks and minerals and all sorts of other local crafts.
Soldotna found us hungry so we grabbed a quick bite and headed to the Carhart store to get a hood for Vern's jacket and get some serious rain gear. We spent quite some time in the store only to come out to the bright sunshine. Had I know this, I would have bought a raincoat days ago.
With the sun out, we called back to Moose Pass to see if the ceiling was high enough there to try to do some float plane flying. The sun was in and out but it looked promising for the afternoon. We turned around and headed back the other way. Kenai will be there tomorrow but the sun might be gone.
AK1406.jpgWe got to Scenic Mountain Air in Moose Pass. There were 2 super cubs and 2 instructors available and the ceiling was high enough. I flew with the owner, Vern, a humorous gentleman who has been flying these parts for the past 39 years. We took off from Upper Trail Lake and headed back to the south straight for the mountain. Vern was good enough to give me some mountain flying tills along with the float time. We hugged the side of the mountain to get enough lift to make the ridge where we dropped down to see the black bear on the side of the mountain and 3 grizzlies in the stream catching dinner. We circled for a few minutes the headed for the ice fields.
Harding Ice Field is one of the largest in Alaska. To say that the sight was spectacular does not even begin to describe the beauty of the snowAK1402.jpg capped mountain. The benefit of having the colder summer is that the blinding white snow pack was still on the top of the ice pack and it has not yet turned to the glaze ice. This is what helps make the advance in the long run. No global warming here this summer. This is AK1403.jpgone of the most awesome sights I have ever seen. I had wanted to make this flight in Wild Mama but with the weather, we simply have been unable to make the flight. But today, in a Super Cub plugging along at 70-75 mph we had a leisurely journey, with an experienced guide and mountain pilot. I was very much at ease and we switched back and forth on the controls so he could maneuver me in for some really nice Kodak moments. But there were so many.

Each turn of my head made my heart leap; the pure white snow, the deep blue ice packs; the dark brown jagged peaks untouched by the lingering snows. Each captured my attention as we flew past.

We turned out left to come over the back side of Bear Glacier and flew down this tide water glacier to Prince William Sound. Dropping down to near the water level we turned back and flew beside the glacier below it's height at the water. We were at 300'. We made a couple of passes inAK1404.jpg front of the glacier and I took in every detail the best I could. Wild Mama could not have made this trip. She is much too fast and to slow her to near stall speed at this altitude to sight see would be, well, let’s just say my mind would not be on sight-seeing. 
AK1405.jpgVern and his instructor, Joe, were in trail behind us. We called to them to circle back to snag a picture of the plane in front of the glacier. They dropped as we climbed to get a great shot. We could see up the crevices of the glacier, could see the medial line and the small (200 pound or so) ice chunks that had recently calved off.
We circled and climbed back over another small ridge. At the next left turn, the whole Iliac Glacier opened up before us with a full ice field. The water was so clear that you could see much of the ice beneath the surface to make you truly believe that only 10% of the ice is visible on the top. We climbed staying just about Iliac Glacier all the way to the top seeing her long lines that flowed from the mountain top to the Sound. From crossing Iliac we swooped down across the Exit Glacier where we had walked yesterday - such a different and much more spectacular view from the air.AK1409.jpg
On the way back to the seaplane base, we passed a lone mountain goat, then a herd of about 40 more on the ridge line. All too soon, we dropped AK1410.jpgin for a glassy water landing and it was all over. I was not yet ready to land.
Two years ago, Nicole Cagnolatti awarded me the WAI scholarship "If you can dream it you can do it". My dream was to get my float plane rating and fly a float plane in Alaska. Thank you, Nicole. You made it happen. Dreamed and done!AK1401.jpg

This evening we are back at a beautiful, small, rustic cabin at Cooper Landing Fish Camp. Let's see what tomorrow will bring ...

Something's fishy: Having spent the night in Cooper Landing Fish Camp, you have probably already guessed the planned activity for the day. We are on the Upper Kenai River, AK1501.jpgfamous for salmon fishing and today is our day. We started out early this morning with guide Eric and another client, Mike. The trip was about 4 or 5 miles down river from the drop in point. The Kenai runs fairly swiftly but it is easy to fly fish along the banks. The deepest part of the river where we were was only around 3 feet.

The trip down the river was filled with lots of eagles perched high in the trees. We saw many full grown adults, several nests and a yearling that still had its’ brown head. The eagle does not get its’ white head until the age of 5. The gurgling waters, the serene setting and the majestic eagles onAK1502.jpg the shores made the float to the fishing spot quite enjoyable.

All 3 of us were novices so Eric had his work cut out for him. We donned waders and warm clothing - I felt like the Michelin Tire Man, and probably looked like him too with heavy wool socks, a complete set of long johns, heavy jeans, a turtle neck shirt, long sleeved denim shirt, heavy sweat shirt and fleece lines jacket – then waddled out into about 1 foot deep water. Eric gave us a group orientation and handed us the fly rods then briefly gave us individual instruction, starting with Mike.

 I was next on the list. Eric explained that the object is to have the hook float into the fish’s mount as the fish swims up river and the hook drifts down river. There is no bait as the spawning salmon are not eating any longer. So the idea is to have the hook drift past the mount then you have to snare the fish as he swims by. OK. I am all set and start the fly fish casting technique that Eric taught me. Once Eric was satisfied that I was not going to snare anyone he moved on to Vern for his orientation …. then it happened … “Eric, I have a fish!”  “Let him run, let him run!” Eric called back as he got the net. The fish took out just a little line then stopped and Eric instructed me on how to work him back in, explaining that he will start fighting when he gets close to shore. I coaxed the fist in very slowly until Eric scooped him up in the net. A keeper!

The salmon we fished for are sockeye salmon – the red ones. But you do not want the fish to be too red. The story is that as they fish get closer to spawning – and closer to then end of their lives – they use their meat and muscle mass. At this point in the river they are various colors ranging from a silvery with light pink tones to a tomato red. The silvery/pink ones are the ones to keep. Once they become tomato red, the meat is mushy like a fish pâté and is not fit to eat and very difficult to clean. According to Eric, you can cut it with a stick.

AK1503.jpgThe fish came in schools. There would be a gap then another school would swim by. I must have been in the perfect spot near a hole where the fish stopped to rest because ZAP, I caught another one …. and another, and another and another. Six in all although only 3 were the really good silvery/pink ones. The other 3 were tomato red; and one of those put up a fight! Once he was snared, he took off, the line was buzzing. He ran down between Mike’s and Vern’s legs with Eric giving chase. He was going to be a tangle in everything. “ReelAK1505.jpg the line!” Eric hollered, and I inched the fish in to a reasonable location where Eric could scoop him up. That one was work.

There was a lull where we did not even see the fish in the water as we had for the past hour or so. Eric had time to set a line and do some fishing on his own. He had one almost immediately and called me to take the rod to bring her in. But it was a left handed rod – he tried to throw me a curve. I started to reel and the reel handle unscrewed itself. We caught the pieces but that left us with a fighting fish on the end of the line and no way to reel it in. Eric coached me on how to bring the line in with the fish and the two of us worked her back to shore where she was scooped up. Another keeper!

In all for the day, Eric caught 2 keepers and a couple more red ones; Vern caught 2 red ones and I managed to get 3 keepers and 3 red ones (plus the assist to Eric on one of his keepers).  Eric cleaned the fish right there in the river and showed us all of the eggs. He explains how all the parts and pieces of the cleaned fish would go back to nature: the eggs for the trout; the fish heads for the bears and the other carcasses for the eagles and the sea gulls that swarmed over head. Nothing went to waste. AK1504.jpgAs for the 20 pounds of salmon filets, they are on their way back to Fort Myers for us for dinner!!!!

Exhausted from 4 hours of steady fly fishing on the river, we headed back to where we started yesterday: to Kenai. Kenai is the largest town on the Cook Inlet in the Peninsula. It is situated where the Kenai River ends and “where adventure begins” according to the promotional material. Our adventure is ending early today. We are both tired. I needed to shed the extra 20 pounds of clothing that I carried around all day and get some rest. We will head out tomorrow to explore before making our way back off the peninsula.

After an afternoon nap, we got a second breeze (I can hardly call it a second wind as we were not that enthusiastic) early this evening and drove the remaining miles out to Captain Cook State Recreational Park north of Kenai and we stopped along the Cook Inlet to watch the natives go dip net fishing. Off in the distance you could see the volcano, Mount Redoubt, through the haze. We decided to do this tonight as the weather isAK1507.jpg looking good for a while and might be promising for some flight time out of Anchorage in the next day or so before the MVFR and IFR moves back in. Our time in the peninsula is drawing to a close but I have to say that it has been a highlight thus far.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone: We slept like the dead last night. I think we are getting vacationed out at this point and needed some rest. But we got up early this morning AK1601.jpgto head back to Anchorage. The weather was looking the best we had seen it but there is a big storm coming in tomorrow so we need to get out of the area.  

The first stop was breakfast. I had “Alaska style pancakes”. When I asked what that meant, the waitress just laughed. When I saw the 2 pancakes brimming over the sides of the platter, I understood. I ate ½; Vern ate ½ and the other pancake we could not touch. I have never seen a pancake so large and I will be sure to check the Guinness Book of World Records to see if their pancakes are listed. They certainly should be.AK1602.jpg


The ride up to Anchorage was beautiful: the mountains were out and the visibility was pretty good. We got to see all of the stuff we missed on the way south. The mud flats at Turnagain Arm were completely covered this time.


We made it back to Anchorage and went to see the Aviation Heritage Museum at Lake Hood. The museum has really nice exhibits about the old bush pilots and the aviation roots in Alaska. We followed that with a visit to the seaplane base and then went off to see Wild Mama who had been, unfortunately, left behind on our adventure. She was happy to see us but got rained on pretty good and was wet inside. We had heard there were AK1603.jpgblowing winds and a flood watch while we were in the Peninsula but we had no idea. We pulled up the carpet and got her dried out and headed to the hotel to do laundry and prepare for a morning departure through Glenallen and back out the highway route. The storms are covering Valdes which is a critical point in our attempt to make the water route to the southeast pan handle. With Valdes clouded in and a storm coming, the feet wet route is out. We will look at the feet dry route to Skagway and seeAK1604.jpg if it is doable in the morning when we can see the weather cams through the passes.


For tonight: laundry, packing and flight planning.


Back in the air again: This is the day that we did the sun dance for: blue sky (not 100% but certainly you saw more blue than white); light wind; perfect flying conditions. And we were AK1701.jpgoff!

We made quick work of the rental car return and canceling the hotel reservations we had for the weekend to see the Arctic Thunder Airshow over Anchorage. The TFR would start at 1100 so we had to be gone meaning eAPIS filed, CANPASS called, flight plans filed. We hustled and were offAK1702.jpg the ground at 1015 local heading back to the north-ish.

All of the mountains to the east were visible: Wrangle Mountain with all of her glaciers and lots of smaller peaks; but nothing to the west was to be seen. The monster storm was lurking on the horizon and it signaled our need to depart.

We followed the highway to Wasilla then Palmer. Off to our right was a flight of 3 sightseeing planes making the run over Matanuska Glacier. We AK1703.jpgdid not follow them in as four would have been a crowd. We opted, instead of the Tazlina Glacier; then followed the Tazlina River on to Gulkana where we stopped for fuel and refilled the international portion of the fight plan.

We did not do the low and slow as we had in the float planes; but we did slow Wild Mama down quite a bit to be sure we could make the turn around in the pass over the glacier. The glaciers could way out-climb us and we were not interested in starting the trip in the nose-bleed altitudes. We got at a comfortable 3500’ for the first leg and had plenty of wonderful sights to see.

We were to follow the highway out of Gulkana to Northway then on to Whitehorse; but there was another glacier that called to us – NemindaAK1704.jpg Glacier – and we wandered a bit off course to the valley of that giant. This looked like a dying glacier compared to the others over which we had flown. Its bottom was ragged and muddy and it did not have the clear, clean definition of the more healthy looking ice masses. We turned in short time and made our way back to the join the highway north of Beaver Creek.

AK1706.jpgWe were still surrounded by the giants and we had to climb up to 5500’ in the valley to make this leg without issue. We squeezed through a couple of tight passes but with CAVU at points and other points sporting a 20,000’ broken layer, we knew we had lots of room to play.

We came in to Whitehorse and decided to stay for a day or so. Neither of us had ever played around the Yukon Territory and the weather was outstanding. We felt silly being in long sleeved shirts and long pants when the mercury was pushing 30 (that Celsius, not the Fahrenheit that we had been used to lately). We finally got to see the famous working wind indicator at Whitehorse – talk about a sense ofAK1707.jpg humor!

Vern found us a car again – that seems to be the theme here – and we got a camping spot at the Takhina Hot Springs – oh, yes, another one. We are blazing hot as we come in to camp at nearly 2000 hrs; but this is a good thing. The last thing that I wanted to do, however, was jump in to that warm of water. We set up camp in short order and are determined to relax in the wilderness … just us and the bears …

A day off: It was so nice to wake up to blue skies and nice cool temperatures this morning. The heat of last night quickly dissipated overnight to leave us with an absolutely stellar AK1801.jpgmorning. We awakened this morning to the sound to the hundreds of seemingly harmless yellow jacket looking bees buzzing around all over the outside of the tent; but none were able to get inside. The only issue this morning was where to go and get coffee. We did not pack the full camping package - the things we left off being more than bare emergency cooking equipment. Personally, I thought a coffee pot and coffee was part of theAK1802.jpg emergency supplies.
We headed into the town of Whitehorse as it was the closest coffee we could get. Once there, after breakfast, we went to the town to explore and started with the rail depot and the transportation museum. While at the transportation museum, we met a gentleman who was flying a super cub headed north. Seems he had no charts as they order from his chart supplier was miss-delivered. We gave him our Alaska charts are we were done with the interior and wished him well.
The remainder of the afternoon was spent lounging in the hot springs. This was way different from Chena Hot Springs in that it had a hot and hotter section. We slipped back and forth between the two sections for the better part of 2 hours before we were pruned enough to get out. Our AK1803.jpgstomachs got the better of us by this point and it was time for dinner at the local restaurant. We are, once again, out in the wilderness area and services are hard to come by and the dinner menu was slim; but I managed to find a nice salad and fruit cup and Vern a tuna platter. The restaurant is not open until 1100 on weekends and 1600 on weekdays - hence the necessity of the Whitehorse coffee run this morning.
The day remained really nice, too: not cool but not blazing hot with a fine afternoon breeze and slightly overcast skies, perfect for hiking and relaxing and flight planning.

South, to Alaska: The evening suddenly turned dark and windy and we packed the charts and became tent-bound in a hurry. It was not so much the rain as it was the winds at first. AK1901.jpgMother Nature started playing a symphony of nature: the winds would howl from different directions, rustling the leaves in various parts of the forest around us. Then the birds would chirp alternately as if on queue from their conductor. Finally came the pitter-patter of a light rain that lasted until 0200 this morning.
I got up shortly after the rains ended to use the outhouse and the moon was bright and shining through lightly scattered clouds. All was good. WhenAK1904.jpg we finally crawled out of bed to break camp at 0630 there was he return of the blue sky with the clouds off in the distance. It is looking like another beautiful day.
When Vern rented the car back in Whitehorse, the agent gave it to him until Wednesday afternoon, telling him is was easier to give it back early and get a refund. We decided to take advantage of that and make the drive into Skagway, AK to complete the final part of the Alaska journey. It would have been a great flight to make through the pan handle but those clouds that came from the northwest are all headed to Skagway where we are. We were warned about the final pass into Skagway being a visual AK1903.jpgapproach that can be all but visual. We have grown accustomed to travel by car now, punctuated with a spectacular flights so we will stay the course. But first ... coffee!
With the important stuff out of the way we hopped on the Klondike Highway south to Skagway. Once again we were rewarded with some beautiful scenery. Half-way to Carcross a lynx ran across the road and posed on the side taunting us as if to say "catch me if you can". By the time the camera was ready there was nothing but tail as he disappeared into the woods.
Carvross was a nice little stop for a coffee. A historic town from the gold rush days, the remains a general store, visitors center and rail depotAK1905.jpg where folks can jump on the train and make the ride into Skagway via rail with a return trip by motor coach along the highway. We will cross the tracks several times but at some point the train will make a large departure from our course and we will travel on opposite sides of the river.

AK1902.jpgA strange site to see in the middle of the Yukon Territory was a desert – the Carcross Dunes. This desert formed eons ago as the remnants of the lake bottom from glacial ice and has remained over time as the world’s smallest desert due to the strong winds off of Lake Bennett prohibiting growth on the earth bed.
Somewhere between the Canadian customs and the US customs and north of the border with Alaska, we ran across Tormented Valley, an odd mix of water holes, craggy rocks and something resembling a moonscape. From the bright sunshine we entered into a mist over the valley. A lone gull sang out and disappeared into the white sky. We pressed on only to hit a dense fog at White Pass Summit, the Alaska border at 2,865'. Visibility dropped to about 1/4 mile ay best. We slowed to a crawl to make ourAK1906.jpg way through this white tunnel. We finally stop just short of Moose Creek Bridge, a suspension bridge over the creek next to the waterfalls. We could hear the falls in the background but it was not visible until we were right on top of it. We descended down the pass to lower and clearer territory. As we look back we see how thick and how high the fog bank was. Had AK1907.jpgwe been flying, it would have been completely impassable.
Pitchfork falls caught our attention just before US customs. There is a huge hydroelectric project from Goat Lake that provides power to Skagway and now Haines. The view of the falls is quite spectacular and, according to the train literature, is quite a site as the train track passes directly over the falls.
Skagway is another old gold mining town and many of the buildings are on the Klondike National Park historic register. Just outside of toewn is a lovely garden and glass blowing business where we admisred the array of colorful flowers and model train garden. We wandered about town for quite a bit perusing the old buildings and the shops, most of which seem to cater to the cruise industry. Today was a slow cruise day - only 2 small ships and none of the behemoths that will dump 3,500 passengers on a small town. We watch the localAK1908.jpg sightseeing and commuter planes come in and out of the airport via Lynn Canal - none come from the pass that remains blocked.
Dinner at the Stowaway Cafe at the small boat docks was one of the best we have had on vacation. The halibut, grilled vegetables and dessert - OK, we splurged with peach bread pudding and Xango (banana cheesecake, cinnamon and cream). We will relax at the Mile Zero Bed & Breakfast this evening then head off for more adventures tomorrow.

A whale tale: Our day in Skagway started and ended all at the same time when we boarded the Fjordland Express to Juneau for a full day excursion. Skagway is at the end of Lynn AK2001.jpgCanal, which is not really a canal at all. It is a fjord at the end of the Inside Passage. At this point, Lynn Canal is some 1300’ deep and runs to about 2400’ at her deepest point. This is a glacial valley carved out many moons ago. The first stop is in Haines to pick up more passengers. Although Haines is 15 miles by boat, it is 360 miles via the highway from Haines Junction in Yukon Territory, Canada; just as Skagway can only be accessed through the Alaskan Highway at and near Whitehorse, YT.AK2002.jpg

In the short distance to Haines, we passed by Long Falls, spectacularly long water falls coming from Goat Lake which is part of the hydroelectric project that supplies the area. We thought the Haines people missed some of the best scenery. Guess again. The  journey took us through the Chilcat and Chilcoot River Valleys: all glacial valleys. There were sheer rock walls, scarred by boulders being forged into the rock faces by the massive ice of the glaciers working their was to the valley floor. The tops of the mountains are still littered with the glacial remnants of the ice age – the large ice fields and glaciers, plus the all but extinct retreating hanging glaciers. To our east is the Coast Mountain AK2003.jpgRange, the boundary between the US and Canada.

The first glacier of any size that we see is the Davidson Glacier – a hanging glacier. It sits perched high up in the mountain – about 4500’. None of these mountains are high but their characteristics tell a tale of history and geology. The timberline runs up to about 2700’-3000’; the rounded mountain tops have been worn away by glacial ice while the pointy peaks have not been so worn. Those peaks are at about 4000’ and above.

Our next sighting was the stellar seal lion rookery. The sea lions perched on the rocks are the juveniles who have just been cast off by their mothers to fend for themselves. They are staying on the rocks, safe from their main predators, the Orca Whales. These youngens  barely pay us any attention as they go about their business of sunning themselves and playing king of the hill.

AK2004.jpgGreg, our Captain, and Ann, his daughter and mate, guaranteed us a whale sighting. It was not 30 minutes into the cruise that the sighting happened. “Blow spout at 11 o’clock!” Once, twice, and then nothing by tail (fluke as it is called) and that whale is gone.  We continue on seeing more spouts of more whales. The whales come up to breathe – they spout – and dive again for 4-7 minutes before they return. So once you see the fluke, that whale is gone for a while.AK2005.jpg

There is a short season of string-line net fishing for salmon. There are 40 permits issued for a period of 3 days where commercial fisherman can haul what they can haul with the nets; then it is line only. The lines extend out hundreds of feet beyond the boat and when the buoy balls start to bob furiously, the fisherman knows he has a haul. But he must be quick lest the sea lion and seals steal his catch. Today is day one of the short season and the canal is full of boats and nets. Our captain spots and navigates very carefully to avoid becoming entangled in these nets reaching 40’ into the deep.

As we approach Herbert Glacier along the shore line we spy eagles going after the salmon in the stream. There are hundreds of salmon and AK2006.jpgalmost as many eagles – in the trees, in the air, perched on the shore and in the stream. It is a buffet lunch for them today!

We are only about 30 minutes out of Juneau and we are told to expect to see more whales. This is not a surprise to me as it was 15 years ago that Mario and I came to Juneau and saw whales in Auke Bay. This time it was better. Captain Greg told us of a pod of 11 humpback whales that have been working together lately to do some bubble netting to catch herring. It seems that when the herring become scared, they try to hide behind their neighbor and end up making a big fish ball – a buffet for the whales. We spy numerous blows and the Captain inches forward to a good vantage point. He stops the engines, puts the microphone into the water and he tells us how the system works. There is a lead whale whoAK2007.jpg directs the bubble netting. That whale leads the others to the bottom swimming in a circle and blowing bubbles below. That rounds up the herring. When the lead whale gives the long shrill call, all the whales surface simultaneously, mouths open to feast. There were gulls in the area. He said to watch the gulls as they will be the first clue to the whales surfacing. And almost as if Captain Gary was orchestrating the spectacle, the whale sounded, the gulls circled and a symphony of whales surfaced and blew in unison, feasting on the panicked herring. Then to keep the herring in a panicked state the multitude of whales started doing full body breaches right in front of our ship. Even Ann got giddy with excitement at the sight of the breaching whales.

AK2008.jpgThe highlight of the trip was supposed to be Juneau and the Mendendall Glacier – sorry, but it was the breaching whales bubble-netting. The glacier, however, was quite a stunning sight. Coming 25 miles out of the Juneau ice fields, the Mendenhall Glacier is another tide water glacier that as been in retreat lately, losing almost 60’ per year. We stayed on a rock for a while watching the glacier and we were rewarded with a calving of a nice sized chunk.

The return trip home was full of beautiful scenery of the high rock faces littered with small waterfalls, hanging glaciers and punctuated with wildlifeAK2009.jpg sightings – more eagles, seals, porpoises, whales and sea lions. There was even a channel marker so packed with sea lions that not another could come to rest. We also were privileged to have Ann make us some secret family recipe salmon chowder for dinner. This was the perfect end to an extraordinary day – great weather, sun, calm seas, and abundant wildlife. What else could we expect?

We arrived back at the docks in Skagway, grabbed the car and made the beeline for Whitehorse. We want to be poised for an early departure tomorrow morning to try to make the trench route to go home. We look to have a good weather opportunity for the next 2 days and want to make the best of it. As we leave town and head up to a perfectly clear White Pass Summit, we see a porcupine along the road – the last of the Alaska animals that we had not seen. We stop the car to get a picture but the light is getting low – this is the first sunset that we have really seen since our arrival over 2 weeks ago. We head out to the Canadian customs and they detain us for a bit to check out passports. As we wait, out wanders a black bear from the woods near the lake. He is heading right for the car. We try to get the attention of the customs peopleAK2010.jpg to remain inside but they come out and scare the bear away. He was just a small bear; cute and curious. Now it is alomst dark and our tale ends with a long drive up the South Klondike Highway watching the silouhette of the mountains in the dim glow of the moon.


In the valley: I suppose that I should have more aggressively planned to come home the way we went to Alaska so we could do what we really wanted to do instead. Somehow I AK2101.jpghave not learned the finer art of not using the words “plan” and “airplane” in the same sentence; unless, of course, it is something like:” I plan to go visit my airplane in the hangar today.” The trench route did not happen but the news is not so grim.

The weather was great; the ceiling was over 20,000’; the winds were light. So what went wrong? Wild fires! There is a huge wild fire just south ofAK2102.jpg Watson Lake, our jumping off point for the trench. Kelly, our Canada FSS guy, said the highway was even closed to traffic so nothing going there. He also said that convective activity was on the highway route farther to the east, so that was not possible; but he suggested an alternate “trench” route to the west of the real trench. The terrain was higher but not by much – one pass topped out at 4,000’ as opposed to 3,500’. Not bad. The route was just a smidge longer. Not bad. We are still flying through the heart of the Rockies with spectacular scenery (OK, it is time for a thesaurus to get another word for “spectacular”). Not bad. The down side is that the wind is a tailwind and it will be blowing smoke through the passes. We might have some areas where visibility is reduced to 20 miles. Oh, darn. AK2103.jpgWe’ll take it.

This route, called Cassair Route by the Alaskan Airmen’s Association, starts right out from Whitehorse and heads to Teslin then Dease Lake where we stop for fuel; then continues, basically down highway 16, with some minor deviations until you get to Prince George, BC. We fuel Wild Mama, file our flight plan and take off.

The forecast – both the good and bad – held true: the winds were very light to a slight tailwind; the route was amazing and the smoke eventuallyAK2104.jpg choked us out. Following the highway was easy – there are trees, lakes, rivers, mountains or a paved, long, stringy-looking thing. The highway ran through the narrow passes at some points and others it laid in the floor of the valley. The mountains were full of hidden treasures that were not visible immediately unless you took the time to turn your head and look up the fissures in the rock faces. Many of these mountains had ice fields and glaciers. The tree line was a bit higher, up to 4,500’ at this point.

AK2105.jpgWe started out at 3,500’ through most of the first leg of the journey, having to climb to 5,500’ as we rounded the bend and made our own route from 80 miles south of Teslin Lake at Prairie Lake (more like Prairie Pond). At that point we took up a rough 120 heading and did not hit the rocks for the remainder of the way to Dease Lake. Not 15 miles out of Dease Lake, the visibility off to our north dropped to less than 10 miles and it got really difficult to suck in a good strong breath. Once we turned back south along the lake, the visibility and the breathability improved and we dropped into visit the nice folks at Dease Lake.

From Dease, we picked up highway 37 south-east-ish to a point about 25 miles southeast of the fork in the road near Swan Lake(s) where theAK2106.jpg route was to stay in the big, fat valley and follow the logging trail to highway 16 all the way to Prince George. The radio was silent. There was nothing for over 3 hours but the drone of the engine – a very comforting sound, I might add, especially when the FSS asks: “One hour on the search and rescue?” Ummmm, yes, that will work.

We could soon see by the charts that the ice fields and glaciers were dwindling rapidly, as was the terrain but we remained at 5,500’ as we had AK2107.jpgone last little ridge to clear. Speaking of clear …. the smoke did finally start to thin out a bit. It was so dense and wide spread that it was most difficult to get good, clear photos even tough you could see the strong ridgelines and contrasting ice fields. About 40 miles outside of Prince George, the radio finally came to life and we soon started receiving sporadic position reports from other GA aircraft. We raised Prince George and landed after nearly 5 hours to flying today. We were beat as we were hammered by turbulent air during the last portion of the flight – after we left the mountainous area. There were some small building clouds – nothing like what we see in Florida; but these sure packed a punch.

We were glad to be on the ground and were done for the day. Vern got fuel and I secured the nights lodging. When I came back out to see WildAK2108.jpg Mama she looked as if she had the measles. I have never seen her so covered with bug: the windshield, winds, struts, cowl, everything. She was a mess. We will have to clean her before we depart tomorrow – at least enough so we can see to take off.

We will try to make it to the US tomorrow so, once again, we must perform the mundane task this evening of flight planning our return to the “lower 48”.

Return to civilization: After a sound nights sleep we got up and going by 0600 for weather checking, flight planning, and customs and eAPIS filing. We seem to conflict with Prince AK2201.jpgGeorge time as everything was closed for breakfast - even Starbucks for coffee. With all of the packing done and car loaded, we managed to grab coffee and a danish and were on our way. While I filed the flight plans, did the weather and customs filing, Vern took his time to de-bug WildAK2206.jpg Mama so we could see through the windshield. We will have to wait until we land at Kalispell to get a basic wash and full de-bug.
Our departure into perfect VFR weather was a much appreciated event. The pass through the south part of the trench is VERY narrow and any wind at all will be exacerbated by that narrow valley; fortunately, winds were very light.
We were not 15 minutes out of Prince George through the valley and the bugs were hitting the windshield like a pelting rain. There were so many that it looked as if Vern did not clean it off at all, in spite of his 20 minute cleaning job. I can imagine that we AK2204.jpgwould not be able to see had he done nothing.
Being back in the trench, we were surrounded by the tall mountains now - peaks at the 8,000' range. There were more snow covered peaks, deep trenches. As the valley narrows, we pick up the McNaughton Lake to follow. There will be neither roads nor airports for the next 130 miles over the lake. Hopefully, there will be no bugs either!
We continued to snake our way along the valley floor gawking at the giants on either side of us. There is no traffic, no one on the radio, no one painting our transponder. We are truly alone out here in the Rockies. It is very peaceful, serene, and beautiful. Finally as we approach Golden, we hear some traffic heading northbound along our route at 10,500'. NoAK2203.jpg conflict but it was nice to hear someone’s voice. We fly with the ditch bag and emergency supplies handy - 406 ELT, first aide kit, raft and life AK2202.jpgjackets. While that seems strange in the mountains, we never anticipated flying over so much water inland, but there is no place to ditch but in the water. Once past Golden, we are back over some land for a while. We hear traffic between us and Inveremere.

All too soon, we are back to civilization: there are more small towns dotting the valley and we hear more than the occasional position report on the radio. We are about 50 miles from Kalispell and Pacific FSS gets our discrete transponder code so we can cross back in to the lower 48.  We contact tower at Kalispell and land behind an Eclipse jet – oh, so many people are around all of the sudden. We pull up to Customs and are greeted by a friendly, happy customs inspector – are we really in the US??? He goes through all of our stuff – especially the bag of Tim Horton coffee that we bought for friends (hint: Peter, we are heading to Tennessee on the way home) – then he sends us on our way. Vern gets Wild Mama in for an oil change and tries to find a detailer to do another bug removal – they are really thick now.AK2205.jpg

The remainder of the day we spend doing absolutely nothing but wandering around Kalispell and … flight planning for the ride tomorrow.


Birds' eye view: We arrived at the airport a bit late. Apparently, we were both quite tired from the days mountain flying and the workload that goes with it. We were also about 30 AK2301.JPGminutes from the airport. Once there we saw a debugged Wild Mama: all but the windshield, but that debugging was a fairly quick job byAK2302.JPG comparison.
We made it off by 0830 and started a climb to 11,500' (no, Jim, the nose bleed did not happen). we were able to pick up a very little tailwind and scoot over most of the terrain, which explains the lack of photos. There were more fires in the area and the smoke created that haze that makes photography a bit useless. Additionally, the dramatic backdrops are just not there when you are skimming over the tops of the shorter peaks. Once we neared Enis, we needed to drop down a bit and follow the highway again so we could enter Yellowstone National Park and actually see more than dots on the ground.
We have driven Yellowstone a couple of times and were familiar enough with the lay of the land that we knew right where to go. Since we had a AK2303.JPGlate start, we did not want to waste time and we got right to the good stuff. We saw another plane on the TCAD 3,000' below us over the park but we remained up to 10,800 to give the critters and guests an undisturbed mutual viewing experience. We headed straight for the canyon.
Yellowstone has the "Grand Canyon of Yellowstone"; a depression not nearly as vast as THE Grand Canyon but very picturesque nonetheless. We circled the canyon to get a good view of both the upper and lower falls and the entire length of the canyon itself before heading to Yellowstone Lake. The lake is quite vast and is now what once was the caldera of the volcano that formed the Park. To the north now is a large area that was burned by the 2009 fires that got close enough to threaten buildings in the area and had to be extinguished. Today there were no fires in Yellowstone but there was a fire TFR to the SE of Jackson Hole.
From the lake we went to my favorite spot in the Park: the Grand Prismatic Pool. From the ground level, it is a normal hot spring and nothing particularly spectacular to look at; but from the air it is unbelievably colorful and resembles an eye into the heart of Yellowstone. We circled a bit as it is a sight that I cannot get enough of. We continued to the middle geyser basin to the fountain geyser then circled to try to catch a glimpse of Old Faithful but she did not blow.AK2305.JPG 
It was approaching noon, the bewitching hour to bring mountain flying excursions to a screeching halt. It was only in the low 80's today but the airport elevation is nearly 6,500' and the density altitude registers a good 2,000' plus above actual. This is nothing to fool with, especially with Wild AK2306.JPGMama who does not care for the high flight levels on a good day.
We plopped into Jackson Hole and were met by my niece, Brenda. We continued the remainder of the day visiting family and wandering around Jackson Hole for my annual shopping expedition at the fur rug shop and the antler stores. I made my obligatory purchases before we headed down the canyon to Star Valley to Brenda's house for the evening. Vern relocated Wild Mama to the Alpine airport where she is much closer and the fuel is LOTS cheaper. We can rest here for a couple of days before heading east.AK2307.JPG

AK2308.JPGOh, yes: Did I happen to mention that there was a herd of buffaol wandering past the airport entrance?


Oh, give me a home ...:I keep saying that we are going to have a lazy day and i suppose by comparison, it was. We got a bit of a late start then headed to town for more family visits AK2401.jpgthen on up to Teton National Park to go to the Two Oceans Lake on the continental divide. This is a part of the park that we had seen before and that is not frequented by tourists as the main part of the park.
The drive was full of lush vegetation and oodles of wildflowers. There was a storm that had been brewing all day and the cloud deck over the mountain framed the peaks very well until the rains came down upon us. Most unfortunately, our timing was to arrive at the lake just as the rain started so the hike around the lake will have to wait until the next visit.
For the evening entertainment, we went to the Bar T 5 Ranch for a covered wagon ride to  a chuck wagon dinner and audience participationAK2403.jpg entertainment. The cowboys and selected "volunteers" put on quite a shoe of singing and comedy. The dutch oven dinner was outstanding and our wagon drive, David, lead the team of Ginger and Dixie, 2 draft horses that can pull together between 10,000 -12,000 pounds! We were the last of 11 wagons in the train so we had to watch for the indian attack coming in from the rear. The whole evening was hoot.
AK2402.jpg.. And did I mention that critters roam all around the streets? We captured another herd of buffalo and a moose that ran out in front of the car on the way home.

AK2501.jpgReverse course: We managed to get off this morning at 0715 after a sound nights sleep. The temperature was a brisk 41 degrees and the skies were unbelievably clear. Nice. We followed the highway from Alpine to Afton then loosely followed it until we lost it in a deep valley. We continued down the valley until we had clear terrain then made a beeline for Kemmerer, skimming across the tops of the lower peaks. From Kemmerer, the terrain remains relatively high (6,800' or so) but relatively flat and featureless except for the smattering of oil wells that dot the landscape. VeryAK2502.jpg soon, we face the scarred but barren land as far as we can see. Visibility is only 50 miles or so.
Finally outside of Cheyenne we saw the first trees that we had seen in 2 hours. The visibility remained clear and we finally caught a nice 26 kt tailwind. With the long day ahead, any tailwinds are greatly appreciated.
As we pass Cheyenne with the passing of a magical wand, all of the mountains have vanished and we fi d ourselves in the high plains: patchwork quilted fields of greens and earth tones, winding creeks and not the first hint of a hill as far as the eye can see. It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the landscape changes over our country.AK2503.jpg
It was time to come down for our planned fuel stop in McCook. We had such a nice speed and the plane was still cool. We hated to come down and we paid the price: after refueling Wild Mama was hot from sitting on the tarmac and we could not get quite the performance back out of her that we had before coming down...but the is that small matter of AvGas ...
AK2504.jpgWe climbed back to 7500' where there was a hint of cool air - 72 degrees. The density altitude gave us about a plus 2,200' so we were sucking wind pretty fast but was still managed a quartering tailwind or a respectable speed. We were pleased. Back to the grind of miles and miles of high plains. After an hour, the geometric landscape turns to a more random pattern and we near some of the river basins - Kansas River being the first. It has turned the patches of browns and tans into a stitch work of trees around the small streams and tributaries.
We are keeping up a good speed so we decide to bypass our cheap fuel stop in favor of staying aloft. We have enough fuel and reserve to make it to Sparta, assuming no change (slow down) in our speed nor increase in out fuel burn. Worst case, closer to Tennessee there are a multitude ofAK2505.jpg places to stop, unlike out west, so an unplanned airport is not as much of an issue. If we do not like the fuel price, we take enough to get to Sparta and have a small temporary pain in the wallet.
At 7:14 in to the flight we finally crossed the Mississippi River. We also ran in to a small cloud bank. I had to sight the clouds to see if w had to change altitudes, but with a small amount of deviation, we were able to scoot through without a problem. We have managed to keep up our ground speed so the second planned fuel stop might get to be history. We are hopeful for an 1800 arrival in Sparta to give us enough time to get the car and get to the cabin before dark. It seems so strange now to have it get dark. Once we got accustomed to it, we kind of like the light although it really reeked havoc with the body clock. We never seemed to get that drowsy feels that will overtake you as dark approaches.

AK2506.jpgWe made our final approach into Sprata. What a wonderful sight. This is home – of sorts – at least it is very familiar surroundings and OUR place to stay. We will remain here for a few days then make the last push back to Alva. This stopping in the various time zones is certainly helping with the Wild Mama lag (I can hardly call it jet-lag).

AK2601.jpgHomeward Bound: After our month long odyssey we are finally on the last leg for home. It is beautiful VFR as we leave Sparta but we know the ceiling over Georgia is very low so we file out of caution. As we approach Chattanooga, the layer of clouds - about 50' thick is right at our 7,000' altitude. OK, we get to claims some actual IFR for 30 minutes. We break out to see solid fog below us, just as forecast. We are sporting a nice little tailwind forecast for most of the journey so we are pleased.
Finally the call came: the one we had been waiting for. We had filed direct to RMG then direct LGC, bypassing HEFIN. "N614WM proceed direct HEFIN, rest of route unchanged." oh well, we tried. By now there is a solid sea of white beneath us as far as tje eyes can see. Occasionally, we see a towering cumulus building off in the distance. We need to make it to X14 before the afternoon thunderstorms begin.
AK2602.jpgBy the time we hit Moultrie, there were some holes in the clouds and we saw our first hint of ground – green and flat. We know we are nearing home. The storms are already starting to build and pop around us but our path is clear. Almost on cue, it is 1053 hrs and someone turned on the bump machine for a while but it soon smoothes out and we go back to the stable tormented looking sky around us.
We spend the next hour dodging the storms in front of us. The tops are not high - only to about 10,000' but they are strong enough that we want to avoid them. Getting back into familiar territory near Tampa we fly over Zephyrhills where these is a large skydiving outfit. I look down to see a gently reminder for the skydivers to open their chutes – like someoneAK2603.jpg would be likely to forget!

In short order we pass Lakeland and we know we are just 30 minutes from home. Miami hands us off to Fort Myers approach as we begin our descent. We touch down shortly before 1300 hours. Home at last.


Logbook: The results are in and the final verdict for trip statistics is:

Time logged: 63.4 hours

Days on trip: 34

Miles Logged: 8,663 nm

States crossed: 24

Canadian Providences crossed: 3

Number of Landings: 25 (amazingly enough, this is equal to the number of airports at which we landed)

Cost: priceless

... Where is she going next? ...