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For many years I wanted to fly my 601XLB to Alaska but I only had a light-sport pilot's license. After endless waiting and hoping for a rule change in Canada, I finally ran out of patience. This last spring I "went back to school" and got my full pilot's license. Shortly thereafter I started planning my biggest airplane adventure yet, a flight to Alaska.
Upon studying maps and doing a bit of measuring, it soon became apparent that flying through the vast spaces of Canada on the way to Alaska is a major portion of the trip. Further investigation uncovered plenty to see in Canada on the way to Alaska. Having completed the trip I can say for sure that the grand empty spaces of Canada should not be discounted if you’re looking for mountain and wilderness flying. If you’re more of a road follower, that is possible too but following roads in Canada will limit what you see considerably because there are few roads and lots of wilderness. As you can see in our pictures, my flying buddy Bob Gutteridge and I are not road followers.
Below is a write up of our trip composed by Bob for the EAA chapter 124 news letter. Bob does a nice job of describing the trip and there are a few pictures sprinkled in to help with the story. They are low resolution to keep the blog size down.
One of my "job"s on these trips is to be the picture guy. I came home from this trip with about 1,300 of them. Bob took about 400. After many hours of editing and clean up, about 900 remain. All of these are available for viewing on-line (links below) but I encourage you to read Bob story first. Having some background will make the pictures more meaningful.
Another of my "jobs" is trip presenter. After the pictures are cleaned up, I travel to a few local EAA chapters and give a "show-and-tell" presentation. To keep the presentations under two hours, I have to cut the picture collection down to about 150 pictures. A first-cut of this abbreviated collection is available on-line too.
One of my goals for this trip was to fly my 601XLB to the top of Mt. Denali which is 20,310 feet. Had I removed my camping gear from the airplane I might have made it. Loaded the way it was, about 19,800 is all I could get out of it. But I did get the pictures I wanted of the top.
Both the complete picture collection and the abbreviated picture collection are on Microsoft's OneDrive. It is possible to view the pictures full-screen. Most have been cropped for 16-9 screen size. On Windows computers, the F11 key toggles a web browser into/out-off full screen mode. Clicking a picture will cause it to take up the entire monitor, then you can use right and left arrow keys to navigate forward/backward. Individual pictures can be downloaded if you like.
Remember, Bob's write-up is below.
I hope the story below and the pictures give you some entertainment and a sense of the adventure.
============ Bob's EAA chapter 124 news letter write up of our trip is below ===============
Two ELSA's to Alaska, Aug 12-25, 2015
Fellow EAA-124 member Steve Smith finished building his Zodiac 601 about the same time as I completed my Jabiru J-250. Both aircraft fly in the newer category known as Experimental Light Sport Aircraft (ELSA). And, as we have learned, both have similar performance capability which is a convenient when you fly together. Also convenient is the fact that Steve and I enjoy the same kind of flying. Over the last few years this matching of performance and interest has benefited me because Steve also likes to layout flying adventures and doesn't seem to object to a tag-a-long.
Steve's most recent escapade called for a flight through Canada and into Alaska. The goals included, having a good time and not getting eaten by a bear as well as seeing rugged mountains, Denali in particular, and briefly visiting the north slop airports of Deadhorse at Prudhoe Bay and Barrows. The last two were on the list because we had never been there before and a trip over the Brooks Range sounded like something we should attempt. Barrows is also notable as the most northerly airport in the USA.
With these objectives in mind we researched what such an undertaking required. I had flown through Canada to Alaska in 1999 in my Cessna 182 along with friend Jim Elliott flying in his Cessna 172, but times have changed since 911. Preliminary activities included registering our self's and our aircraft on line with the Federal agencies so that inputting flight plans and other information required for crossing international boarders would be easier. This being the modern age, there was also learning the new electronic equipment which are in use rather than the old paper maps. Finally there was the satellite-bases emergency tracker from DeLorme which we purchased for should one of us have to make an emergency off airport landing in the wilderness.
What follows is my recollection of the daily activities and sites as we traveled.
Day 0: The last step in “get ready for T.O.” was to re-positioning the aircraft to Cloverdale Airport to avoid the obligatory morning fog at Santa Rosa, thus facilitating an early start.
Day 1 began with the quick drive to Cloverdale to load and gas the airplanes. Thanks Geri for driving out to return the car. Equipment was quickly moved into the airplanes. Good byes and fly safe admonishment given and the Jeep departed for home. This left us to deal with issue #1, the gas pumps were found to be in-op. A quick calculation verified we had adequate fuel for the short run to Reno Stead Airport. We were set to make our early departure but the weather was not. Re-positioning was a waste of time! Score: 0 / 1.
Fog finally dissipated and we made our escape about 1030 for the flight to Reno area. Tanks were soon filled after addressing issue #2, Steve's wallet and passport did not get into the packed material! Arrangements were quickly made to have it shipped next day to Cavanaugh Bay ($65) and my credit card was made available for the purchase of fuel. All problems fixed and we departed on a northerly heading at about 1230 for the flight through the NV Black Rock Desert. Needless to say it was really hot and bumpy.
Smoke in ID was awful on Day 2 requiring climb to 18k to get on top. Near the Canadian border we turned west for Sandpoint, ID to fill our gas tanks before landing at Cavanaugh Bay for the night. We were very tired but happy to have the wallet and passport waiting at the desk. A cold beer was the next order of business.
With night approaching tents were set up next to our planes rather hurriedly as thunder could be heard in the distance. We experienced wind with a little rain during the early evening punctuated by occasional lightning flashes to the south. Luckily the storm had mostly played out by morning leaving just a few clouds.
Day 3 went well after all the border crossing ooh-raw the night before try to get the eAPIS and flight plan filled. Next issue was bad information from FAA briefer. Were told we could get our squawk codes from Seattle Center after take-off. We called, tried other frequencies and never did make contact with Seattle even after climbing to 8500'!
Half expecting to be jail we headed for Cranbrook, BC. On the first radio call about 10 miles out we were welcomed by the Canadians and informed that our flight plans did get transferred and we were expected. What a relief! You just gotta love those folks up north; they don't get excited over meaningless details.
Customs complete and gas tanks filled we made ready to depart. Low clouds kept us from flying up in the Rockies, called "the Rocks" by locals, but flying the valley just to the west at a few thousand feet provided to be a 236 NM array of spectacular vistas. This scenery proved to be the biggest surprise of the trip in spite of the occasional shower and lightening.
The day ended at Valemount in EAA 1103's club house. Another nice surprise as we would have been camping in the rain had we not been allowed inside. Note for the future; they also have gas on the honor system. Who would have expected that.
Day 4 turned out to be a long day although relatively easy. This was the day we traversed “the Trench”, a geological feature running from Mackenzie to Watson Lake in a nearly perfect straight line. The first 150 NM is over Williston Lake, a very narrow lake with a few landing strips and several Indian villages scattered along its length. Mackenzie fuel service provided free ice cream cones and a sheet listing the strips with detailed descriptions and advise regarding whether we would be welcomed should we stop in for a visit. During this leg we began to notice the almost total lack of wild life. A few hawks was all I can remember seeing during this 6.7 hour trip.
Watson Lake Airport lies on the north shore of Watson Lake. The town is a few miles distance prompting us to choose setting up camp at the picnic area close to the lake at the end of the runway. Conveniences included: a gazebo with a wood heater, BBQ's (6 or 8), hose with running water and a potable outhouses. However, with the exception of the water hose, all were in need of attention. While no specific camping fee was collected, bear in mind that there is a landing fee at most Canadian airports so we will likely be getting a bill soon. (Update: landing fees are actually not all that common in Canada. The bill we each got in the mail was about $15.00).
Day 5 was a easy 3.1 hr day along the Alcan Hwy then Teslin Lake to Whitehorse. Whitehorse Airport lies on a bluff about 200 feet above the main portion of the city. A shower along with the prospect of real food prompted us to opt for the motel a short walk from the airport. After checked in and tossing our bags in the room we headed for Chinese restaurant next door. Following diner we spent a few minutes peering through the fence at The Yukon Transportation Museum's equipment used to construct the Alcan Hwy and explore the frozen tundra. A DC-3 wind sock out front was an eye catcher.
Our motel advertised a web connection but we could not get onto the system, seems with a conference going on the system was in grid lock. Frustrated we gave up trying to input our required documents for the entry into Alaska the next day. Poor web service was the common theme in Canada and in Alaska. Had it not been Steve's Hot-Spot we would have had a much more difficult time keeping our electronic devises going.
Day 6: We did get on the web in the morning allowing us to set our equipment loading updates while we eat breakfast. One additional factor that we encountered as we prepared for this leg was the time change. Alaska, being in the Hawaii-Aleutian Time Zone, required us to account for the hour difference as we posted our Fairbanks arrival time. Complying with the customs requirement of not being early nor more than 15 minutes late is a challenge. We didn't help our selves by selecting Fairbanks, some 429 NM distance, as our port of entry. With the clock running, we launched. Motoring north west, the Alcan Hwy was our companion. Before long the navigation equipment began showing an early arrival, well before our “don't arrive before time”. A quick review proved that our undoing was the result of a consistent tail wind in the neighborhood of 20 NM. What a time for a great tail wind to show up! To be in compliance we began to look for interesting features to explore. We followed the curves of the Tanana River for a time, circled a moose, inspected still smoldering wild fires, circled Tetlin Lake and crossed the oil pipe line a couple of times.
The latter half of this route was through smoke haze not heavy enough to be dangerous but it did prevent photographing the distant mountains. Additionally, from what we could see to our right, the clouds were down on the hills of the Brooks Range and it was obvious that we would not be heading up to the North Slope any time soon.
Near the end of the flight we navigated carefully to pass south of Ellison AFB in a ziz-zag manner to remain clear of their restricted airspace as we maneuvered to enter a right base entry into Fairbanks airport. Fairbanks is a busy airport having commercial service, regional as well as international, and a very healthy flock of general aviation aircraft. Three runways; one quite long for the “heavies”, a shorter hard surface for all us lighter and slower aircraft as well as a water strip for the many float planes working the area, make up the airport. We landed on the larger runway due to our need to proceed immediately to customs. The controllers did a great job of inserting us into the traffic flow and we were quickly taxiing to customs.
Day 7: With weather delay at hand we had opted for a rental car to explore the town. After looking around the town we extended the exploration by driving north out Hwy 2 for about 30 miles in the direction of the Dalton Hwy. It was amazing how fast town turned into wilderness. There were the sporadic dirt lanes leading off into the dense bush with only a lonely mail box standing sentinel at the main road. Our map indicated a lonely 440 mile drive to Deadhorse with little service.
The forecast was not in the least bit encouraging for our wish to cross the Brooks Range and ultimately make it to Deadhorse and Barrows. During a discussion with a local pilot he told us that over many years in the area he had only made it up there 3 times. We were disappointed but such is flying with small airplanes.
Looking on the brighter side we had a day to kick back, relax and explore. Radio telescope antennas on the sky line lead us up to the Univ. of Alaska campus where we found our way to their museum. A nicely done museum covering the history of Alaska before and after joining the USA, its animals and modern art were covered in detail. We spent about 3 hours before they closed the doors.
On the morning of Day 8 broke to local scattered showers but the weather to the south around Denali was encouraging and seeing the mountain in the clear was at least a possibility. With hopes high we flew south.
Denali Park airport was in the clear so we circled back for lunch and a quick sightseeing walk in the main campus. They have built over the nice little camp ground where I had set up my tent during the 1999 trip. I felt hurt as this was a nice spot to call home while visiting the Park. The new diorama hall is well done showing the park's animals in life like display. They have spared no expense in rebuilding the park.
Following lunch we proceeded south 8 miles to Denali Private airport, our intended destination for the day. It being the top of the hour with the sightseeing planes due to arrive any moment, we elected to fly on by to allow them to get parked before we returned to land.
As we proceeded south Denali came into view above a layer of clouds tops about at about 4500'. Sighting Denali was all that was needed to divert us for a close look. Catching the Mountain in the clear was at the top of Steve's list of things to do.
For the next 45 min we climbed with mountain pikes and glaciers below. At 15,000' OAT was down to 4F. I was getting dangerously cold because I had capped off my heater for the mild summer temperatures we had been flying. I radioed Steve and explained my situation. He was doing well and wished to continue so I headed down and would await his arrival below.
After more than an hour and with no radio contact I had become more than a little worried because of the time he had been aloft. At this point I returned to Denali Private hoping to find Steve there. No such luck. I called Doug Dugger, our friend back in California, asking if he had a report on Steve's progress from his satellite tracking system. After about 15 minutes Doug was able to confirmed that Steve was indeed on his way back to camp; and I could start to breath again! Many thank to you Doug.
With Steve safely on the ground he reported using all but 3 gallons of gas. That isn't as bad as it sounds, as 3 gallons is almost an hour's flight. He gotten to 20k before his 601 just would not go up any higher. But he had gotten his wish and has the photos.
On Day 9 our hosts took us on a short fly to their favorite mountain. Mt Debra is east of Denali about 130 mi and is just as spectacular, even though it is much lower. It has many large glaciers and is heavily packed with snow. Our friends told us that Mnt Debra's glaciers are growing while others in the area are retreating. I guess even Alaska has micro climates.
Day 10 broke with rain and now snow in the extended forecast so we elected to end our Alaskan adventure a few days early and take full advantage of the improving weather to the south. A route was picked for our return to Canada which paralleled our North bound route but on the east side of the coast range and west of the Trench.
We soon encountered another bureaucratic snafu. Were told by the briefer to pick up our squawk codes passing over Norhtway en route to Beaver Creek for customs. A short radio discussion with Northway radio did not yield our codes. So once again we were off for a border crossing out of compliance with the regulations. As before the Canadians don't seem to mind and we are welcomed back into Canada.
First overnight stop was back to Whitehorse. We beat the rain into town but the next day's weather forecast did not look all that promising. A cab was ordered to take us to down town Whitehorse. The town sits on the banks of the Yukon River below the bluff where the airport is located. The cab ride also offered a chance to pick up some local knowledge, IE which are the good motels and where are the nice restaurants. First choice motel was full but 2nd choice was located just two short blocks from a really great restaurant.
Day 11; Next day was rainy as forecast with a stiff wind blowing from the south; it would have been hell to fly into. With breakfast finished we grabbed our hats and coats, as well as a local map of the town, and set out to walk the town. For no reason other than it was there we hiked a trail leading to the top of the bluff overlooking town. Continuing south, that would be up stream direction along the airport perimeter, we stopped often to grab photos of the town stretched out below. The trail continues for perhaps 2 mi along the bluff before dropping back down to the river. Near the halfway point we were above the south end of town and the float plane landing area on the river below. Several planes could be seen docked in the cove provided. Well to the south we could also see the clear indication of oncoming rain showers, they looked extensive and heavy.
The threat of an impending deluge put us into a full retreat to the main town below seeking shelter. From above we had seen the S. S. Klondike. This refurbished sternwheeler has become the center piece of a historic museum showing how freight was moved before roads, rail and aircraft came to the Yukon. The tented movie theater proved a welcome shelter from the showers that swept through as we watched a history video covering early life on the Yukon River.
Our return walk to the motel followed the banks of the Yukon River. It is a very sizable river. We remarked on how fast the clear water was flowing. One report I found put the average seasonal flow at time of year at about 80,000 cfs. For comparison, that flow rate fills an Olympic pool in 1.1 seconds; that's a bit of water!
Day 12 began with a weather check which indicated we could expect reasonable, if not perfect, flying weather all the way to Smithers in BC. The 435 NM route was over steep hills with several gorgeous water falls and several heards of elusive mountain goats. The head winds costing us time and gas, not to mention the constant rock and roll turbulence. My log says we spent 6.4 hours en-route on a plan indicating a bit less than 5 hours. We were tired and opt for the motel without discussion.
In chatting with our cabby about the clean, new and well-kept appearance of Smithers, we learn its condition is due largely to the six working gold/silver/copper/molybdenum mines in the area. The problem, he continued to explain, is that labor is very hard to come by in town. The working folks prefer the better wages paid out at the mines to flipping burger at minimum wages in town, imagine that. chat
Day 13 opens to another good flying day, with less head wind we hoped. Flight progressed nicely as we followed the curvature of the coastal mountains south by south-east. These coastal mountains are also magnificent piles of rocks. Many glaciers are clearly visible poring down the valleys with jagged pikes extending well up into the sky. As we progress south temperatures were observed to be rising regularly. An hour into the flight we begin to look for the Fraser River Canyon which we planned to follow on into Chilliwack for the night.
As an interesting side note, this is our second encounter with the Fraser River. Our first meeting was a few miles north of Valemount on Day 4 as it dropped down from Mnt Robson and the Jasper National Park. We had dutifully followed it for 130 NM until it made a sharp 170 degree turn to the south-west at Prince George and then ran in a near straight line to the south west for more than 200 miles.
Right on time the Fraser Canyon appeared ahead where the river enters the mountainous terrain at a point about 70 south of Williams Lake. The canyon is a steep sided 4000 feet deep crack in the earth with few places to make a landing except for the small strips scattered along its floor.
Our intent was to drop down into the canyon to follow the river but after dropping only a 1000 feet we realize that the air temperature in the bottom will be quite high. We have already seen it rise 10 to 15 degrees. My oil temperature is showing a steady rise, which at the moment is not a problem, but it is also obvious that continuing to the bottom of the canyon will have the temperature into the red zone. In the good news category is the head wind which I now use as it rushes up the canyon sides to regain altitude without having to add power. Sometimes head winds are good.
As we approached the Vancouver area it is back into the smoke, visibility deteriorates to maybe 3 miles in spots. Just over the ridge line to our south we can see a very large smoke column building above a wild fire burning in northern Washington. It would seem that anything that can burn is burning in northern WA! Fortunately visibility opened up nicely, perhaps to 8 miles, as we approached our destination, Chilliwack. Joining a couple other aircraft in the pattern we are soon on the ground. CYCW is a nice little airport with inadequate parking accommodations. We were left to find a patch of grass and drive our own stakes to secure the airplanes for the night. The on field restaurant is still open to which we take advantage for a nice dinner.
A motel is located a short walk from the field, it is less expensive but convenient. Once in our room we find we are not out of the smoke just yet. Marijuana smoke is wafting up from the boys on the 1st floor just below us. Glad we didn't get tested, we may not have passed the sobriety test. However, we did slept well.
Day 14 weather forecast is for good for flying conditions with reduced smoke after the nightly cool down. With all our documents filed we watch the clock and call the customs at the designated airport we wish to use in entering the US and are told there will be no agents on duty there that day. Interesting that all the agents can all just decide to go into the field for the day essentially closing the facility. So a change in flight plan is required. A phone call has that fixed and customs at Bellingham are ready for us.
The thirty mile flight is takes 15 minute and we are parked in the white custom's box. Here we are being closely scrutinized by three airport workers. They stand motionless with their toes at the outer edge of the white line as they are forbidden to enter the box, we are forbidden to step out, we all just watch each other in silence. Rather awkward. Our customs agent soon appears with her Geiger counter and proceeds to wave it around both aircraft's exterior surfaces. I will assume it is actually a neutron detector because neutrons are very difficult to shield, but I choose not to quiz the agent on such detail.
We are told to get passports, aircraft registration, pilot's license and medicals and follow her inside; watching crew are now free to return to what ever they do when not guarding newcomers. The procedure only takes a few minutes, I guess all our preparatory effort is paying off. After we are cleared and on our way out I feel compelled to ask about the aeromedical inspection as medicals are not required to fly our aircraft in the US. The agent simply replies that it is on her list of things she has to see and, furthermore, I need it. End of discussion.
We gas up and headed for the coast and "less" smoke. Nervously we picking our way through Seattle's airspace including MOA's and restricted zones over the submarine base on a route to the south west. With the coast line soon gained we fly the water's edge down Washington and into Oregon, and back into the smoke and fog. Back up to 4500 feet clears the fog giving us a clear view of several of the fires burning along the coastal mountains. Fortunately most of the smoke was headed to the north east. All we had was a light smoke from a fire much further to the south. Steve was able to use his on-board computer system to map the restricted area, TFR's, around the fires along our route and determine that a straight line from Murray airport near Arcata to Santa Rosa was clear. With data in hand we both set KSTS as the next destination. This day's leg, with only a short stop at Brandon State to swap out an errant igniter on Steve's engine, and to pick up 5 gallons of gas, ended at Santa Rosa 7.4 hours after leaving Bellingham, WA.
Little Jabiru made it home non-stop; I am saying non-stop as I had not taken on any gas at Brandon. A quick check of my tanks indicated 8 gallons was still on board at KSTS. Not quite enough to make it to the southern California border, not that my back side would have sat still that much longer anyway.
International travel conundrums:
⦁ USA federal bureaucracies do not talk to, nor coordinate with, each other. One wants local times, the other in Zulu. AC code assigned to the Jabiru by FAA is not recognized by international flight plan web service, so you guess until it accepts your plan, because you MUST have a plan on record. I have no idea what they think I was flying.
⦁ Information passed out is not accurate in how a user is to comply with regulations. Both US briefers told us to call in flight for squawk codes. Neither worked.
⦁ Canada requires medicals for pilots operating within their borders, but they do not check. USA Customs inspector wants to see a medical which is not required in the US, it is required by their procedure. They have never heard of Light Sport, and it is her opinion all pilots should be required to have a medical.
The Alaska trip was a mixed bag, as one should expect with weather in the far northern being the wild card in the deck. We saw much of what we had hoped to see but were unable to get up on the north slope. However, we experienced some wonderful surprises. All in all, one very fine trip! Stats: 14 days, 6200 mi, 58.5 hrs flying, 190 gals, $6.70/gal avg, 32.6 mpg, = $0.21/mi. Now I need a rest!
Aug 12 Smiley Creek, ID; 6.1 hrs
Aug 13 Cavanaugh Bay, WA; 5.2 hrs
Aug 14 customs @ Cranbrook, BC; cont'g to Valemont, BC; 4.3 hrs
Aug 15 Watson Lake, YT; 6.7 hrs
Aug 16 Whitehorse, YT; 3.1 hrs
Aug 17 customs @ Fairbanks, AK; 5.6 hrs; drive pipe line 30 mi
Aug 19 McKinley Park, AK;1.2 hrs; fly local area sight seeing
Aug 21 customs @ Beaver Creek; cont'g to Whitehorse, YT; 6.4 hrs
Aug 23 Smithers, BC; 6.8 hrs
Aug 24 Chilliwack, BC; 5.7 hrs
Aug 25 customs @ Bellingham; Santa Rosa, CA; 7.4 hrs
6200 mi, 58.5 hrs, 106 mph, 190 g @ $6.70/g(avg), 32.6 mpg, $0.21/mi