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Bush Flying in Alaska

During a recent trip to Alaska leading a group of Argentinean pilots to the 49th State (Argies to Alaska) I met a fine group Alaskan Bush Pilots in the Anchorage area. After suffering with repeated temptations from their periodic glowing reports about too much fun during their back country flying I returned to do some local flying with them.

Don owns a PA-14 Piper Super Cruiser

Jerry flies a PA-12 Piper Super Cub

Kent  pilots also a PA-12 Piper Super Cub, and

Amy has an Aeronca Champ

These planes are fitted with VERY LARGE "Tundra" tires and can be outfitted with skis or floats also.

We flew from Hood Strip, adjacent to Anchorage International and Lake Hood Seaplane base.

This is the summary of adventures with them...


Yetna River

I met Don (PA-14 SuperCruiser), Ken (SuperCub, Jerry (Super Cub), Tony "the Vet" (Super Cub) and Amy (Ken's girlfriend who is an Alaska 737 pilot) at Lake Hood "Strip" for a flight. Temps were around 55 degrees and partly cloudy skies with a few cumulus clouds creating some isolated precipitation in the form of rain shafts.

Heading Eastward across the Cook Inlet at the mandatory 700' msl till reaching the shoreline on the other side by the sunken ship. At that time we descended below 300' which was our altitude for the rest of the flight until returning to land again.

We intercepted the Yentna River and flew at or below tree top level seeing a large number of bald eagles who gathered along side to feast on the run of "Hooligan" fish which happens at this time of the year.



The leaves had just started to come out this week on the trees. Ken flew alongside us in his green Super Cruiser executing a series of maneuvers.

We then landed at a river bar frequented by the group in the past.



After a short time there while Abby (Don's 85% wolf/dog) and Ken's dog got into a bad fight, we lifted off again and proceeded upstream. Everyone reported the unusual large amount of bald eagles and we saw a Moose cow and newly born calf along the shoreline. 

Soon we reached another bar and after circling it to assess its suitability for landing, one by one we took our turn to touch down here.  The very large "tundra" tires helped smooth out the gravel rolling beneath us. I was notified that this particular river bar has never been given a name and we christened it Deeter Bar!!


While here Abby got to run around free with a long rope tied to her neck. Don found in the past that her wild instinct takes over in places like this and she doesn't want to return back to civilization and get back on the plane when is time to go. So he ties the long rope to her enabling him to grab her when is time to depart. She actually loves to fly in the plane (probably doesn't know any better!)

While at Deeter Bar we ate our sandwiches and saw some HUGE bear paw prints.

Soon again it was time to move on. Amy left before the rest of us since she had to command a 737-200 plane departing at 6 AM from Anchorage for Kodiak and back and then to Nome and back by 1 PM (she has a house on Lake Hood Strip next to Anchorage International).



Then one by one everyone took off. Don and I were the last ones to go and as we prepared to start Jerry made a LOW pass over us realizing that Super Cubs can create significant wake turbulence!! We then proceed downstream for a bit. Always at or below treetop level (no pressurized high performance plane needed for this type of flying).

Again along the way (river) we saw the moose calf and cow still wading in the shallow shore.  Don and the rest theorized that they were hiding from a grizzly bear who are excellent trackers by smell.



We flew at low altitude over boggy swamps and soon reached Cook Inlet again and called Lake Hood tower for landing instructions. We were cleared for landing to the East and touched down around 10:30 PM in broad daylight. Then Ken, Don and I went to eat some pie at a nearby coffee shop.


Knik Glacier

After a leisure morning start Don de Voe and I drove to Lake Hood Strip, which is adjacent to Anchorage International and Lake Hood Seaplane base, to meet Jerry Imm. Today I flew in Jerry's Super Cub with 26" Tundra tires. Take off was brisk into the 12 knot westerly winds with a wonderful view of the adjacent Seaplane base and KANC.


Headed west on downwind we immediately crossed the Cook Inlet and then followed its western shoreline staying out of KANC's Class C airspace and Elmendorf Air Force Base. We flew over the mud flats observing the ocean ebbing to sea and soon came within a short distance of Palmer where we headed up Knik Valley turning East just south of Palmer. I flew the Super Cub most of the time and found it to be extraordinarily well behaving confirming Jerry's statements that it could fly "handsfree" for long periods of time - a steady platform indeed. After a short while we reached the base of Knik Glacier and since we were the first of the group we took our time leisurely sightseeing. We decided to land at "Glastar" strip, an unmarked runway on the glacial "moraine" which was so named after a Glastar pilot (light experimental composite kit airplane) in the past almost killed himself taking off. Of course our landing was severely cushioned by Jerry's giant balloon tires and the roll out did not exceed 100 feet.

Jerry is a graduate Geologist and has held many positions of responsibility in the past among them the head of the State of Alaska Natural Resources Division in Juneau. He explained the forces of glaciers and how they leave behind moraine berms.

At this site (frequented by the group in the past) even a picnic table was in place. After waiting for the other planes for a while we took off again to sightsee some more and observed many ice floes which recently calved from the face of Knik Glacier.



We then approached another face of the glacier where it meets the steep face of Mount Palmer and creates a "Gorge" like. We descended lower until we fitted (barely) in the narrow span of its confines and our wing tips almost touched the face of the glacier on one side and steep Palmer Mountain on the other. We flew its length...

We landed at another preferred spot where two bear hunters had set up tent and were intensely looking for a large boar and sow which they've pursued earlier on.

After a short chat with these men we lifted off again and flew over Upper Lake George created by the melting glacier and its ice floes trapped by a huge earlier berm of moraine. Jerry explained that every so often the ice backs up soo much and breaks the dam (berm) releasing a great flood downstream.



The colors were spectacular including a deep indigo, aquamarine and turquoise. I wish that the enclosed pictures could truly represent these. Soon we reached the moraine left over from Lake George glacier at its moraine Valley and saw another frequented "airstrip" by the group.


This plateau had parts of the receding glacier. In parts the gigantic forces of the glacier had polished the uncovered hilltops.

We could see the end of this valley in the distance and entered the narrow gorge of STEEP Whiteout Glacier. Jerry claims to have started at its base and his Super Cub outclimbed it in the past. He was expecting it to be only 2000' high back then but did not reach its crest until 7,500'!! These airplanes can surely maintain a steep climb gradient..



Out from these glacier we overflew another landing strip and saw yet another face of Knik Glacier. The leaves of deciduous trees were coming out here also and the bright verdant glow of these created a mystical effect. Unfortunately we also witnessed the devastation caused by the spruce bark beetle on conifers.


Wondering what had happened to the rest of our troops we headed towards the mouth of Knik Valley and landed at "Two Islands" airstrip hoping to find a break from the strong cold wind for our picnic behind the two hills protruding from the glacial gravel.

Suddenly we heard Don's chat on the Air to Air advisory frequency overhead and conferred about trying yet another landing spot that may be more guarded from the wind for our picnic.

He was going to land at another preferred spot past Knik glacier and Lake George on the valley floor of Lake George Glacier. Rapidly we got in the plane and took off in the direction where they were going. We arrived a short minutes later overhead and made a low pass, observing Don and his wife Mary walking the strip and assessing the situation.

The word from the ground via radio was not satisfactory and we proceeded to land at our first spot (Glastar strip) now in touch with the entire fleet overhead.


On the ground we all gathered wood from dead branches and with AvGas quickly started a fire.

The planes and its passengers here were:

Andy and Celia in their yellow Citabria who park adjacent to Don at Lake Hood Strip.

Kent and his dog Astro in his Super Cub (PA-18-150)

Amy (Kent's girlfriend and Alaska Airlines 737 pilot) and her 90 hp Champ

Jerry and I in his Super Cub

Ted who joined us (dropped in) from his private airstrip near Palmer in his Super Cub and, of course,

Don, Mary and Abby (their 85% wolf dog) in their PA-14 Super Cub.


We unloaded chairs, food and drinks from the planes and enjoyed a fine picnic in mostly still air conditions and temperatures in the high 40s.The ground was covered by a thick carpet of lichen and moss cushioning our footsteps from the sharp rocks.

We enjoyed bar-b-qued halibut, Polska Kielbasa, corn on the cob and roasted Vidalia onions and a variety of snacks and compliments.

By then we realized it was approaching 10 PM and Amy's Stinson did not have night lights. Therefore we packed the planes and one by one took off into the setting sun back to Anchorage.

On the way back Jerry and I flew a low altitude following the meandering stream of "glacial milk" (whitish melting water heavy with suspended minerals from glacial erosion of the rock base below). On the way we flew over greatly increased mud flats signaling a peaking low tide. Tides in this part of the world can exceed 30 feet. We landed back at Lake Hood strip just before the setting sun and it was close to midnight.



Little Johnstone and Kenai

This morning Don De Voe and I met with Jerry Imm and his daughter Susan for a flight to the West side of the Kenai Peninsula near Seward.

We departed Lake Hood Strip as a flight of two with Jerry's Super Cub handling the communications because Don's PA-14 Super Cruiser radio gets too much interference from a local FM station, on an Easterly departure. The formation take off was executed flawlessly and soon we were released by Anchorage tower over Turnagain Arm which leads to Portage glacier where Captain Cook had to "Turn again" as he was looking for a way to the Northwest Passage.

Soon we were flying over the small town of Hope (pop. 50) on the northernmost part of the Kenai Peninsula.



Jerry was flying alongside us in the perfectly still clear air. At our 4,500 feet cruising altitude we flew over Summit Lake and the valley leading to Moose Pass. We saw many valleys covered still in snow. Don explained that at this time of the year avalanches are common as overhang cornices fall, specially those facing south.




Soon we flew over Mills Creek Valley and then right alongside many sheer peaks.







Approaching an area of glaciers we then followed Blying Sound headed towards the Gulf of Alaska with Ellsworth Glacier and Day Harbor observing the many creases and crevasses on its surface. 



This lead us to Johnstone Bay a large secluded beach area that contains the glacial lake behind it.

Don explained that this area also, like most others in Alaska, sometimes releases its fury of ice floes and backed up melted water if its only outlet to sea gets plugged up.  Don acquired 4 1/2 acres in 1982 during the last Land Rush where the State of Alaska authorized individuals to stake land for ownership (they still do that now and then). As a result Don obtained ownership of that acreage in Little Johnstone  and some additional acreage at a more remote little lake a short hike up the mountain.


Jerry had already landed ahead of us on the beach and after a couple of passes so did we..

He wanted to teach me a "water landing" where the large tires touch down in water and the craft aquaplanes while speed is kept above 30 mph. In this case we touch down on the lake's outlet stream and as the tires began to sink in our decreasing speed, we reached the gravel beach ahead for a safe conclusion to our landing.

This is actually a lot easier and safer than it appears because this planes touch down at only 45 miles per hour and at that speed is almost impossible to "sink" in the water due to the high pressure created by the aquaplaning action.

The beach here is composed of mostly rolling stones which are mostly 6" in diameter or less with an occasional large one.


Logs and other debris including buoys, tennis shoes, bottles and even a computer brand new computer monitor are deposited by the sea waves. Not too occasionally a container full of goods falls off a ship in the Pacific Ocean and sea currents carry the floating debris depositing it on the Alaska coast.. Weather conditions were great here with temperatures in the low 50s and little wind. Therefore we first went for a stroll to the outlet stream since we saw half a dozen of bald eagles there just prior landing. We found many small fishes trying to go to sea and we helped them along before the eagles return to feast on them. Jerry and Don felt that these were Dolly Varden Trout fry headed in the wrong direction... With the planes happily parked on the beach Don and I headed inland to see the lake and his cabin. I had noticed a dual tree line as if someone had planted a new row of spruce trees in front of the mature ones and learned from Don that this was the result of the 9.2 magnitude earthquake that occurred in 1964 in Prince William Sound near here. At that time the valley floor went up 14 feet in elevation!! This created the double tree line which I was witnessing.


Don told me the story of his previous plane, a PA-12 from which these wings are leftover from.. He and another plane had landed a few years back and they were working on his cabin when they saw smoke and flames coming from the beach. As they rushed they found the Super Cruiser engulfed in flames and it was too late to combat the destruction. His friend proceeded to Anchorage intending to return for Don and happened to mention at the airport about the accident. This conversation was overhead by an overzealous FAA inspector who notified the Coast guard and in the next morning Don was awakened in his tent by the roar of a large helicopter overhead who came to "rescue" him. He'd refused to be picked up knowing well that his friend would be back later that day but they insisted on them coming along to Kodiak Island (a long ways away) where their Station is located. Adding misery to insult they had to then purchase expensive one way tickets to get back to Anchorage and face a mountain of paperwork...

During our hike in the woods I saw his cabin in the woods constructed mostly of Cedar.

This is Rain Forest and gets an estimated 100 inches of annual precipitation. Therefore everything is covered with a luscious moss and there are some ferns too.

Unfortunately we also saw plenty of evidence of bears trying to enter and damage to its siding.

We continued following a bear trail in the dense forest cutting our way in the thick brush to the lake and eventually reaching its outlet stream which we followed back to the beach.



We then hiked to the other extreme end of the shore line and returned to the plane.

The tide was low and we decided to take off on the wet exposed sand and follow the coastline westward towards Seward..


After a short flight over Big Johnstone (next bay over) and abeam steep cliffs dropping to sea we encountered a sea lion rookery we reached Resurrection Bay and followed it to its end where the small town of Seward is located to refuel.

One of the cruise ships was in port.

Don was not happy to have to land at a developed (uncontrolled) airport and elected to land alongside the runway on the dirt which is better for the plane's balloon tires. We encountered Dr. Keith Echlemeyer, glaciologist from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, who was unloading sophisticated survey equipment from his 180 hp PA-12. His plane had wheel/skis mounted and he'd just returned from landing at Bear glacier nearby.


Shortly we took off again flying over town and the cruise ship docked there. Seward is a deep water port and the end of the Alaska railroad.

Cruise ships' passengers disembark here their fare who usually then ride the train to Anchorage, Denali National Park and to Fairbanks.


We proceeded over the mountains and glacier encircling the Sound on our way to Harris bay. We saw many glacial lakes and immense glaciers with steep sheer faces and, of course, many mountain goats and dall sheep in the sheer mountain cliffs. Soon we reached Harris Bay and leisurely circled sightseeing the scenery.




We approached the beach here landing just inland of the waterline at a "strip" made in this Indian reservation land by the group in the past.


To our amazement, while in short final, we saw a group of young people in the nude who obviously came from a two nearby sailing boats. They waved at us as we flew low overhead but we could not understand their hardiness bearing the cold temperature of the air and water... (pix not included for obvious reasons.., sorry).

We went for a short stroll on the sandy beach and Don and Susan collected rocks and shells.


Susan had reported seeing a large black something near our landing spot and we cautiously headed in that direction where we found a large male black bear.

He never noticed us thanks to our stealthines and being downwind from him.



Soon we took off once again and went deep into Harris Bay seeing its many glaciers and watching some calve.

On our way back we flew at low altitude (2,500 feet) over narrow mountain passes engulfed in clouds. Don had performed this navigation many times in the past that took us over Kenai Lake towards the flatland of Western Kenai Peninsula. We safely arrived back to Anchorage around 9 PM and Kent, Amy and Jerry's wife Shirley join us for a fine mexican dinner at a nearby restaurant.


Colony Glacier

This morning we first went to Anchorage International Airport around mid-morning to attend the Alaska Airmen's Conference and Exposition at the large Federal Express hangar.

This is a growing annual event held by the Association of pilots, owners and operators of aircraft in Alaska and included indoor and outdoor displays. I've met several of my acquaintances here (suppliers exhibiting) and saw many interesting displays and airplanes including:

A Grumman Albatros, Widgeon, Goose and even a single engine Duck. The Duck was just restored after 20 years of work and is similar to the one used in the movie "Murphy's War"

The Albatross is one of only two in existence that is tri-surface capable (can land in water, land and, with its reinforced keel, in snow). Of course there were many smaller bush planes offered including displays by Husky, Super Cubs (rebuilt), etc.. FedEx opened up one of their cargo MD-11s and an Airbus 310 and the USAF brought in a F-15 Eagle. There was also a DC-3 and C-46 Commando which had briefly stopped hauling freight to attend the show.

I joined up with Kent in his Super Cub and flew across Cook Inlet then northward towards Palmer and witnessed a dust devil (small tornado like).


I turned around and saw a great view of Knik river downstream just prior to joining the Cook Inlet's mud flats.



We entered Knik Valley facing a strong headwind and great clouds of dust. Kent measured a headwind component of 35 knots at one time!

Knik Glacier's Lake looked fantastic in the clear air and we were relieved that the winds abated as we turned southbound headed towards the Gorge.

Soon we reached Lake George and found that the strong winds had pushed the ice floes against its large moraine.

It is conditions like this that create an "ice dam" at its outflow and restrict the exit of waters, Kent explained. Suddenly this jam releases creating a great flood.


Colony Glacier looked magnificient in the now mostly still conditions.


We flew real close to its face enjoying the scenery.



We then flew over the polished bedrock at low altitude just prior to landing at "Colony Point", the informal "airstrip" used to land at the valley floor.


Some of the other planes were already there including Jerry, Amy and Don.


After landing I examined the surface of the valley's material and found it to be very solid but "spongy" retaining a lot of water, very strange! We had a tail-table party on Kent's horizontal stabilizer..




Then we hiked across the many streams coming from Lake George Glacier and Kent and Amy had to scout ahead and lay some large rocks for our crossing.


We saw some natural springs with totally clear water bubbling from the bottom through the talcum like material.



Hiking up the mountain we encountered some heavy brush with leaves barely coming out.


Jerry explained that the enormous glacial forces had polished this large piece of the mountain and along the way turned it over.


This shale like material is over 500 feet in height!



Some "Jacob's Ladder" wildflowers were just coming out.


Suddenly Ken signaled us from the edge of a nearby cliff to approach hurriedly and quietly.. It was a moose in a pond down below us!

The pond has been created by a laborious beaver which constructed a large dam across the narrow valley leading to Colony Glacier. The group then practiced some "trundling" of large rocks down the steep cliff side to see who could reach the pond below...

By then we realized that it was past 7 PM and decided to head downhill back to the planes. On the way we found some moose droppings and tracks.



We returned to Anchorage via the "Gorge"...

We have produced a great educational video based on this and other Alaskan journeys (30 minutes in length) which teaches about Glaciers.

You can preview some theatrical trailers of productions based on these travels here: VIDEOS

Note: All theatrical trailers are onWindows Media 9 Series Player

This report concludes my adventure flying Bush Planes in Alaska... I sincerely want to thank Don De Voe, Jerry Imm and Kent Kohlhase for this fantastic opportunity to experience true Alaskan Bush Flying. Hope you enjoyed it.


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