North to Alaska, the trip of a lifetime
by Marvin Homsley
The purpose of this trip was to meet some friends who were going to be in Homer, Alaska for a few days. I never imagined having so much fun along the way. This was the best few weeks I can remember. It started with winning an award at Oshkosh and now going on the trip I had wanted to make for years.
Toledo, Ohio to Homer, Alaska in Swift N61PK       8/1/11 thru 8/11/11
Just a few general things about this trip. First of all in a small plane like the Swift you need to pack light, especially with 2 people aboard. You need one small bag for clothes and a slightly larger one for money. It is very expensive in Canada and only a little better in Alaska. For weather in Canada the phone number is 888 WX-BRIEF not the familiar 800 WX-BRIEF in the USA. In Canada it is very easy to file a VFR flight plan in the air. You are not required to file a VFR flight plan but they look at you like a two headed monster if you do not do it. I agree with them, it makes perfect sense to file a flight plan when you become aware of the rugged terrain you are flying over or I should say mostly between mountains. Be aware that Canada charges for filing a flight plan, you will get the bill in a few weeks after you are home. They will want to know what kind of survival equipment you have on board and cannot believe their ears when you say "none". Although it can be done, Canada discourages bringing guns with you. Everyone flies along the roads if possible; it is by far the safest thing to do. Plan on flying in some light rain or plan on staying on the ground a lot. The Canadian sectional charts DO NOT have the airport identifiers on them. You have to buy an Airport Facilities Directory book and look them up if you want to use your GPS. Even Canadian pilots gripe about this. You will be flying thru A LOT OF MOUNTAINS but it is no big deal. Just follow the roads and even those very tiny "passes" marked on the charts are at a minimum a mile wide. There will be light turbulence in the mountains on just a normal day, just ride it out. You will not need to fly higher than 5500 feet and that is only for a short time. Most of the trip will be comfortable at 3000 to 4000 feet. Plan on seeing lots and lots of great scenery and meeting plenty of friendly people.
KTOL - KDVN Toledo to Davenport, Iowa We got a late start, takeoff about 10:30 am. Refueled at Carver Aero They have a really nice FBO building and they loaned us a car to go into town for a quick lunch. This kind of hospitality and a bright sunny day got things off to a great start. It turns out this was about the longest leg of the whole trip, somewhere over 300 nm. Its not an endurance contest, stop and stretch your legs often.
KDVN - KULM New ULM, Minnesota Wind was 45 degrees to the runway at 17 gusts to 25, I got lucky and did a good landing. Fuel was self serve but the FBO came right out and pumped it for me, Real nice people there. Here is where Kyle’s cell phone went dead so he rushed in and plugged in the wall charger for a few minutes. Did you know that even when you are high enough that your cell phone does not work on voice, you can still send text messages. Maybe not reliably but it works a lot of the time.
KULM - D54 W. Fargo, N. Dakota Stopped for the night. My logic was to go into the smaller airport here in hopes that the fuel would be cheaper. It was self serve fuel so I am sure it was lower priced than what the big airport has to charge. Keith Schonert put the Swift in his hangar for the night and loaned us his van overnight. We ate at Subway and priced hotels. With a little bargaining my copilot, Kyle got us in the Hampton Inn for $60.00. Next morning we found a real nice little terminal building we could have spent the night in. It is early in the trip and we are not in the money saving mode yet, but we will be later. Little did we know that we would get sticker shock when we priced the Canadian hotels.
KULM - KMOT Minot, N. Dakota No radar here so when we were about 7 miles out from the airport we had to break off the approach and get out of the way of a DC-9 that was overtaking us and did not have us in sight. Minot has a great FBO with a pilot lounge, flight planning room, loaner car, and nearby food. The Customs office is inside the FBO. US Customs forms (eapis) must be filled out on a computer. I had trouble getting on the website because I was using http and not https. After finally getting online it took me about 30 minutes filling out the electronic forms, the on site customs crew helped me thru it. This stuff was hard for me the first time but then it got easy after a couple of times. Yes, you need US Customs permission to LEAVE the United States as well as returning. The Canadians simply take your info over the phone, very easy. The land around here is really flat and completely rain soaked. For at least 300 miles around Minot everything is flooded, the farmers do not stand a chance of planting a crop. Several days later when we were on the return home leg into Minot we just barely made it. The tower shuts down at 10:00 pm and they shut off the taxiway lights. We made it there at 9:59 and they asked us to expedite our taxi to the FBO so they could shut off the lights. This old taildragger has decent landing lights but after you land, they just shine up in the air. That makes it tough to taxi in the dark.
KMOT - CYQR Regina, Canada Saskatchewan Okay, now I feel like the real trip has started, we are in CANADA. This part of Canada is lush, green, flatland. The only thing I notice is that it is gradually getting farther between roads and towns. Clear Canadian customs here. The small Customs building is close to the Shell fuel supplier. When you land simply give customs a call and they may or may not come out and inspect you. There is a dedicated phone inside the customs building. At the customs building we met a father and small son in a Cessna 170 with tundra tires. They were on their way home from Oshkosh. They had been waiting on customs for 4 hours. The problem was that an airliner came in ahead of them and then customs forgot them. We called customs and they cleared us both without even coming out to our airplanes. We saw this same plane again at Watson Lake.
CYQR - CYXE Saskatoon, Canada Saskatchewan Just a quick fuel stop. Splash and dash.
CYXE - CYXD Edmonton, Canada Alberta We went into CITY airport, not the international one; again I thought fuel may be cheaper. Here we spent our first night in Canada. On the way there we dodged 2 major thunderstorms. This is when I found out that the XM weather on my portable Garmin 496 did not work in Canada. In this area the land is very flat, in fact we have seen nothing but flatland for the whole trip so far. That will change soon and in a big way. We arrived late in the evening and there were no rent or loaner cars at either of the FBO’s. At the Esso FBO we found that they were open 24 hours and had a very nice snooze room with bunk beds and a complete bathroom. The counter girl (Stephanie) said we could spend the night there. Since we had no transportation when she got off work she drove us out on a tour of the downtown area. We insisted on having her join us for pizza, we are really high rollers and big spenders. Esso should be proud of employees like her. The airport is right up against the downtown buildings in a big beautiful green area. We left the next morning following “the highway” which ran right beside the airport. Watch out for the restricted area just a little west of the airport.
CYXD - CEC4 Jasper, Canada Alberta When you pass Jasper you are in some serious mountains for a long way. We had not planned on stopping here but had strong headwinds and needed fuel to get to Prince George. The airport sits on top of a hill about 4000 ft msl a couple of miles from town. This is the highest part of the trip but for only a short distance. Their fuel is not self serve and there was a nice young guy there who pumped it for us. He then offered to take our picture on the runway so we did it. There is a really nice terminal building which is mostly unused. It would make a good place to spend the night for free if you needed it. We are starting to conserve our cash.
CYXD - CYXS Prince George, Canada British Columbia The FBO is Shell and works out of a mobile home while a new building is being constructed. We got instant service by 3 line guys who were all curious as to what kind of plane this was. It was lunch time so we asked to borrow a car and there was none available. No problem says the good looking blonde girl who was the cashier. She gave us a ride to McDonalds in a company car. It was several miles into town and we would never have found our way without her. We insisted on buying her lunch, remember we are high rollers. She posed for pictures with us; she is about the right age to be my granddaughter. Closer to Kyle’s age than mine.
CYXS - CYDQ Dawson Creek, Canada British Columbia Finally this is the BEGINNING of the Alaska Highway after only 3 days of travel. Now I can get out the "Alaska Highway" sectional and it will take us for the next thousand miles or so. There is no FBO, but there is self serve fuel and a good restaurant, the Runway Cafe. Fuel pumps are close to the cafe. They were just closing the doors to the cafe but let us in to buy a cold sandwich and drink. Several days later when we passed thru again they would not let me leave before signing the restaurant wall and posting a little info about the Swift. I also had to promise to send a photo which they would frame and put on the wall. Good food and friendly people. I sent the photo when I got home.
CYDQ - CYYE Fort Nelson, Canada British Columbia We arrived late, about 8:30 pm. It is hard to tell what time it is by watching the position of the sun. It stays daylight till nearly midnight then comes back up again about 5:00 am. The airport was deserted except for 2 guys washing a helicopter and 1 pilot. This was Quest Helicopters and they had several choppers there. The guys finished washing and gave us a ride into town which was about 5 miles. On the way into town we saw a bear just off of the highway. We were lucky to be riding, not walking into town or we may have become dinner for a bear. We bought the guys meals at the local pub and had a beer or two. They dropped us off at a hotel across the street and we got one of the very few rooms remaining for only $180.00. Next morning at the free breakfast there must have been 20 Indians or Eskimos there, I do not know which but they all got on a tour bus and left. They would speak a little English then a little of their native tongue and I have never heard anything like it. It took awhile to get a taxi back to the airport because there are only 2 in town. Got fuel at the FBO which was totally run by a friendly blond lady. She drives the fuel truck, pumps the fuel, and collects the money. Works out of a mobile home.
CYYE - CYQH Watson Lake, Canada Yukon Territory There is something about the map saying that you are in "Yukon Territory" that just makes you think you are a long way from home. YOU ARE A LONG WAY FROM HOME. Self serve fuel again. No FBO, no food. They have a drink vending machine but it only takes Canadian money and we do not have any. Town is on the far side of the lake and is about 10 miles away. The only way to get there is to call a taxi, a $40.00 round trip. There is however a full time professional Unicom operator on duty. After fueling and we were taxiing out for takeoff the same Cessna 170 that we saw in Regina waiting for customs, came taxiing in, we just waved to him.
Several days later on the way home we would sleep on a couple of couches in the pilot lounge and go into town for pizza, $25.00 for a large size. There were 2 Unicom guys on duty and one of them loaned us his truck so we bought pizza for everyone. There we go again, being big spenders.
CYQH - CYXY Whitehorse, Canada Yukon Territory No radar again even for this major town. Follow the road and the river to the airport. They have a lake for the float planes. Again there is no FBO, self serve fuel is at the far north end and parking for general aviation is close to the control tower. They do have a flight service station located inside the tower and a dedicated phone to call customs if you need it. Behind the tower is the greatest windsock I have ever seen. It is a full size DC-3 mounted on a pole so it can pivot into the wind. It really works. We could not quite get to our next stop before US Customs had closed down so we spent the night here. Walk straight across the street from the tower and stay in the SKKY motel for only $210.00. They have a very fancy restaurant but there is a more family style one in the next building and a lot cheaper prices. The SKKY hotel clerk was a knockout of a girl from Switzerland and has a lovely accent. I could listen to it all day. There is a very modern passenger terminal building with a restaurant in it. We used Kyle's computer to file the US Customs forms, it was much easier this time. Left early the next day, following "the highway" of course. About a hundred miles out of Whitehorse is Haines Junction, aptly named because there are two roads that cross there. Naturally seeing two roads at once confused me and I took the wrong road. Luckily my keen sense of navigation only let me go a few miles before discovering my mistake. Following roads is supposed to be easy.
CYXY - PAOR Northway, Alaska Clear US Customs Notice how all the identifiers start with a "P" in Alaska. Is that for "Polar Bear" or what? At last I feel like we are getting somewhere, we made it back where we can spend our US dollars without figuring out the exchange rate. You know you have arrived at Northway because it is painted on the apron in great big letters. The only bad thing about arriving in Northway is that there is absolutely NOTHING there except a customs truck. NO food, water, gas, nothing. The customs officer drives in from the neighboring town and he leaves at 5:00 sharp so do not be late. Customs wants to see your passport, pilot license, and medical certificate. He very carefully went all around the airplane with a hand held device that detects radiation, looking for atomic bombs. Another thing, do not bring any fruit or vegetables with you. Our half eaten bag of potato chips was ok. Our bags were small so easily checked and we were soon on our way. I was very glad to get back in the airplane and get out of the swarms of little black gnats that tried to eat us alive. Funny, I never saw any more gnats anywhere else we went.
PAOR - PFTO Tok Junction, Alaska Spend the night After clearing customs, hop on over to Tok which is only about 25 miles. Unfortunately we run into rain and poor visibility enroute. We manage to fly about 500 ft agl over some very unfriendly looking swampy land and find Tok. Tok is a bustling, thriving community by Alaska Highway standards. The airport is right beside “the highway”, in fact the whole town is right beside the highway. They have an FBO but the fuel is still self serve. The FBO is just a small office with a couple of super cubs on tundra tires sitting outside. The lady inside the office is bright and cheerful. Across the highway is Fast Eddies restaurant and motel. It really is a good place to eat and sleep. I noticed outside each room in the parking lot there is a post with electrical receptacles built in. They are for plugging in your car engine heater so it does not freeze up overnight.
I went to refuel the plane at Tok and the pump would not accept my credit card. I tried it several times. Finally I called the number on the back of the card (using Kyle's phone). Mine did not work. The credit card company had noticed all of these charges being made out of the country and thought the card may have been stolen so they shut it down. After answering several questions about my purchases and explaining what was going on, they reinstated it. My cell phone would not make calls in Canada but it would receive them. I can't wait to see what my ROAMING charges will cost.
Tok has it all. You can get your RV repaired or buy sled dogs and sled equipment there. It has a real grocery store and a big Shell gas station. Never pass up a gas station in Alaska; it may be awhile before you see another one. Tok even has an espresso bar. It is a very tiny trailer sitting beside the gas station. The town is about half a mile long so we walked thru it all and bought a few groceries to take along tomorrow. There are some interesting "tourist" shops there and a large post office building. While eating at Fast Eddies, 4 motorcycles pulled in. One of them looked like and antique Indian motorcycle. That guy had guts. Riding a motorcycle in the rain on a chilly day is simply not fun at all. Temperature was around 55 or 60 and remember this is summertime. These guys had stuff tied on the back until they could not tie anything else on. One of them even had a set of moose antlers on the back. It took the riders several minutes to get out of all their rain gear and come inside.
Next morning we had our one and only bad weather delay. It was light rain and low ceilings at Tok. At the FBO I got some help checking weather and found out a very interesting and useful thing about Alaska weather. They have cameras at all the mountain passes and you can use the computer to see actual weather. Where we wanted to go it was solid gray with no visibility at all. Of course this was a no brainer decision, we stayed another full day in Tok and the weather was beautiful the next day. You gotta know when to hold em and when to fold em. You live longer that way.
Day 5 Lost to weather.
We spent the day walking all over Tok and browsing everything from T shirt shops, sporting goods, sled dogs for sale, even the local post office was interesting. The grocery store is more of a general store; they sell all kind of stuff besides food.
PFTO - PAAQ Palmer, Alaska Just a little northeast of Anchorage It has a small FBO but you have to look hard to find it. It is in the second story of a building and not marked very well. They do pump the fuel for you from a truck. What is unusual about this airport is that they have a REMOTE UNICOM. You think you are talking to a person on the airport but you are not. I thought it was strange when Unicom asked me my position when I was only about 10 seconds from touchdown. He could not see me from some other town where he was sitting. This is a VERY BUSY AIRPORT. There is more traffic here than any other airport I visited in Alaska. A plane takes off or lands every 5 or 10 minutes. When I got ready to leave I was number 4 for takeoff. Who knows, maybe we were just there during rush hour or something. Everybody was very good at making position reports to other traffic. I needed a Seward sectional chart and had been trying to buy one elsewhere with no luck but here I hit pay dirt. I was directed to a pilot shop on the south end of the field. They had everything you could possibly want in there. There was some kind of and event going on and I had to park close to their operation. It virtually shut down for a few minutes while everybody came over to look at the Swift.
PAAQ - PAHO Homer, Alaska This is our actual destination This is where we are to meet my friends, Peter Kappeler and his wife Kathrin. They are on a round the world trip in their Cessna Conquest and are waiting on permission to fly into Russia. Like Sarah Palin said, "you can see Russia from my house". Homer is about 75 - 100 miles south of Anchorage, right on the ocean, if you go any farther south, you are headed out to sea. In order to get to Homer you can squeeze by the Anchorage Class C airspace and a restricted area if you REALLY HUG THE MOUNTAINS and I mean up close and personal with them. I could have simply called them and got clearance thru their airspace but that would not have been nearly as much fun. By now I had flown thru so many mountains that it was not scary anymore. Close to Homer we flew past a couple of glaciers. The next time we passed them on the way out we got some close up pictures. Not too far after passing Anchorage you can pick up the Homer VOR and track it inbound. Nearing Homer I was wondering where the town was. I could not see it because it sits just past a big ridge. Fly past the ridge and there it is, right on the edge of the ocean, actually Cook Inlet.
Homer has a Flight Service Station which acts as Unicom. There is a moderate amount of traffic at this airport. Everything from commuter airlines to pure float planes which land in a nearby lake. There must have been a hundred planes tied down on the ramp, most had big tires on them. There are tie down spots available but bring your own ropes, we did. There is a FBO and the self serve fuel pumps are about 6 feet from their front door. It is a very small office. When we walked in there were a few small piles of cargo on the floor and one pilot sleeping in a chair. Definitely a working place, nothing fancy. Outside there was a really large crash, fire, and rescue truck very similar to what I worked on while in the Air Force. Peter and Kathrin came and picked us up at the airport. We went and checked into the Lands End hotel which was literally at the lands ending point. The air is cool and crisp, the ocean is even cooler and it is clean. This is a great tourist spot if you just like to enjoy the ocean breeze or go fishing. The popular spot is called the "spit" and it looks like a miniature Florida sticking out in the ocean. It has dozens of places to eat fresh seafood or shop for stuff. The king crab there is fresh and delicious. You can spend a lot of time going thru all the shops. Bald eagles are a common sight on the beach along with plenty of seagulls. You can pitch your tent, or park your camper, or check into a good hotel. Hundreds of small boats are constantly leaving or returning from fishing. I saw one Halibut that was over 50 pounds and a few others that took 2 men to carry. There is a lot to see and do in a couple of days. After a couple of days we wanted to go bear watching. Peter came up with this company called Branch River Air in King Salmon, Alaska. We had to go to them and then they would fly us in a Beaver on floats to a good bear watching site. It only cost $200.00 per person which was cheap compared to some others. This is where it gets good. Peter had a couple of friends with him so all 6 of us got in his Cheyenne and flew to King Salmon. Actually he let me fly it and I managed to not break anything. I estimate it to be about 150 miles out mostly over open, very cold, ocean. About half way there we passed an active volcano just out in the ocean all by itself. There was a little bit of steam coming from the top of it so we had to circle it a couple of times for pictures. Looked like a perfect place to film a Jurassic Park kind of movie. We landed at King Salmon airport and were picked up by a van and taken to the Beaver airplane. My first time in a floatplane and a big old workhorse at that. We flew about 20 minutes to the bear grounds. It was well set up with park rangers, cabins, viewing areas, and a nice white water stream flowing thru it. It did not take long to see bears. As we got out of the Beaver on the beach a bear was only about 50 yards away, walking away from us.
The first thing you do is check in with the park rangers and get a short lecture on how to NOT get eaten by a bear. My advice is to listen carefully. It is about half a mile walk down a dirt road to one of the viewing areas. There are fresh bear tracks all over that road. The bears use it too and you are right out there with them with no protection at all. Sometimes a bear will reach as high as he can on a tree and scratch the bark off. This is to show other bears how big he is. On one tree the bark was gone at least 3 feet higher than I could reach. These are not small bears. We made it to a great viewing area, complete with an elevated stand to watch from. There was a small waterfall, only about 5 feet high, and a bear was standing at the bottom waiting for fish to go by. In about half an hour I did not see him catch any fish but he did go over and take one away from a couple of seagulls. I got plenty of pictures. We went back to the main area and just as we were using a bridge to cross a small stream, a big brown bear walked out from under the bridge. Probably 20 feet from us. Got pictures of that also. Do not use your flash because you really do not want to get the bears attention. One fisherman got too much attention. Bears want your fish and one bear headed straight for this fisherman. The fisherman was out in the stream but immediately headed for the river bank. The bear covered about 100 yards while the fisherman covered about 50 feet but as soon as he got ashore the bear lost interest and wandered off. The bear was probably 30 feet behind him when he just stopped chasing him. We tried to get back in the Beaver to leave but had to wait awhile until a bear moved a little farther from the plane. All in all, a very successful bear watch. Now it is in the Beaver back to King Salmon. In the Conquest back to Homer and I feel like some fresh caught salmon for dinner tonight. We went to a restaurant about 4 or 5 miles out of town that has the most spectacular view you can imagine.
PAHO - PAFA Fairbanks, Alaska Just out of Homer, fly over the glaciers and get some pictures. Hug the mountains again and get past Anchorage airspace then on to Fairbanks. Fairbanks is more what we are used to seeing in the lower 48. It is a big, busy airport with ATIS, tower, ground control, big FBO but no radar again. We went to the big FBO with hopes of finding another snooze room but no luck. We rented a car so they let us park there overnight but normal general aviation parking is on the other side of the field. The self serve gas pump is on the general aviation side also. After calling about a dozen hotels we finally found one for only $105.00. To put it mildly, it was a less than desirable place but everyone else was full up. The good part is this hotel was near a Laundromat and a Subway shop. Now we have clean clothes. We ran all over the place in our rent car and just looked at the town. Anchorage looks like it would be a pretty good place to live. It is just like any big town with a downtown area, shopping centers, fast food joints, all the modern conveniences.
PAFA - PFTO Tok Junction (again) Now we are in the heading home mode. There is really only one way back, down "the highway" in reverse. There is a lot of restricted airspace around Fairbanks but you can fly under it. Not very far down the road you come to Allen AAF (PABI). I believe it is some kind of a military base and you need to call them to pass thru their airspace. We called and everything was fine but in a few minutes they called us back. They said nobody there was familiar with a Swift. If it was not too much trouble would we mind making a pass down their runway. Now when is the last time a military base asked you to buzz their runway ? Of course we would be glad to do it. As we cruised down their runway and were approaching the tower I asked for permission to circle the tower one time. Well everybody knows that in "Top Gun" Tom Cruise could never get permission for a fly-by, but we got permission. We did a tight 360 around the tower at just about eye level with the controllers. I hope they enjoyed it as much as I did. After that it was pretty much flying the reverse order of airports home again.
The Swift performed flawlessly and only used about 2 1/2 quarts of oil. It got a good bath, an oil change, and a pat on the spinner when we got home to Toledo Express Airport. Total mileage was over 6,000 nm and 44 hours of airplane time. It was a great adventure that anyone can do in any airplane. And it really is a good thing to get marked off of your bucket list. Go for it.
Marvin Homsley       Swift N61PK       EAA #105063