Noatak Page 4
It had been raining in Fairbanks for a couple days when we meet our first Bush Pilot. She was not acting as a Bush Pilot, she was on a scheduled run between Fairbanks and Beetles field, but neither was she your run of the mill TWA 747 "Heavy" pilot. She was a mid 30's women who was the daughter of one of the original "Bush Pilots" I think they said his/her name was Rice but I wouldn't swear by it. She had on a pink knit shirt and saddle shoes which made her quite the picture. I find Alaskans such a breath of fresh air as they never feel that they have to bow at the alter of New York or L.A. fashion moguls. Their "give a rats ass" attitude towards many of society's contrivances is in stark contrast to the lockstep mentality of most city goers.
At any rate this daughter of the pioneers took us off in a Navaho 9 seater, we flew up thru 1 cloud layer and then into clear air on top. There was a 3rd cloud layer above that but I couldn't tell how high is was. Having flown UH-1 Helicopters for the Army when I was young I used to be able to judge ceilings pretty well but these multi-level clouds in Alaska are totally beyond my capacity any more.
We where traveling with a family from Tucson and a young woman who was training with one of the Ididarod Champs (Jeff). The young family was going to float the John River and their 2 daughters seemed as eager as the parents to embark on this new adventure. Since every seat was filled their father was placed in the co-pilots seat and the younger daughter watched him like a hawk to insure he didn't touch anything! It's and hour and a half flight up to Beetles and Beetles field is rather anticlimactic when you see her come into view. One gravel strip and a float plane lagoon plus an assortment of small buildings is all you get.
Our ride was smooth as silk as we weaved around the scattered cotton balls that doted our path until we hit 66.5 degrees latitude where this Daughter of Rice pilot pitched the plane upwards for a second or two allowing us the 50 or 100 feet that was necessary to climb over the Artic Circle. She then dropped into an easy decent to Beetles field.
Larry on the other hand had a hard bitten look to him. A somewhat expressionless face with rounded features parenthesized with reddish brown hair. Gray highlights that I'm quite sure where no artificially induced rounded out the "Persona". He was experienced, seasoned by 20 years as an Air force pilot and 10 in the bush. Larry had flown the F-4 for a while serving in Vietnam. The F-4 was a work horse for the Air force during Nam.. It was fast, nimble and carried a large payload of munitions. When stripped down and in the hands of a good pilot it could handle any enemy fighter foolish enough to go up against it.
Larry was to fly us from Beetles field to the headwaters of the Noatak in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge or ANWAR. Beetles was to be the last outpost, the dagger pointing us into the heart of the last totally undisturbed ecosystems in the Northern Hemisphere, of course that designation is a bit insulting to the local Tslinket Indians and Eskimo's who have lived and traveled this land for thousands of years but to most in the lower 48 states this area might as well be a great blank spot on the map.
Beetles is a collection of Quonset hut hangers, (blue gray with 55 gal drums book marking each side ) one burnt out 2 story forest service building that didn't survive the minus 50 winter 2 years ago, a windsock and the reddish log sided Beetles Lodge.
The lodge was a well built affair run by Doug (his last name eludes me). Doug was a tall man who was well equipt for the Artic winters. he seems to have a thriving business especially considering where we were, a few rooms to rent, the air service and a side porch that serves as a snack bar that provides burgers and fries to the travelers. The one exceptional item on the menu was Blueberry Pie! When blueberries are in season this is a treat of gourmet proportions. I waived lunch for the pie and was not disappointed!
Larry was out ferrying the other family to the John River so we spread out on the lawn and soaked in the late July sun. We dozed taking advantage of the rare opportunity of sleeping outside with no mosquitoes, brought about courtesy of this summers fires. This had been a very bad fire season and just weeks ago Beetles had been in the direct path of a wall of fire. An army of fire fighters had descended on the outpost and made a stand just a mile from the Airfield. The little town was spared but it was now encircled by a charred landscape. Fire kills mosquitoes so the towns people could thankfully enjoy a summer relatively pest free!
With an "Inbound" call from the radio we jumped into the truck for a short ride to the water strip. We saw Larry buzz the lagoon then shortly there-after land and taxi up in the Beaver ( A Beaver is one of the most admired bush planes in Alaska, it carries a big load and can take off from a very short field). He tied her up at one of the small docks then quickly transferred over to the Cessna 185 which would carry our lighter load at faster speeds. We helped Larry load our gear, making sure we put any potentially flammable or explosive materials in the pontoon compartment. It's important to pack your gear with the pilot in mind, the last thing anyone want is to have a fuel can rupture or a bear spray go off in the small cabin of a bush plane. A few years back that exact scenario happened and as you can imagine the plane crashed killing everyone on board.
As we loaded the plane it looked as if the furrows on Larry brow where getting deeper and deeper. I could tell he was counting the pounds and knew we were approaching it's limit. We where 650 pounds gear and bodies, heavy but not over capacity for the temperature and fuel load, nun the less it took all the waterway and 3 bounces to free the pontoons and at 3 PM we lifted off passing a family of loons that Larry reports is now missing one of the babies. As we crossed the end of the water-way a grim reminder sat nosed down in the mud just off the runway. Last week another pilot had miscalculated his weight (and most likely his abilities) and stalled his aircraft on takeoff. He had been heavy, made 2 unsuccessful attempts then finally lifted off ,but at 50 feet they stalled and spun into the ground nose first. all got out alive but they where lucky, usually you only get one mistake in Alaska.
We passed the wreck, cleared the trees and soon passed over the fire line that encircles the field. The sky was clear and calm with only a few clouds off on the horizon. A few yellow shirted forestry firefighters were still to be seen but most had already departed for other fires still burning just south of Fairbanks. Others were waiting in Bettles for the next available flight out. Most of the young men were local Tslinket Indians or Eskimos, a couple white faces thrown in her and there rounded out the bunch and 1 pretty well built young woman being the exception.
As we cleared the fire line a swampy tundra spread out before us, it was scattered with what I assumed where willows. We cruised down a large mountain sided valley. The softly doomed mountains bracketing our route. It was a treeless landscape pocked with small lakes.
We continued down the valley for around an hour, the peaks to our direct front became larger. As they grew their complexion changed from the benign round domes of the valley into a vicious looking wall of saw-toothed mountains ready to rip out the soft underbelly of any unsuspecting prey that came within it's reach. This was the brooks range and the entrance into the valley was in sharp contrast to everything we had seen before. It was beautiful in it's rugged wildness. A few more clouds appeared and the wind picked up at we entered into the archangels that funnel thru the peaks, Mt Igikpak ( The Fishtail ) flashed at us from off the left side of the fuselage. Larry knowing that I was a fellow Military Pilot tried to catch a few good thermals coming off a particularly menacing pinnacle , then solid ground that reached up from what seemed like mere inches fell away in a heart stopping precipice. As we crested the pinnacle we got slapped by one nice gust that made our small plane feel like it just got slapped upside the head by the unseen hand of God.
Diving out of the rarified air we passed from out of the high peaks , past the vertical gray walls and into the valley below. A ribbon of azure blue water rose up to meet our feet. It twisted and turned appearing at times like a snake trying to free itself from the hand of it's captor. From the side of my eye I grass covered hillsides rose above me. Often Grisly can be seen wandering these hillside. There was not another soul to be seen and I couldn't help but feel as if we were violating natures inner sanctum as we careened down this pristine valley just 100 feet off the deck.R1.jpg" width="300" height="225">
The shallow twisting river offered no possible landing place but Larry always knew it wouldn't. The two likely places to land were Pingo Lake and 12 mile slough. 12 mile was first and so offered us a longer trip. We opted to drop in there. Larry made one quick pass to ensure she was clear of obstacles then dropped us in like and amorous Loon at mating time.
A bush Pilot doesn't have a lot of time to lollygag around so it was a quick taxi to a suitable place for offloading and then after a quick whistle stop he was throttling up for take off. Being over 700 pounds lighter the little 185 almost jumped out of the water. He gave us a close in corner for pictures and then droned off towards the southeast and home. Watching him go I waited for this great feeling of separation to come over me (one which every account I read had mentioned). But instead I just felt great relief and if anything a little disappointed that we weren't even further away. We were 125 miles from the nearest outpost and would travel another 125 river miles to our most remote point on the trip, still I felt the overabundance of humanity all around me. I think I would prefer a world where the maps still had blank spots.
We stood there a minute or two as Larry flew off, then looked across the half mile stretch of tundra to where we would enter the river. We had a good cache of food a solid boat and a wanderlust that had been building for months...Lets Go!
We make good time portaging our equipment across the half mile to the river . We are traveling light with the 70 pound canoe our biggest single burden. Once we get to the river we air up the canoe and notice that even traveling light, we still have a lot of stuff for this 14 foot Soar boat. Our first attempt at packing made us look like a miners burro with junk sticking out everywhere. It took a little thinking and a second repack to make her river worthy. The nice thing about the Soar boat is that it has lots of tie down points, you can basically make your own webbing out of parachute cord.
As we where finishing up the packing a couple guys from Finland popped up from over the bank. It turns out that they are spending 5 weeks up here and to tell you the truth I think they were just ready for a little company. We however were full of Piss and Vinegar so were itching to take off. After hearing about the animals they had seen on the riverbank (most noteworthy being a pack of wolves) we jumped in the boat and were off.
The river was smooth and shallow which was a godsend because J.R. had no experience in a canoe and I only a very limited amount . In fact I had only spent 1 hour in the boat with my wife and daughter along simply for the ballast. But the up-shot of that outing was that I got to hear about how absolutely boring the whole thing was from my 16 year old daughter for the entire hour (which of course is a constant theme in any endeavor that lacks her friends company).
It took some experimenting to maneuver the boat with any amount of success. I had read a manual on canoe travel so I was not totally clueless, even so I had to transfer the written word to physical knowledge. We waggled around for a mile or so but then started to get the "Hang" of it. Slowly but surely we began to look like we knew what we were doing.
I had picked this river not wanting to put us in a dangerous situation on the water. I was used to camping in the wilderness and had no fear of being alone but the modern age of satellite phones gave me a feeling of safety that a traveler in these remote lands should know is a false sense of security. On a moments notice the weather can change cutting off any travel by plane making emergency evacuation impossible. You can literally find yourself alone and hurt with no way of getting to a hospital until the weather clears!
We made 4.6 (Direct ) miles in 4 hours that first night. The river was shallow with no snags or sweepers to worry about. We made camp late and it was Midnight before we headed for the tent. J.R. noted that sundown was 11:45 PM . It never got completely dark the entire time we were above the artic circle.