Exploring Alaska -
Fairbanks & the North

Arrival in Fairbanks

St. Elias Icefield
St. Elias Icefield
The Alaska experience began hours before my commercial flight from Seattle touched down in Fairbanks. On this flight, I got some views of Mount Fairweather, Mount St. Elias, and the mighty Mount Logan. All of these peaks are part of the Wrangell and St. Elias ranges. Denali was discernible also, but at a distance of nearly 200 miles it was not spectacular because it was dimmed by the haze. Because my arrival in Alaska represented the culmination of years of dreaming and months of planning, touchdown in Fairbanks was an emotional experience. My hair stood on end and I almost cried as the MD-80 taxied up to the gate. This time it finally wasn't a dream; it was really happening.

The first order of business was to set up at Fairbanks International Airport's fly-in campground, which is designed primarily for pilots travelling by private plane. I was fortunate enough to be there at a time when an informal aviation safety seminar was held. Three times per week, a volunteer flight instructor visits the campground and shares information with transient pilots about the ups and downs and do's and don'ts of flying in Alaska. Because I was planning to be my own pilot for the first several days of the trip, this was a valuable experience.

Because it was only a week after the summer solstice, and Fairbanks is a mere 120 miles from the Arctic Circle, the 24 hours of daylight called for special techniques in sleeping that night. When light enters the human eyes, it produces a hormone that acts as a stimulant so that a person's biological clock can stay synchronized with the cycle of day and night. The technique, therefore, was to keep my eyes covered as much as possible. Although it was a little harder than usual to get to sleep after first going to bed, it was not difficult to sleep after my eyes had been covered for a while. For most of the night my biggest barrier to sleep was not the 24-hour sunlight, but the noise from traffic on a nearby highway. In the end my efforts were successful; when I got up the next morning, I found an airplane parked near my tent which had not been there the evening before. The pilot had to have taxied in without waking me up.

The provider of the Cessna 172 which was to be my primary means of transportation for the first 4 days was Smith Aero, a 20-minute walk from the fly-in campground where I spent the first night. Early the next morning was my appointment for a checkout, which was a brief (1 hour) flight with one of the agency's instructors, to verify that I'm a competent pilot and to familiarize me with local procedures, tips, and tricks. After completing the paperwork required for insurance, I was on my way.

Cessna 172
The Cessna 172 in which I flew myself from Fairbanks
to Bettles, Umiat, and Anaktuvuk Pass
The airplane was the usual high-wing four-seater with two differences of note from the ones I am most accustomed to. First, it had larger than normal tires- so-called "tundra tires"- to help land on soft and rough fields. Although the ones on my airplane were not really large enough to operate on heavily vegetated surfaces, they were superior to normal tires for operating on some unpaved surfaces, which turned out to be a help because Fairbanks International was the only airport at which I operated the airplane on a paved runway; all others were gravel. One consequence of the large tires was that the airplane stood higher off the ground than I'm accustomed to, and as a result I had to get used to the higher roundout while landing. Second, the airplane was not very well equipped with avionics; it had only one communications radio, one VOR navigation radio (most airplanes I have flown in the past have two of each), no ILS, no ADF, and no DME. For these reasons, the airplane was not capable of safe IFR flight. It did have an attitude indicator and a turn coordinator, which would have enabled me to continue to fly the airplane in case of an unexpected spell of bad weather. However, it would be bad aeronautical decision-making to plan to fly IFR in this airplane, although being rated to do so did add a considerable margin of safety.

The Press Toward Barrow

My plan, if successful, was to fly my rented Cessna to Barrow, which is on the shore of the Arctic ocean; in fact, the peninsula extending out into the ocean from Barrow is the northernmost point of land in the United States. I planned to stop in Anaktuvuk Pass, a Nunamiut village in the Brooks Range about halfway from Fairbanks to Barrow, on either the way up or the way back, depending on what the weather would allow. Flexibility is an important element of safety in general aviation; having a contingency plan helps reduce "get-there-itis", a frequent factor in general aviation accidents because it encourages pilots to fly in conditions in which they shouldn't.

After noon the day of my checkout, I departed Fairbanks for the two-hour flight to Bettles, a town of 80 residents 150 nautical miles to the northwest on the Koyukuk River 25 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Bettles is often used as a staging area for travel into the Brooks Range. If things went well, I could continue to Umiat, 150 nautical miles farther still, on the North Slope. If not, I could camp right on the field at Bettles.

The flight went well physically, but not psychologically. I was flying over very remote territory in a locale where I had never flown before. The airplane had just one lonely VOR for navigation, and I began to ask, "What will I do if it fails?" Ahead of me were some clouds. I could see through the haze and light rain below them to the sunshine beyond and that they were isolated and temporary. Yet I thought, "What will I do if the weather turns bad?" I had solid answers to all of these questions. I had alternative means of navigation and alternative ways to keep the airplane flying. The fact that I was venturing out alone into an unknown and remote area made me feel uncertain, despite the fact that I had several ways to get out of every conceivable kind of trouble I could get into. At the conclusion of my uneventful flight to Bettles, I elected to remain there for the night and chill out from my irrationally nail-biting flight.

It was now about 4 P.M., and I set up camp literally under the wing of the airplane and spent the remainder of the day stolling around Bettles, which has a few bush flying outfits and a lodge with a restaurant. After discovering that the restaurant was serving a chicken and rice dinner that evening, I signed up. I took a brief walk to the Koyukuk River, where a few floatplanes were moored. I also met a Brazilian couple in a Piper who was travelling to the four cardinal compass extremes of the North and South American continents. The fellow was wearing a khaki shirt which said "Extremos das Americas" in small lettering. The previous day they had been to Wales, the westernmost point on mainland Alaska, and they were now headed for the Boothia Peninsula in Canada's Northwest Territories. Their goal involved only continental land, not islands, or else they would have had to go out the Aleutian Island chain and to the the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in Canada's arctic archipelago. They had already been to Tierra del Fuego, but surprisingly they had not yet been to the easternmost tip of Brazil, their native country. I found this an interesting adventure.

Earlier in the trip, a few pilots had told me that the best flying weather is usually in the A.M. hours, when the sun has not been heating the earth for a while and has not had time to build convection and cumulus clouds. This was especially true in the Brooks Range, which I was to cross on the next leg of my journey north. With that in mind, I went to sleep early so that I could get an early start the next morning. By 7 A.M. I lifted off for Umiat, which was my final staging area enroute to Barrow. Within a few minutes the Brooks Range came into view and the terrain under me became increasingly rugged, eventually developing into the maze of canyons that characterizes the range. On the horizon far in the distance were some jagged peaks.

About 45 minutes into the flight, I made a sudden gasp when I saw a deep notch in the ridge straight ahead. Through the notch I could see flat, open terrain lying beyond.
North Slope
North Slope
The notch was Anaktuvuk Pass, and the terrain beyond was the North Slope, which is one of the most remote, desolate areas on earth. Umiat lay some 70 miles out on this practically empty expanse. Barrow was 150 miles farther still. As I continued toward the northern flank of the Brooks Range, I lost contact with the only VOR I had been able to receive. This was expected as the Brooks Range was blocking the transmission. No other VORs were within reception, as the nearest alternative was nearly two hundred miles away. Some NDBs could be received here, but my airplane did not have the ADF equipment necessary to receive it. I now had only two ways to navigate: GPS and my VFR cross-country wit. I used the latter. Although the the North Slope is flat and all but featureless, it still has enough lakes, rivers, and small hills that I was able to navigate to Umiat without difficulty.

Upon taxiing into the parking area, I was greeted by a very friendly dog who obviously knew that airplanes carry people; he waited by the door until I got out. After I got out, I was greeted by a swarm of mosquitos. There were no signs of a human being nearby, just several deserted trailers, a couple of quonset huts, and a few fuel tanks. All of the structures were old and rusty. After only a few minutes I couldn't stand the mosquitos any more, so I retreated into the airplane and retrieved my headnet. With that comparative relief, I strolled around the area looking for someone to provide fuel (which Umiat Enterprises had assured me the day before was available). First I noted the main building, a conglomeration of trailers with the spaces between them walled in. The front was adorned with moose antlers. A large sign above the front door facetiously proclaimed, "Umiat Hilton". On the front door was a sign reading "Now entering Umiat, Population 1, O.J. Smith, Mayor".

A few minutes later a young fellow appeared. He said they had fuel, and after checking with his boss told me the price was $5 per gallon. That was a pleasant surprise. Eleven years ago a friend flew here and said it was $4.50 then. Some FBOs in Anchorage had told me that the price per gallon of fuel approaches $7 in some places, and I thought Umiat was remote enough to join that crowd. So I had them top off the tanks, and then I located a phone to call flight service to get a weather briefing for the final leg to Barrow.

The news was not very good. Barrow was fogged in (as it often is), but the forecast was for improvement. So I decided to wait a while and see if that would happen. I then passed some time getting acquainted with the people I had just met. The young fellow's name was Jim, and his supervisor was an elderly man who had lived here for 41 years. We got interested in GPS, so I whipped out the one I had and I demonstrated its features. I learned that despite the native-looking name Umiat, the town was not a native settlement; in fact it wasn't a town at all. It was merely a facility which served as a staging area for guided trekking, hunting and river running trips. The "Umiat Hilton" did have a few accomodations and a kitchen to support these activities. There was also a weather station, and one of Jim's jobs was to monitor it every 75 minutes. I asked how many people lived here, and the answer was that I had just met them both.

An hour and a half later, a second weather briefing showed that the fog in Barrow had broken up into a scattered layer of clouds 300 feet above the ground. Had my aircraft been fully IFR equipped, I would have gone for it. The conditions were similar to those in which I once made a successful instrument approach to Catalina Island. With only the smallest amount of luck, a VFR approach would have been successful also. But there was precious little margin for future change. The slightest worsening would have rendered me unable to get in, so I decided to wait some more. I took a stroll to the Colville River with the dog following me all the way. Upon returning, I called for yet another weather briefing which showed little change from the previous. After weighing the issues for a while after that, I decided with some disappointment to give up on Barrow. It was simply too touch and go. I didn't want to arrive in the vicinity and be tempted to make an unsafe approach. I also didn't want to get in safely and successfully but then get weathered in and not be able to get back out in time to keep the rest of the trip on schedule. Umiat therefore became the most northerly point I have ever reached at 69°22' north latitude.

Anaktuvuk Pass & the Brooks Range

Anaktuvuk Pass
Scenery near Anaktuvuk Pass
A few minutes after 3 P.M., I departed southbound for Anaktuvuk Pass, which I had overflown earlier that day. Anaktuvuk Pass is a Nunamiut village of about 350 residents in the Brooks Range. It is also a gateway to Gates of the Arctic National Park, where I planned to do some hiking. The scenery around Anaktuvuk Pass is quite spectacular, with a resemblence to Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Upon arrival, I refueled and located the major facilities in town (grocery store, ranger station, museum, etc.). I also learned from talking to a North Slope Borough security officer that there is a designated camping area on the far side of the airport runway. At times, the mosquitos made cooking and eating there quite a challenge.

The next day I began preparations for my hike into the Gates of the Arctic National Park backcountry. I was contemplating a two-day trek to the top of Soakpak Mountain (5883'), the first major peak out along a ridge to the northwest of Anaktuvuk Pass. I had taken a close look at it from my overflight the previous day, and from that and a stop at the ranger station I decided that the best route would be up Little Contact Creek, in a fairly narrow canyon, followed by a turn up a bouldery ridge to the summit.
Caribou remains
Caribou remains
After assimilating all the information, I set out at about 11:30. Progress was slow. At times I encountered heavy brush. I had two topographical maps and a GPS and as in flying I was confident in my navigation skills. But I was not accustomed to this type of environment. The weather was warm and humid (80°F) and I faced the difficult compromise between wearing my sweater to shield me from the mosquitos and not wearing it so I wouldn't get too hot. There were some unexpected pleasant surprises, however. The wildflowers were beautiful and I passed by several caribou skeletons.

For quite some distance I traversed along a steep tundra slope that lined the southwest side of the creek in the canyon bottom. Eventually, however, I was forced to cross to the other side, which I could not do without getting my hiking boots wet. After a total of about 3 hours of trodding, I had covered 3 or 4 miles, gained 750 feet, and decided to pitch camp on a brushy gravel bar by the river. I had somewhat overexerted myself in the bushwhacking and scrambling; because of my lack of experience on this type of terrain, I did not know how to pace myself. A long nap followed. Dinner, to be kept simple, was boiled ramen noodles. I turned in for the night by the clock; being 68° north of the equator and under the influence of the midnight sun, that was the only way I could tell when I was supposed to do so. Because of the very warm temperature (still at least 80°F at 9 P.M.), I took off my clothes inside my tent.

At 10:30 P.M. I was awakened by the sound of thunder and a sprinkle of rain. I had not put the rain fly on my tent, but the rain was too light to justify getting out to do it now. So I drifted back to sleep. At 2:50 A.M. I was awakened by still more thunder. Minutes later the tent was pelted by heavy rain. Though it was daylight, the heavy clouds made it dark enough to enable me to uncover my eyes without blinding myself. I really needed to get the rain fly up this time. In the midnight sun this was not a problem despite the rain. It felt very strange to be doing such a task on a dark and stormy night in broad daylight. Without a watch to check, I could have believed it was 5 P.M.!

When the time came to get up the next day, the weather was clear and calm. After a cold breakfast I headed farther up the canyon toward Soakpak Mountain.
Little Contact Creek
Little Contact Creek near my turnaround point
The going was not difficult: mostly gravel bars and tundra. I continued past a few forks. The streams were now small enough to be jumped when necessary. Then the canyon narrowed. I was forced to climb a steep tundra slope on one side to bypass a sheer rock on one side of the stream. Finally the canyon became tortuous and still rockier on both sides. There was an entrance portal up ahead which could be bypassed only by wading in the creek as it ran directly between two cliffs. Though certainly possible, I was not very well equipped for such a maneuver. As climbing mountains was not the major goal of this trip, I decided not to continue any farther toward Soakpak Mountain. After staying a while to enjoy the view, I headed back toward my main camp. The return hike to Anaktuvuk Pass was uneventful.

The weather was growing gradually cloudier that afternoon as I debated whether or not to fly back to Fairbanks the same day. I gathered some enroute weather information from a pilot who had just flown in on a twin delivering supplies. He said there were a few thunderstorms along the route a short distance out of Fairbanks, but they were small and easily avoided. Other than that, there were no problems. My rational analysis of the facts showed that I had plenty of ways to get out of any conceivable kind of trouble that could happen to me. Although an experienced Alaskan pilot would not have hesitated to make the flight to Fairbanks, I decided after weighing the pros and cons to wait a while. I took my time rearranging my gear, and then I decided to visit the small museum in town. Here I learned about the Nunamiut people and their ingenious survival tactics. While in the museum, I heard a loud clap of thunder followed by heavy rain on the roof of the building. The visibility had dropped to half a mile or less, and the mountains surrounding the village were invisible. For over half an hour I waited in the museum for a respite. The rain eventually slackened a little and, feeling that this was the best I could do, headed out for the grocery store and the gift shop. Before long I was soaking wet, as I had neglected to bring my rain gear, which I finally retrieved from the airplane later. Lucky thing I decided not to fly, you say? Nonsense! Had I decided to go (and left expeditiously), I would have been gone two hours before the storm came. But I don't regret the decision to stay; I didn't have to be back in Fairbanks until the following afternoon, so I might as well use some of the extra slack to feel safer.

Later that evening the storm cleared, a few scud layers drifted across the faces of the mountains, and I spent a while hanging around in the town laundromat, whose warm, dry interior helped dry out my damp clothes.

Brooks Range
The Brooks Range
In keeping with the advice given by other pilots that the weather is usually better in the A.M. hours than the P.M. hours, I got an early start the next morning in clear, crisp weather just as soon as the opening of the first building with a public phone I could use to get a weather briefing and file a flight plan. The beautiful weather helped, but I was finally beginning the emotional adjustment to Alaska flying. A few days ago I sometimes thought to myself I'd never fly here again after the trip was over. Now I was no longer thinking such thoughts. The flight departed up a side canyon which reinforced my attraction for the Brooks Range, whose magnificent scenery dominated the first hour of the flight. Emerging into the Koyukuk and Yukon River valleys, I continued to Fairbanks with confidence, arriving just after 10 A.M. By noon I had unloaded my gear at the airpark, set up camp, and returned the airplane to Smith Aero.


I had a free afternoon in Fairbanks, so I decided to spend it at Alaskaland, a theme park. It is not exactly Disneyland, nor was it meant to be. About half of it is kids' stuff (train rides, playgrounds, etc), and the other half is a showcase of Alaska history and culture. It includes a "street" along which the buildings are transported historic houses, most of which are now gift shops. The most notable of these, which has not been converted to a gift shop, is that of judge James Wickersham, for whom Wickersham Wall, the towering 14,000-foot-tall north face of Mount McKinley, is named. A few of the buildings are museums devoted mostly to Alaska's gold rush days at the end of the 19th century. Also in Alaskaland is the riverboat Nenana, the railroad car that President Warren Harding rode in when he travelled to Alaska to drive the golden spike on the Alaska Railroad, and an aerospace museum. I was not very impressed with the latter, which featured mainly military airplane & engine exhibits and had only a small amount of material specific to Alaska flying.

By the time I was through seeing all of these things, I was quite hungry. At Alaskaland I discovered a salmon bake serving an all-you-can-eat cod, halibut, salmon, and barbecue rib dinner. At $18.95 it was a little pricey, but being a tourist I didn't mind. I took the opportunity to have some authentic Alaskan seafood. A great meal and experience it was. The cod was cajun fried, the halibut was deep fried, and the salmon was grilled. It was far superior to some cod and salmon I later had in San Diego after the trip was over.

The next morning I packed up all of my gear for the short taxi ride to Golden North Motel, where I was to meet the van that would take me south to Denali National Park.

Continue to Part 2

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