Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Destination Unclear

A solo adventure in the Alaska bush

The little Piper PA-22 lifts off in a fraction of the runway at Council (K29), 60 miles east-northeast of Nome in western Alaska. I follow the Niukluk River, which empties into the Fish River 30 miles north at the head of the Fish River Flats in the Bendeleben Mountains. I had heard of a “fairly easy” dirt strip there called Wagon Wheel. My mechanic, Lynn, said that even with my limited flying experience (400 hours), I’d have no problem. He added that Wagon Wheel is simple to spot: Follow the Fish River upstream across the flats to the far mountains, and I’ll see the runway and a cabin on the second or third draw west of the saddle that leads to Death Valley. I have plenty of fuel, emergency gear, a handheld ham radio, and there are gravel bars for unplanned landing spots. What can go wrong?

Pine-tree-covered mountains rise on both sides of the Fish River, making it feel like a tunnel. Eventually, the narrow canyon opens up to a huge, circular bowl, many miles across. The area is ringed by mountains, and the floor is a maze of rivers, tributaries and gravel bars. Where the canyon opens to the flats is a family camp that belongs to James, a friend.

Since James’ camp is shielded from the ham radio towers by mountains, I switch my radio to simplex and call him. We chat for a minute, and he confirms how to get to Wagon Wheel: “Just follow the Fish to the mountains and go two draws east.” After having seen how many rivers meander in different directions, I begin to lose my nerve a little, but after James’ confident directions, I figure I’ll go for it. Besides, James’ cabin sits next to a huge gravel bar, and I can always head back there.

With a handheld Garmin 296, VFR chart and USGS map, I remain fairly well oriented. But as I continue across the flats, trying to decipher which blue waterway is the Fish River, it becomes less and less clear. The creeks get smaller, and eventually they all just look like dinky streams. I try to call James, but am out of range.

I fly perpendicular to the mountains, and take small detours up the draws, while making sure I can still turn around if the terrain rises steeply. At the third draw, I spot the runway and think, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” (or something close to that). It doesn’t look much bigger than a footpath, but I can see tire tracks. Next to the strip is a fallen-down shack and a perfectly round pond. I had heard rumors of a hot spring in the area, and I assume this must be it.

There’s no wind sock, so I look for telltale ripples on the pond but can’t see much. I can tell there’s fairly strong wind as I fly 360s comparing airspeed and groundspeed. Lowering the flaps and slowing down to a bit above stall speed, I overfly the runway many times. The runway elevation increases, and I have to compensate by making sure I have plenty of power, so that I can go around and not get caught by the rising terrain. The surface of the ground confuses me, though. The runway seems rutted and is very rough-looking. I consider landing next to it instead, but decide to go where others have—on the actual runway.

On the final approach, I slow as much as possible, but leave enough power in case a go-around is necessary. The main wheels touch down and slow the plane amazingly fast. Not only is it an uphill landing, the surface is volcanic sand. I can now see that next to the runway the ground is actually jagged, volcanic rocks. When safely stopped, a lot of thoughts flash through my mind, the first of which is: I hope I can get out of here! I shudder involuntarily, thinking what a disaster it would have been if I had tried to land next to the runway.

I love the feeling of being in the Alaska bush, away from everybody and everything. At first it’s deathly silent, but upon listening, you can hear a lot: wind, water, birds and more. Oddly enough, the pond is a perfect circle fringed with marsh vegetation. The bottom is visible for a few feet from the edge, then seems to drop off steeply. (Upon returning to Nome, I learned it’s considered to be some sort of volcanic shaft, and the actual depth is unknown.) I stoop over to feel the temperature. It isn’t hot, but warmer than normal. However, what catches my attention is a slew of many fresh bear tracks along the water’s edge. Realizing I didn’t bring a gun and may not be alone gives me a chill. I decide it would be a good time to head for home.

Takeoff goes without a hitch. I hold back on the yoke to keep weight off the front tire, get airborne quickly, and gain speed in ground effect. Upon my return, I visit Lynn and tell him about the trip. He comments gruffly, “I told you there was a cabin. Did you see a cabin? That wasn’t Wagon Wheel—it was Boston Creek. You shouldn’t be going there with your plane and experience level!”


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