With the Trench behind me, today was the day; Alaska! The first part of the journey would be to head west to Whitehorse, at which point I would prepare the customs and immigration paperwork to make it back into the USA. Not always easy for a foreigner who spends the greater part of the year in Iraq.
The first couple of hours flying took me along the Alaska highway west to the city of Whitehorse. Along the way I stopped in at a couple of small strips. The first was the deserted gravel strip of Pine Lake, where I paused for a while and cooked a late breakfast. The second was Teslin, which I really just visited because it was there!
I used Whitehorse as a stop to prepare all the bureaucracy for entering the US, always more tedious than going the other way. The terminal building had Wi-Fi, so I sat there to make my phone calls and submit my notifications. After the required waiting period, I returned to the aircraft and set off south towards Alaska!
The flight followed a road and railway combination south through a glacial valley. The scenery was, yet again, breathtaking. Despite the rugged terrain the road and other clearings always offered an emergency landing spot should the need arise. As I’d come to find out, the railway is still used to run primarily tourist trains back and forth between Whitehorse and Skagway. As I’d been flying over it, I had assumed it was abandoned.
A low overcast cloud layer hung over the route ahead, but there was clear sky below it and I could see all the way through to the water beyond. I descended alongside the railway towards Skagway. The town’s airport runs parallel to the man streets and is just a few minute’s walk from the heart of town, ideal for visiting pilots. As I approached, I could see and hear (on the radio) groups of tourist helicopters buzzing back and forth to take people up to see the glaciers.
Town was absolutely packed, because four cruise ships (carrying approximately 8,000 people) were in port for the day. This, I was told, doubled the town’s population! The town itself was picturesque and very well kept, the hordes of stores clearly catering to the cruise ship traffic. I escaped the hordes for a while by walking around the headland to Smuggler’s cove.
After an unexpectedly great Thai dinner I returned to the airport. The gate was locked up so I got around the very high security by walking around the far end of the fence. Skagway’s airport was too busy and developed to make camping a good idea, so I flew a few minutes south to the much less busy airport at Haines and set up for the night. The long days here meant that you could do a huge amount between sunrise and sunset!
It was a peaceful night in Haines, with no sign of life other than a Cessna 152 that taxied out to go flying early in the morning. After packing up, I flew the roughly 120 miles down to Juneau, and saw my first glacier! I didn’t realise it yet but this was a mere shadow of a thing compared to what I’d see later in Glacier Bay, however.
It was highly exciting to see my first glaciers, and so I lingered for a while, flying up and down them. The tumbling, frozen rivers of ice were fascinating. Over one of the larger glaciers, I looked down on the helicopter base where cruise ship tourists were shuttled up from town like a production line, and taken on a dog sled around in a circle. Helicopters were coming and going non-stop. Having had my fill of glaciers for now, I descended by a different route and flew around towards Juneau.
I was given the “Super Bear” arrival into Juneau which sounded quite cool, but in fact just meant I had to fly over the “Super Bear” shopping mall on the way in. Juneau, like many airports in Alaska, had a parallel water runway for seaplanes. Some airports I’d visit later on would have 3 parallel runways; tarmac, grass/snow, and water! After landing I taxied to the sole FBO, who were very friendly, parked up and took the bus into town.
As with Skagway, several cruise ships were in town, and the downtown was packed. I had lunch in a 50s style diner, and then walked around a bit before taking a bus out to see the Mendenhall Glacier. On the bus I made friends with a local lady and a visiting cruise ship couple, so we joined up to walk the mile or so from the bus stop and visit the glacier. It was sad to see how far the glacier had retreated in just a few decades. The park had a trail system to let you walk all around the area that used to be covered in ice.
I stayed that night in a Juneau hotel, always pleasant after a few nights camping with no facilities! The next couple of days were spent basing out of Juneau and visiting some local villages. The first day’s weather was poor, with low cloud and rain showers, and so I stayed local visiting the nearby villages of Gustavus and Hoonah.
A couple of Cessna 172s had diverted into Gustavus on their way north, to wait out the poor weather. The pilot of one kept an old beater car at the airport, an old Chevy Suburban that he’d sawed the back off to make it into a truck. It was affectionately known as “The Suck”. He gave me a lift to a local coffee shop through the rain, and after waiting there for fairer conditions I set out to walk around the area a little. After reaching the dock, I received a lift from an arriving driver who ran me back to the airport.
A short hop took me across the water to Hoonah, and much better weather. Yet again, on arriving at the airport I was offered a lift into the town and wandered around. A cruise ship was in, so plenty of tourists were thronging the few buildings around the center, but I was able to get a bite to eat and listen to a presentation by a native gentleman about totem carving and the meaning behind it.
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