North to Alaska, the trip of a lifetime
by Marvin Homsley
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 Kyleâ€™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
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 FBOs. 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Marvin Homsley Swift N61PK EAA #105063