Alaska the Great
It’s a little strange to be writing about Alaska while sitting in Buenos Aires in the middle of a Southern hemisphere summer heatwave. Indeed, as many of you already know, Alex and I landed at San Fernando, our airport of departure, on November 29th after 270 days, 25 countries, 80,000 km and 320 flight hours. We did it!!! And if you’re wondering why my posts are not more frequent now that I am not traveling anymore, there are many reasons to that. To begin with, our brains took a small vacation after the trip, it looked like they needed a rest now that the continuous planning and adrenalin of the journey was behind them. Then, we were busy for a few weeks participating in media interviews for newspapers, radios and TV. After our celebrity waned, we went to our country house which has become our only base in Argentina and there is no internet there (writing without internet is no problem but selecting and uploading the pictures requires lots of bandwidth). And finally, it has been incredibly hot and humid in the past weeks, resulting in more brain meltdown and an abysmal energy level, at least in my case. But I am determined to continue the story of the journey where I left off, i.e upon our arrival in Alaska, after leaving the Russian Far East via Anadyr and crossing the Bering Strait.
When we landed in Fairbanks on Monday August 30th (while it was still Tuesday August 31st in Anadyr from where we had taken off that same morning), we were incredibly excited to be back on the American continent. Our travel clock had been ticking since the beginning of the trip: we were determined to do our arctic crossings between May 15th and September 15th in order to avoid the bad winter weather and they were suddenly behind us. We had met our date-targets and a load of pressure came off our shoulders. The only remaining constraint was to get out of Alaska before it got too cold and then, slowly make our way South along the Pacific coast and return to Buenos Aires via Chile.
We were also very excited to be in Alaska, neither of us had ever been there and it was on our bucket list. But getting in and out of Alaska was not as easy as we thought. First of all, it was high vacation season, accommodation and rental cars were expensive and scarce. Luckily our FBO- Aero Fuel Fairbanks- secured a room for us in the Pike Place hotel, close to the airport. Of course, we were not on the preferred “Aurora” side of the hotel but on the “Chena River” side. We did not care much because we had other concerns: we had arrived at 9pm, the restaurant was already closed and the bar was about to stop serving also. The receptionist had a list of restaurants that delivered, so we ordered two enormous hamburgers with fries (after all we were back in America) and while we waited for the “Uber Eats”, we also secured two drinks each, just before the bar pulled its curtain down. We enjoyed our meal in the lobby and watched other guests come back from their excursions dressed as fishermen, hunters or serious hikers. It was clear there were lots of outdoor activity options, so we decided to relax the next day and plan our Alaskan stay. But as early as 6 or 7 in the morning (which was 2 or 3 am for our still Russian biological clock), we found out that relaxing would not be available. Our room had a nice view on the Chena River but was also situated right next to the Housekeeping area, the place with lots of slamming doors where housekeepers sign in, meet, chat, fetch their carts and refill them with towels and sheets. All very useful but extremely noisy. If we were to stay another night, we would definitely need to change rooms…
Over breakfast, we listed the things we wanted to do: fly to Barrow (the Northernmost airport in the Americas, highest on Alex’ wish list), visit Denali National Park (to check another US Park from our Guide) and make our way South along the coast to Ketchikan, Juneau etc…to Seattle, thus avoiding Canada and its immigration and Covid complications. After checking the weather, we saw that the Park was best visited the next day and Barrow on Thursday, so we started working on the logistics of going to Denali. To make a long story short: we did not find a rental car, trains and buses were available but accommodations were far from the stations, reviews indicated that we would likely stand in endless lines to catch shuttles etc…. so we decided to visit Denali from the sky rather than on foot and Alex started creating a flight plan based on a route found on the website of a sightseeing flight company.
The Denali route
Sitting outside, making plans and routes
While he was working on that, I was looking for accommodation for the next two nights because there was nothing available at Pike Place, not even our noisy room but then we wouldn’t have wanted that anyway…. Because we had no car and taxis were hard to come by, we decided to stay close to te airport and found an overpriced small studio apartment in the poorly rated “Extended Stay America”. The place turned out better than the ratings, staff were very friendly and there was a shopping center and a restaurant within walking distance so we were going to be fine until our departure to Barrow.
The flight over Denali National Park was wonderful: Alex had thoroughly studied the scenic route intended for tourists and programmed the reporting points in the iPad (including altitudes, frequencies and forbidden zones). A few miles before entering the park, our Traffic Awareness System on the MFD screen showed a flock of 7 airplanes heading to the same point we were flying to close to. We had a moment of panic! All these planes, at the same time in the narrow valleys of the highest mountains in Alaska? And us in the middle of them? We heard their communications and understood that they were all sightseeing planes with tourists on board, and they were flying in a well-choreographed formation, one behind the other only a few minutes ahead of us. Perfect! They had decided that the best way to avoid close encounters with other airplanes in the tour, it was best to fly all together in one tight line. And as tourist operators, they knew exactly what the best spots were. We immediately decided to follow the experts, at a distance, and had one of the most thrilling flights , so close to the imposing mountains with its sharp black rocks emerging over beautiful snow valleys and slopes. We were very happy we had completed our mountain flying course with Patagonia Bush Pilots in Trevelin only a few months ago. We stopped for lunch in Talkeethna (PATK), a cute little town South of the park and flew back along the shortest way to prepare next day’s 3.5 hour flight to Barrow, so longed for by Alex.
The 7 planes between the mountains
One of our first Alaska glaciers
Most planes there have wheels and skis
Coffee in Talkeethna
On the way back to Fairbanks
(can you see the mountains in the background? that was the point of this selfie)
Our idea was to spend the night in Barrow and head to Anchorage the day after to meet Eran, a pilot from Ecuador who had flown all the way to Alaska in an experimental RansCoyote S6 via Colombia, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico (www.ochonueve.com). Apart from the pleasure of meeting a co-traveler, we were very much looking forward to any tips he could give us on those countries which were next on our path.
While we were checking the airplane early that Thursday morning, Alex spotted an Alaska State Trooper helicopter and ran towards the crew to get advice for our flight up North. Scott, the pilot in command, went out of his way to show him the best places to fly over in the Gates of the Arctic National park and the river Alatna to follow to get there. In parallel, the FBO’s fuel manager recommended we fly the approach to the Anaktuvuk Pass airport (PAKP), if the visibility was good. Alex’ strategy of asking the locals paid again because we had a beautiful flight over mountains and forests with trees that were starting to turn yellow on top in preparation of fall and when we got to Anaktuvuk Pass, we decided to fly under a low hanging cloud cover to get to see the airport which was situated in a bowl-shaped valley. We flew through the bowl at around 600 feet above terrain, in a kind of moon crater covered by clouds, with no one else around, keeping a nervous eye on the only exit in front of us. It was the kind of ambivalent moment where on the one hand you are happy to have seen something so amazing but on the other you’re relieved when it’s over, and soooo thankful for the fact that Alex is instrument rated. After our Anuktuvuk Pass exploit, the cloud cover closed on us so we opened an instrument flight plan and went up to 8500 feet and Direct-to Barrow which was supposed to be the destination and highlight of the day.
Trees are preparing for autumn
Above the river
above the canyon
Inside the Anuktuvuk pass bowl, only exit straight ahead!
In the US, thanks to XM Radio Weather subscription, we receive in-flight weather information, especially useful for places like Alaska where it changes so quickly. Therefore, we already knew that we would find low ceilings in Barrow but the forecasted 500 feet were still high enough for us to land safely because the “minimums” (i.e. level at which you need to fly a missed approach if you can’t see the runway) of the IFR arrival procedure were around 200 feet. The procedure would take us over the water first and then straight into Barrow:
During the descent however, we started to doubt because we were still very much in the clouds at 500 feet but just as we were starting to talk about the possibility of not landing, the tower spontaneously informed us that we did not need to worry because the visibility was better over the runway. And indeed, soon after we started to see houses and a runway where we touched down.
It was so cold (2 degrees on September 2nd!) and windy in Barrow that we dug out our hats and gloves before securing and covering the airplane. We also plugged in the TANIS (cylinder heating system). You can see the orange powercord on the picture below, cold airports in the US always have plugs!
Next, we entered the control tower building to check if there were any airport fees and to ask for hotel and restaurant recommendations. We were welcomed by two men, one was about to end his shift and the other was his replacement. I don’t remember their names but they really helped us out. First, they updated us on the situation in Barrow: restaurants were not very good, quite expensive and also closed due to Covid, so we would need to get delivery in our hotel room. Instead, they offered to share their lunch! pasta with mushroom-cream sauce that the controller about to start his shift -let’s call him Michael- had just cooked. Michael lived in Miami and spent two weeks per month in Barrow for this job. He would bring all his groceries with him because everything in Barrow was imported from other parts of the US and a gallon of milk cost $12 for example. His colleague -let’s call him Justin- lived in Fairbanks and was on the same “two weeks on-two weeks off” schedule. I assume there are two other persons somewhere who take care of the control tower during the other half of each month. Michael and Justin also gave us their opinion of the city: we could visit it in less than an hour and it was not especially interesting or aesthetically pleasing. Michael even shared his experience with visitors who used to stop in town (before the pandemic) as part of an Alaska tour package. He would see how their faces changed when they walked out of the plane and hear them saying to themselves “is this it???”.
With "Michael" in the tower
We started to suspect that it might be better to leave this cold and windy place the same day but went for a quick walk following the controllers’ directions -3 blocks to the ocean and 4 blocks to the famous “end of the world sign”- to see for ourselves and think it over. After about 20 minutes, we were certain we did not want to stay. We took a few videos and pictures and walked back to the airport to depart to Anchorage, one day early. If we were fast, we would get there before sunset.
To the ocean
The end of the world sign
An overview of our surroundings
And a quick zoom on a street name we could not resist to take a picture of
Back in the tower, Alex filed the flight plan with Justin’s help (indeed, we had not yet prepared this flight since we thought we would leave only the next day) and we went back out in the cold to prepare the plane. Alex saw the oil was too low for a trip to Anchorage and went to the baggage compartment to grab a new bottle. We always traveled with a box full of bottles of Aeroshell which we bought after each oil change, but in Barrow, the cold and windy, remote Northernmost airport of the Americas, the box was empty.
Followed an epic series of events: the controllers called the local fuel station and the other hangars on the field: nothing; we changed our flight plan to Fairbanks which was closer but when we were already lined up on the runway, we heard someone from another plane saying on the radio that there was oil in Deadhorse which was even closer. While Alex was exiting the runway to go back to the tower to change the flight plan again and I was checking the weather in Deadhorse, a new voice on the frequency informed us that they found the oil we needed in their hangar, right there in Barrow. Alex taxied over there, stepped out of the plane, followed a young man to the back of a warehouse and came back with two red bottles of precious fluid which he didn’t even pay for because they did not use it anymore. Another amazing example of global aviation solidarity!
Now that we had sufficient oil in our reservoir, Alex re-activated the initial flight plan and took off for Anchorage but it was getting a little late so we went IFR at 10,000 feet to take the fastest, straightest route instead of the scenic one we had initially mapped out. I started browsing on Booking.com during the climb (knowing I would lose internet access at some point), not really looking forward to another late-night hotel arrival where all restaurants are closed etc… As the headwinds picked up, our arrival became later and later, and the 4.5-hour flight quite challenging. First we struggled to avoid icing which is always stressful but even more so over mountains, then the cloud cover increased and we started to see thunderstorms on our screen which forced us to make a detour, and stronger headwinds up to 40 knots. There are good days and not so good days, I am not sure what this day was: the morning gave us beautiful mountains, the fulfillment of Alex’ Barrow landing and lunch with new friends, the afternoon however was more like a “bad trip” with stress, delays, icing, clouds, thunderstorms, headwinds and a night-time arrival. We were very relieved when we landed at 9.30 pm on the very well-lit runway of PANC, Anchorage’s international airport, surrounded by Boeings and other large planes, not at all our kind of airport😊 And when we almost ran into another plane on taxiway E (my fault I think, even though the difference between taxiway E and F was barely noticeable on the airport chart…) it didn’t really bother us because we had had more preoccupying episodes during this day.
Avoiding the icy clouds
Life in sight!
We parked at Signature FBO around the time they were closing and got the last nasty surprise of the day: they did not carry AvGas any longer, despite what was still published in ForeFlight with price per gallon and all. We were very tired to go anywhere else so we parked there anyway and rode with one of Signature’s employees who was also an Uber driver. We went to the Four Points by Sheraton (best quality/price/location during this busy season) which I had booked for 2 nights because there was no way we were going anywhere the next day! During the ride, we asked him where we could eat and he took us to “Peanut Farm” which was open until midnight and insisted on waiting outside to take us to the hotel afterwards. This late arrival experience turned out to be much less problematic than imagined.
The next day we stayed in our room until about noon, resting and planning. Scott, the Alaska Trooper we had met in Fairbanks had recommended we take the Alaska Railroad to Seward, a picturesque coastal town 130 miles South because it was such a beautiful scenic itinerary, and to go on a boat tour through the fjords there. Unfortunately, all trains for the next few weeks were full and so were the hotels in Seward. Determined on visiting Seward anyway, Alex found what was probably the only rental car available in Anchorage using the Turo app and we decided to rent it for 2 days, hoping to find last minute accommodation in the village. If we didn’t, we could always drive back to Anchorage where there were a handful of expensive hotels with vacancy. Once the logistics of our next destination were out of the way, we went for a walk to explore Anchorage. According to the GPS mycity app, the itinerary would take about 2 hours, but we finished it in less than one. Anchorage is small and many places (restaurants, museums etc…) were closed. The explanation we were given was that it was Labor Day weekend -there are not many holidays in America so people definitely want to enjoy them!- but at the same time it seemed a little strange that most places would be closed while it was tourist high season. Another explanation volunteered was that there were huge labor shortages (and we would find out soon that that was not only the case in Alaska) which forced many businesses to slow down and/or to find employees in other places. The pizzeria we visited that same night for example was staffed by three Colombians who had been hired just for the season (3 months) and would soon head back home. The lack of attractions in the city did not really bother us because we were tired anyway and just wanted to chill….
Not a lot open except nature that never sleeps:)
But our chilling was postponed by Alex’ realism: the empty box of oil in Barrow meant that the plane was due for an oil change and he found mechanic at Merrill Field, Anchorage’s smaller airport and more fit for General Aviation. The mechanic could do the work over the weekend so we needed to move the plane before the end of the day. So much for not going anywhere…. The 6-minute flight from PANC to PAMR was one of the shortest of our whole trip but among those that required most preparation. The PAMR procedure guide had more than 40 pages long and Alex almost fainted when he saw it. Instead of reading through the whole thing, he used his usual technique of calling the airport and asking to speak to a local. The person he ended up reaching gave him a few tips but advised him to confess right at take off that he was unfamiliar with the area, so that the controller would guide him step by step. And that is exactly what happened, turning this short flight into a “piece of cake” despite the daunting procedure guide. Merrill Field is full of flight schools and small aircraft so we immediately felt much more comfortable than in PANC where we had taxied and taken off after two huge and humbling 747 Boeing Jumbo jets and their corresponding wake turbulence.
About to join the Big Kids in line at PANC
Lake Hood sea plane base, right next to PANC (Alaska is sea and ski plane paradise)
Arrived in Merrill Field after 6 minute flight :)
Now that our LV-GQF was in good hands in an appropriate airport, we could resume our chilling, which continued the next day with the beautiful drive to Seward in our Turo rental car. We realized that the train track was parallel to the Alaska 1 highway we were on, so we probably did not miss much by not traveling the Alaska railway Gold Star Service. We had left early and the fog was still lifting from the sea, progressively revealing the mountains.
Seward was indeed a cute town with a nice Marina where the boat tours boarded. Unfortunately there was not one single ticket left, even the waiting lists were full, so instead, after a delightful coffee in the harbor, we chose two hikes on the Alltrails app: the first along Resurrection Bay and the second to Exit Glacier. We were not frustrated at all about missing the boat tour because there was really nothing to complain about: the hikes promised to take us into pure Alaska nature and we had been able to book a hotel for the night due to a cancellation the same morning, so we had plenty of time. We also knew that Eran, the pilot from Ecuador, was stuck in the mist in Ketchikan and might not be able to make it to Anchorage, while in Seward the weather was beautiful. We did make a note to ourselves though regarding the low ceilings in Ketchikan: if it was so bad, would we be able to go there? But we would worry about that when we got back to the city, first we would enjoy picturesque Seward.
Resurrection Bay, with lots of salmon swimming upstream, just like in Kamchatka
Exit glacier is melting fast, this sign shows where the ice was in 2005 and the signs saying 1960 are many walking minutes before. Scary.
When we got back from our hikes, we asked the hotel’s excursion desk what we could do the next day and they recommended a very popular helicopter flight over the mountains and fjords. We were not very convinced because we figured we would see enough mountains and fjords from the air on our way South, but then Alex bumped into a helicopter tour that landed on top of a glacier on which you could go dogsledding. Now that was something the LV-GQF could not do! It was quite expensive but we surrendered to the temptation, thinking we could probably never have this kind of opportunity again. I mean when would we be back in Alaska, really??
And it was definitely worth it: the helicopter flew so close to the mountains that you felt you were part of them, landing in the middle of an ice field and stepping out of the aircraft onto the snow was spectacular and the dogsledding with real Alaska huskies unique, especially since it was the last day that the camp (14 or so dogs and about 6 people) was up there, they had already started sending their gear back down to base with each arriving helicopter. Lucky again.
The helicopters waiting for the clouds to lift
Flying over the glacier
Arriving at the camp
On the sled (the mushers, i.e. dogsled drivers, had explained how it worked so we could drive a little ourselves)
Alaskan huskies have a very dense layer of fur close to their skin and LOVE the cold
Still full of our helicopter experience, we returned to Anchorage in the afternoon, following the Alaska Rail tracks back, and planned to finish the day with one of the city’s main attractions: a hike up Flat Top Mountain from which you can see the Aleutian Islands on clear days.
Flat Top mountain from below
Views from half up
The view from above which only Alex enjoyed because the last part was so steep that I chickened out
A little reward for reaching the top:
After that, the chilling was over and we got back into flight preparation mode. There was no weather improvement in sight for Ketchikan so we would not meet Eran and there was no choice for the next legs: we had to go through Canada and make at least one fuel stop there. The good news was we could make a stop in Calgary, and see Ana, one of Alex good old friends.
And if we were going to stop in Calgary, we needed to go through border control, fill out ArriveCAN forms, do a PCR test (rules had a different interpretation in this part of Canada: if you are flying your own airplane you are “crew” but not considered an “essential worker” and therefore you are required a PCR test), etc…. We needed to squeeze all that in before our departure the next day, and also prepare a flight plan that would allow us to see as much of the South coast of Alaska as possible, before turning East to avoid the Ketchikan mist. Our agenda became:
1. early morning PCR test at Anchorage International airport. Results would be available in 3-4 hours but we decided to leave without waiting for them…this is one of the advantages of flying your own airplane!
2. Taxi to Merrill Field to check and board the plane at the mechanic’s workshop
3. flight over the coast as long as weather allowed and then turn inward to Whitehorse, Yukon
4. fuel and customs in Whitehorse, 4 hours from Anchorage so we would have the PCR results by then. If they were positive, we could always go back to the US side of the border.
5. departure to Calgary via Grande Prairie for more fuel.
And this is how we left Alaska, on Tuesday September 7th, amazed by the beauty of its nature, the wealth of Glaciers and fjords we discovered along the Coast, humbled by the weather and logistic challenges we encountered in this remote area of the US (and it was still summer!), and with a strong desire to go back sometime for more snowy mountains and huskies.
First glimpse of the coast
Glaciers and their lagoons everywhere
We made it to Whitehorse (using plan A route) and are ready for Border Services
For a more immersive experience of our Alaska journey, check out Alex’ LV-GQF in Alaska videos:
Denali National Park: https://youtu.be/aXPBpaebHME
To Barrow: https://youtu.be/AUfrmivOZrc
To Whitehorse over the glacier coast: https://youtu.be/10_gZDh_x0g