21 July, 1999
Up until now, my field experience has not felt uniquely Alaskan. We have been camping in a remote, mountainous region, next to a big glacier, hiking daily to our respective field sites to gather data. It could be any rugged and mountainous area. The only reason why we are in Alaska is because that happens to be the state where Hidden Creek Lake, the focus of our study, is located. To get the full flavor of a place, you need to experience the people. You have to engage in the history of the place, the history from which tales are spun. Today, that finally happened.
The objectives for today were simple. PI Andrew Fountain and I were going to fly out to Glennallen (located 150 miles to the west of McCarthy), pick up the U-Haul truck, and drive it back to McCarthy. The others (surveyor Dennis Trabant, PI Joe Walder, undergrad Andrew Malm, grad students Michelle Cunico and Don Lindsay) would stay back in camp, pack up, and be ready to load slings when the helicopter arrives tomorrow.
We awoke to an incessant rain. Andrew and I packed our gear and left camp for the Foss landing strip where a bush pilot was going to pick us up. It was located a mile and a half up the valley from our camp at the base of an alluvial fan. I put on a plastic rain jacket and started walking. By the time we got to the landing strip I was soaked. My pants were wet from the rain, my thermal uppers were soaked from sweat. The landing strip was a sopped, muddy, clay-coated slick 200 feet in length by about 15 feet wide. The rain continued. The low-slung clouds were thickening. My imagination was tickled by the prospect of an airplane using this greasy-covered strip as a landing site. When the plane touched down it did not appear to slow down very fast. The wheels were locked. After clipping some bushes and bouncing over a couple of cobbles at the end of the runway, the plane came to a stop. Out jumped stream-team members Christy "The Dangerous" Swindling (she was beaming) and Erin "The Stream Queen" Kraal (she looked concerned), both from UC Santa Cruz. They were going to take a break from their stream data collection at the base of the glacier and spend the last day at the glacier camp. The pilot shouted to Andrew and I, "Hurry up and get into the plane, we need to get out of here before the weather pins us down." He revved the motor a few times and the plane raced down the runway. The plane lifted off inches before hitting the rocks at the other end of the runway. Rain pounded the windshield (no wipers). Andrew and I cast a whimsical glance at each other - Alaskan bush pilot lore was unfolding before us.
We landed fifteen minutes later at a gravel-covered airstrip in McCarthy, located 12 miles down the glacier-filled Kennicott Valley from our camp. From McCarthy we were going to fly on the mail plane to Glennallen. We had an hour and a half to get breakfast in McCarthy, and debrief with Bob Anderson, who had been in charge of gathering stream discharge data at the base of the glacier. When we returned to the airstrip to board the mail plane, half the towns of McCarthy and Kennicott were there to receive the biweekly shipment of mail. Once the mail had been unloaded, we boarded the plane. The mail plane was small. There was just enough room for the pilot (Tom), Andrew, and I. Tom turned over the engine. It didn't start. Gas fumes filled the cabin - it was flooded. Tom tried again. It sputtered to a start. We rolled down the airstrip. The rain continued to pound.
Once airborne, I looked down on the boreal forest, which I had imagined from reading books by Farley Mowat and Barry Lopez. Spindly spruce trees were interspersed with boggy, heath-covered clearings. Andrew saw a moose. I spotted a grizzly bear. The boreal landscape spread out in all directions. We flew over a sediment-choked stream, its channels braiding their course across a broad valley floor. Remote cabins and homesteads dotted the ground. Off in the distance, a football field-sized patch of grass broke the wilderness. Tom aimed his plane at the small rectangle. It was the May Creek mail stop. After landing, he rolled to the end of the runway, which was marked by a small, rustic log cabin. A couple of thickly bearded men were standing there - lean, ruddy faces, sharp cheekbones - authentic Alaskan sourdoughs. Shaking their heads, they approached the plane and exclaimed, "Shoot Tom, you must really need the money to be flying out in this weather." Then they noticed Andrew and I in the plane. With a grin one of them said, "Ah, I see you got a couple of desperados back there Tom. You better get them out of here before the local marshal catches up with them." Chuckling, they grabbed their mail and sauntered back to the porch on the cabin. Tom tried to start the plane. No luck. After three more tries it finally coughed to a start. Confidence had not been built among the two passengers. But, we were off.
The rain poured. The clouds were low. Tom was only flying about 500 feet above the tops of the trees to avoid being engulfed by the clouds. There is no such thing as instrument flying in the Alaskan bush. The only instruments that are used to navigate the plane are the pilot's eyes. Andrew and I were on the edges of our seats. Being so close to the tree tops, we wondered how much glide time there would be if the plane malfunctioned. Andrew glanced at the pilot. The buzz of the engine, the beat of the rain, and the bounce of turbulence was lulling him to sleep. His eyes were at half mast. Fortunately (I suppose), a thick, dark-gray cloud presented itself on the horizon. This perked up the pilot, and he dropped the plane another couple of hundred feet to slip below the visual barrier. The rain ensued with such vigor that there was no visibility through the front windshield. However, the Glennallen airport could be seen out the side window. Within a few minutes we were safely on the ground. Andrew and I de-boarded the plane, smirking like a couple of Cheshire Cats. We had just experienced a bit of Alaska.
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