Alaska is a huge state, bigger than any other in the US, and has some very remote towns and villages. A lot of these towns are not always easy to get to. One of the best ways to get to them is by plane. Here’s a story of one such plane trip, that flew from Anchorage to Dawson City.
Our Dawson City Flyaway with Arctic Basin Airways Flying Club based in Anchorage Alaska turned out to be just about the best trip ever. We had five airplanes with every seat filled with excited people.
Our departure from Merrill Field in Anchorage was early in the morning. We were looking at a somewhat challenging several-hundred-mile jaunt through the remote Alaska wilderness. The weather was overcast, raining on and off, a typical summer day in Alaska.
All the pilots were thoroughly checked out and totally competent. We all knew we were in charge of the aircraft we were flying and ultimately responsible for our passengers’ safety.
Operationally we kept visual contact on the aircraft in front of us throughout our journey. We also kept communications going on the air-to- air frequencies. This worked well for us navigationally as well and helped ensure all could observe optimum points of interest.
As can often happen in Alaska, within an hour of takeoff, the ceiling began to drop. Knowing we would soon be getting close to the twisting, spectacular canyons around Sheep Mountain and with lowering visibility, I made the call for everyone to return to Palmer (PAAQ). The plan was to wait out the weather and if no improvement, call off the flight. You could feel the disappointment in the air even though no one complained.
Everyone landed safely in Palmer and the wait was on. Not much to do in Palmer at that time, but they did have a small, heated building where we could keep warm. Someone found a deck of cards and we soon got a game going. Although it felt good to be safely on the ground and out of the rain, it wasn’t exactly the type of day we’d set out for.
Suddenly the door burst open. ‘Buck’ charged in the door,
“Hey Tone. Breakin’ up… Looks a little better out to the east. Mind if I head out and take a look?” called Buck Rogers, actually Michael Lund one of our best pilots.
I threw on my jacket and followed Buck outside to find the weather indeed seemed to be moving on. I’d recently checked Gulkana and Northway weather which were both good. These two towns were on the other side of the pass and along our route of flight.
“Actually, that sounds great Buck. Matter of fact, why don’t you take about a 10 minute lead then we’ll all take off. Are you up for blazing the trail for the rest of us?” I asked.
“OOOHHHHH Boy!” This was Buck’s favorite saying. “Let’s do it!” he said enthusiastically.
After a quick walk around, he fired up his engine and taxied to the runway. We watched him launch and turn toward the pass. The roar of his engine soon became a drone as he turned and disappeared behind the first mountain of the pass.
The view from here was a little intimidating to some.
“Everybody in?” I asked. Making sure everyone was game for this adventure.
“You bet. Let’s get going!” Half were already getting in their aircraft and belting in.
As the leader of the group, I checked that all had their engines started. Like the Blue Angels we taxied out in formation toward the end of the runway. Pretty soon our small fleet was airborne and headed in Buck’s direction. We were taking our time entering into the unknown conditions of the pass, hoping to get a report from him.
Shortly, we heard, “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Buck Rogers, Pilot Extraordinaire, reporting the pass at Sheep Mountain is clear. I am proceeding on to Gulkana. See you there.” “Thanks a lot Buck. We all appreciate your help.”
What absolutely gorgeous scenery! Total wilderness and, yes there are tons of sheep on Sheep Mountain. It’s awesome to be looking at them at several thousand feet, standing on their precariously small rock ledges. I’m sure we were quite a sight for them as well as we flew by in a line.
Shortly after passing over the awesome Matanuska Glacier, we broke out of the clouds completely and were greeted with awesome blue skies.
Everyone scrambled to find their sunglasses as we passed the snow covered peak Mt. Baker. At 13,000 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the Chugach Range.
The entire trip was filled with awesome scenery and wildlife.
Taking a break in Gulkana, Alaska
After our fuel and rest stop in Gulkana, we again launched, in trail of our path finder, Buck and were on our way to Dawson City, Yukon Territory!
However there was still more dramatic scenery to come where off to our right appeared another range of mountains marking the beginning of the Wrangell Mountain Range. Soon we observed the snow covered 16,237-foot Mount Sanford.
Yes we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the sun, taking tons of pictures of our beautiful pristine scenes.
After a nice flight through the Mentasta Pass, we were clear of most of the higher mountainous terrain. Thinking we had clear running now, everyone began to get excited about our arrival at Dawson City, in the Yukon Territory!
However… as we approached within 45 miles of our destination, the weather again began to deteriorate. And again, everyone started to get the sinking feeling that Dawson City may not happen. We really didn’t have a safety problem as we had fuel reserves to get down to the good weather at Northway. However, as we drew closer to the ominous gray mass looming ahead, the airways grew very quiet.
I eased the P.T.T. switch down, “Hey Buck… you out there?”
The silence was screaming at us at this point – ‘Time to make a decision’. All we could see was a mountain of gray clouds hanging over the Yukon River valley. I asked everyone to slow down to 80 knots and unless we heard from Buck, we were headed back to Northway.
Suddenly, the silence was broken, “OOOOOHHHHH, Boy! Hey Tone.”
“Go ahead Buck,” I answered.
“I’m looking at a city in the bend of the river. Bunch of old paddle wheelers stuck in the mud. Man, this river’s awesome! You guys need to fly south for about nine or ten miles, watch for an opening to the east, ease up over the ridge and drop down on the river. Ceiling’s about 1,500 feet. You’re gonna’ love it. See you on the ground.” Buck said cheerfully.
Aerial view of Dawson City, YT. – “Where’s the Runway?”
Now, I’ve got to tell you, that was music to everyone’s ears. We all followed Buck’s lead, travelled 10 miles south and low and behold, a nice wide opening in the fog and clouds appeared, just as our path finder said. We flew up and over the ridge, then dropped down on the river. Perfect! What a guy!
That was one huge river. It looked a lot like the Mississippi, except there’s more of a river valley surrounded by mountainous terrain.
Fate of many paddle wheelers who lost their battle with the mighty Yukon River. The shoreline was littered with old ship wrecks.
As I rounded a bend in the river, ‘Whoops, that’s a live steaming paddle wheeler, better get a little higher’. Easing the 172 Sky Hawk up 500 feet and a little to the left, we got a bird’s eye view of a working paddle wheeler in action!
After a couple of victory turns over the city, we all landed safely on the hard-packed gravel runway.
Buck greeted everyone with arms waving!
As the Custom Agent approached us we realized, ‘oh yeah, we’re in another country’. Canadian Customs Agents were great and seemed glad to see us.
We were done quickly and went about securing our aircraft for the night. As our group left the ramp someone let out a cheer, “Yeah, Buck!” After a bunch of high-fives and cheers for Buck Rogers and each other, we headed for our hotel. Success!
S.S. Keno, a Paddle Wheeler from the early 1900’s being restored.
Main Street Coming Up!
However, here’s one of the most popular businesses in town! That is, next to Diamond Tooth Gerties.
Pilots Jerry Bagley and Tony Priest
Town was great and crammed with history and old architecture.
However, there were more surprises to come. Step on back into history for a close-up view and experience the feeling!
Yukon Territory, Jack London, “Call of the Wild” – sound familiar? Jack London lived south of Dawson City prior to the gold rush of 1898. Robert Service, famous author of ‘The Cremation of Sam McGee’ and ‘The Trail of Ninety-Eight’, lived in Dawson City until 1912.
There’s tons of information and memorabilia on both authors located here.
Robert Service’s cabin preserved exactly as he left it.
What an awesome feeling it was, to stand in the doorway of Robert Service’s cabin and see his lantern-lit writing table, note papers and books. He worked in quite a different environment than the comfortable work spaces we have today. With 40 below temperatures and the long, dark Yukon winters, living must have been generally tough. Both writers had to be a very hardy sort themselves. Even under those extreme conditions, they both managed to write some great works. Can you imagine the day to day life they must have experienced? Standing there, taking it all in, we realized we had taken a trip back in time.
Inside the Robert Service Cabin
As we left the old cabin, we headed back down Main Street. The streets were dirt with some gravel and bordered by wooden boardwalks. Many of the old buildings had been preserved and restored to their original condition. The old buildings, the wooden boardwalks and the dirt streets filled us with the feeling of the old west. That is, right up to when a large fellow with a couple of large huskies came walking by. I thought ‘Sergeant Preston of the Yukon’? That happened to be one of my favorite shows in the early years.
As we wandered through town, checking out some of the local folks, I remember commenting, “You know, it’s amazing that everyone’s dressing the part.”
Then we came up on Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Saloon.
We climbed up the old stairs and entered the foyer. There was a large hand-written sign and in bold letters;
CHECK GUNS AND KNIVES HERE!
“Wow, just like the Old West!” someone commented.
Later we found out that was not a joke. You checked your guns and knives at the door! Glancing toward the back of the coat room, I saw possibly a hundred weapons of all sorts; shotguns, rifles, pistols and knives.
As I was standing there mesmerized, one of the saloon gals patted me on the shoulder, “That’s a nice leather jacket. Would you like to keep it?”
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Then you better give it to me for safe keeping,” the woman said seriously.
As we soon found out, this was a real saloon with real cowboys and Indians. Actually, it was a crossroads for all types of people from all over the Yukon, including hunters, trappers, gold miners and just about every other rugged type of profession there is. We all felt like aliens dropped into somewhere in the past. Saloon girls, drinking, gambling…the guys thought it was great. When the Can-Can dancers started up, we all scrambled for chairs only to discover our ladies suddenly needed to do some shopping.
Needless to say, they were not leaving us unsupervised at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall, “The northernmost casino in the world.” Soon we were back on Main Street and began exploring the rest of the town taking in lots of culture and history.
“Anyone seen Buck?” one of the ladies asked.
“Wonder if he’s still at Gertie’s?” someone else asked.
“I believe he’s at the museum,” I responded. I really knew where he was!
Later, we heard there was a salmon bake down on the river that very night. We arrived at the dock and soon found you had to take a small riverboat, the Yukon Lou, to an island up river for the dinner. As we boarded the ship, someone commented, “Hey look at the Captain. He really looks the part.”
I glanced again at the gruff old seaman standing behind the Helm. His full beard, weathered face and gray hair told a story of some rough days. He’d worn his oversized Navy pea coat coming aboard, dark blue pants and heavy boots.
We weren’t sure but from the squint in his eyes, he seemed to be smiling.
“Looks the part? He is the part!” I said.
Later on, while underway, we did get to visit with him and got to hear a couple of great River Boat tales from his earlier years.
Evidently he was an experienced River Boat Captain in that he did a great job negotiating the radical currents of the river. Along the way, he pointed out and named several shipwrecks strewn along the banks. What an awesome sight.
Can you imagine that on those River Boats how much life was lived, how many stories remain untold, the emotion, the excitement, the horror of having such a disaster on your watch?
There are many in Dawson City I’m sure that can fill you in on the history of the place, including stories of these shipwrecks, possibly through eyewitness reports.
After an hour or so on the paddle wheeler, we arrived at our destination. He carefully nosed the boat up to the shore of a heavily treed island.
The crew threw out the anchors and lowered the three-foot-wide gangway onto the river bank. Adventure anyone? This river’s moving fast!
Very carefully, we all walked the plank, so to speak, onto this remote island in the middle of the Yukon River. No one knew exactly what to expect. However, we were pleasantly surprised and relieved to see a very large, rustic kitchen, all outdoors of course, along with tables enough for our large group. The meal, a wonderful outdoor salmon bake, was filling and unbelievably delicious.
Afterwards, we had another hour or so to explore more of the island. We discovered remnants of shipwrecks, various pieces of heavy equipment and other signs of previous inhabitants.
Captain Tony’s wondering what it must have been like in the old, old days.
He’s a long way from his home in Atlanta, Georgia!
Another site found along the shore of the mighty Yukon River…
Native American Fish Wheel used for catching salmon. Yes, they were here first and were quite industrious in their efforts.
The trip back down river was a little faster than our trip up of course and it felt good to be in sight of the city once again. As we departed the ship, we all thanked the captain of the Yukon Lou for a safe and wonderful journey.
After a couple of great days exploring Dawson City and the surrounding area, we began our journey home. The weather was good. Buck led the way.
Everyone had a lot of fun actually using our aircraft to go somewhere as unique and exciting as Dawson City, Yukon Territory. We had learned a little about the Klondike and had an awesome, incredible experience.
If you want a great adventure book a flight or River Boat to Dawson City in the Yukon Territory! You may touch the soul of some very hardy pioneers!
Always update your information about any location. This trip was some time back and some things have probably changed. The awesome scenery probably not.
Captain Tony Boyd Priest
Pilot, Adventurer, Writer
“Too many stories to tell so I began writing books.”
This trip from Anchorage to Dawson City was an excerpt from Captain Tony’s Book –
Call Sign – ‘Iceman’ –
An Alaskan Aviation Adventure.
For more great tales of Alaska Flying Adventures take a look at these great books at Amazon.com.
Tony is a Vietnam Combat Veteran turned Pilot and Flight Instructor with 11 years flying in Alaska. He’s flown 28,000 hours in practically every thing from Super Cubs to Jets and flown throughout the U.S., Canada, Caribbean, Dominican Republic, and West Indies. He has more than 350 Medevac Missions primarily in Alaska, is a current Flight Instructor today and continues to write.
We’re excited to check out his latest book about the pristine Prince William Sound!
Tony and Judy Priest
Judy Glavosek Priest
Air Tran Airlines, Travel Agent, Adventurer, Writer and Flight Attendant
“I like the Caribbean Stories best because I was There!”
Judy has tons of experience both as a Travel Agent and as a Flight Attendant working with various companies and aircraft. Her favorite stories seem to come from travel into the Caribbean, West Indies, and the Gulf of Mexico. Hmmm… All warm climates. There’s plenty to come! Judy, a published author as well, adds a feminine touch and perspective to many of their stories together.