You Ask: What was one of the most unique and adventurous aspects of last month's Gates of the Arctic (Alaska) backpacking expedition? Definitely the travel logistics to and from the Alaskan bush in 1950s de Havilland Canada Beaver and Otter float planes. Check out my pictures and videos to see the full experience.
The Gates of the Arctic National Park is not accessible by road and the logistics from the nearest big city (Fairbanks) can be complicated. Our trip plan required four flights roundtrip to and from Fairbanks. The first step was a Wright Air flight (Cessna plane) from Fairbanks to Bettles, AK, a remote outpost on the edge of the Gates of the Arctic. From there, the final step into the park is by bush plane. Either a wheeled plane landing on a gravel strip or a float plane landing on a lake. In our case, we chartered Brooks Range Aviation float planes from Bettles to our Gates of the Arctic bush drop off and pick up locations.
Since moving to Seattle I have been intrigued by float planes. With all the water in the Pacific Northwest, float planes are a viable travel option to the San Juan Islands and Victoria Island or Vancouver (Canada) for example. There are two float plane operators on Lake Union and the planes fly over my apartment constantly throughout the day on the landing pattern down to the lake. Of course that intrigue made me want to take a float plane trip somewhere - but I had just not found the right opportunity yet.
Enter Alaska... Heading into the trip the thought of these small, old, single engine planes was actually one of my biggest fears. The logistics in Alaska are more difficult, the geography is more remote, and certainly the risk factor goes up for everything involved. I would be lying not to admit that plenty of irrational fears crept into my mind as the trip approached. However, one of the things that I continue to practice and improve is how to acknowledge and then put aside those irrational fears. I've learned that the vast majority of the time your fears are just that - irrational. Instead, I try to focus on evaluating the real risks, decide what I am comfortable with, and then logically manage what is within my control. I could write an entire blog post about my philosophy - and I think I will sometime!
In the end, the drop off and pick up in these antique planes was one of the best, unique experiences of the trip! So much so that I've put together this blog post to share pictures and (super cool) videos of the experience. Hope you can imagine being a "fly on my shoulder" dropped off and picked up in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness with me! To see more from my Alaskan expedition check out other recent blog posts: A Week in the Life: Gates of the Arctic and Cloud Art: Gates of the "Art-ic".
For the inbound journey, our group split up into two separate five passenger de Havilland Canada Beaver float planes. The de Havilland Beaver (and the larger 9 passenger Otter) float planes were built in the 1950s and have been the "work horse" of backcountry and bush travel across Canada and Alaska since that time. The planes had rebuilt motors, but literally everything else was 1950s authentic. It was an experience to watch the pilot manipulate the manual controls and bring us in for a picturesque water landing.
As both planes landed, we re-grouped on the shore of the lake and immediately got our feet wet (per Alaska style)! It was a very surreal feeling to watch the planes then take off from the lake, leaving the nine of us alone in the huge Alaskan wilderness. It was the first, immediate feeling of isolation and smallness of the trip. Time to start walking - this was real and no turning back now!
Video Credit: Richard C.
On the morning of our targeted exit it was cloudy and we were not sure if our float plane would have enough visibility to fly in to pick us up. Around mid-day the clouds cleared and we communicated with the float plane company via satellite messages to confirm the improved conditions and our pick up. We hiked over to our departure point at Oolah Lake and waited by the lake for a couple of hours. We finally heard the faint hum of an engine in the distance, an unusual sound after the week away from civilization. On the return flight we rode in a 1950s de Havilland Canada Otter Float Plane (9 seat capacity versus the 5 seat capacity of the Beaver planes we took inbound). We returned to Bettles and spent the night in cabins before our next day's scheduled flight back to Fairbanks to officially close out our journey.
Video Credit: Richard C.