Passes, Gold Mines, and Ridges
Flying the Alaskan Wilderness
By Ellen Paneok
The snowy darkness in the parking lot is illuminated by light posts whose tops look like geese, looking this way and that. Snow drifts idly down, dusting the airplanes that sit silently, waiting to fly. Visibility is only slightly reduced, because the snow is light. I stand at the edge of the flight line watching my aircraft, which seems as if it is alive and knows I am there. My destination, when it gets light enough, is across the Alaska Range. I have been waiting out snowy weather in the pass. The airplane, ready to fly, has sat idle too long, waiting for me to give it commands.
Today the weather is good; I can get through the pass. I unfurl the wing covers, and the snow billows off the cloth and drifts to the ground. During preflight, with just a puff of air I can swoosh the snow off the surface of the aircraft. The engine has been tucked in all night with an engine blanket and an electric heater. I check the oil and make sure the radio vents and static ports are clear of snow. The sleeping airport starts to stir, and taxis begin arriving with their passengers bound for air travel. Pilots are preflighting their steeds for their day's work; there is a bustle of activity and anticipation. The control tower cab is dimly lit, and the controllers inside it are ready to direct traffic.
They are still drinking their coffee as they watch us outside in the snow-crusted dawn. I can see the light gun hanging limp against the backdrop of dim lights inside. On the roof of the cab, the airport's rotating green-and-white beacon silently swirls around, creating a ghostly glow wherever the light hits the falling snow. I stand back and gaze at my aircraft as the sun looms over the horizon of snow-studded mountains. "Sun dogs" glitter from residual snowfall. The airplane is a work of art, I think to myself, with lines and symmetry streamlined to create flight. I stop my muse and prepare for the flight.
On Crooked Creek
Flying for Jayhawk Air, out of Anchorage, Alaska's Merrill Field, my main steed is a Cessna 206, equipped with 24-inch "Gars" (tundra tires) on the mains, an 850-size nose tire with an oversize strut fork, a Robertson STOL kit, and bubble windows. Jay hawk Air specializes in off-airport landings -- beaches, sand bars, mountaintops, you name it. We take hunters and fishermen out to remote camps, along with loggers, miners, and, of course, the gold exploration workers whom I now have on board. Almost all of my work is off-airport, and the only runway that I usually see is Merrill Field's. I have landed on railroad service roads, ocean beaches, and village strips so remote that they aren't even on the charts. I've hauled such strange stuff as dynamite and caps (thankfully not on the same flight), kitchen sinks, and full coolers of food for fishermen whose food was stolen by 10-foot Kodiak brown bears on Kodiak Island. The bears had opened the coolers by using their teeth to delicately pop the latches. I had to take food out to one group of fishermen twice before they decided that they had had enough of bears. The second time that the bears got their food, the fishermen were stuck in a raft on the Karluk River, watching helplessly while the bears ate every last bite.
This day, my destination two-and-one-half hours away is a gold exploration camp operated by Placer Dome Inc. on the other side of Crooked Creek, a Yupik Eskimo village. The camp is a little metropolis of bright orange-and-white canvas tents shaped like Quonset huts. It is my turn to be the camp pilot, if I can even get there. I had already made three attempts to get through the pass in as many days, to be thwarted by a wall of snow. The mountains just disappeared into whiteness -- an opening to the twilight zone, a portal of no return. My airplane and I scooted out of there. Airplanes and eerie mountain passes veiled with snow don't mix.
Two hours and 15 minutes later, I veer away from the Kuskokwim River over the village of Crooked Creek, the namesake of the winding creek that I now follow. It is a short distance to an airstrip carved atop a mountain ridge. The strip is 5,000 feet long and sort of has dips that follow the ridgeline. Take off downhill, land uphill. The strip has a 15- to 17-percent grade. I choose the last third of the strip, saving uphill taxiing time.
I land on the gravel strip and taxi up to an unremarkable-looking tent. This is where my airplane is plugged in for the cold winter nights out here. I am greeted by the other camp pilot, who is eager to get back home to his family. The afternoon promises to be clear and cool, and the newly relieved pilot happily makes his rounds, preflighting his aircraft for the flight back to civilization. He is eager and full of smiles.
I am also greeted by camp personnel who have been waiting for parts or paychecks. American Ridge, as the camp is called, is a totally self-contained mining exploration camp. The miners each have tents, and I have my own tent to retire to when I am ready. Each tent is heated by an electrical heater; mine has failed a time or two when I've been here before -- at 20 degrees below zero in the middle of the night. The camp itself is a fully equipped and self-contained metropolis, complete with a generator, mess tent, medical tent, and an entertainment tent with a television, video games, and a pool table. One could liken the camp to a MASH unit. The drillers work around the clock, drilling into the mountainside in search of gold. Two different cooks work day and night to keep the camp fed with hearty, carbohydrate-laden food.
The Quest for Gold
Gold mining and exploration have always played a huge part in Alaska's history. During the late 1890s, the state's first gold rush brought miners from all over the country up the Chilkoot Trail in the dead of winter. Then, another significant gold rush in 1902 sent many folks up to the beaches of Nome in search of easy wealth -- some successful, most not. To this day, people have mining claims that dot Alaska, and they go out to brave the weather, the bears, and the mosquitoes as they pan or dredge for gold. This particular gold exploration camp, owned by Placer Dome, is a large operation that is in the process of a feasibility study. Miners here want to find out if it is a good enough site for a large-scale gold-mining operation. Placer Dome operates worldwide in its quest for gold and gold products.
Jayhawk Air operates under a contract with Placer Dome, and I fly workers in and out of the camp to the outlying Eskimo villages and Anchorage for their respective shifts. The aircraft I fly is not the only plane operating with the company; DC-3s hauled in freight, and DC-6s brought in bulk fuel. Placer Dome also employs helicopters during the busy summer season to fly drillers out to the more remote sites on the mountain.
This camp is situated between Aniak and McGrath along a low-lying range of mountains. I navigate by following the ridges that roughly align themselves on a north-by-northeast heading. Not much use for radio navigation in these parts. The Kuskokwim River is a well-used aircraft navigation tool, as most of the villages are situated along it. The majority of the Placer Dome workers are from the outlying Eskimo villages, and I bring those workers back and forth as they change their shifts.
Into the Wilderness
The wilderness envelops me as I fly over countless mountain ridges, each looking enough alike to confuse a neophyte flier in this area. I know each ridge as if I had grown up here, having flown so many hours in the area. I know the wind patterns, and I know a favorite creek with its eddies and currents. I know the weather patterns as they come rushing up from Southwest Alaska -- weather that could bring the lower 48 states to their knees, but normal for Alaska. As I fly, I watch caribou, moose, and bear as they trudge cross the tundra in their relentless search for food.
Alaska, a beautiful state full of wilderness and artistry.
Merrill Field thanks the author, Ellen Paneok, for this insight to the adventure of flying in Alaska. We also thank AOPA magazine, for which Ellen occasionally writes. Ellen has been inducted into the Alaskan Aviation Heritage Museum.
Ellen Paneok succumbed to hepatitis C on March 2, 2008 at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. She was recognized as the first Native woman bush pilot and was one of only 37 pilots featured in the “Women and Flight” exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.