Alaska 2011

My Travel Blog 2011-5.

by P.K.Odendaal.

So we started off quite well - myself taking the co-pilot seat and Gerry, our other travel partner taking the backseat - although not driving from that position as most road travellers usually do.

But as usual - all then begins well ends badly.

It was quickly evident that a democratic process was needed to keep this trip enjoyable and intact.
The first difference of opinion occurred when, after about an hour's flying, the air got rough and Gerry asked that we climb into stiller air. Paul (the aircraft commander) felt that he wanted to stay at this lower altitude and I felt that as well, as I could take better photos so near to the ground. So, we took a quick vote on the issue and we stayed at that altitude. Gerry, however felt that the yaw of the aircraft in rough air was worse at the back and that he was unnecessarily discriminated against. I, on the other hand felt that I got dished out too many indiscriminate and unnecessary trivial tasks at the behest of Paul to suit his idiosyncratic take on the journey - very much the same as the Bellman in the Hunting of the Snark.

After this I felt some satisfaction and thought that we will not have a repeat of the previous autocratic manoeuvres of Paul, but I was proved wrong - as I mostly am.
We landed at Geraldton towards noon where we met the other participants in this trip and we had lunch together. Off to our next stop which is Thompson where we will overnight. I still occupy the right front seat and continue my labours as the man who might be responsible to bring us to our next destination of get us lost on the way. I feel very important, although you might have guessed that my importance have somewhat dwindled due to the presence of a GPS system on board - a system that only requires that I switch it on and punch the destination code into it. But still, I have this unreal and unnecessary feeling of responsibility that everything navigation wise depends on me, and it is partly confirmed by the 'uncharted' terrain beneath us.

We land at Thompson and book into a hotel which I shall not rate as strictly five star - in fact - nearer to one star, but I have become used to the fact that we will have to rough it sometimes on this trip, as there is very little in the way of population and facilities in these northern parts.

The next morning we are off to Fort McMurray, where the Oil Sands are. Gerry feels that it is his turn to sit in front and that I take the back seat which I eagerly do. During the flight I discover that I have more space here, I can photograph left and right of the aircraft - a luxury not afforded me in the front seat. I am also not subjected to as many unnecessary instructions from Paul. During the flight I still have a feeling of Utopia as things seem to unfold in a very democratic fashion.

At Fort McMurray we take the Oil Sands bus tour and are shown around the process of mining bituminous oil out of the sand. This area was once situated on the equator and was an ocean. Fossil remains of krill and other small animals which escaped being food for whales, settled to the bottom of the sea, where it impregnated the sand. Later this area moved up here due to continental drift and being lifted became dry. I also get the feeling that we are not seeing all, as the mining operations are masked from us because the oil companies here are under constant criticism by the public for mining so called ecological sensitive areas. The Oil Companies on the other hand, maintain that they are only cleaning up the oil spill by Mother nature.

But, I will get back at them, for tomorrow we will overfly these Oil Sands and I will photograph the mining operations from the air.

The next morning I give Gerry another opportunity to sit in front and dial the correct code into the GPS - a chore I have now established can be taught to a six year old. I have more time to meditate and contemplate our deteriorating democratic on board system.

We land at Fort Smith for lunch, but Paul cannot have lunch as the aircraft brakes broke down just after landing. He will have to find a mechanic to fix it for him, which fortunately he finds unexpectedly. After lunch I take the time to admire a Beaver aircraft in good condition, standing idly and desertedly on the airfield calling out loudly for a sympathetic owner - having been deserted by its present one. I am always a very sympathetic listener to the almost inaudible cries from these types of aircraft. The Beaver is used, mostly on floats, to service the tourists in these parts where there are more lakes than dry ground to land on.
At last the brakes have been fixed and we are off to Yellowknife, situated on the Great Slave Lake, where we will spend the night. I insist that Gerry again sit in front to execute these vital tasks that Paul dishes out without rhyme or reason.

Since leaving Toronto a few days ago, I have noticed that the aeroplane flies left wing low. I brought this to Paul's attention immediately after takeoff at Toronto, but he informed me that it is not so - being merely an illusion, as his instruments tells him otherwise. Having been made 'wise' by Paul previously, I decide not to pursue this sensitive issue any further, but Gerry unwisely decides to side with me on this issue, which of course we will not be able to vote on.
Further, things are looking great and I enjoy the ride - also the diplomatic one I am taken on by Paul.

In Yellowknife we take a tour of the Ice Pilots base. These Ice Pilots land their aircraft during the winter months on skis - even large ones - and they are very well known in North America, having made a television series of their dangerous work.
Next day it is off to Norman Wells for lunch. Things are not going too well with Gerry up front. He has the audacity, sparked by myself, to ask Paul to deviate from our course so that we can have a closer look at the beautiful MacKenzie River. Paul refuses and we feel that we are not even allowed to put it to the vote, although we are paying for all the fuel.

It is also on this leg that Gerry unwisely raises the issue of the aircraft flying left wing low again. I have learned over the years that Paul does not tolerate any criticism with regard to his aircraft - a Bonanza V35 which is now in its 47th year of service - I mean - what can be wrong with such a new aircraft !!! But Gerry still has to learn this. I first try to take Gerry's attention away from this trivial detail, telling him that if Paul says it flies straight, it does. I also try and persuade him to discuss this with me alone after the flight, but he does not listen. Paul gets very uptight with this type of banter, and eventually Gerry gets 'wise'.

As we near Normal Wells the weather gets bad, but we slip in visually for lunch - I mean - lunch is much more important than weather.

As we leave Norman Wells after lunch for Inuvik - our most northern destination on the Beaufort sea, the weather has deteriorated to the extent that we will have to make an instrument departure and flight to Inuvik, depriving me of many photographic opportunities.

At Inuvik we are spared the effort of flying an instrument approach to minimums on a badly cleared procedure, as we find a hole in the cloud near the airport. Conventional wisdom has it that one hole in the cloud is better than ten published instrument approaches.
We are transferred to our zero star accommodation where Paul insists that I cannot sleep with him in the same room again, because 'he wants to make turns to sleep with the other guys on the trip as well'. It would have been better if he had told me straight that due to my snoring, he has now missed five good night's sleep. So he passes me off to Gerry whose rest I can disturb for the rest of the trip.

When the other guys arrived for the night, I come to the very sobering insight that conversation, on the trip and by mankind in general, has vanished due to the advent of iPhones and iPads. During our supposed meeting the evening I cannot talk to anyone, as each one was 'on' his iPhone or iPad. They have immediate access in these very remote parts to more information than Churchill had for the whole of the Second World War. I also noticed that in restaurants in Yellowknife and Fort McMurray. While a man and his wife and their three children have dinner, all three children are 'on' their iPhones. They do not know that their parents 'took' them to the restaurant, they do not speak to them or to their other siblings - they are in a world of their own, punching away feverishly with both thumbs on their machines, which machines in turn talk to even bigger machines called a web servers. I find it very sad and annoying and unsocial that human beings would prefer to talk to machines rather than to each other.
I think about my own social excursions with mankind and realise that I cannot blame them, as I also find it much more satisfying to talk to my computer than to anyone else. But why is this ? I was brought up without computers or telephones or electricity or calculators or televisions or indoor plumbing, but gosh, we talked to each other !!!!!!! It seems to me that the social animal called man has turned into a totally unsocial animal. I shall reserve my opinion of whether this is good or bad for another day.

We leave Inuvik two days later, after Paul has had two good night's rest with Mark - I presume - for our final and most coveted destination, Alaska. The weather is still bad, as it usually is in these parts. We are to have lunch at Old Crow, a very small community just east of the Alaskan border. The weather forecast says we might make it - specially during the latter part of the morning. Paul however insists that we cannot wait for the latter part of the morning, as his most desirable place to spend his time, is his aircraft seat. Against our better judgement, we get into the aircraft without a vote. We realise now that there is no chance for a vote or for democracy on this trip anymore, as Paul has recomposed himself into his old more convenient autocratic self. Gerry and I however imprint it on Paul's mind that, seeing the weather forecast for Alaska is clear skies, we would very much like to detour from our straight route by following the beautiful Yukon River Flood Plain for a part of the way. The mountains on our straight route was high and following the river route would allow him to fly lower - and we would have excellent photographic opportunities.
We fly in the clouds at 9500 feet - above our safety altitude - and ice starts to form on our wings. I am instructed to continuously watch the elevons at the back for icing and I regard the icing as light. When we near Old crow, Paul tells us that the conditions on the ground was not favourable for making an successful instrument approach there.
We however tell him that we are prepared to miss Old Crow on condition that he follows the Yukon River as we asked previously.

As we cross the Alaskan border, the skies clear magically as was forecast

We arrive at Fairbanks in Alaska and I immediately know that I could spend a very enjoyable vacation here, should time and fortune allow me in future.

What happened here in Fairbanks, was a division between the fishes and the loaves. I will however let you in on the secret.
We had to leave for Anchorage, the climax of our trip, the following morning. As expected, the weather was bad again and Paul- the leader of the tour - tells us that we cannot go to Anchorage - the weather is too bad - and if we did succeed in slipping through if the weather gave us a slight chance, we will be stranded in Anchorage for a week as the weather forecast for the ensuing week was very bad. In his opinion, our only and best option was to leave Alaska as soon as we could, and return to Toronto without seeing Alaska, which was also the general consensus amongst most of the guys.

I stood up in the meeting and delivered this monologue :

1.     I have come from South Africa on this epic journey and it has cost me $ 10 000 (largely overstated), and I was NOT prepared to leave Alaska without seeing it.

2,     If they would give me leave (as I think they should on moral grounds), I will leave the group now and do ALASKA ON MY OWN - EVEN IF I HAVE TO BACKPACK.

There is general consensus that I will be allowed to proceed on my own, so that is why I am now, thirty minutes later, on a shuttle van to Anchorage - all on my own. I know where we have been booked to sleep the few nights in Anchorage - so I will be using the five rooms - all by myself. So, I take the high road and you take the low road and I'll be in Scotland afore ye.
However, when I entered the reception of the hotel in Anchorage that night at seven, I hear my name called loudly - which I found funny, not having known that I have progeny in Alaska. It turns out to be four guys whom have I left at Fairbanks. And what are you doing here ? I ask with surprise. Dave replied that after I left the group, they were inspired by my monologue and decided to also complete the trip - and they are here - having taken an airline from Fairbanks.

Naturally I was very pleased and we wined and dined in ecstasy of the opportunity given us to really see this part of Alaska, where the most beautiful views are to be had. We were just sitting down for dinner when we are greeted by another three guys from the group - yes, they sneaked into the airport with their own aircraft during a lull in the weather. So we are complete except for Paul and Gerry, who were now busy with the ungrateful task of extricating themselves from the bad Alaskan weather on their way to Toronto without seeing Alaska - so I say goodbye to them in my mind, conjuring up many images of discoverers in centuries gone by, who aborted their journey a few yards from their destination - and missing glory. I can see from the weather forecast for their trip back to Toronto, that they will have a fight with bad weather being enveloped between two severe weather systems. Their passage will be as fast as these systems move, which turned out to be very slow. They reached Toronto about a week later, while I was enjoying my visit to Nicola in Edmonton, on the pre-arranged time, after having an unforgettable time in Alaska.

You can see my photos here :

and here