(This is going to be a biggie.)
I headed down the dirt road from Slana and thought, 42 miles of dirt road, I'll be there in about an hour. Well, it took me more like an hour and a half. Mostly because I'm a lifelong flatlander so crossing creeks with big rocks in them is new to me. I stopped at the first one, surveyed it, then thought I'd better get moving so I don't get stuck. I probably went a bit too fast because I bottomed out on the rocks bouncing through. When I got to the other side, I kept listening for loose parts and didn't hear anything rubbing or banging, so I kept on going. The next couple crossings were easier because I now was no longer a tenderfoot at this thing. But I went a little slower and it was no problem at all. I'm sure there are times when those 3 or 4 creeks are quite a bit higher though.
When I was a kid and my Dad would take us hunting, he had a phrase for times we were far away from most anything. He'd say, "We're out where Christ lost his overshoes."
Now, I've never figured out where that phrase came from, but it conveyed the idea well and I've never forgotten it. Well, I found His overshoes and it's in this remote heaven in the Wrangell mountains. From here to the southeast, there is not another living soul for 600 miles. Nothing but beautiful mountain wilderness.
Kirk & Cole Ellis are sons of Alaska pioneer parents who moved here in the early 50's. Remember, Alaska wasn't even a state until 1959. Kirk has lived at the end of this road his entire life. Their family has a handful of homes there and Kirk and his wife, Jenny operate a lodge named the Devils Mountain Lodge. They do quite a bit of fly-in guide work for bear, moose and sheep hunters along with flightseeing and flying in hikers. You just have to check out their beautiful website:
Their phone number is: 907-822-5312. Kirk & Jenny are warm, friendly people and made me feel very welcome. The cost to go flying with them is $250/hour. They explained to me that it might be difficult to find bears, especially in the warm afternoon, but Brett knew where to look for them
Nabesna International Airport
and we could cover a lot of ground in an hour. I paid for an hour and cossed my fingers.
Kirk is a soft spoken, unassuming man who was born to be a bush pilot. I asked him how many hours he has logged flying and he said he stopped logging after about 12,000 hours. They fly Piper Cubs, mainly Super Cubs, the predominant airplane for bush pilots. These planes takeoff and land in very short distances and are very rugged. They have large balloon type tires on their main gear called Alaskan Bushwheels for landing in rough places. These tires alone cost $3,300/pair. They also put skis on these planes for the snow and floats for the water. Kirk is also a heck of a mechanic. Besides maintaining their 4 planes, he does repair work for other pilots. He built his 4 place Super Cub, The Hulk (green one in the pictures) from scratch, just working from plans, welding all the metal tubing to build the frame. I think it is a one of a kind in the world.
My pilot, a young guy in his twenties named Brett, was born on a Montana sheep ranch and
Gassing Up My Ride
Brett, My Pilot fillin' up the plane.
he has been flying since he was a teenager, with over 2,000 hours. His love of flying, Cubs in general and his Widebody (4" wider) Super Cub came through as we talked throughout our time together. He's a natural crackerjack pilot and flew me though these mountains as easily as I park my car in the driveway.
We took off, Brett in the front, me behind him and started our search. About 15 minutes into the flight, I spotted animals moving at our 10 O'clock and pointed them out to Brett. (I didn't know what they were) He saw them immediately and said it was a big sow brown bear with 2 cubs! I aked if we could get closer, he said no problem and he made several passes around them. I managed to get one picture of the big blonde colored cub and part of the 700 pound sow. It was a lot harder to take pictures than I thought it would be. Cubs can fly pretty slow, but we still were passing them by at about 70 mph. No matter, I got to see the bears at length for several passes. Wow, what a blast! We then
Some Fun Flyin!
flew through more of the gigantic area flying though canyons and catching updrafts from mountain winds. Brett showed me literally hundreds of Dall Sheep in groups of 5-10. He also flew me over the Nabesna Glacier. On the way back, he flew me over Ellis Lake, his favorite place. It's a gorgeous mountain lake with a cabin near it, one of several the Ellis family has built out there for hunters and hikers. I asked him how they get the building materials out there to build the cabins. He said they carry the plywood and other stuff fastened under the airplanes and fly it in. I said that's crazy. He said, 'It's Alaska, EVERYTHING'S CRAZY!"
My hour went by so fast and we headed back to the strip.
I was so full of adrenaline when we got back. This was definitely the highlight of my trip, even better than the glacier landing! Doing this brought back my love of airplanes and flying. Maybe the next career could be a bush pilot. I wish I could live that long.
I was so excited I didn't want to leave and kept talking Kirk & Brett's ears off. (I'm sure
The blonde one is just a cub.
you can't believe that of me!) But, it was time to leave and I wanted to get to Tok this evening. Well, I guess I didn't break any body parts on the Burban going through that creek, but when I got going down the highway, I could feel a bit of fishtailing when I turned the wheel at about 60 mph. 5 miles later, the left rear tire blew! Thank God it was a rear tire and not a front tire at 60 mph. I guess I broke the sidewall in that darn creek. Now, I haven't changed a tire on my cars in a looooong time, but the hardest part was finding and getting the jack and spare wheel lowering apparatus working. I didn't match Darren McGavin's record in "Christmas Story," but I got it done and made it to Tok.
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