“When you’re up to Alaska, let me know, and we’ll go camping,” my old Army buddy, Junior, wrote to me over Facebook Messenger.
“Sure man, that would be awesome. Our truck can go pretty much anywhere a 4×4 jeep can go so we’ll follow you!” I replied
“Oh, no, I’m talking about real camping. We’re going to fly in somewhere to go bush camping,” he responded.
And that happy little misunderstanding is how I ended up having one of the top 10 experiences of my life. You see, Junior is not just small aircraft mechanic, but he’s also been flying since he left the Army. His idea of camping was definitely not going to a state park campground.
Three weeks later we were at an airstrip in Willow, Alaska, loading our backpacks (and a 12-pack, or two) into the belly pan of a Piper Super Cub. Moving four people and two dogs via a two-seater plane is a bit of a logistical challenge, so one of their buddies volunteered to help do some shuttling too. But then again, if you own a plane and someone asks you to hop in and fly him or her around Alaska, it’s not like you’re really falling on too much of a grenade. Tony was more than happy to spend a few hours in the air that morning playing aerial taxicab flying me (Clay) while Junior shuttled Lindsay and his wife.
After the gear went in the belly pan, it was time for Hunter and me to wedge ourselves into the back seat. A Super Cub isn’t precisely the Rolls Royce of the sky – it’s more like a bathtub with wings, with two 230lbs dudes and a dog stuffed inside. Needless to say, legroom and proper positioning are at a bit of premium. Keeping a handle on my new 55lbs lapdog was a bit of a priority, especially for takeoff and landing since there is a second set of controls located in the passenger seat.
“Don’t let him hit the throttle if he gets moving,” Tony said
The throttle was only 2 inches from Hunter’s nose, best-case scenario. Roger that. No wiggles from the puppy.
When you’re cruising at 90mph and 1,000 feet in a high-performance go-kart, you feel every gust of wind from an oncoming weather system of a thermal gushing warm air from below you. However, when you’re sitting with a 360-degree view and 1,000 feet over the Alaskan bush, a few bumps of turbulence are the last thing that you think of. We flew over subsistence fishermen hauling sockeye salmon out of the Little Susitna River. We skirted the foot of Mt. Susitna, or Sleeping Lady, as the locals say, maintaining an altitude that put us right at the transition from melting winter snow to green sub-alpine shrubs. We watched four or five moose wading around in the swampy marshland that makes up so much of the Alaskan bush and finally flew straight over the milky gray surface of Beluga Lake towards a patch of gravel that looked nothing like any airstrip I’ve ever landed on.
“You got a hold of the dog?” Tony asked over the headset
The flaps went down as he cut the power to the engine, and the plane seemingly stopped in mid-air. No wonder there are so many viral videos of cub’s landing on strips almost as short as a helipad. The aircraft went from approach speed to paused in a matter of seconds. We bounced once off the gravel and in what felt like three seconds, the plane came to a stop.
“Now that’s a bush landing,” Tony said
Flying behind us, Lindsay and Junior came into sight only a few minutes later. His plane turned into the wind, nose lifted up, and Junior cut the power. They bounced off the gravel strip just like Tony, and I did in a combination of controlled fall and uncontrolled momentum. The unloading process on the side of the airstrip was quick, as we needed to get the gear out as fast as possible and get back into the air while it was still cool air and the planes had more lift. Tony sped down the runway, and as soon as the wheels of his Super Cub were off the ground, he banked hard left across the lake and headed towards home.
As Junior taxied down the runway and turned into the wind to return to the airfield to pick up his wife and dog, Lindsay and I stood alone, in complete amazement. Neither of us really knew what to say to each other, so we just silently soaked in the moment. We were at least 20 miles from another human being, on the shore of a pristine glacial-fed Alaskan lake, with a dog, a tent, and a .44 magnum.
“I guess we should find a place in the river to put the beer,” Lindsay said, breaking the silence.
We walked to the edge of the gravel bar and climbed down the steep eight-foot section to the river below. A natural spring trickled out of the gravel, pushing crystal clear drinking water into the murky gray lake. You had a limitless supply of freshwater, and all you had to do was squat down to the lake to put your bottle in the clear stuff. Our water cooler also doubled as our fridge, and we built a little stone cofferdam to hold our floating beers and hotdogs in the 35-degree water.
Once all four of us made it to the lake, there was no one else to worry about– the only way in and out was a 500’ straight section of the gravel bar. We hiked several miles towards the Beluga Glacier one day, weaving in and out of the braided sections of glacial till. The views in every direction were breathtaking, the mosquitos were under control, and the sky never thought of being dark. As camping goes, I’m not sure there could have been anything to complain about. We even found a canoe to commandeer so we could retrieve a dozen floating beers that escaped our cofferdam. Luckily we only had three beers left unaccounted for!
Sadly enough, after a few days, it was eventually time to do the air taxi routine and get the people and puppers back to civilization. We loaded up – about 21 beers and a few days of burgers and sausage lighter than we left – and headed back to the airfield. The flight out was no less beautiful, but with just a little less sensory overload!
What would typically be an experience that would cost several hundred dollars (if not more) ended up being a few beers and a dozen gallons of aviation gas. For that reason, I suppose it helps to have friends who are a lot cooler than you are!