Friday, September 30, 2011

Pops and I

I can't say I inherited the flying bug from Dad, but he certainly had it long before I. He wanted to learn to fly before he got married or had kids, but never found the time and money to do it. When I was six or seven and still enamored of the romance of the rails, Dad went so far as to attend ground school, passing his Private Pilot written test with what I recall was a pretty high score. He was about to begin flight training when Mom got pregnant with Kid #4 of an eventual six. Time and money got scarce again for quite some time.

Dad never showed anything but delight and support when I co-opted his dream and started flight lessons at thirteen years old. I always told him I'd teach him how to fly when I got my CFI, and we talked about buying an airplane together. We'd page through Trade-A-Plane together, circling particularly good deals. We talked for years about building an Avid Flyer or similar kitplane. Mom would get furious at him for building my hopes up, but I always understood they were pretty much pipe dreams. In the last ten years I've offered many times to teach Dad how to fly; he's always turned me down, proclaiming that these days he's happy to just ride along with me when he can.

As soon as I joined the C170 club, I planned to take it to EAA Oshkosh this year. Dawn was a bit "Oshkoshed-out" after last year's frenetic show, so I asked Dad if he'd like to come with me. It would be his first time to the show, though he'd wanted to go for some time; he readily agreed. Unlike last year, the weather cooperated nicely and the morning of July 26th dawned clear and still over KCFE as we loaded the C170 with coolers and camping gear. We took off and turned into the rising sun, skirting past Crystal and Anoka under Minneapolis' Class B airspace. It was a fantastic flight. Dad loved the 170. Ripon was far more sane this year, and we landed on 36L without incident except for a short query about a "Yellow Dot" that looked awfully green! Best of all, there was one spot left for us with all the other Cessna 170s in the vintage aircraft camping area. It was a prime spot just a hop, skip, and a jump from show center.

We were only able to stay two nights but were able to see a little of everything. Dad was like a kid in a candy store; he had a goofy grin on his face almost the entire time. It was a lot of fun to see, because it reminded me of my first time at Oshkosh. Camping in the vintage area was much different and far better experience than the North 40. People were coming up to look at the 170 and talk old taildraggers the entire time. We watched the airshows from near our plane, cooked and ate dinner right out front, and walked up to Camp Scholler to watch Top Gun at the "Fly-In Theater."

The weather was fantastic until Wednesday morning, when we were planning to leave. We waited out the rain in the B-29's bomb bay (that's something you don't do everyday!) and the exhibition hangars, then packed up and snuck out of town during a noontime break in the weather. Low ceilings forced us to turn around only 60 miles away, and we backtracked to Wautoma to hang out for several hours in their brand new pilot lounge. A mix of local characters and stranded pilots headed for the show kept things interesting for a few hours, and then the ceilings finally lifted enough to scud run a few miles, find a hole, and get on top. We reached beautiful flying conditions thirty miles southwest of Wautoma, and the rest of the flight was nice. It was dusk when we finally touched down at KCFE. It was more challenging - and more fun - than any flying I've done at work in a while.

I don't know if Dad will ever learn to fly, but he's certainly one of my favorite passengers. We're already making plans for Oshkosh next year. And who knows...maybe someday we'll build that plane after all. We had our eyes on the Rans S-6S at Oshkosh!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Latitude 62

Here's the last installment in a rather delayed series of posts about this summer's motorcycle trip to Alaska and back. There are a fair number of photos so I'll try to keep the text to a minimum.

We stayed in Anchorage for two nights. Brad sold his KLR650 almost immediately upon arrival - getting $1000 more for it than he paid in Portland! - and his wife Amber joined us for few days. I was struck by just how aviation-centric a city Anchorage is, from busy Merrill Field to the seaplanes on Lake Hood to PANC, where a steady stream of cargo 747s take off and land. Everywhere we went, there were airplanes of every description flying overhead.

The ride to Seward was beautiful, as were the surroundings of the city itself. Weather prevented us from doing the full hike up to the Harding Icefield, but we did spend some time at Exit Glacier.

We spent an afternoon watching red salmon running and the bald eagles hunting them.



Brad and Amber had to fly home after one night in Seward. The next day, Dawn and I hiked out to Tonsina Point on Resurrection Bay. The initially rainy day gave way to sunshine that lit up the surrounding snow-covered peaks. We lingered on the beach, enjoying the moment. This was literally the end of the road; everything from here on in would be homeward bound.

We rode up to Denali National Park on June 29, pausing in Anchorage for lunch with an old friend from Horizon. We spent the night outside the park in a wall tent at a busy, cheery hostel. Early the next morning we rode to Park Headquarters and boarded a camper bus for the 85-mile trip to Wonder Lake. The day was mostly cloudy, preventing any viewing of Mt. McKinley or surrounding peaks, which was a little disappointing but not at all unexpected. There was a ton of wildlife to see, including grizzleys, caribou, dall sheep, moose, and fox. Just before we arrived at Wonder Lake, the clouds unexpectedly parted and the top of the mountain came out, remarkably imposing even from 30 miles away. After we made camp and ate lunch, we went for a hike to the McKinley River bar - and scurried back just ahead of a wall of rain that lasted into the next day. Friday's bus ride out of the park was a soggy, foggy affair with no wildlife viewing - until the bus driver abruptly braked and gasped in exclamation. A large Lynx eyed the bus suspiciously, tentatively steeped out of the brush not ten feet ahead of us, and trotted across the road. The bus driver said it was her first time seeing a Lynx up close in 32 years of driving.

The next stage of our trip involved rejoining the Alaska Highway for an 800 mile backtrack to Haines Junction, Yukon. After leaving Denali on Friday, July 1, we rode 200 miles through rain showers to Delta Junction, AK. The next day threatened rain but it mercifully held off through our transit of the road construction and frost heaves in Yukon Territory. We stopped for the night at a cozy little cabin on the shores of beautiful, storm-whipped Kluane Lake.

We left the Alcan for good the next morning in Haines Junction, YT. We had heard from many people how beautiful the 170 mile Haines Highway is, but even after everything we'd seen so far it left us slack-jawed. We arrived in Haines later than planned because we kept stopping to admire the scenery and snap photos. We also saw five bears (2 black, 3 griz) in as many miles. It ended up being our favorite stretch of road of the entire trip.

You don't come to Alaska for the civilization, but Haines turned out to be my favorite town/city of the trip. It is far less touristy than the other towns of the Southeast, thanks to little cruise ship traffic, and the surroundings are stunning. I could've spent a few more days there, but we had a ferry to catch on the morning of July 4.

I'd been looking forward to spending Independence Day in Alaska, but as it turned out we left Haines too late for the afternoon festivities there and arrived at Juneau too late for their events, which took place at midnight! The five hour trip on the M/V Malaspina made up for it with great scenery and whale-watching. Juneau itself was unimpressive at first due to six docked cruise ships that had spewed their buffet-grazing inhabitants all over downtown...and I may have been inordinately influenced by some jackass who shouted "get a Harley!" at me as I rode by. Once the cruisers waddled back to their ships, Juneau made a much better impression with its cute, compact downtown and the impressive Mendenhall Glacier a few miles away in the 'burbs.

The next day, we rented a 1959 Cessna 172 on bush tires with Alaskan Boyce Bingham along as flight instructor and tour guide. Our route took us 80 nm northwest to Glacier Bay. We skirted mountain edges for an eye-to-eye with mountain goats. We flew up a glacier, wheeled round at its head and followed it all the way down to its terminus at a hundred feet off the deck. It was honestly about the coolest thing I've ever done in an airplane, and it moved Dawn to tears. Boyce and I talked a lot about flying in Alaska, and I'll admit I was tempted to call NewCo then and there to quit airline flying in favor of an Alaskan bush job. Kids, if you want to build some quality flight time in an adventurous, beautiful locale and don't mind hard work and challenging conditions, Alaska's your place.


That afternoon we boarded the M/V Taku for the 30-hour trip down the inside passage to Prince Rupert, BC. We went to sleep in a steady grey drizzle and woke up to fog-shrouded Petersburg and the spectacular Wrangell Narrows. The weather improved as we droned our way south to Ketchikan, where heavy seaplane and bald eagle activity kept the shutters whirring as we docked. That night we were rocked to sleep by heavy swells in the open waters of the Dixon Entrance, and awoke at 2am to be unceremoniously dumped in the sleeping hamlet of Prince Rupert. Thankfully beautiful weather afforded us a few more hours of sleep while surreptitiously camped out behind the visitor's centre.

It took two days on to make our way across British Columbia on Highway 16. The first was beautiful weather and we camped just past Prince George. We awoke early the next morning to heavy rain and an utterly soaked tent. We unhappily packed up and hit the road already soaked to the skin. Our short 220 mile day in cold pouring rain was the most miserable of the trip. We'd been planning on camping in Jasper but jettisoned that plan despite the very cheapest hotel room being $165. We covered the entire room with drying gear and headed out to explore the pretty town. The next day, the weather was much better for our 170 mile ride of the spectacular Icefields Parkway. Our frequent stops included a hike on the famous Athabasca Glacier. In Banff we camped just outside of town; a soak in the nearby hot springs was a great end to the day.

The ride out of Banff the next morning featured the last bit of noteworthy scenery for a while, as the next 1000 miles involved droning across the Great Plains on the Trans-Canadian Highway. We knocked it out in two long days to Winnipeg, then dropped down into the states on I-29, stopping to visit a college friend in Grand Forks. It was my first visit since graduating in 2002, and I'd forgotten what a nice town it is in the summer. We spent a night with Dawn's parents in South Dakota, and finally pulled into our driveway on the afternoon of July 13, nearly four weeks after we set out. I'd put over 8000 miles on my BMW, and Dawn rode her FZ6 for 6500 miles on her second trip as a new rider. It was a fantastic trip we'll remember our whole lives. Next up? Dawn wants to do the Dragon, Blue Ridge Parkway, and Skyline Drive next spring. What can I say but "yes, Dear"?