In 1995 I had an article published in a national publication with an international circulation. In it I described living and writing out here in the bush and it seemed to strike a chord. Hundreds of people wrote to me from all over the world. One woman, a lovely older lady named Donne, wrote to me from where she lived in Johannesburg, South Africa. We wrote back and forth for years and then, on a visit to family in Canada, she made a side trip out here.
We were supposed to pick her up at the dock in Meyers Chuck, but we couldn't due to the weather. (Because we live on the tip of a high, forested peninsula it can be screaming a gale on one side and calm on the other side.) We contacted the airlines and their pilot agreed to drop her off in a bay close to us. She told me later that they were already in flight, late in the day, and the pilot turned to her and said, "Keep an eye our for a cabin in the woods, that's where I'm taking you."
He had only a general idea of where we were but managed to find us. We pulled our skiff up to the pontoon of the floatplane and I met Donne (and her grandson) in the skiff. She said she'd been on some great adventures in her life (including being treed by a rhinoceros), but that her floatplane ride in the Alaskan bush was the greatest.
My cousin, Mark Morse, told me he wanted to write about his first experience of flying into the remote community of Meyers Chuck, where I lived as a child. He said it was something he'd never forgotten.
I don't think anyone forgets that first floatplane splashdown in the Chuck, and, in fact, airlines regularly schedule pickups in the Chuck after they've dropped off their other passengers elsewhere to avoid scaring them. You'll see why that is in Mark's guest blog below.
As the son of divorced parents I spent the school years in Atlanta and the summers with mom in Michigan. In 1977 as a third grader we learned that Mom had moved to Meyers Chuck, Alaska. Living with a father who was successful in the city, my younger brother Alex and I had no clue what it meant to live in an Alaskan bush village.
My first memory was the excruciatingly long flight from Atlanta to Seattle which ended in the flight attendants cutting gum out of Alex's and my hair. Mom met us in Seattle and we took the Alaska ferry system from Seattle to Ketchikan. We didn't get rooms or berths, instead we slept on the top deck under the Solarium in sleeping bags with lots of 1977 hippies also ready to check out Alaska.
The ferry was great and I remember it like yesterday, but the real thrill of Alaska bush living was still ahead of us.
We arrived in Ketchikan and made our way to Tongass Airlines. For the first time ever I saw a plane floating on water and was then instructed to get on it. Your first time taking off on water seems impossible, but soon you're airborne and in the hands of some of the best pilots in the country.
For some reason I always sat in the copilot seat and mom and my brother sat in back. Invariably the pilot would let me take the controls and push the yoke up and down, actually moving the plane. What had been so scary was now kind of cool.
First Time Landing in Meyers Chuck:
As we closed in on our new home, we saw some really tall trees surrounding a tiny bay, guarded by rock reefs on both entry and exit. The pilot flies around the tall trees and cuts the engine too quickly loses altitude, then, just before crashing, re-fires the Cessna engines, floats over the rocks and short bay and slams on the brakes.
Alex and I had ridden every rollercoaster in Georgia. But this was insane.
It's probably a five second maneuver but it's a five minute five seconds as you see every ripple of water, feel the crosswinds, and see the quickly approaching reef. The plane calmly turns toward the float dock, you unload your luggage and meet 10-15 people all willing to help you get to your new log cabin home in the sticks.
It's hard to describe the joy of that first summer, but getting there is something I will always remember minute by minute.
Most people boat into Meyers Chuck, which is around four to five hours from Ketchikan--or a 40 minute flight. But shortcuts in the bush always come at a price!
NOTE: Photos 1, 3, 4, and 5 are by Jo Wendel who lives aboard a boat with her husband in a small community on Prince of Wales Island. She blogs at www.alaskafloatsmyboat.com where you can see, in my opinion, the best photos of rural SE Alaska.
My second youngest brother Robin, who makes my Internet access possible, works at the shipyard in Ketchikan and he sent me the following photos of the kind of snowfall they're dealing with as they do their best to keep up with the ships they have to work on. Above is the M/V Kennicot, one of ferries in the Marine Highway System fleet that caters to coastal living Alaskans, and keeps Southeast Alaskans connected.
A mountain of snow at the shipyard with snow-covered mountains in the background. The snow-covered mountain is across Tongass Narrows on the island where Ketchikan International Airport is located. Below is a photo of what the jets looked like when Robin went to see off a friend. He had to cross on a ferry to get to the airport.
Below is the view from Robin's front steps. Time to go to work...yay!
Thanks for the photos, Robin!
He said that he's hoping to come out here on Memorial Day for a visit, which we're looking forward to...barring weather complications. I plan on interviewing him and sharing the results on here, so stay tuned for more on the shipyard.
When my brothers were little, every time they heard the roar of a floatplane take off in the fishing village where we lived, they'd spread their arms and tear around the house imitating the plane outside. Since the floatplanes were always coming and going they did this...a lot.
Alaska is called the flyingest state in the union with about 1 in 75 residents being an active pilot and almost all of us being passengers. I couldn't even begin to count how many air miles I've logged in floatplanes since I was a child.
Some flights stick out more than others, like the time my sister and I flew home from Ketchikan in the teeth of a gale with a hotrod pilot (who later died in a crash). When we got to the floatplane base the cars in the parking lot were bouncing on their wheels from the force of the gusts. The plane, when we got to it, jerked up and down against the dock like a rocking horse. We could barely stay on our feet as the waves splashed over the dock.
Megan looked at me. She was fourteen. "I don't want to die," she said.
Neither did I, but we got in the plane and buckled in, hanging on for dear life. Our stomachs spent most of the time on the ceiling as we plummeted through huge air pockets and the plane trembled and the wings shuddered in the wind. The pilot just looked over his shoulder at us and grinned.
All of us have had our close calls. But we keep flying.
This time, when my dad and I pulled up to the dock in the fishing village to wait for my floatplane, the weather was calm, if overcast. I was greeted by a woman I'd known since our family first moved to this small outpost.
I asked her if she was leaving, too, but she said, "No, I just haven't seen you in a while and wanted to say hi." She helped unload my luggage and she and I got caught up as we and some other locals with their summer guests waited for the plane to arrive. Amazingly, the plane came promptly, a little ahead of schedule.
When the pilot parallel parked against the tire-studded floatplane dock I got on the pontoon and passed him up the luggage that he stowed in the tail. "Are you headed for the airport or town side?" he asked me and the other passenger.
"Town for me," I said, while the other woman said she was headed for the airport.
"Then you're in front with me," the pilot said to me. "We have one more stop, in Thorne Bay, then we'll head for Ketchikan."
I climbed into the co-pilot seat in the cockpit of the DeHavilland Beaver. For some reason I always seem to end up with this seat whenever I fly. The pilot went through his safety spiel and afterwards I asked for earplugs, which pilots always have on had. You know those scenes where people chat companionably in the cockpit of a small plane? Never happen. You're sitting with the engine almost in your lap and directly behind the propeller. The racket is literally deafening.
We took off, waving through the windows, and set out into a heavily overcast day. By the time we crossed the strait and got to Thorne Bay it was raining.
As soon as the pilot began his descent in a long, lovely curving turn I knew that I was in the hands of an expert. He set the pontoons down on the water so gently I could barely feel the transition.
As we taxied toward The Port's dock, where my dad and I usually buy fuel, the pilot removed his headset. I removed my earplugs and said, "You love to fly, don't you?"
He smiled. "I do love to fly."
"It shows. You can always tell when a pilot loves flying and when he's just doing it as a job. That was a beautiful landing."
"Thanks. Sometimes I get lucky." He cut the engine and jumped out. He was early once again and since it was raining, no one was there to meet the plane. He strode up to the small convenience store at the head of the dock and rounded up his passengers, complete with seventy pound fish boxes that he loaded into the tail. Pilots get a real workout during the summer tourist season, especially when visitors to sport fishing lodges travel home with their catch.
On the uneventful, rainy flight to Ketchikan I studied the dials, switches, and plaques in front of me. I always love the one that says that the aircraft is "not approved for acrobatics, including spins." Who in their right mind would attempt a spin with pontoons? Pilots needed to be reminded not to do it? Another one said: "To avoid optical illusions and severe vertigo, turn off anti-collision lights in snow, fog or haze." A dizzy, hallucinating pilot was really not a comforting thing to contemplate.
It took us around twenty minutes to reach Ketchikan and the pilot took us first to the large floatplane dock attached to Gravina Island, opposite the city, where the miniscule international airport is located. He once again "got lucky" with a perfect landing.
All of the other passengers disembarked here to catch a jet to points south, to the Lower 48, their summer adventure in Alaska comming to a close.
The pilot and I took off in the short hop across Tongass Narrows to the seaplane base on Revillagigedo Island that the city of Ketchikan is on. The pilot's third landing was as effortlessly flawless as the others.
When I was on the dock he handed out my luggage and jumped down beside me as the dock attendant secured the plane. "Can I carry one of your bags?" he asked with the old-fashioned courtesy floatplane pilots all seem to have.
"I'll let you get the heavy one," I offered, tongue-in-cheek, and he grinned. "What's your name?" I asked, as I usually did when I flew with a pilot new to me.
"Chad. And you?"
"Tara." We shook hands and headed up the dock toward the seaplane base's tiny office. I was adjusting to the traffic all around us, up on the street, flying overhead, chugging up the Narrows. Three ginormous cruise ships were moored to the streets, dwarfing downtown, and probably tripling or quadrupling the normal population. The long, narrow city wedged between forested mountains and water would be bulging at the seams with visitors.
When I asked Chad how long he'd been flying, he said, "Eight years. Three here."
"I like to see people doing what they love," I remarked. "Especially when they're good at it."
He grinned. "I just got back from vacation so I'm--" He gestured.
"Really feeling the love?"
He laughed. "Really feeling the love." When we got to the office he asked, "Do you have a ride, Tara? Can I call a taxi for you?"
"Thanks, someone's picking me up." I thanked him for carrying the heavy bag and for such a good flight and he said, "It was nice meeting you. I'll see you around."
That was probably true. Everyone in the outlying communities gets to know the pilots on a first name basis, and we all know who the best ones to fly with are. I mentally put Chad in that category.
The friend who picked me up is even more familiar with floatplanes than I am. Her father was one of the pioneers of Alaskan aviation in Southeast and her home, especially the room I stay in when I visit her, is decorated with floatplane paintings from his collection.
I love to get her talking about growing up with a famous aviator and hearing all of his adventures. Never more so than when I visit her do I remember that Alaska truly is the flyingest state in the union.
Tara Neilson (ADOW)