A Gold Prospecting Trip from California to Nome, Alaska
There’s an old saying by old pilots which states, ‘I would rather be on the ground wishing I was up in the air, than up in the air wishing I was on the ground.’ And I’m here to tell you, this is so true.
Every spring my father and I used to make our annual trek from the gold fields of California to the golden sandy beaches of Nome, Alaska. We loaded up the Cessna 206 with prospecting equipment, clothes, sleeping bags, and a few engine parts. From time to time we would take passengers with us. On this particular trip, a gentleman by the name of Russell Kreider, would be making the trek with us. Russell was a mechanic and a pretty handy man to have around.
We left out of Fallbrook, California, late in the morning. The temperature had already risen to over 90°, but it wasn’t long before we were up to an altitude of 9,500ft where the air was much cooler. Our first hop took us to Marysville, in northern California. It was a short stop to refuel, hit the restroom, and grab some snacks.
When we were back in the air, my dad started to joke around. He turned the intercom on and said, “It is now time for the in-flight meal on Buzzard Airlines,” and with that he tossed a Snickers bar to Russell in the back seat. Buzzard Airlines was a pretty inexpensive way to fly, but there weren’t many frills. I chimed right in there saying things like, “This is your co-pilot speaking, off to the right we have a beautiful view of Mt. Saint Helen,” and then I stated some stupid geographical fact. You really get to know a person when you’re sitting a foot away from them for hours on end. Russell and my dad were pretty good company.
Our next stop was Abbotsfort, British Columbia. When entering into Canada you have to stop at customs. When we landed, we received information from the tower about where to meet the customs agent. When we arrived at the specified location, there was no one there to meet us. There was a sign that said ‘You must wait by your aircraft’, but we became impatient and went looking for the customs agent anyway.
My dad found him in a back office having a siesta. He kicked the door open and shouted, “I’ve got a shipment of cocaine here, where do you want me to unload it?” The customs agent jumped up and scampered around a bit. He took one look at us, and I guess he figured that we had to be joking. He asked us for our ID, if we had any firearms or alcohol, and where we were going. We told him we were headed for Alaska. We filled out the proper paper work, he put the stamp on it, and told us that we were free to go. He never even came out to look at the aircraft. Maybe it was the joking statement that my dad had made, or maybe we were just trustworthy looking guys, or maybe he was just a lazy customs agent.
Anyway, one half-hour later, we were on our way to Prince George. Being that far north, we had plenty of daylight into the late evening hours. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. We flew over the top of the beautiful Canadian mountains, with their spectacular glacier and rock formations.
Upon landing in Prince George, we taxied down to the flight service stations. There were three of them to choose from. Each with a man standing in front with brightly colored orange batons, each wanting to wave us into their station. One was even doing jumping jacks trying to get us to pull in, we decided to choose him. He jumped right up and started washing our windshield, checking our oil, and pumping the fuel. He gave us information on the best hotel and even called us a cab. On the way to the hotel, my dad even mentioned how good the service was, and how reasonable the fuel prices were. What a wonderful thing competition is for the consumer!
The next morning we made our way up north along Williams Lake. This is an area the Canadians call “The Trench”. It’s a long six-hour flight to Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory. Once at Watson Lake, there was only one place to refuel. We were directed to the local tavern in town to roust out the man with the key to unlock the pump. He tossed us the key and told us to go pump the gas ourselves, and that he would be there in about an hour, so that we could pay him. There was only one place to get fuel, so if you didn’t buy it from him, you didn’t get it. And he knew it! He didn’t worry at all about making us wait. It was his way, or no way. What choice did we have?
There were no restrooms to be found except out back behind the mechanics shed, which smelled like a monkey’s cage, long over due for a cleaning. Watson Lake was a far cry from the great service we had received in Prince George. I guess it was “Welcome to the Yukon! Where you pay three times the price and get half the service!” (Or get no service at all).
We walked up to the tower to get the weather information. There were reports of rain showers and some towering cumulonimbus clouds (cum’s) in the vicinity of Whitehorse. Burrwash was reporting rain showers, as was Northway, where we typically went through customs when entering back into the United States. But Fairbanks was reporting scattered and broken clouds, which makes for fairly good flying weather.
We called ahead to see if we could go through customs in Fairbanks. With the clearance to go to Fairbanks, we assumed we had plenty of fuel to make it. We figured we’d stick our nose up in the air, and if things got too rough, we’d stop in Whitehorse, Beaver Creek, or Burrwash to wait out the weather.
Once we were up in the air, it wasn’t long before we started seeing rain showers. All of a sudden, it seemed like somebody was picking up handfuls of pea-gravel and throwing it at the airplane. We were caught in a hailstorm! The hail was hitting the outside of the airplane so hard, you could hardly hear yourself think. But just as fast as it started, it stopped. There was no need for coffee, we were all wide-eyed and awake at that point.
It was shortly afterwards, that we made a grave error. The clouds began to get thicker. We could see blue skies up above us, but in front of us were dark skies with rain showers and possibly more hailstorms. So we decided to go up on top. We climbed to 14,000ft. Up there the sun was shining and you could see for miles and miles. All the hail and bad weather was now below us, and it was smooth sailing, or so we thought.
From our weather reports we knew that Fairbanks was our best bet. By flying on top, we figured we could make an easy trip of it in three and a half hours. On the bottom side, we’d be fighting the rain, clouds, and the impossible hailstorms. We opted to stay on top.
After about an hour of flying on top, the clouds became a little bit higher. My dad kept inching us up more and more. I noticed on the altimeter that we were climbing ever so slightly on a steady basis, to stay up above the clouds. We climbed to 15,000ft. The air gets thin when you’re this high up. My dad checked his oxygen tank, it was only about a quarter full. He didn’t fly up to extreme altitudes and use oxygen very often, and we sure weren’t planning on it that day.
He pulled the airtube out for himself. There was only one other oxygen tube, so Russell and I would have to share. I would take a big hit of oxygen, pass it back to Russell, and then he would do the same.
The clouds continued to rise higher. By then, we had climbed to 16,000ft and there were towering cum’s, which from my estimation, went up to at least 25-30 thousand feet. We had to alter our course, so as not to fly into the dense clouds. We were flying around one particularly dense formation when we came upon a thick cloud right in our path. There was no time to turn around and climb higher to get over it, so my dad decided to fly through it.
As we entered the cloud the plane began to shake violently. Ice started building up on the wings and on the front windshield. The plane was vibrating and we began to lose altitude. It seemed like we were in the cloud for fifteen minutes, but in reality it was probably only fifteen seconds. It took just that long to put about an inch and a half of ice all over the aircraft.
We finally popped out the other side of the cloud. My dad turned to me and said, “I don’t know about you, but that scared the s@#* out of me!” I didn’t answer him back; I was too busy inspecting the outside of the aircraft to see if everything was OK. Russell, who usually doesn’t say anything, chimed in with, “I really think that we shouldn’t go through any more clouds!” We all agreed! I dialed in the frequency for the Burrwash VOR, I didn’t get a reading. I tried the Northway VOR, I couldn’t get a reading there either. I was trying to get a fix on our location. With the cloud cover underneath us, there was no way I could get any dead reckoning. To make things even worse, in that area, if you are familiar with the RAN, the chain codes switch out, so our Loran navigational system was not working. On top of that, when you’re this far north, in some areas you get distortions in your compass readings. With all these factors combined, it was almost impossible for us to navigate. Then, just when you think things can’t get any worse, they usually do!
The clouds began to rise even higher. I looked at the altimeter, 19,000ft. We were way on top, and still there were clouds up above us. We were flying around the towering cum’s trying not to hit any more formations. Typically, the ceiling altitude for a small craft like ours is around 20 to 22 thousand feet, and with that much ice on the aircraft, I knew we were about to meet our limit. We weren’t going to be able to climb any higher.
I was starting to feel very dizzy from the lack of oxygen at that altitude. I was trying to conserve oxygen by taking as few hits off the air tube as possible, so that my dad (who was at the controls) would have more. I knew our supply was running low. It became a struggle for him just to keep the airplane up in the air. We all knew that if we tried to go into the clouds, we would ice up and fall like a rock.
By now we also knew that we must be way off course. I picked up the radio and tried to reach anyone on any frequency, with no luck. Underneath us was the vast remote wilderness of Alaska. I looked out the window and as far as I could see there were big, white, fluffy clouds. I wondered what the heck we were going to do now! It seemed like things just kept getting worse. We began to run low on fuel. I reached in the back seat to hand Russell the oxygen tube. Russell had opened up the bible and began reading scripture. I turned and looked at my dad. He had a slight tear running down from his eye, and he said that he and Russell had lived long lives and he was sorry that if we had to crash that I would go with them, because I was such a young man. At that particular moment, I realized we were in a world of hurt!
We flew for a half an hour in and around those towering cumulonimbus clouds, going whichever way they dictated. My dad was switching back and forth between the left and right tanks trying to conserve fuel. It was my turn for the oxygen tube. I reached over the back seat to find Russell out cold. His eyes were closed and his mouth was open, his bible laying in front of him. I wasn’t sure if he’d had a heart attack, died from shock, or if he had passed out from the lack of oxygen. I grabbed the oxygen tube, sucked in a few deep breaths and then stuck it back up underneath Russell’s nose.
The oxygen cleared my head just enough for me to contemplate what was to come. I knew it was only a matter of minutes before we would run out of fuel. With this reality, the following scenario flashed through my mind: we would glide down into the clouds and begin icing up on the wings and fuselage… we would start to spin into a dive… the wings would rip off… and we would begin our wild plunge to death… That’s when the old saying came to me, ‘I would rather be on the ground, wishing I was up in the air, than up in the air, wishing I was down on the ground’, and right then, I sure was wishing I was down on the ground!
Obviously, we survived or I wouldn’t be around to write about it. How did we survive? Well, desperate times call for desperate measures. We decided to take a chance. We spotted a hole in the clouds, not knowing if it was just a pocket with nowhere to go, or possibly a way through the clouds and down to the ground. We began to circle around and drop altitude. We went down from 19,000ft to 12,000ft where we discovered that it was more than just a hole.
Between 11,000ft and 13,000ft there was a whole open layer between the clouds. We began to fly between the two layers, and all of a sudden, I picked up the Big Delta VOR, an airport just 80 miles to the south of us. My dad banked the airplane around and we started heading for the airport. A moment later, the engine sputtered and stopped, the left tank had run out of fuel. He quickly switched to the right tank, hit the starter, and the engine started back up. We knew we didn’t have long before the other tank went dry as well.
I grabbed the charts, got a fix on our location, and started looking for some place to set that plane down! All of a sudden, my dad shouted, “Look! A break in the clouds!” What a beautiful sight it was to see the ground! Just as we started to lose altitude, the engine sputtered and stopped again. This time when we hit the starter, we ran out of luck. We were completely out of fuel.
My dad quickly set up for glide, and started shouting, “WE’RE GOING DOWN! WE’RE GOING DOWN!” We poked beneath the clouds, as if God had used His mighty hands to create a hole for us, to give us a fighting chance. I began scanning the ground, looking for someplace to land, but there was nothing but rolling hills, trees and mud bogs. My dad began shouting again, “Tom! Find me someplace to land!” I told him there were no airports and no roads. The only clearing I saw away from the trees, was on the banks of the Tannena River, which was quite a ways out in front of us. I pointed towards the river. With the correct glide slope, we might have just enough altitude to make it to one of the large gravel bars on it.
I picked up the radio, “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! This is 2-5 Sierra Uniform! We’re going down, 45 miles northeast of the Big Delta VOR!” My dad was trying to hold the plane in the correct glide slope, and set up for a crash landing. I set my seat up straight, tightened down on my seatbelt, put my coat on hoping for some protection, and grabbed on tight to the bottom of my seat.
We glided in just a little bit short. We took out the tops of a couple of trees. It wasn’t enough to slow us down. I could see the banks of the river. It was very rocky and I knew we weren’t going to be able to land. We were going to crash! I shouted out, “HOLY S#@%!” My dad yelled, “Sweet Jesus, here we come!” He grabbed a handful of flaps, pulled back on the wheel, and flared the airplane. The landing gear touched down, and it seemed like we were going to make a normal landing for about 50 yards. Then, the right wheel strut, struck a boulder and broke off. The right wing plowed into the ground and we spun around coming to an abrupt stop. My dad kicked open his door and jumped out, I followed right behind him. We opened the cargo door and there sat Russell. He looked one way and then the other and said, “Nice landing Buzzard! But this doesn’t look like Fairbanks.”
I dropped to my knees, put my face next to the soggy ground, and gave it a big kiss! I wiped the dirt from my lips, looked up at the sky, and thanked God for sparing my life! My wish had come true. I was back on the ground!
Eventually, we flew in some parts, repaired the aircraft, and flew it back out. But that, is a whole other story. .