In Whitehorse we're cleared to taxi and then take-off, with no restrictions on turns or altitude, so we're quickly on course for the United States. (I keep saying that, because it's so weird). The weather is definitely poor to the south, but along the highway it's excellent. We look from the dotted line on the GPS to the ground, trying to spot some evidence of the actual border. There's not a river for it it follow, just an arbitrary straight line, and they probably don't mow a line in the trees up here like they do along the 49th parallel in western Canada. We see a pull off with a large building on the highway and conclude that that is the border control station. Kind of low-key, but I doubt it's a hotbed of smuggling.
We soar over mighty rivers and past majestic mountains. All that stuff. Looks just like the Yukon, so far. Which is nothing to scoff at. Our flight plan calls for us to hang a left at an airport with customs, I think it was called Tok. The GPS tells us where it is and we can see the pass to enter on the left. As we make the turn the PIC asks, "did you actually see the airport?" I didn't. It's a broad flat, kind of swampy area with a road running through it. The airport should have been pretty obvious. We shrug and continue on, deciding that perhaps it was a waterdrome. I looked it up just now, and it's a 1700' dirt strip, so we can be forgiven for missing it. But it shows how reliant we have become on GPS. I can't imagine ten years ago turning into a mountain pass without ensuring all the landmarks required to identify it were there.
We have two GPSes working on the project right now, the Garmin 496 and the 430. The 496 is a much better tool for this job, because the 430 is designed for IFR and if it had a personality it would be reduced to a quivering wreck by the proximity of rocks in a pass like this. We can't set a comfortable zoom level on it and use it to look around corners for rocks, because it zooms in close and sounds an alarm whenever we snuggle up to the right side of the pass. The 496 just puts up an inset covered in Xs that it thinks we're going to hit. We always turn so we don't.
The weather in the pass is surprisingly poor, dumping rain on us and reducing visibility in mist. It's really nice to have two pilots in here to confirm the navigation without having to look away from the window. It's a bit of a twisty pass. It's in the middle of nowhere, but there's an RCO, a remote communications outlet, right in the pass, so I can file a PIREP while we negotiate it. Pretty cool. We go around another corner and the weather is fine again. Here we are hooking up with the road (which took a different route) as the pass dwindles back to swamp.
Yeah, swamp. By my estimate almost all the bits of Alaska that aren't mountains or rivers are swamps. Do they call it muskeg here? I forgot to ask. There are hectares and hectares of swampland. Must be millions of mosquitoes down there. It's honestly a bit of a letdown. Alaska gets so much press and here it is looking exactly like northern Alberta. Or northern Saskatchewan, Manitoba, or Ontario. It doesn't have the sweeping rocky look of the Northwest Territories. It probably looks awesome all covered with snow, though. Great for snow machines.
The bad weather that was to the south is now to the southeast, we've kind of gone around it. There are mountains over there and as we draw closer their spectacular beauty makes up for the swamp. Between the rocks are huge glaciers. I don't think we appreciated how huge. I know that at first I thought the one in the picture was a road coming out of the mountains, you know how a road that has snow on it stays snow-covered well after the surrounding snow has melted, because traffic has compacted the snow? Then I looked at it longer and realized that it was a giant glacier. The roadlike ribbon of ice continues out of the photo to the right. I just couldn't fit it all in. Glaciers aren't very photogenic. You really have to go and look at them.
There was an RV park at the foot of one glacier, close enough that you could probably smell the ice from there. If I were to come to Alaska as a tourist in a motorhome, I would definitely want to stay at that RV park. While the mountains with their glaciers and bad weather are to the left, the hills to the right have a curious sandy quality to them. Maybe it's different rock, or maybe just the way the weather comes through that have given them different erosion or vegetation. I need a geologist to follow me around and tell me what I see.
The sandstone side approaches the rock side more closely and we go to the right of a hill in between the two. That turns out to be a shame, because as we come out the other side of the hill we realize we missed a close flyby of another glacier. Maybe on the way back. If we were doing this for fun we would definitely have headed over closer to check out the glaciers better, but we have a customs ETA into Anchorage soon, and we're not being paid to sightsee.
Also recall that we have been unable to buy proper Alaska charts. We're working off the GPS database and the information I've researched on the net and printed off. It should be pretty good, but you never know. We should be within radio contact of Anchorage around the next corner. We are, and the Anchorage area is a long, broad inlet. We pick up the ATIS approaching Wasilla--yes the Wasilla of which Sarah Palin was mayor. It appears to be a suburb of Anchorage rather than the isolated Alaskan village I had pictured. There are dozens of airports on the delta. I call Anchorage approach with our position, and intentions, and they assign us a squawk code and ask if we're familiar with the something-or-other VFR route. We're not, so they give us a vector. We rejoice. A vector means we can't screw up too horrifically now. We're under ATC control. As long as we do what we're told and we can't blunder into any airspace we didn't know about. Real professional, I know. I promise I'm embarrassed about this.
The vector takes us downwind along the west shore of the inlet, then they give us a new vector, taking us further west. I think at first that I've misheard the instruction, it's away from the airport and we're already 20 miles away, but that's where they want us to go. We hook up with a base leg, and then final. I have the airport diagram out and verify our assigned runway, 7L. It intersects runway 14 a thousand or so feet in.
A couple miles back on final the controller asks us where we are parking. I'm glad I did my research and can answer with the name of the FBO. I call back on short final to add that we're going to customs first. I don't know whether their question was to determine whom to bill for our landing fee, or what taxi instructions to give us, so now they have both pieces of information.
Flaps are down, gear is down, cleared to land--we were cleared to land ages ago--and then just as we flare they ask us to go around. We don't see the reason, but the controller obviously does so we don't question it. The PIC does a textbook go around, transitioning from going down to going up very smoothly and cleaning up the airplane. We then follow further instructions to turn around and fly a close right downwind for another try. We are rolling out of the 180 when the controller changes his mind again, "Can you accept runway 32 from there?" It's a complete chop and drop, with runway 32 right there off our right wing but my coworker nods and we put it on the runway. This actually puts us closer to customs. It's almost straight in front of us as we turn off at the first convenient taxiway.
The controller thanks us for our cooperation and gives us a long taxi clearance which I copy down and read back. Much of PANC is one huge stretch of pavement with taxiways being defined routes over that slab. I don't get to just beeline across the pavement to the customs hall. I always find it a little harder to find my turns in this scenario. I like it when there's grass or dirt between the taxiways. I study the taxiway diagram then realize that the route we've been given does not go to customs. It's to the FBO. I call ground back and reiterate our need to clear customs, so they give us a new taxi clearance. We successfully find customs and shut down. I pull out the aircraft documents, my licence and passport, and the rest of our paperwork, and then open the rear door for the arrival of the customs agent.
He comes out quite quickly and is friendly. After checking the airplane paperwork against the letters painted on the vertical stabilizer, he asks us to bring our paperwork and come inside. We follow him through a secured door into an enormous customs hall, an area that could accommodate a B747 full of people, but aside from a few other customs officers, no one else is there. He takes us over to the desk labelled "crew line," where someone else checks our paperwork and types things into his computer. They also direct us to a phone where we can close our VFR flight plan. Our customs escort is also a pilot; we soon learn that practically everyone in Alaska is. I think we disappoint him by not remembering the names of the passes and glaciers along our route. I feel a little guilty knowing that this casually executed, spontaneous and underplanned jaunt is the trip of a lifetime that I'm sure many pilots spend years plotting. Sorry.
Back in the airplane we start up and taxi to the south side of the airport. Ground switches us to tower in order to taxi across the parallel runways, one of which temporarily doesn't exist, due to construction. A friendly woman with a stop/slow sign waves as we taxi through the construction zone. I'm guessing that airplanes always have right of way through construction, and her job is to stop any trucks that might be approaching as we move through. The FBO is the first one on the other side and we park and shut down under the direction of a marshaller.
We take our bags and head inside. There is great consternation amongst the staff that they didn't know we were coming. One of them has dialed the manager, who isn't in today, and he gives me the phone. Darn. The guy I spoke to didn't make it clear that I needed an explicit reservation. I guess he thought all airports were like that. The manager, however, apologizes profusely for not being prepared for our arrival. I affirm that I did call ahead, but didn't give a definite arrival time or date because I didn't know for sure at the time. Is this going to be a problem? I tell him that I don't need anything special like ice. As I say that, it occurs to me that ice is amusingly far from "something special" in Alaska, so I amend it to caviar sandwiches. The manager, whose name is Louis, says that he could probably get us caviar sandwiches if we wanted them, and that we are welcome to stay there. I guess we pass the screening.
The one thing we do need is charts. Those turn out to be a bit of a problem. We describe the ones we want, but they only have some expired ones for reference. Louis makes some calls and then tells us where we can get them. They aren't available on the field, but there are two sources, one quite near our hotel and another an FBO at a nearby airport.
Meanwhile our customers have arrived via the airlines so they come and pick us up. We check into the hotel, which has small but nice rooms, and the twenty-four hours of daylight mean that I don't really mind that most of the lightbulbs are missing. There is a comfortable windowseat with a view of the mountains. Just before I go to bed I find out what the job here is. Oh boy. This is going to take some diplomacy.
Also, a former senator with the same name as the airport, Ted Stevens, just died in an air crash. I think he may be the airport namesake even though he was still alive when the airport was named. Americans don't always seem to wait until people are dead before naming things after them.