Exploring the Alaskan backcountry

By BILL WALKER

For Alaska pilot Karl Kisser, the day trips he considers routine are the stuff of dreams for many of his counterparts in the Lower 48. He is a private pilot living in Anchorage and often flies from his home base at Merrill Field to backcountry destinations all over the state.

Kisser, a paramedic for an underground mine outside Juneau, works two weeks on and two weeks off, guaranteeing himself plenty of time to fly.

Karl Kisser 2He is an active Civil Air Patrol member at the Birchwood Squadron north of Anchorage and has about 1,900 hours in his logbook, with about 1,100 of that in Alaska. Twice he has flown his 1977 Citabria 7KCAB back to the Lower 48.

“I grew up Yakima, Wash., and got my private license there in 1991,” Kisser said when I met up with him at this year’s SUN ’n FUN. “I moved to Alaska in January 1995 and did a little club flying between 1995 and 2001 when I bought my Citabria.”

He joked that he moved to Alaska “because of reading too much Jack London and Robert Service and, of course, I read all the old bush pilot stories I could get my hands on.”

His flying trips involve a lot of sightseeing. “I’m not a big fisherman or a hunter so I just make the $100 hamburger flights,” Kisser said. “And then I try to do at least one big trip a year, or at least every other year. Last year I went up to Coldfoot (PACX), 157 nautical miles northwest of Fairbanks, so I could say I’d been north of the Arctic Circle.”

Fuel availability at Alaska’s smaller airports and airstrips is uncertain, he said. “When you start flying off the road network, which doesn’t cover that much of Alaska, you have to plan carefully. For example, if you are in Coldfoot, the nearest fuel is in Bettles, 37 nautical miles away. And I think fuel in Bettles is currently about $9 a gallon. The fuel in those areas they either have to fly in or barge it in on the river once a year.”

He said that a pilot making the trip for the first time doesn’t have to keep the Alaska Highway in sight at all times.

“The nice thing about that particular route is that it follows the Lend-Lease route from World War II when they were moving aircraft through Alaska to Russia,” he said. “You’ve got major airports spaced out about 300 miles apart, so you’re always within about 300 miles of a large airport when you’re flying the Alaska Highway route.”

Kisser’s Citabria, N2506Z, holds 35 gallons useable and he said he has not had a problem reaching his intermediate stops along the highway with the required reserve still remaining.

Karl Kisser 4Trips in Alaska don’t have to be to a famous location to be memorable, he added.

“The one I remember most may be the first time I went to visit a friend and landed on a frozen lake,” he recalled. “That one was only about 20 miles from my house in Anchorage.”

Despite the harsh weather, most of the pilots he knows in Alaska tie their aircraft down outside. He pays $70 a month for his tiedown among the more than 900 planes based at Merrill.

He takes his day trips only in good weather.

“I like to fly Windy Pass up to Fairbanks, northwest of Anchorage,” he said. “Or Rainy Pass, which takes you between Anchorage and McGrath. When I do trips like that I do it in weather where you would not have to use the pass, you could go straight over the top. But it’s good fun to look at the history, think about what the flyers 60 and 70 years before me were seeing.”

He uses his sectional and has a Garmin 296 GPS for backup.

“I like to identify everything on the chart and also to follow the terrain on the sectional,” he said. “When you’re talking about the Alaska Range and if you’re flying along the coast, you’ve got mountains that go from sea level to 20,000 feet within 50 miles. It’s not like being in Colorado where you’re taking off from 9,000 feet and the mountains are 5,000 feet higher than that.”

He added, “When you get into the interior of Alaska, it’s very, very flat. It is so flat when you come out of Windy Pass heading towards Fairbanks you can’t see Fairbanks. It just looks like all flat tundra out there. It’s almost like it’s camouflaged.”

“I think one of the biggest changes up there is the weather cam system,” he continued. “They’ve got weather cams in many of the passes and many of those villages. And it’s almost like flying there vicariously looking at the weather cams online. They give you a view of the terrain and how the weather changes.

He notes that for pilots who wants to fly to Alaska, the most difficult part is the regulations for flying to Canada.

“It has always been my experience that flying into Canada is very pleasant,” he said. “Getting back into the U.S. has been a less than ideal experience. It’s just not as friendly.”

He also warns that you will be in many places where there is no cell phone reception, “so work around that.”

“Even satellite phones don’t always work up here,” he continued. “And always talk to the locals. Tell them this is the direction you’re headed and ask if there is anything you should be aware of. And don’t be afraid to sit out weather. Definitely do not go with a schedule set in stone. Along those same lines, you may have to lengthen your trip or abbreviate your stay in order to stay ahead of the weather.”

He always carries a personal locator beacon. “The most popular ones work up here,” he said, “and they give those following your trip a chance to see where you are at all times.”

“And have the right kind of gear for the trip you are making,” Kisser noted. “If I’m doing a day trip that keeps me over populated areas I’m not taking a lot of gear with me. But something like my Coldfoot trip, I’m taking camping gear. But the only time I would take a weapon would be when I was going to a friend’s cabin and we were going to do some shooting.”

He said it’s an easy trip to fly the route to the Mt. Denali area from Anchorage or Fairbanks, perhaps including a stop in Talkeetna, one of the centers of excursion flying. “Downtown Talkeetna is within walking distance of the airport,” he said.

The Kenai Peninsula is also a popular destination and a convenient one from Anchorage, he said.

“You lift off from Merrill and by the time you are at 3,000 feet you can see Kenai,” he noted. “It’s a short flight. Even in my plane it’s a 45-minute flight. The town of Kenai does have a nice little cafe. Homer, on the peninsula, is also a neat trip, but once you get to the airport, if you want to get to downtown Homer or visit Homer Spit, you need a cab or ground transportation to do that.”

“One of my favorite places to go is Skwentna,” he added. “It’s a 45-minute flight from Anchorage off the road system. The runway is right alongside the Skwentna River.”

If you make it to Alaska, make sure to let the pilots you see at the airport know you are a visitor, he advises.

“When Alaskans meet somebody new from out of state they’re excited,” Kisser said. “They want to take you under their wing and make sure that you have a good experience.”

Comments

  1. Linda S. Berl says:

    Just to keep things in perspective, 300 miles in between airports is a longer distance the entire length of the state I live in (Delaware)…
    I envy you living in a state with so many interesting places to fly to. Sounds like you need a folding bike for ground transport.

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