Departing Anchorage International was rather pleasant. We were finally underway... Then, 5 miles north of PANC we received the query "5JH, are you not familiar with the north departure?" Dave confessed we were not. The sigh was not exactly audible over the radio, but Departure worked around us without any further requests.
We planned to fly the Parks Highway
north, past Denali and settle somewhere near Fairbanks once through the Alaska Range. This was our first real canyon flying. The day was overcast with sporadic rain showers. The pre-reading for this route was full of warnings about unpredictable weather and caution for serious winds. The forecasts leading up to departure indicated low vis at the north end of Windy Pass heading down into Fairbanks. But, we had lots of potential bailout points (Willow, Talkeetna, Cantwell, Denali, and Healy) and always the opportunity to about face
North of Anchorage the terrain gets pretty wet and swampy for a while. We picked up the Parks Highway, the railroad, and the Susitna River as a guide right around Willow. Just up the road we encountered some rain around Talkeetna but easily flanked it.
Talkeetna is home to a few outfitters who flightsee folks around Denali and onto the glaciers. The terrain continues to rise ever so slightly as the valley narrows northward. We flew through the tunnel defined by the rising valley floor, the mountains walls and the 5,000' overcast.
The peak moment was entering Windy Pass, a narrow, steep, 30 mile section of the valley that is known for guess what? We didn't have much wind. We had read numerous warnings about how difficult it is to pick the right path from the various canyons that branch off, particularly at this point. The path straight ahead is large and inviting but dead ends a few miles ahead. The warnings weren't wrong. We had to check ourselves a couple times before confirming that the left turn was indeed Windy. It's easy to see how one could inadvertently disassemble the plane against some peak after getting disoriented in bad weather.
Exiting the pass through the Alaska range leads to the flatland tundra and Fairbanks. We refueled at Fairbanks International but chose to spend the night at Manley Hot Springs, 90 miles west of town.
The flight to Manley along the Tanana River is some of the most desolate and isolated terrain we encountered. Nestled between the Tanana River and a ridge, it's home to a roadhouse, a hot spring, a few homes, and an Iditerod dog trainer. Neat place.
The airstrip was our first gravel encounter. 3000', tucked amongst the trees between the Tanana River and the Slough (a slow running branch fed by the hot springs) and nestled up against some hills. Set up for a pass, but then we lucked out and found downwind easily, so dropped right in over the roadhouse (as we heard later from some of the guests). Departure the next day was a blast, as the strip terminates at the Slough: get airborne, clear the trees at the end, bend to the left and follow the Slough. The plane, at max weight, was a bit sluggish getting up so we got to see lots of scenery.
The Roadhouse was rather busy that evening. Six or seven from a motorcycle tour group, a couple from the Fairbanks Philharmonic on their 20th, two gal guides waiting to pick up a tour, some natives from Minto stranded for the eve, and some locals. Had the best pork chops (thanks, cook), despite negotiating with the waitress that you don't have to murder the trichinosis bugs by turning pork into shoe leather.
Then, anniversary-boy Bob offered us a ride on his jetboat; his wife wasn't game for the evening run and he wanted the company. On the walk to the ramp we met the worst mosquitoes of the trip. The locals pretend to be immune. Just to make us feel the bites even more. Sighting the moose and her calf was a highlight of the ride.
Later in the eve we enjoyed the hot spa. Next day we walked a couple miles to visit Joee Reddington. He trains Iditerod dogs. His dad was one of the race founders. Neither huskies nor malamutes, just mutts. He was a gracious host, considering we set his 50 dogs howling pretty good.
We were ready for the first real leg, but first we had to re-weigh all the gear and lighten where we could. We really wanted at least 60 gallons on board. The Signature staff were very pleasant helping us unload all the gear and weigh it a piece at a time. I am quite sure they thought we were throwing a wilderness bbq when they saw our table-top sized cookstove and month's supply of propane.