Alaska News

Iditarod flying: expect the unexpected, then expect the opposite

With a busy flying schedule, we're a few days behind in writing. At last posting, it was Friday, when we had negotiated bad weather all day to get to the Bering Sea coast at Unalakleet. Our journalists were stranded back on the Yukon River at Anvik. Saturday's first task was to retrieve them.

Warming up a cold airplane

Any day in winter flying begins with just getting the airplane warm enough to start. With uncharacteristically warm weather so far this year, the cold hadn't yet posed any problems. But winter finally caught up to us in Unalakleet, with a more normal weather pattern in place. Saturday dawned with temperatures of 15 degrees and wind of about 20 knots. The airplane has a plug-in system that uses electricity to keep the engine warm, but we didn't have electricity in our parking spot, an all-too-common occurrence in the Bush. It took most of the morning for our white-gas camp-stove heater to blow warm air into the cowl to warm up the engine. This heating system can be frustratingly slow, as high wind can and does blow the stove out a few times before we're warm.

The plan was to leave at 9 a.m. Actual wheels-up was at noon.

Staying Flexible

This illustrates the next principle in bush flying: that things don't always go as you'd like, and sometimes, that works out for the better. The weather was overcast with light snow showers, suggesting the route we flew to Unalakleet on Friday wouldn't be open for the reverse flight. But we thought we could probably go the long way around, circumnavigating some of the mountains by flying south, then east and joining up with the Yukon closer to its mouth on the Bering Sea and following it upriver to Anvik. It would be a long detour, but we had to retrieve our journalists and this seemed the only way to get that done. Or so we thought at 9 a.m., when we were set back by the issue of just getting the airplane warm enough to start.

By the time the engine warmed up, the whole picture had changed. In defiance of the forecast, the weather had shifted and the mountains were entirely in the clear. We could make a beeline direct to Anvik straight across the mountains, which more than cut in half the distance of the route. While we'd initially worried about the delay in getting going, that very delay was what turned out to make the flight so much simpler and easier.

This illustrates another principle in bush flying: things are so unpredictable that you can't even count on them not working out. The weather is so whimsical that you can't count on it staying bad when you think it should be. Getting through every day requires a certain ongoing, rolling flexibility. The plan never stays entirely the same.

We picked up the reporters later in the ever-improving day and made a lazy, scenic trip up the Yukon river, photographing dog teams along the trail. In strong contrast to Friday's turbulence and whiteouts, it was a gentle, easy trip in the sunshine that had the feel of a Sunday drive. It was so relaxing that when we encountered a good pilot friend flying down the same trail, we briefly joined in side-by-side formation (courtesy of our radios) so our photographer could take a few shots of his airborne plane for him. It was all just a relaxing, easygoing trip up the river.

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Patience

There's always a day like this just around the corner, but when you're trying to get someplace and the wind is blowing and the snow is heavy, it's easy to lose sight of that fact. In many ways, the greatest virtue in bush flying is patience. Tom Madsen, who had spent 20 years flying in the Aleutians, said once that every airplane crash site in the Aleutians has had sun shining on it within 24 hours. There might be some exceptions to that, but for every day of hazardous weather there's some good flying weather right around the corner.

On the return from Anvik, we landed at Kaltag in the warm sun (see stories about the "wet slog" on the trail there) where our journalists wanted to stop and catch up with the latest race events. It often seemed to us that race photographs should include airplanes as an ever-present feature of the trail, and Kaltag offered the perfect photo op. We set the airplane down on the river in the snow and parked it near where the trail comes off the river and into the checkpoint. That made it a part of the backdrop for all the crowds of camera-wielding observers standing up on the high bluff, waiting to snap the dog teams as they came up to the village.

The day ended up with all of us reunited in Unalakleet.

Village Hospitality

A few words here about the village of Unalakleet: This is always a most anticipated weekend destination for us. We have friends who rent us a lovely, warm, well-equipped apartment; a good internet connection; cell phone service; the best all-around hospitality, an espresso shop and bakery; and the unique "Peace on Earth" restaurant that's open round-the-clock during Iditarod. Even the jam sessions by the owners' family there feature really great music.

We often remark on the special joy of coming into a village in the Bush and encountering endless hospitality on the part of the residents. It seems that any aircraft that lands and deposits its passengers upon the scene finds a happy encounter. We always leave feeling we've made some new friends, renewed ties with old ones, and come away richer for the time spent there. If only many others--including all of you, our readers -- could arrange to share in this experience.

The "urban-rural divide" might even be a thing of history.

Reflections as the race finishes

We've made it to Nome ahead of things and are awaiting the mushers and dogs, with the leader predicted to arrive sometime late Tuesday. Sleeping tonight will be interrupted by the town siren blaring for each race finisher. One more shuttle -- the short flight along the shore of Norton Sound back to White Mountain to pick up our journalists and bring them here before dark -- will mark the official end of our race flying. From here on, we hope to do more short hops to visit villages within easy flying from Nome, before heading back to headquarters at Merrill Field on Thursday.

Already, the town is gearing up in anticipation of the throngs of well-wishers, fans and media from around the world. Hobo Jim -- our musician friend last seen in McGrath -- is here and will be performing all week. The Nome Arts Council organized its perennial, first-rate exhibition and sale in the historic Old St. Joe's church. And of course, the parties are going around the clock. The many restaurants are cooking non-stop; we're happy to report the culinary experience here just keeps getting better.

The small-town feel of this vast state

Once again, that feeling of intimacy within the vastness keeps overwhelming our impressions. Having travelled the thousand-mile trail with fellow pilots, Iditarod volunteers and members of the moveable media, we of course enjoy the annual chance to reconnect. So many of them do these jobs repeatedly for years, even decades, that this journey begins to feel like its own extended family. But tomorrow, when the families and friends of all the mushers start to gather here in earnest, the web expands by leaps and bounds. It will be a feast of friendship and common purpose, repeated in all the hugs and high-fives around town -- the "Moveable Feast" that is Iditarod (with apologies to Ernest Hemingway).

And may the strong high pressure stay put until we're safely back across the Alaska Range on Thursday.

Alice Rogoff is publisher of Alaska Dispatch.

Alice Rogoff

Alice Rogoff is the former owner and publisher of Alaska Dispatch News.

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