Saturday, January 7, 2017

Alaska Adventure: Part 1

I was sitting there eating a peanut butter sandwich when the phone rang.

"Dale, this be Shoemacher."

"Yes, boss what’s up?"

"How would you like to go to Alaska?"

"Why do you ask?"

"Well, it being the first of September, our season is over so I thought you might be interested in a different sort of flying job."

"Can you supply more specifics?"

"Oh, heck yes, I am full of specifics," he chortled. "The person they wants has to be around 6 feet tall, weigh about 175 pounds, have good sanitary habits and steely nerves, be fearless, brave, and good looking, and also (by the way) he needs to know how to fly."

"Well, them specifics fit me to a tee, I reckon. Especially the good-looking part. What does it pay?" I asked.

"The figure they gave me was that the feller would need a tow-sack in which to carry the money home."

That got my undivided attention.

After I got all the (real) specifics I packed my ole travel-weary suitcase and next day took a commercial airline flight to Sea-Tac airport in Seattle Washington. From there I took another flight to Anchorage Alaska. There I met a young feller I will call Sourdough John, who represented a company called New Era Reclamation. These folks were under contract with a consortium of pipeline building companies that were in the process of building a pipeline from Valdez to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. This company had been wrangling with the EPA for years and finally received permission to proceed.

But to gain this permission the EPA had specifics to be met. The most important one was that after the pipeline was installed, all the terrain had to be put back to its original condition. That is what New Era Reclamation was contracted to do.

Well Sourdough John and I took a commercial flight to Fairbanks, Alaska which is where I was to pick up the ag-plane that I was going to fly - a Cessna Agwagon. The Agwagon was an airplane built specifically for ag-flying work: dusting, spraying, etc.

Upon reaching Fairbanks I was introduced to several men employed by New Era Reclamation and was given a more detailed explanation of what was underway and what was expected of me. They gave me a history to date on the overall plan.

It was something like this: The first step was to build camps for workers along the proposed route of the pipeline. These were placed at intervals of about 75 miles and each camp was to accommodate around 300 to 400 workers. Keep in mind that there was no road or railway along the route. The building supplies had to be hauled in on huge trucks during the winter months when the ground was frozen solid enough to support them without damaging the tundra. 

They called the route the "Winter Trail."  At most of the camps there was a fairly good landing strip for aircraft.

The problem arose when spring came and the Winter Trail began to thaw. The cargo trucks should have stopped, but some continued up the trail and in a few places the tundra was damaged. To reclaim these damaged places New Era Reclamation hired me to fly arctic grass seed and then come back over the places with fertilizer. That brought me up to date.

I started at the Yukon River and worked my way northward. I used the newly graveled roadways as my landing strips. The seed and fertilizer had been stockpiled along the way at strategic points. My loading crew was Eskimo and Indians. They thought the whole thing was a joke and took far too much time loading the plane. Back in the lower 48 states a two-man crew could load the plane in about 5-10 minutes. These four-man turkeys took at least 35-40 minutes and sometimes longer.

It was a very interesting experience. I was not the only plane in the area. There were large two- and four-engine planes flying in and out of the camp strips carrying freight, passengers and mail. 

I had radio contact with the ground stations as well as the planes. It was funny sometimes - I could hear the conversation between the ground station and say, a large freight hauling plane. The ground station would caution the large plane to be aware of an EGGWAGON working the area roads. This usually caused a gabble of conversation amongst them. Or a response like, "What the heck is he doing down there?" 

I would usually pipe up and say, "I am flinging fertilizer on the road in places that you despoilers have messed up. I do this so the EPA won’t shut you down again." 

This usually brought a response like, "Carry on, buddy." I do believe I was the first ag-pilot to ply my trade this far north.

I'll write some more of my Alaska adventures in my next blog. 

Dale and his (slow) loading crew


  1. Always enjoy the stories and waiting for the next installment!

  2. The second part will be out shortly if I can get time to get it together. Glad there are folks out there that are interested. DR