A Magical Experience – The Alaskan inside passage by floatplane

By Deon Mitton, EAA 1173590

My aviation story is probably no different from many others. At a young age, my family would visit the local airport, from which my dad travelled for business. He took us to see the arrival of a newly acquired South African Airways Boeing 707. That was it for me because, amongst the airliners, I focused on the single-engine Cessna on the ramp.

Fast-forward about 20 years when I finally earned a private pilot’s certificate. During my first years of flying, I developed an interest in bush flying and a fascination with adventure and seaplane flying around the world. The Alaskan wilderness was calling. I could not pass up the opportunity to fly the coastal Alaskan route in the summer of 2016. I joined Rob Galloway and Dan Marks to fly Rob’s Cessna 206T on floats south to Florida.

Weather permitting, we would fly the coastal Alaskan route, southeast bound, and along the inside passage. Any adventure involving Alaskan and Canadian VFR float flying takes a serious amount of preflight planning. Survival readiness is necessary for any wilderness flying, especially in Alaska and Canada, even if your flight is just 10 minutes from your home airport.

Mother Nature handed us a fantastic three-day forecast along the entire southeast coastal region. We departed from the water at Lake Hood Seaplane Base (LHD) in Anchorage. We routed to Valdez via the Knik Glacier and Inner Lake George. The scenery on this route is absolutely amazing and during the first two hours of the flight we were already in awe of the surroundings.

Lake George

After a quick fuel stop in Valdez, we continued on via Cordova and the coastal mountains. This region is home to 10,000-foot peaks and the well-known Bering Glacier, Bagley Ice Valley, Yahtse Glacier, and Malaspina Glacier. As far as the eye can see, the world is filled with glaciers, ice fields, and turquoise lakes.

As if that was not overwhelming enough, we passed by Mount Logan (19,551 feet), which is the second-highest peak in North America after Denali (20,310 feet). Mount Logan remains on the horizon for much longer than you would imagine, a testament to its size. At our night stop at Yakutat, we received a very warm welcome from the local FBO, fuel provider, and motel. As the sign says, “Food, shelter, booze.” This is a favorite fuel stop along the Alaskan coastline and a few other flight crews shared PIREPs from their days of travel, and we made a few more aviation friends.

Hubbard Glacier in Alaska

We routed south via Disenchantment Bay, Mount Hubbard (14,950 feet), and the Hubbard Glacier, then southbound via the West Nunatak Glacier. The view on the flight from Mount Fairweather (15,300 feet) to Glacier National Park, toward the charming village of Sitka, leaves one speechless. The arrival into Sitka is simply magical. The Sitka runway is extended over the water and the bay is littered with small islands, which makes it a very scenic arrival.

Departing Sitka to the south, we routed along the inside passage, and visited the remote villages of Petersburg and Wrangell. Along Frederick Sound, the spectacular Stikine-Leconte Wilderness also includes several 10,000-foot peaks, more glaciers, and spectacular views of the Patterson, Witches, and LeConte glaciers.

Sitka, Alaska

The Ketchikan International Airport (KTN) airspace is designated as a special air traffic rules area. The flight service station is located at the field and one can get weather briefings in person. The FSS team at Ketchikan is very friendly and provides some of the best local flying knowledge. Local information is essential when you’re flying in an unfamiliar area. If you’re ever in Ketchikan, make sure to visit the FSS team in the tower.

We decided to spend the weekend at a mountain lake in the Misty Fjords National Monument area near Ketchikan. This area is filled with snow-capped peaks, waterfalls, icy blue lakes, and glacial valleys and the airspace is some of the most congested VFR flying anywhere in the world. We were surrounded by floatplanes! Beavers, Otters, and Caravans were everywhere around us as we flew by. “The Wall,” and “Punchbowl” are a few of the scenic locations in the Wilderness area.

The approach and landing into Manzanita Lake is very scenic. It is surrounded on all sides by 3,000-foot peaks, creating an abundance of waterfalls, including a multi-tiered waterfall right by our cabin. It is here that we re-discovered the beauty of flying a seaplane, and why it is such a privilege. Words cannot really describe the natural beauty of this area.

Manzanita Lake in Alaska

Staying the weekend in the Misty Fjords area was definitely the highlight of the adventure for me. This journey allowed me to get a glimpse into this vast natural splendor of this region. It was an experience I will remember for the rest of my life.

Most of all, it reminded me of the privilege we have as pilots to experience and share stories of Mother Nature’s vast beauty. It’s also a reminder of the huge responsibility we all share in preserving these areas around the world for generations to come.

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