New year’s adventure: clearing a runway with one snowshoe

It all happened deep down in the frigid winter lockup of 1957. Things had settled down somewhat after November’s blunder at Nugget Bench. My mother had come to Alaska for a short visit by then, and we were all pretty much enjoying the crisp, clear, cold December days that only sub-Arctic Alaska can serve up. My father, still in the South 48, was waffling over the long flight from Seattle and had almost decided to drive the Alcan, the Alaska-Canada Highway, in order to avoid that 1,300-mile over-water trip. In those days, the trip was by way of the Domestic Offshore Route, thence along Green Eight, and finally Amber One to Anchorage. These were the old airway designations, before VHF had finally set its foot in Alaska. The trip was more than four and one-half hours in one of the old three-tailed Super-D Constellations.

My father had always maintained that he wouldn’t step into an airplane until after he had earned his own pilot’s license, so a flight for him looked unlikely. Eventually, though, he did make the flight, shipping his car by surface vessel to Seward. He would come to love flying, especially flying the Alaska bush.

Frozen lake in Alaska
Let’s just land on the frozen lake, shall we?

I had decided early on during the morning of January 1, New Year’s Day, to take a short flight and look over the Russian River Rendezvous lodge property at Lower Russian Lake down on the Kenai Peninsula. The lodge had been unattended during the deep winter months lately, though the lodge at Upper Russian Lake was occupied year round. I knew that Nishka Elwell had already set out her winter trap lines up there. Nishka had been born Nishka Zane in Zanesville, Ohio, the city named for Zane Gray, the prolific western author and one of Nishka’s family. Luke, her husband of many years, would be busy tying flies for the next fishing season. Just another still and tranquil New Year’s Day in the Alaska outback.

I had called Rufus, a friend of mine, asking if he might want to tag along in the two-place Aeronca Chief. He did, and we had lifted off Merrill Field at about noon into a hard and brittle-clear winter sky.

The old two-story log lodge, tucked away in a small valley surrounded by steeply rising mountains, was about a quarter-mile downstream from Lower Russian Lake itself. I say was, because the lodge would sadly burn to the ground two winters later.

A little background about that lodge, and Alaska, may be worth mentioning. The original lodge property had been the site of a Russian penal colony long before the United States had purchased the territory from that country back in 1867. Alaska, with its 586,400 square miles but only 302,000 inhabitants, allowed an average of 1.94-square miles for each person who lived there. Compared to Rhode Island, it provided 170,720 times more area for every person who resided in the huge state. While Alaska provided almost two square miles per person, Rhode Island provided no more than ninety-two square feet for each of its own residents. Alaska is two and one-half times the size of Texas, and almost five hundred times larger than Rhode Island.

Facilities at Lower Russian lake had later been given over to a silver fox farm and, following that use, had become the home of a school teacher, name of Smith, who daily walked three miles by mountain trail each way to the road at Schooner’s Bend on the Kenai River in order to impart some small semblance of education to his young charges. Most recently, however, it had been a fishing and hunting lodge owned by Bill Roberts, a retired U.S. Navy Chief, and a former all-navy heavyweight boxing champion, who had, for several years, lived alone there. He operated the property as a hunting and fishing lodge during the spring, summer, and fall seasons, and then huddled in all by himself throughout the dark cold and deep snows of Alaska’s hard winters. After Big Bill Roberts’ sudden disappearance from the Kenai Peninsula in 1959 or 1960, it was rumored that he had fallen from a small boat into the San Francisco Bay and drowned. Few of us who knew Bill very well could believe that story, since he was known to be an excellent swimmer. But there it was. Anyway, back to the matter at hand.

Aeronca Chief
The Aeronca Chief isn’t known for its performance in a blizzard.

It isn’t a long flight from Anchorage to the lake, usually taking about 40 minutes in the Aeronca Chief. We lollygagged around for one plus thirty, though, before finally crossing the Kenai River just below Kenai Lake. We slipped through the little slot in the mountains at the north entrance to the valley and descended toward the remote, snow-covered lake.

On the shore of the large bay on the east side of the lake, we could see 13 moose yarded up in the deep snow. They were all cows and yearling calves—that is to say, calves born the previous June—but we were still surprised to see so very many of them all herded up together in one small, snow-covered meadow along the lake’s shoreline.

I estimated that there were only eight to 12 inches of snow on the frozen lake at the time. I figured we could easily handle that much snow depth, even though the little taildragger was still mounted on its small wheels rather than on more sensible and practical skis.

We had approached the lake from the north. I circled it in the clear air for an approach from the south, the Harding Ice Field directly behind us, and made a smooth landing on the snow-covered ice. The ice itself was probably more than three feet thick at this time of the year, and safe enough for heavy truck travel. The snow presented more resistance than I had expected, and I increased backpressure on the control wheel to keep the tail down. In moments, we had come almost to a complete stop.

I applied some throttle and, with careful control yoke pressures, began to taxi toward the shoreline at the north end, holding the tail above the snow, and trying to see through the blinding veil of white at the same time I was working to keep the prop clear of it. After several minutes of this tedious chore, I looked out under the left wing to discover that we hadn’t moved an inch. I was simply balancing the aircraft on its wheels and blowing snow all over the place. Well, live and learn. I was still pretty new at this stuff…

I added more power and held the tail low while we virtually plowed a swath through the snow until we finally reached the north shoreline. I shut down the 65-hp Continental and we sat there in the near silence, listening to the ticking of cooling cylinders.

There wasn’t much need to tie the plane down, so we just left it where it sat and slogged the quarter-mile of deep snow through the spruce woods to the cold and empty lodge buildings. After taking stock of the food and fuel situation there, both virtually non-existent, I checked the smokehouse for forgotten smoked salmon. There were several leftover pieces, but all were moldy. Well, that wouldn’t hurt, since we could brush the green stuff off easily enough. It wasn’t much of a larder, though, considering that I was sure we were now stuck here until we could shovel out a runway on the lake.

A check of the tool shed revealed that everything of any practical use had already been stolen. Stariskis, pulaskis, ice augers, peavies, shovels, picks—the works. The best we could find was one old snowshoe, fortunately a trail shoe rather than a bear paw model, and we set that aside as our tool of choice. Some choice. What we needed was a snow shovel, not a snowshoe!

Snow shoe
A single snow shoe – good enough to plow a “runway” in a pinch.

We cranked up a three-burner Coleman stove and boiled some trail coffee, using creek water and an old porcelain coffee pot that verified Bill Roberts’ years in the navy. Washing a coffee pot in the navy is a court martial offense, Bill had always claimed, and this pot stood silent and unequivocal witness to that tradition. We sipped hot coffee and nibbled on cold and sour smoked salmon, reviewing our options. We agreed that they had been reduced considerably from those available to us prior to my foolish landing in this remote little valley. It had started to snow again, too, and was soon working itself into a veritable blizzard outside the big, two-story log lodge. It was getting too dark and stormy to do any real work, and we didn’t feel much up to it anyway, once the lodge began to warm up a bit. So we rummaged through the lodge supplies until we had located four of the cleanest of many dirty blankets, and then settled in for the night.

The weather had cleared by morning, but more than twelve inches of fresh snow had been added to the lake’s winter cover. The snow above the ice was now well over two feet deep, and I began to think seriously about butchering one of those moose still yarded up on the east lakeshore to serve as our winter’s meat supply. It might be a while before we saw Anchorage again.

By late morning, we had succeeded in using the old snowshoe to create a two-track runway pointing south down the center of the lake. I knew I could keep the little wheels inside the tracks. It wasn’t going to work for the plane and two occupants, though, and we elected that I would fly alone to Kenai, some 40 miles west of us, turn off the air search that must surely by now be in progress, and bring back some food. We still expected to fly out together later that afternoon.

I lifted off without much trouble, circled the lake to wing-wag at Rufe, and then lit out through the slot in the mountains en route to Kenai, a city about 45-miles away. By the time I got there, it had started to snow again. And by the time I had secured a few quick hamburgers, bought a big thermos and filled it with hot coffee, advised the authorities that we really needed no assistance, and was ready to head back toward the lake, the weather had deteriorated to the point that I had to request a Special VFR clearance for the departure. The clearance read: “Cleared below five hundred to five miles east. Remain east of the Control Zone. No clearance will be issued for landing.

In other words, don’t come back today. Not very friendly, maybe, but it fit right in with my own plans. I didn’t intend to go back there that day, anyway.

Snowfall continued to increase until, by the time I was within ten miles of the lake, three-dimensional visibility was gone, and with it went my depth perception. Everything was either light gray or dark gray, with no real black nor white. There was certainly no color around me, except for the little yellow and red Aeronca.

I almost missed the sharp right turn that plunged me into a narrow slot just before I reached the Kenai River. With depth perception now gone in the blinding snowstorm, I had just barely avoided flying smack into a narrow, vertical ravine that my missing depth perception had flattened out to look almost exactly like the turn in the road that I had been following. I was flying at about 50 feet, since anything higher would have cost me the last visual reference to anything on the ground. Things like the narrow road below me, which was now my only guide through the mountains.

By the time I found the new bridge across the Kenai River, just below Schooner’s Bend, where once had stood a magnificent old wooden covered bridge, I knew I couldn’t make it into the lake through that little pass again. I decided to land on the road. In fact, I was going to land on that new concrete bridge, since it was plenty long enough for the Chief and I was certain the wings would clear the low railing on either side. I first had to fly its length to make sure there were no cars coming from the other direction. I knew there was none behind me, but couldn’t see all the way to the end of the bridge, maybe 500 feet or so in length. After flying the bridge length, and being satisfied that no cars were on the road in that area, I set up to commit for the landing.

Kenai River
Flying down the Kenai River valley at 50 feet – hardly a good time for an engine failure.

I pulled the carburetor heat control to the full hot position just as I rolled into a left 180° turn in order to circle around for the landing—and the engine revolutions instantly dropped below 1,000 rpms. I couldn’t hold any altitude with that little dab of engine power, so I shoved the carburetor heat control back to cold. That didn’t help much, and I knew something had gone haywire up front somewhere. I rolled back out of the turn, pulled the heat on again, and made for a landing straight ahead on the road close beside the rushing Kenai River and just below Cooper Creek, Cooper Landing, and the outlet of Kenai Lake.

The two-lane gravel road was pretty crooked right there, and I was very busy for a few moments in negotiating the sharp turns bracketed with snow-heavy spruce. The trees were all now leaning over the road in an attempt to grab one wingtip or another. I had just enough wiggle room for the wings and that was about all. I hardly recognized Pat Gwinn’s Roadhouse when I dashed past it with about ten feet between the wheels and the snow-covered road.

The landing was fine, though snow finally packed the left wheel and brake, locking it at the last moment. The nose swerved to the left, leaving the crippled little aircraft blocking the narrow, winding road, and smack dab in the middle of one of its many turns. It was still snowing quite hard. I began to worry that someone driving the road would come around the curve and slam into the little fabric airplane, now parked where it absolutely shouldn’t be.

I raised the cowl on one side and peered into the warm, dark interior. The exhaust muffler on the carburetor heat side had broken at one of its welds. With the heat control pulled out, the carburetor was no longer getting warmed air; it was inhaling almost pure exhaust gasses. I thought it might have been a stroke of luck that the little engine hadn’t caught fire up there. The muffler would require re-welding before the airplane could be certified airworthy again. In the meantime, I would have to wire it in place with some stainless steel safety wire that I kept aboard for just such questionable repairs.

It was decision time, and my decision was that I couldn’t leave Rufe stuck at the lake without food and with no way to get out of the valley. After all, I had turned off the air search that could later have lifted him out without much trouble. So, when the snow let up just a little, I took off from the road and headed back through the little slot to the lake again. It was a thrilling takeoff, what with the falling snow and those big spruce trees bending over the road trying to grab my struggling little airplane.

By now, the hamburgers weren’t as warm as they had been, but the thermos of hot coffee had held its temperature. Rufe and I enjoyed a good ol’ American fast-food lunch. Rufe had polished our little runway a bit in my absence, in spite of the newly fallen snow, and it looked like we would make it out yet that afternoon. I would just have to be a little judicious with the carburetor heat control. I decided that I could probably perform that little balancing act, so we lined the airplane up in its own tracks for our departure, preparing to leave the lake. The takeoff would be to the south.

The takeoff run was a bit long because of poor directional control, but otherwise went without much trouble. We lifted off with the Harding Ice Field fixed dead center in the windshield. After a climbing turn back over the lake, we were once again on our way west through the little saddle, crossing the Kenai River, cutting through the mountains ahead, and at last winging our way northward across the Kenai Peninsula toward Merrill Field. And toward hot showers and more food.

And a welding job on the stainless steel muffler, of course. Right away, too.

When we reached Anchorage, we learned that our holiday absence had even made the Seattle newspapers, though they had erroneously reported our disappearance to the north, rather than to the south, of Anchorage. In Alaska, no agency would in those days act timely upon a missing aircraft report if it has been made by the wife or the girlfriend of the pilot. Neither do they pay much attention to information from these sources as it relates to either the direction or the destination of the missing flight.

5 Comments

  • Mort,
    You made me laugh out loud! WELL TOLD. You are welcome at my fireside for a glass of grog and tale-telling any time.
    Um… you ARE smarter than that now, aren’t you?

  • Thrill a minute and well told. Nothing seems to upset you much! Perhaps the passage of time has mellowed your tone a bit, but the story was great. How many times have you told that one? Amazing!
    I am NOT recommending you for teaching classes regarding flight risk management and decision-making, however.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *