Devil Canyon Christmas

During the month of December, I had to make several flights from Anchorage to Tanacross, Tok Junction, Eagle, and other villages in that part of Alaska near Canada’s back door. Business had kept me jumping back and forth in my Cessna 206 that month. The 300-hp Teledyne Continental engine hardly had time to cool between flights in spite of temperatures in the interior that visited -40°F and -50°F with a stubborn regularity.

Even during the really blue-sky December days at that latitude, daylight lasts only five hours. The weather that month, though, had been particularly rotten. The pass at Sheep Mountain–Chikaloon Pass–had been closed more often than not, interrupting planned flights with irritating predictability.

Late on Christmas Eve of 1981, and after an all-day pre-heating, I took off from Tok Junction headed for home in Anchorage.

At Tanacross, I stopped to top off the 92-gallon tanks and then began the long, cold flight home. The thermometer was holding obstinately at -50°F when I departed Tanacross, climbing into another of those sharp, brittle-clear Alaska winter nights that are so beautiful they keep most of us from moving to warmer climates.

Thirteen miles after departing Tanacross to the south, I was squeezed into a narrow little slot between peaks of more than 6,000 ft. In only a few more miles, it would become Mentasta Pass.

Alaska route on sectional
Not exactly a direct route – but this is Alaska.

I over-flew Mentasta Lodge, scooted from the pass to fly over Duffy’s Tavern, and then took up a heading of about 190° magnetic. That would lead me to Glennallen. Magnetic variation in this area is almost twenty-nine degrees east, so my course would really have been closer to 210° true. I’d tuned in and verified the Gulkana VOR at 115.6 MHz and was cruising smoothly along at 120 knots, feeling truly sorry for all those earthbound folks who couldn’t share this beautiful Alaska Christmas Eve with me.

All that began to change as I approached Glennallen. Gulkana Radio was reporting heavy snow at Glennallen, and a closed pass again at Sheep Mountain. I had to think this over, finally deciding to follow the highway southwest to Tazlina and then hang the right 90° turn that would take me over Lake Louise. Eight miles beyond that three-lake complex lay Kelly Lake and the five-acre site of my main grizzly camp.

My cabin there was fully stocked with everything I would need, if it became necessary to lay over for a spell. It flashed through my mind that my wife might not be too pleased about it. Peggy tended sometimes to worry needlessly over my flying the Alaska outback, especially through nighttime snowstorms.

I really didn’t want to land at Kelly. I knew I could make a safe night landing there, and that I would be warm and snug in my little cabin until the storm had passed. The snow, though, was now too deep for a later takeoff in the wheel-equipped Cessna. To be fair about it, Peggy might have found that fitting, I supposed.

It was snowing pretty hard now. Still, visibility was out beyond a quarter mile. Moreover, I was flying over very familiar country and I wasn’t carrying any passengers, always a factor for me when making bad weather flying decisions.

The occasional spruce tree stood out black against the lighter background, making flight still relatively comfortable. If I could only get over the 3,200-foot mountain just beyond Tyone Lake, I would be right over the bowl holding Kelly Lake.

By the time I had reached the upper end of Louise, visibility was almost a mile. I might not have to spend Christmas Eve at Kelly after all. I turned slightly left, taking up a heading magnetic of 280°. That set me up to intercept the Upper Susitna River where its southern flow turned west toward Devil Canyon and, eventually, to the town of Talkeetna. Since Talkeetna sits at 370-feet MSL, the 90-mile flight from there southward to Anchorage would be a piece of cake.

Between my present position and the town of Talkeetna, though, lay Devil Canyon. That gorge – which carries through its ghastly chute some of the most hideous and frightening Class VI water in the world – is really steep, with sides only a few hundred yards apart. It is also as crooked as a nervous serpent.

I found the Susitna eight minutes later, right where I had left it the last time I was through here, and then began following it downstream toward Devil Canyon.

I was hoping to leave the Susitna and slide south a bit more to hit the Talkeetna River. That short river also feeds directly into Talkeetna, and it doesn’t have the same sort of dangerous, winding canyon as does the Big Su. Lowering ceilings finally took that option from me.

Three and one-half minutes after passing Watana Creek, and abeam the flats that surround Fog Lakes, I shot past Deadman Creek just off my right wing. My world suddenly changed from horizontal to vertical, becoming dangerously mountainous. I checked my belt and shoulder harness, settling in for the demanding ten or twelve minutes ahead. This had become a truly lousy way to spend Christmas Eve…

The winding river had now turned south where Tsusena Creek dashes in from the north, adding more water to the Big Su. Next would come a serious 90-degree right turn. That turn would immediately force me westward past Devil Creek which dashed into the Big Su at the mouth of the gorge, announcing entrance into Devil Canyon. That slot was now less than two hundred seconds ahead. In a few moments I could see that the rock tops at the upper end of the canyon were well into the overcast. I wouldn’t be able to fly along the canyon—I would have to fly through it!

The overcast appeared flat on the bottom. I hoped it might also be level, but I soon found that it sloped downward, following the raging torrent below.

Devil's canyon
Devil Canyon, a beautiful site in clear daylight, but a threatening foe on a dark winter’s night.

My options were now down to two: continue the flight or dump my Stationair into the chaos below. No one had ever survived a dunking in that torrent. This was Class VI water, and I was flying neither a kayak nor an inflatable raft. If I survived a landing among the boulders, the waters would sweep me away while making jelly of my chilly carcass. The rapids seen in the movie Deliverance were calm waters indeed compared to the thundering fire hose of the nearly freezing cataract below.

I was now flying under twenty degrees of the Cessna’s huge flaps and had slowed to seventy knots indicated, figuring the empty stall speed in steep turns to be sixty-five to seventy. None of my turns would last longer than a few seconds at any rate. That would be the best I could do for the next few minutes. I was looking at about 400 seconds of the most dangerous, frightening, and questionable moments of my entire 20,000-hour flying life. Thirteen miles of sheer terror. Fortunately, I would be too busy to think about it!

The overcast was forcing my defiant little airplane lower and lower as I plunged into the narrow canyon. There is a cable stretched across the canyon at this point, but I knew I was below it. I was flying below the rim of the canyon and could no longer see the top of either wall, well out of sight above the wings and buried deep inside the cloud cover. I supposed the Cessna’s big tail fin might even be in the clouds from time to time.

I was still VFR, from a practical standpoint. The weather certainly wasn’t legal for it, but it was still flyable. Barely. To say that I could see much at all was stretching it quite a bit. Turns inside that steep, dark canyon were exceeding 80-degrees or more of bank almost constantly. They frequently reached ninety. I supposed that I was rolling through level so quickly after each steep bank that inertia kept the wings from stalling during the turns. I’d roll from a steep right turn into a sharp left as quickly as the ailerons would respond to violent, against-the-stops pressures on the control yoke. Somewhere along here, I shot past our High Lake Lodge, above me and just one-half mile north of Devil Canyon.

It seemed an hour before the dark rock prison suddenly opened up at Portage Creek, signaling the lower end of the canyon. I hadn’t yet noticed the airframe ice building up on the windshield, struts, and the wings’ leading edges. I had long ago turned the pitot heater on, but I had been too busy to watch the airspeed indicator anyway. This had been Alaska seat-of-the-pants flying at its very scariest.

The ceiling had finally forced me down to 550 feet indicated. There were still another fifty feet below me, with an open shot through the valley ahead of the nose. The flight had by now had lasted two hours and forty-five minutes.

I supposed that a lot of moisture had been held between the low ceiling in the gorge and the spray created by that roaring chaos of rapids and spume. It was a veritable petri dish for the formation of airframe icing, which by now had changed the aircraft colors from red on white to white on white.

I held the 550-feet MSL as I cruised down the Big Susitna River past the town of Talkeetna and then south along the Alaska Railroad. Anchorage was by now just another sixty-five miles dead ahead. It was still snowing, but not hard. It was also clear to me that the ice was no longer forming.

After landing at Anchorage, I tied my faithful little ship down and silently thanked the guys at the Cessna plant for their stable and dependable Stationair.

And, yes—it had been a lousy way to spend Christmas Eve…

7 Comments

  • My first time in Alaska was with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as part of a survey crew that was assigned to do a detailed topographical survey
    for the proposed Devil Canyon Dam site. We build a small air strip on the north end of the canyon that could handle a PA-18 or similar. The cable mentioned in the story was one built to enable a hand pull tram to carry survey equipment and a 2 man crew across the roaring Big Susitna, believe me if he flew underneath the cable he was skimming his wheels in the water. We later built a suspension bridge across the river. A note of interest Don Sheldon landed on the Big Su in the canyon itself to rescue some coast guard survivors that got stranded when their boat was smashed against the walls of the canyon. Read his story in his book Wager with the Wind.
    The State of AK is still considering building the dam.

  • Actually, my friend Don Sheldon didn’t land IN the canyon. He landed BELOW it (probably at Grayling Creek) and TAXIED into the canyon in his Aeronca Station Wagon. Miraculous bit of airplane handling, that. He was very skilled, and certainly courageous. Often flying on the edge, he went through 52-airplanes in his 20-years of outback flying, I believe. Read “Wager With the Wind” and count ’em up.

  • While certainly hair raising, flights like that make one question the judgement of such an experienced bush pilot. I’m guessing he would not have made that flight with passengers. Makes sense that Alaska has the accident record if has; tough weather and tough terrain, and bold pilots for sure.
    Classic case of get-home-itis.

  • Remember, Jeff, that when this flight began, the weather was very cold but severe clear. And in Alaska, that means you can see well more than 200 miles.

    I had owned a large hunting lodge within one-half mile of that canyon, and still own two guiding cabins there: one within one-half mile, and the other just a few hundred yards, of that canyon. I still own those two hungin cabins. We used that cable often, and I knew exactly where it was located. Fially, I knew that country at least as well as you know the backs of your own hands, having by then flown it for twenty-four years before that trip.

    Weather reports held that the snow would lessen, and finally go away completely, not far along from Glenallen. Should I have pressed on with the flight? Probably not. But until the ceiling came down just before I entered Devil Canyon. it had been just another wintertime bush flight for me.

    I don’t advocate that sort of flying, but all the bush pilots perform such flights. And, yes I was alone. I would have landed at Gulkana if I had been carrying passengers.

    Finally, this story wasn’t written to encourage other pilots to stretch their individual envelopes. It is just a report on one of my many bush flights.

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