It was Friday, March 13, 2009 and I was just starting to feel comfortable with the Iditarod Air Force, this being my first year as a volunteer pilot. I would be flying to Ophir today with Marty Carlson as my experienced partner. The chief pilot will usually assign an experienced pilot to fly alongside a newbie on his first trip into a checkpoint. I kind of understood that I would be flying into Ophir all day, so in the back of my mind I thought I could make two trips in the morning and then two in the afternoon, weather permitting. I think I remember we got a late start due to weather but were still able to get two trips in before a late lunch.
After a quick lunch at the Iditarod Trail Café/Bunkhouse, where we were all staying in McGrath, Alaska, I made a trip and then thought it possible to get one more in before fueling the airplane, which was scheduled for the group at 5:30 every evening. At that time the fuel attendant would come out and fuel all of the IAF airplanes before we parked them for the night. I had heard about weather coming in later that day, but it wasn’t supposed to arrive until much later in the evening.
I must have departed McGrath about 4:30pm or maybe a little earlier, towards the west and Ohpir. There’s a 1,400+ foot mountain ridge to climb over not far west of McGrath and then you can start descending into Ophir, about 35 miles from McGrath. As soon as I had flown over the ridge and started my descent, I heard chatter on the radio about snow to the west but I cautiously continued on for a few more minutes until I saw the snow: it was like a gigantic white wall, angling from me to the ground, from a westerly direction.
I immediately made a 180-degree turn back towards the ridgeline (that was now between McGrath and me) and said to nobody and to anyone that could be listening to the radio, “This N180KE, I’m returning to McGrath.” I heard only silence on the radio. The guys that I heard previously must have been beyond the ridgeline and out of radio contact.
I realized that I would have to climb back up to get above the mountain ridge to get to McGrath, so I began my climb and started looking for a low spot to cross the ridgeline, west to east. The only problem was there was no ridgeline, only more of the white wall all around me that became denser as I climbed. I continued the 180-degree turn and extended it to 360 degrees and at the same time dove the airplane to get out of the snow towards the direction of Ophir. Ophir is in a small, narrow valley and in a very mountainous area, not extremely high but since all the mountain and ridgeline tops were now totally obscured by heavy, thick snow, it didn’t matter how high they were. It was time to get down in a hurry because the ceiling was coming down almost as fast as my airplane.
I checked my GPS to make sure I was in the area of the pre-programmed route (thank you, Wes) and was headed in the right direction. It seemed that I was diving towards Ophir, which I could now see off in the distance, at about the same angle as the wall of snow before me. I could see that the snow curtain was to the ground just beyond Ophir and it angled up towards my altitude, which was about 400-500 feet. I flew abbreviated legs of downwind, then base and final to the strip and then was gratefully on the ground. I rolled out and taxied to the off-load area, stopped the airplane, hopped out, and stacked my load on the ground.
The local miner that goes by the moniker of “The Loafer from Ophir” arrived on a snow machine and together we loaded up the frozen dog food and supplies onto a snow machine trailer. He hauled them away towards his cabins, where he was storing the items as it was still a week before the start of the race in Anchorage.
I don’t remember if Marty was there already or if he arrived behind me, but I know Rich arrived after we did. We helped unload his airplane and the three of us stood there looking at each other in the developing blizzard, until finally Rich said, “I’m not spending the night here.” He jumped back into his airplane, fired it up and took off. He was out of our sight about 100 feet above the ground; we heard him turn around back towards us, flying the length of the runway very low, and then turned base and final and landed in the same direction that he had just taken off. It only took a couple of minutes for him to do the circuit and by the time he landed it was near zero-zero. The ceiling was at about the top of your head and visibility very limited by heavily falling snow and a strong wind. The temperature must have been single digits at that time and night was quickly approaching.
After we all put our engine covers on, the “Loafer” suggested we hop on the snow-machine trailer and he would transport us to his cabin. We grabbed what survival gear we thought we would need and then gladly took him up on his invitation and rode on the trailer in what was now a full blown blizzard with a very strong wind blowing the snow and a very, very, cold wind chill.
In the safety of the cabin, the three of us discussed our predicament and thought that we should try to get the word out to the outside world that we were ok, had not crashed, and were healthy.
Ophir is like a lot of places in Alaska, only worse: there is no electrical power, no running water, no toilet to flush, no gas heating, and no phone service of any kind. In fact, there is nothing in Ophir other than what the “Loafer” had on hand, or what we took in with us in our airplanes. Ophir is not even a town, just a few mining cabins. The only way we could get the word out was to try to reach someone with one of the airplane radios. Rich stated that his radio had gone intermittently on the blink earlier in the day and Marty said that his radio worked but had been very weak lately. So they suggested that we all go back out to the strip on the snow machine, in the darkness, in a raging blizzard, and call on my radio to try to reach anybody on my line of sight VHF radio, while surrounded by tall mountains.
I wasn’t too wild about going back out into the night in that storm to drain my battery and told them so. Rich was adamant that we had to try to get the word out and so I half-heartedly agreed to give it a try. We all bundled up, found the snow machine in the dark and made our way back to the airstrip where the airplanes were parked. I opened the door of my Cessna 180, turned on my radio and realized that I had taken my headset in with my sleeping bag and other stuff, so, back on the snow machine trailer to the cabin, in the dark to get my headset. If there was any skin on your body that was uncovered, it didn’t take you long to protect it from the wind.
After warming up by the wood stove for a few minutes, I asked Rich if he really thought it would be worth freezing our butts off again by going out and trying to get my radio to work. Again, he said that we had to make the effort to contact someone and let them know we were safe. Being a rookie at this Iditarod flying, I figured it wasn’t in my best interest to argue with someone with a lot more experience about making the radio call; anyway, it made good sense. So back out into the dark night in the raging blizzard we went, to try draining my airplane battery some more. Back out for a leisure-filled, moonlight snow-machine trailer ride, not!
This time I plugged the headset in and started calling the frequencies that I had memorized, the IAF frequency that we all monitor when we fly for the race, and I also tried the generics (122.9/122.8). I tried the McGrath CTAF and when I failed to hear any response, I dug out the Alaska Supplement and looked up the Anchorage ATC frequencies, thinking that I might be able to talk to an airliner flying between Western Alaska or Asia and Anchorage. I tried all the ATC frequencies and any others that I thought someone might be listening to, but again, nothing but silence.
By this time we were getting pretty cold and discouraged about this radio effort stuff but I thought I would try one more thing—the emergency aviation frequency of 121.5. I called for anyone listening that this was “November one eight zero Kilo Echo calling on one-two-one-point-five.” Immediately and almost blowing the headset off my head, someone came on the radio and said, “N180KE, this is Top Rocks, Go Ahead.” The guy sounded like he was sitting in the cockpit, right next to me, very clear and loud.
As surprised as I was, I don’t know what I must have sounded like on the radio but I asked him who “Top Rocks” was and his location. He told me that he was from the Elmendorf Air Force Base, National Defense System, and how could he help me. I explained our predicament to him and asked him to call the bunkhouse in McGrath and to give the Iditarod Air Force Chief Pilot, John Norris, the message that the three of us and our airplanes were OK and had no problems other than the weather. He replied by taking down the phone number and our names and said he would do exactly as I asked. (Contact was, in fact, made by the military with Iditarod officials at the McGrath Bunkhouse. We learned later that there had been a high level of concern for three missing pilots).
That was a big relief and in afterthought, I’m very glad that Rich was emphatic that we should try to contact someone on the radio. So back onto that lovely snow-machine trailer for the scenic ride back to the “Loafer’s” cabin. Mission accomplished!
At last we headed to the cabin for good and for some much needed warmth by the roaring wood stove that the Loafer had in the middle of his bedroom. The Loafer’s cabin looked to me as if it had evolved from one room to two until it gave birth to a third room. The cabin consists of the kitchen, which is probably the original cabin that has an added bedroom on the north side and a library, yes, a library as the south addition.
The loafer has a library of nutrition books, whose size would match most families’ collection of books. I was very surprised that someone of his intellect would choose the lifestyle he lives, at least for part of the year. He and Marty got into a deep discussion about metabolism at the cellular level. When I realized they weren’t talking about phones, I shrunk back into the shadows of the cabin. There was nothing about nutrition that he couldn’t answer; I’m still amazed by that man’s knowledge, a very interesting, well-educated and intelligent, person.
When the Loafer started to fix supper, the three of us expected that he would offer to feed us but, he never mentioned it, maybe he thought we had our own food, I never asked and never figured it out. Rich, Marty and I dug into our survival food and had a small, meager meal, but at least we did have hot water for hot chocolate or coffee.
The Loafer, whose real name is Roger Roberts and lives in Ophir part of the year, mines gold on the property where his claim, cabins, and a large storage/workshop are located. Apparently, he was in Vietnam, as he had an American flag mounted on the wall of his kitchen with a hand written memorial dedicated to soldiers in a specific location and organization, which I can’t recall, in that country.
Flying into an unknown storm and getting stuck in Ophir was not as much of a rude slap in the face as it was a super adventure. Flying with the Iditarod Air Force is a great adventure in itself. It was like flying into a different time zone or a space/time fluke where the only world that existed was right here in that cabin in Ophir, Alaska. Jack London mentions Ophir and the Innoko Gold Country in one of his books (The Innoko River runs by it). It was as if we were trapped in a dome of our own time, maybe Jack London’s time. Only the four of us existed in this world; if you looked out the window, there was only a hostile, unlivable, white world out there where we didn’t belong. We only belonged and could survive inside this cabin/time dome where we were encased. Back at McGrath we could have had lots of warmth and comfort, great food, great company, and companionship at the Bunkhouse. Here we also had good friends and a warm place to stay until the storm blew itself out, but I felt imprisoned. Fortunately, we weren’t made permanent inmates of the Ophir Time Dome.
Rich, Marty and I slept on the floor of the library in our sleeping bags. As I remember, there was a small wood heater in one of the corners that we fired up before we went to bed. Whoever happened to get up during the night, stoked the fire to keep it going. We spent the night nice and cozy in our bags with a major storm blowing just outside.
I had previously read about this cabin being haunted and that spooky things that go bump in the night, awakening people spending the night here. I kept a sharp eye out when I had to get up a couple of times during the night to visit the blizzard but have to admit that I didn’t see a single spirit or ghost. Other events have described ghostly lights and beings floating down the road in the dark of night. I was glad that when nature called in the wee hours and I had to go stand on the porch, the visibility was nil and it was probably too stormy for ghosts to be out anyway.
We woke up the next morning about 7am and the storm had abated somewhat, but it was still dark and would be for another couple of hours. The Loafer fixed the four of us, probably, the single best breakfast that I have ever tasted. It consisted of delicious, sliced bacon, perfectly fried potatoes, angelic fried eggs and steaming, hot coffee. It all tasted heavenly that morning.
About the time we finished breakfast, washing the dishes and packing up, beautiful dawn arrived without a single cloud in the bright, blue sky, not a breath of wind. It was gorgeous but cold enough to freeze the fingers off a brass monkey.
When we couldn’t put it off any longer, we stepped out into the beautiful but cold day and hopped onto the snow machine trailer for the short ride out to the airstrip to try to start our airplanes. There were no warm, pre-heated engines today due to the non-existence of a working generator to power our oil pan heaters. I know that my airplane is a hard starter in cold weather so I rigged up my MSR stove with a piece of stovepipe (both from my survival gear) through the cowl flap to preheat my engine, even though it might be a practice of futility as the temp was minus ten degrees that morning. In Alaska winter flying, we always carry an insulated engine cover that helps with the pre-heating.
Rich and Marty, knowing their fuel injected Cessna 185 starting characteristics, decided that they would remove the engine covers, start and run the engines for about 10 minutes, then shut them down and put the cover back on—the theory being that the heat that had been generated by the running engine would then be distributed and absorbed by all of the engine compartment, confined by the insulated engine cover. Both theories worked, theirs and mine, because within about 45 minutes we were all fired up and blasted off for beautiful downtown McGrath.
What an adventure! I wouldn’t say it was a life-changing event, but it definitely was a unique experience that one could never duplicate by paying a guide for an adventurous trip. I learned a lot. I had never experienced weather changing that radically in such a short time, minutes. It went from mellow, partly sunny weather in McGrath, to a savage, violent, life-threatening monster in just a few miles and over the hill.
“Top Rock, or Top Rocks,” who I spoke with on the radio, was probably a remoted radio at Tatalina LRRS, a USAF radar site, about 20 miles southwest of McGrath and about the same distance southeast of Ophir. These sites are located throughout the state of Alaska and apparently they continuously monitor the emergency frequency, 121.5. Probably the single most important thing to learn from this experience is that should you ever have an emergency in the wilds of Alaska, one of these USAF radar sites may be within the range of your radio.