Bleak. Barren. Forbidding. Lonesome. Awesome. Beautiful. Cosmopolitan. No, this isn’t one of those “pick the word that doesn’t fit” quizzes. These words all describe a three-day flight across Alaska, from Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow) to Anchorage.
After flying from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Utqiagvik, Alaska, the northernmost landing strip in North America, I was about to start my return journey. This article describes the first three days of that return trip, from Utqiagvik to Kotzebue, Wales, Nome, and Anchorage.
I was flying my 1977 Piper Arrow, which proved to be excellent for this cross-continent journey. It is a reasonably fast, fuel efficient, and a solid IFR platform when needed. I must admit that it certainly looked out of place in the Alaskan bush country, parked alongside tundra-tired, high-wing bush planes, but it served me well. Fortunately, although when I learned to fly in Alaska in the 1970s most strips were gravel, many of the strips in the state are now hard-surfaced, so my small-wheel, retractable, low-wing airplane worked out fine.
After an excellent briefing at the on-field flight service station at Utqiagvik, I planned to fly southwest along the coastline of the Arctic Ocean to Kotzebue. This is a very remote area—there are only a couple of small villages along the coast, and virtually no air traffic. As the weather was moving in from the west (a very common occurrence), I elected to file VFR as far as Point Lay—about 150 nautical miles—and then IFR for the remaining 175 miles of the trip, from Point Lay to Kotzebue. Fortunately, Flight Service (Barrow Radio) has repeaters in both Wainwright and Point Lay villages, so it is possible to keep in at-least intermittent radio communications along the route. A close look at the sectional revealed that the ADIZ in this area is in some places actually inshore from the coastline, so I filed a DVFR flight plan for the first segment. I didn’t want to trigger an F-22 response from Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage for violating the ADIZ!
After overnighting in Kotzebue, I planned to fly out to Wales, on the very tip of the Seward Peninsula, which is the westernmost airstrip on the continent, before concluding my second day in Nome, home of the 1899 Nome gold rush, and current terminus of the Iditarod dog sled race. After another overnight, it was across the Alaska Range and into Merrill Field in Anchorage—back to big city lights!
The low-level flight along the coast from Utqiagvik revealed some of the most barren, starkest terrain imaginable. Miles and miles of tundra, ponds, and swamp begin along the beach, and continue inland all the way to the Brooks Range, more than one hundred miles to the south. The topography is profoundly flat, and there is virtually no vegetation other than tundra and a few small bushes. The area is all covered in permafrost—from a few inches below the surface, the ground never thaws. The climate is extremely cold—the average June daily high temperature is 36 degrees Fahrenheit, almost always cloudy, and often foggy. Many of the ponds were still frozen when I flew over on June 28.
Every 75 to 100 miles along the coast is a small, unimaginably isolated village, comprised of a scattering of small houses, one or two community buildings, a small tank farm, and a gravel airstrip. For example, Wainwright is the largest of these villages, and has a population of 550. The primary contact with the outside world is a once-a-year barge dropping off bulk cargo and fuel (during the few summer months when the ocean isn’t frozen). Other than that, there’s an occasional small airplane landing on the gravel airstrip. Wainwright’s nearest neighbor is Point Lay, which has a population of fewer than 200. The feeling of isolation is profound!
As I neared Point Lay, the ceiling lowered dramatically, and the rain changed from a light drizzle to increasingly heavy showers. It was time to cancel my DVFR flight plan with Barrow Radio, and contact Anchorage Center to activate my IFR flight plan for the remainder of the leg – 175 miles direct to Kotzebue. Fortunately, the ceiling was quite high around Kotzebue, and I broke into the clear prior to the final approach fix on the GPS 9 coming into Kotzebue.
Kotzebue is one of the largest towns in northern Alaska, with a population of about 3300, and is the seat of the Northwest Arctic Borough. It is a transportation and economic hub of the area. It can be reached by air year-round, and freight is brought in by barge during the summer months. It supports a fleet of fishing boats, and is situated just north of the Arctic Circle. The streets are all gravel, but the Ralph Wien Memorial Airport (named in honor of one of Alaska’s aviation pioneers) offers a 6300 ft. paved strip, and both RNAV and ILS instrument approaches. I was fortunate to stay at the Nullaġvik Hotel, which offers well-appointed rooms and an excellent in-hotel restaurant.
The next morning brought a clear sky and calm winds, and I was anxious to take the next leg in the journey, along the length of the Seward Peninsula to its tip, at Cape Prince of Wales, named by Captain James Cook on his voyage of discovery to Alaskan waters in August, 1778. Near the cape is the village of Wales, which boasts the westernmost airstrip on the North American continent. Note: There are airstrips on islands located farther west (on St. Lawrence Island, and several of the Aleutian Islands), but Wales is the farthest west on mainland North America.
The Seward Peninsula (not to be confused with the town of Seward, which is actually located on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage) is oriented east-west, and nearly touches Russia. The Bering Strait, which separates North America and Asia, is only 43 nautical miles across. From the tip of the Seward Peninsula, mountains in Russian Kamchatka can be seen on (the very rare) clear days.
The Peninsula is unusual in that tree line is below sea level. As a result, there are virtually no trees, and the area is often referred to as the Barren Lands. Tundra, low bushes, and bare rock comprise the dominant ground cover. Still, there is a stark beauty and near absolute quiet in the subtle topography of this basically uninhabited area.
The weather, as it frequently does in this area, was beginning to close down as I approached the tip of the peninsula at Cape Prince of Wales. I was very fortunate to get there on a “clear-enough” day. Wales boasts a 2600-foot gravel strip, which was in surprisingly good condition. I only stopped long enough to take a picture of the airplane on the strip, and have a quick chat with two village occupants who jumped on a four-wheeler and motored the half mile over to the strip to see who this crazy guy was who was out sightseeing. They were particularly interested to know if I’d spotted their reindeer herd grazing when I came in.
After taking off again, I was able to round Cape Prince of Wales (getting all the way west 168o05.70W), and follow the coast all the way into Nome. This is a rarely seen stretch of oceanfront, and is a forbidding coastline. It is only ice-free for a few months each year.
Nome exploded into existence as the location of the 1899 Gold Rush. I can recommend the John Wayne films The Spoilers and North to Alaska, which are both largely set in Nome, or at least give two Hollywood directors’ ideas of what they thought Nome was like (spoiler alert: don’t believe all the mountainside forests, which were shot in California!). In any case, in a single year, Nome grew from zero to a population of 10,000, and was the largest city in Alaska at the time. Over 3.6 million ounces of gold (roughly 125 tons, current value $6.5 billion!) were recovered, almost all of it from the beach sands along the shoreline!
Today, Nome is one of the few ports available on the west coast of Alaska, although it is restricted to shallow-draft vessels and barges, and only open part of the year due to ice. Nonetheless, it is a commercial hub for much of western Alaska. It boasts paved streets and an airport with two 6000 ft paved runways.
Gold mining has had a major role Nome’s economy, up to the present. The gold is found in beach sand/gravel deposits, both along the current beach and also ancient beaches located inland from the shoreline and offshore. Large dredges have been active until quite recently on the inland deposits, and offshore dredging continues today. An interesting note is that the inland dredging required melting the gravel by piping steam into pilings (know as “steam points”) driven into the ground ahead of the dredges.
In January 1925, Nome was hit with a diphtheria epidemic, and the antitoxin stocks in the local hospital had expired. More had been ordered, but did not make it to Nome before the port was closed for the winter by ice. A reasonable prognosis was that, if unchecked, the region’s population of about 10,000 people could expect nearly 100 percent mortality.
In an amazing feat, twenty dog mushers and 150 sled dogs staged a relay from Nenana (the closest point on the Alaska Railroad, about 40 miles southwest of Fairbanks) to Nome. Although this 674 mile trip normally took about a month by dogsled, a run carrying the serum was made in only 5 1/2 days, saving the population of Nome and surrounding communities. This “Great Race of Mercy” is commemorated every year by the Iditarod Dog Sled Race, which now is run from Anchorage to Nome. The finish line arch is kept along the side of Front Street during the summer, and dragged into place as the mushers are approaching for the finish.
When it was time for a pre-flight briefing for my final leg into Anchorage, I was able to meet with the briefers in the on-site flight service station located at the airport. Besides normal weather items, I was also briefed to watch out for a local herd of musk oxen, which frequently wander onto the runways. They are so large and stubborn that the only way they’ve found to move them off is to call out a fire truck and turn the hoses onto them!
Large wildfires in southern Alaska, particularly in the Kenai Peninsula, became an important factor in completing my trip to Anchorage. Fires like this are common in Alaska, but they were exceptionally extensive in 2019, and had an impact on my trip. On the trip from Nome to Anchorage, I was hoping to stop to stretch my legs in McGrath (PAMC), which is roughly the halfway point on this 470 nm flight. Unfortunately, even though both GPS and LOC/DME approaches are available for McGrath, visibility was below minimums because of the smoke, so I elected to make the 4+ hour flight straight through.
I filed IFR out of Nome, because, although the early portions of the flight would be in relatively clear conditions, the last half would be above and through the smoke. Sure enough, as I was about a third of the way along, I passed over a well-delineated edge of the smoke, which lasted all the rest of the way to Anchorage.
As I approached the Alaska Range, I had to climb to 11,000 to clear the very rough topography, which also gave me a long-range view of Mt. Denali (20,310 feet) in the very smoky distance.
The basin that contains Cook Inlet and Anchorage was particularly smoky, giving me a surrealistic-seeming view of the tops of the Chugach Range looking like islands in a sea of smoke.
Merrill Field and the city of Anchorage have lots of small airplane traffic, trans-Pacific jets, approach control, control towers, and a city with tall buildings and lots of people. It was a culture shock, sort of like arriving on a different planet. Anchorage and its surrounding communities have a population of nearly 400,000 people, roughly half of the entire state. It is geared to many industries, not least of which is a thriving tourism trade, with luxury hotels, fine restaurants, fishing, hunting, and eco-tourism. It is an interesting blend of modern and frontier.
This trip had come to an end—a journey of 1200 nautical miles, and 9 1/2 hours of flight time. I had seen some of the loneliest and most remote places on the face of the earth, spent a few hours in the clouds and in the smoke, taken off from the northernmost airport and landed on the westernmost airports in North America, passed the continent’s highest mountain peak, and landed in a modern city. Alaska is well known as a land of superlatives and contrasts—this trip compressed that concept into an amazing three days.