Chad Agy, Fishwest Ambassador and his friend Brian set off on a remote float trip adventure last August. One that not only made memories for a lifetime, but one that left them with a startling experience. Enjoy continuing to read their experience in, The Alaska Chronicles – Don’t Mess With a Bush Plane Pilot
Tom the Pilot
Don’t mess with a bush plane pilot. Not that I’ve ever tried. But this is a fact of life that has become abundantly clear to me during my fly fishing adventures. Often ex-military, and frequently eccentric in personality, it takes an unusual person to fly a metal box around the skies of the world’s remote landscapes as a profession. For city slickers like myself, the time I’ve spent in legendary planes like de Havilland Beavers and Cessnas always provides notable memories. These machines allow entry through the portal that provides access to an entirely different world. These flights certainly beat the middle seat on a longhaul Delta flight.
Tom met us on the tarmac of Merrill Field in downtown Anchorage. Wearing some old crocs and sporting a slightly disheveled mop of hair, Tom looked like he might have been coming off a late night. As he helped us load our baggage on to the plane, my concern piqued just a bit when I realized that he was actually our pilot en route to one of the main hubs in Bristol Bay, Iliamna. As we taxied across the airfield, and started to accelerate down the runway, Tom used the sleeve of his flannel shirt to wipe away the condensation on the windshield and maintain some sort of visual window. The plane lifted off the ground, and everyone in my group simultaneously wondered if we would live to see Iliamna.
Tom turned out to be a rock solid pilot, and the flight was spectacular. As we approached the Alaska Peninsula, towering snow-capped volcanos came in to view and a v-shaped slit made by Lake Clark Pass invited us through the mountain range. The plane shuddered repeatedly as winds swept down the hanging glaciers that towered above us. But we were so much in awe of the incredible surrounding landscape that any lingering trepidation about the flight had dissipated. As the plane’s fuel gauge hovered around the empty mark, I thought about questioning our fuel status, but thought better of it, figuring Tom knew what he was doing. And if he didn’t… well our fate was sealed anyway. Fortunately, our runway came in to sight, and Tom landed the plane without so much as a single bounce. We all marveled at what we had just experienced. People would pay good money for a flightseeing tour like had just witnessed, but that was only part of our transportation to our final destination.
The Unnamed, Unpleased Pilot
On the other end of the trip, we waited with anticipation for our Beaver to arrive and take us back to civilization. Leaving the Alaskan paradise was bittersweet, but we were all ready for a shower, a big burger, and a cold IPA. Freeze dried backcountry food has come a long way, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of another Mountain House breakfast skillet. Ten minutes before our scheduled meet time, a distant engine broke the stillness of the peaceful Alaskan morning, and our pilot passed overhead in greeting. The float plane landed on the river in front of us, and taxied over to our campsite.
The pilot emerged from the cockpit. An older, grizzled-looking veteran, we could immediately tell that he was not pleased about something. He did not offer his name or any sort of greeting, but immediately launched in to expletive-ridden tirade. “You guys are supposed to be on the next island down! Why are the rafts not put away? I’m on a strict schedule here, start loading now!” Although we were at the exact GPS coordinates as instructed prior to the trip, and we had been told to keep the rafts up in case we needed to move gear to deeper water where plane might have to park, none of us questioned the pilot’s exclamations. As the pilot barked orders at us, we frantically ran around the beach and loaded our gear. Although we were not harassed by mortars or gunfire, we fleetingly got a taste of life as a British infantryman on the beaches of Dunkirk.
The pilot promptly decided that he would scrap his original plans to take all our gear on the first trip, but would rather take three of the five members of our party, leaving two of us behind to finish cleaning up camp and deconstructing the rafts. Wes and I stayed behind with the majority of gear and rafts. The pilot got back in to his cockpit as the plane warmed up. Menacingly, he shouted, “I’ll be back in exactly one hour. And you guys BETTER be ready this time.” Wes and I got to work.
Things went smoothly at first. Wes and I got the first raft deflated and put away. We cleaned up the rest of the gear and had it comfortably stowed in bags and coolers. We started to put the second raft away, and something seemed off. The frame came apart easily enough, but the inflatable part of the raft seemed HEAVY. We used a battery-powered pump to remove the air and attempted to roll it up, but the bulk was unmanageable, and as it was the raft clearly would not fit in the plane. We investigated the mess in front of us, and noticed the unmistakable slosh of water in the inner tubes… one of the valves had been leaking during our trip, therefore allowing water to permeate the inside of the raft’s inner tubes.
We spent the next 30 minutes desperately using the hand pump to painfully remove water entrapped within the inner tube. Drenched in sweat, we finally got enough out to roll the raft up in to a shape that would fit in the plane. The pilot returned right on time, and just moments after we finished packing. The look on the pilot’s face suggested surprise that Wes and I had actually prepared everything in time for our departure. I cynically suspected he was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to leave us on the beach as bear bait after all. I slipped the pilot a 50 dollar bill and apologies for unintentionally complicating his plans, and his demeanor softened noticeably. As we flew back over the depths of the great Lake Iliamna, the pilot was alert and professional. I can say I’ve never felt safer in any aircraft. This guy was a pro, and his laconic and gruff personality was likely the reason he had survived decades as a bush pilot unscathed. As the float plane’s pontoons gently set down on the home lake back in the town of Iliamna, my mind I was already forming plans for my next bush plane ride through the wilds of Alaska.
I could fill pages with stories about my rides in bush planes and experiences with pilots. Whether good and not so good, these rides are always memorable. Bush planes are an inseparable part of the Alaskan experience, and will likely be a highlight of any angler’s trip to remote Alaska. Just don’t mess with a bush pilot, whether you mean to or not.