Baranof Blog & Fishing News

Forest Service Cabins part two

600-odd miles northwest of Ketchikan, Montague island rests at the northern reaches of the Gulf of Alaska.  The island is a long and comparatively thin stretch of land with low hills, several lakes, and the rocky shores and forests common in coastal Alaska.  At the end of the summer in 2002, my father and I found ourselves unplanned beneficiaries of the Forest Service as we made one of their cabins our home for three stormy days and nights.  Here’s the story, as best as I can remember it, with only as much exaggeration as I think I can get away with (you are reading this on a sportfishing-centric website…).

In 2001 I graduated high school, and after a summer of working for my father as he and his brother launched Baranof Fishing Excursions, I headed off to flight school.  I spent six months down in California over the next year with the family of my parents’ college friends (hands down the most wonderful group of people I know), after which I returned home.  With only about 250 flight hours in my logbook, and needing a minimum of 500 to be anything close to marketable to even the smallest of airlines, I took a job as a floor-sweeper, coffee maker and general nuisance at Promech’s maintenance facility.  Promech was, at the time, the largest air taxi in Ketchikan, owned by a man my father had been associates with since he was my age (17 – young, not the 35 graying years I have on me now…).  The idea was I would hop on any flight I could and build time during empty legs of the company’s commuter flights, then work my way into the right-seat (co-pilot) of one of Promech’s DeHavilland Twin-Otters.  The Twin-Otters were sold due to regulations that made their operation impractical following 9/11, restrictions since lifted, but the plan ultimately worked out as I was able to use the time I built and get a position in the Caribbean flying Twin-Otters on floats for Seaborne Airline.  (I’m getting to the point, I promise.).  During the tourist season, Promech would lease extra aircraft for Misty Fjords flightseeing tours.  At the end of the season, the planes were either stored for the winter at the maintenance facility or returned to the owners.  One such aircraft, an iconic DeHavilland Beaver, was leased from Ketchum Air out of Anchorage, Alaska.  At the end of the season, my father offered to fly the aircraft back to Anchorage for free, as long as I was allowed to accompany him.  Being an accomplished pilot and friends with the owner, Promech agreed readily.  In late September, our journey began.

If you ask my father why he’s been successful, one humble brag he’ll allow is that he’s always tried to identify what might go wrong and be prepared for it.  That sounds simple enough - many of us believe we have a back-up plan and don’t leave a lot to chance - but the quickest and easiest evidence I can provide of this is that he plans on two tires going flat at once during a road trip, not one.  So when I say that we loaded the plane with everything we’d need for the trip, I mean we loaded the plane with everything we needed for the trip in about 5 minutes – then we spent the next 25 minutes loading it with everything we might need, things it was unlikely we’d need and items and gear we’d only need if everything went to hell.  We used it all.

The plan was simple.  We’d leave Ketchikan, overnight in Juneau, swing by Cordova for fuel, then shoot across the northern tip of the Gulf of Alaska (just off the coast, we weren’t planning on being out of sight of land) on our way to Lake Hood in Anchorage.  From there we’d hop on an Alaska Airlines jet and be home the day after we left.  The flight to Juneau was unremarkable by Southeast standards, but the next day as we headed farther north I was treated to scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities I’d never experienced before.  Southeast isn’t known for sandy beaches, but for a seemingly endless stretch we were over boulder-free coastline as far as the eye could see.  The weather was incredible up to this point of our adventure, which allowed us to get low over the beach for some up-close encounters with brown bear, a group of about 8 million seals that all flopped off into the water when we surprised them, and not a single human for hundreds of miles.  We passed by Lituya Bay, famous for an enormous wave generated when half a mountain slide into the water and took several commercial fishing boats for a ride.  As we neared Cordova, however, the weather began to deteriorate.

There is a lake near/in Cordova, the name I don’t recall, that has a seaplane dock on the western edge.  My father and I landed there to stretch our legs and take a close look at the weather.  The forecast was calling for a storm that was already underway in the Gulf to make its way a bit north, so we (my father really, he’s forgotten more about Alaskan bush flying than I’ll ever learn) decided to stay the night and take a look at things the next day.  While dad was doing his thing and talking with a local pilot by the last name of Purvis, who ran a single-plane air service off that dock, he also got to chatting with another local pilot.  This fella was in his mid-thirties maybe, older than me by a bit at any rate, and he was about to head out to check a landing strip.  Bush flying in mainland Alaska is way different than in Southeast; they use balloon tires rather than floats to reach the remote locations.  I’d grown up on floats, and my father knew I’d never done any of that kind of flying.  He talked this dude into letting me hop in the backseat of his Piper Super Cub and go for a ride.  Something like 1 in 12 of Alaskan citizens are pilots, with a great many of them cut from the same cloth as the gentleman I found myself strapped in behind (we’ll call him Captain Ahab because I don’t remember his name and it will make sense in a minute).  Ahab and I taxied down the road (yes, the same road any car in town would use – welcome to Alaska) and took off in about 3 feet, as a light Super Cub doesn’t need much more room than a helicopter, and headed off… somewhere.  We buzzed our way out over the town and headed over the islands to a single one in particular that Ahab had been wanting to take a look at.  Again, I’d never done any of this kind of bush flying, so when he started circling I realized he was preparing to land and started looking for where I thought he’d touch down.  I honestly could not see a single stretch of ground I’d have been comfortable gliding into as a last resort had my engine quit.  Have you ever seen a trucker take a sharp turn, back into a loading dock or merge their way into a tight spot on the highway and marvel at how the vehicle seems to be an extension of their own body?  Ahab was one with his plane; chopping the power after clearing the last few treetops, he deftly kept the right wing up over one small spruce as he touched the left wheel down, followed by the right.  He paced the distance of our short landing area, made sure the ground was firm and level enough for take-off should the plane be heavier if he returned later and took a deer and, mission complete, we loaded back up for our return flight home.  We started up, taxied back to the tree line, dropped all the flaps, and blasted out of there.  He could tell by the smile on my face that I was having an awesome time, so we took a circuitous route home to do some beach combing; he said his wife collected the glass floats that Japanese fishermen used in their nets.  Flying low, we skimmed over the beaches in a roundabout route back towards Cordova.  With eyes peeled, I suddenly realized that Ahab had eaten something the night before that didn’t agree with him.  He realized the same thing about me, but rounding a point of the beach we were air-combing we saw that neither of us was stuck in a plane with someone suffering gastronomical distress – it was Moby Dick.  Not really - it was a humpback whale, not a sperm whale.  Washed ashore, deader than disco, and reeking to high heaven was a great big sea mammal working on its tan.  Ahab (see, makes sense – sort of), having already outgrown the boyish desire to poke dead animals with a stick, circled once but didn’t land.  We continued on a bit, touched down on the beach (again, landing on completely undeveloped land seemed amazing to me), checked a knot of debris for glass floats but came up empty, then headed back to Cordova.  I thanked Captain Ahab profusely for taking some punk kid flying with him and hurried out of the middle of the road so he could stop blocking traffic with his airplane.  Dad and I spent the night in town, having decided during my side-adventure that the forecast precluded us from continuing on that day.  The plan was we’d wake up early, head to Anchorage, and be home eating dinner in Ketchikan the next night.  Things don’t always go as planned, however, and dinner was rice and canned tuna in a Forest Service cabin on Montague.

Check back next week for the rest of the story and how a Forest Service cabin saves a misadventure from becoming a complete disaster.

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