I work for the National Park Service in my day job, and have been to Aniakchak every year for 14 years...until this year. It looked like I was going to be out of luck, as the season was pretty much over for fieldwork. So I started looking for weather and time to get myself down there in the milkstool...
Today was looking pretty good based on forecasts throughout the week, and the forecast seemed to hold as the day approached. Finally, last night I got myself organized, and had my son out helping me get ready for one of today's other commitments. The first of those is the delivery of a freight container. We have finally become full-blooded Alaskans, we bought a freight container to use for storage so we can clean up our garage and get the mess in the yard under control. Of course the guy wanted to deliver it on Aniakchak day.
"Oh, say about 1 pm."
Muttering to myself..."1 pm...that gives me like 4 hours from sunup...I can make that work...be a bit rushed if we don't get out promptly though..."
So last night my son and a pal of his were helping me get the supports leveled for the container. We had previously done it, but were checking after a few days and adding a little height to the supports to make sure we had good door clearance on the uphill side. Of course we were doing that in the dark because I was working until after dark yesterday...but we got it done. Then Cedric's pal left to go home. Usually, he has arranged some sleepover or other, but here it was, a weekend where my son had not gotten himself any plans!
"You want to fly to Aniakchak with me?"
"Sure, well, I guess, I mean I don't have anything else lined up, so yeah, I could do that..."
The immortal words of a 12-year-old explaining how thrilled they are to spend a morning with their dad. Oh well, whatever works.
This morning I got him up and off we went. Stopped for gas and snacks, he got to buy snacks while I got the gas, then off to the plane. Preflight, fueled up, got the all-important snacks in place, Cedric untied the plane, then put on his winter gear. He was cold, wanted to wear enough clothes to warm up. Finally, we bundled in and were taking off just a few minutes after sunup. The sun was low over the mountains with Big Creek in the foreground as we headed south.
Cedric started looking sleepy within five minutes of departure, so I asked him if he wanted to fly. He did, so for the next 20 minutes he kept us headed in a pretty straight course southward toward Aniakchak while I looked around and acted like I wasn't helping him. Love those rudder pedals.
Finally, he asked me to take the yoke again, and leaned his head on my shoulder and zonked. I was pretty sure he'd be asleep for most of the trip down, that is just the reality of his rhythm. But if we landed, that would wake him up, and I have a spot I've been wanting to land in the caldera, so we were headed there. As he slept, we passed Pilot Point out his window.
At that point, I started climbing. The caldera has two passes that go into it, one about 1,000 feet, the other about 2,000, but unless I wanted to fly around to enter one of those, I would need at least 3,000 feet to peek in. Although we were in clear sky, there were clouds shrouding part of the top of the caldera, so I didn't know exactly what we'd find when we got there. The mountain makes a pretty good helping of weird weather all its own. Sometimes it will be cloudy everywhere else but the caldera will be blue sky. Sometimes it will be blue sky everywhere and the caldera is like a snow cone spilling clouds over. What would we get today?
As we got near, I could see that we were going to have at least part of the caldera open, and it looked like under the clouds the Gates might be open as well. So we could fly in, descend and land, then take off and fly out the Gates. I was hoping to fly down the river, then back up to King Salmon by Mount Chiginigak. But around 20 miles out I was starting to doubt whether it was going to work quite like that. Starting around 30 miles out we were getting a little bit of burbly air. Finally, as we approached, it got just burbly enough that it was unsettling. But we were definitely going to be seeing in.
I woke up sleeping beauty and started telling him what we were seeing, starting with the cinder plains outside the caldera. Then we broke over the rim and saw Surprise Lake greeting us.
The upper end of Surprise Lake has some cinder cones around it, and Vent Mountain rises up right in the middle of the caldera floor, and is taller than the wall we flew in over, though not taller than the wall on the other side...
The east side of the caldera was pretty unappetizing air as we flew around to check things out. Looking down at the lake surface, I could tell that the wind was light on the caldera floor, but if we descended we were going to need to either climb back up corkscrewing to gain altitude, or fly out the Gates. The wind in the Gates is never calm, and flying over near the Gates told me I wasn't going to do that today. So we elected to save the landing for another day. Instead, we caught a massive updraft behind Vent Mountain and took another turn around the place. I snapped a photo of the western section, where the eruption pit from 1931 is in the distance, and half cone, an eruption from around 500 years ago, is visible closer in.
Since we had brought cokes, and since Cedric always does better if we stop and stretch, and we wanted to empty our bladders to make room for the coke, we agreed we'd find someplace to land on the way home. In the caldera, I've walked most of the floor, so I know exactly where I can operate. But outside the caldera, there are the established airstrips, and there are lots of cinder blows that have airplane activity on them.
A friend of mine that is familiar with the Pumice Creek cinder blow had told me that it was sufficiently firm for my little non-bush wheels, and it was the first option we were going to come to. So I flew over to it, found a stiff wind coming down off the mountains, flew a couple practice approaches, and then landed. The strip we used, of the options on the blow, was about 1000'. Landing in 1000' in a PA-22 is no big deal. Taking off in that span is no big deal now that the engine has been overhauled and the prop is new, but I wouldn't have done it two years ago. The cabin in the background is used by the Alaska State Troopers.
From there, it was a launch home and look for critters all the way. On the way out of King Salmon I had spotted a moose while Cedric was snoozing. So we were looking for a moose all the way back. But no luck on that. What we did see a few miles before we got to the Egegik River was a beautiful bull caribou.
A totally lovely flight. Had a great morning. Got back in time...but the guy canceled on us. So we could have played around a little more. Oh well. There will hopefully be more opportunities.