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Alaska guide pilots brave low altitude and poor vis in the pursuit of the big catch

The rumble of three de Havilland Beaver floatplanes idling at the dock interrupts the morning calls of loons, ravens, and eagles. It’s dawn on the Kvichak River, and these airplanes are about to transport their passengers to the trout-, salmon-, and grayling-filled rivers and streams that make this portion of the Arctic a fly-fishing nirvana.

Adventures Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge

  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    "Tango",€ a golden retriever, greets returning fishermen dockside at Alaska Rainbow Lodge.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Salmon fillets in the process of being smoked at the lodge.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Battle Lake stands out for its crystal clear water.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    De Havilland Beavers built in Canada in the 1950s are ideal for hauling heavy loads off short stretches of water. Their 450-horsepower radial engines have a distinctive growl.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Guests at high-end facilities like Alaska Rainbow Lodge are treated to gourmet meals.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    A Chinook salmon from the Alagnak river near Bristol Bay in Southwest Alaska.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    These garden planters are repurposed john boats.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Brian Souther, a fishing guide, prepares a "€shore lunch"€ of sockeye salmon.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    The ingredients of a shore lunch on a Coleman stove.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    All the guides are expert fly fishermen.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Load limits are stamped on a De Havilland Beaver's floats.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Alaska Rainbow Lodge flies the state flag for its guests, and they are stored in these milk crates when not in use.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    A chef prepares dinner at Alaska Rainbow Lodge.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Fishing guide Jose Marti lives an endless summer by splitting each year between Alaska and Chile.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    A Beaver on a lake in Katmai National Park.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    The rumbling sound of a radial engine lulls Wyatt to sleep in his mother Amanda's arms.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    At Katmai National Park.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Alaska brown bears fishing for salmon.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    Floatplanes have nearly limitless takeoff and landing options in the lakes and rivers of Alaska.
  • Adventures  Around Alaska Rainbow Lodge
    A summer "night" in Alaska is a long period of twilight in which the sun never fully disappears below the horizon.

Pilots gain real-world experience in a place where the weather can quickly turn violent, tides can rise or fall up to 20 feet in six hours, submerged logs or high waves can damage or destroy floats, and relatively warm and humid Pacific air blows to the icy Bering Sea with tremendous force.For the bush pilots who fly these workhorse aircraft, however, this epically beautiful and geologically dramatic stretch of southwestern Alaska is much more than a recreational area. It’s a vast, harsh, and extraordinarily demanding skyscape that rewards aeronautical skills rarely practiced in other regions: terrestrial navigation, contour flying, and self-reliance.

“The things pilots learn flying in other places aren’t necessarily transferable here,” said Chip Ferguson, a native Texan who worked as an Alaska camp hand and fishing guide before becoming a bush pilot and later buying the Alaska Rainbow Lodge with wife Amanda in 2014. “Our pilots typically fly to about 30 different fishing locations, and each one has its own hazards. Winds, tides, currents are constantly changing along with our loads. No two flights are ever the same.”

The expertise required of Alaska bush pilots has become so difficult to find that Rainbow and other high-end lodges have begun grooming their own pilots—many from the ranks of fishing and hunting guides. Ken Strickler, chief pilot at Rainbow Lodge for 14 seasons, said it’s become nearly impossible for new pilots to meet insurance requirements that include 1,000 hours flying time in Alaska, 500 hours on floats, and 250 in de Havilland Beavers, as well as instrument ratings and commercial certificates.

“Renting a float Beaver for training is prohibitively expensive,” said Strickler, a U.S. Army veteran who learned to fly at a military aero club and gained hundreds of hours of Beaver experience in the Civil Air Patrol. “We’re grooming our own pilots because we find it’s the best way to ensure they have what it takes to be successful in this environment. They have to be self-starters. They need to be independent. And they need to be willing to stand up for themselves and do what’s safe, even when that’s inconvenient or unpopular.”

Three of the Beaver pilots at Rainbow Lodge were fishing guides first, and two of them, Adam Grenda and Brett Nicholson, obtained their pilot certificates for the purpose of flying here. Grenda, a CFI, frequently flies with Nicholson to help the younger guide/pilot gain real-world experience in a place where the weather can quickly turn violent, tides can rise or fall up to 20 feet in six hours, submerged logs or high waves can damage or destroy floats, and relatively warm and humid Pacific air blows to the icy Bering Sea with tremendous force.

Alaska lodge pilots fly under the relatively permissive Part 91 regulations, not the more stringent Part 135 rules, and Strickler said that’s how it should be. “What we do is nonstandard, and no operations manual could possibly cover every scenario we encounter,” he said. “The things we do are different. We’ve got some tremendous tools with GPS, real-time weather, and satellite messengers that make our jobs easier. But our pilots make decisions every day based on their own judgment and experience—and they wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Flying and fishing

The King Salmon took off like a torpedo, its round back out of the water. Grenda gunned the 30-horsepower motor pointing the 18-foot johnboat toward the middle of a narrow branch of the Alagnak River.

“Turn him away from those snags,” Grenda told his fisherman client. “He’s trying to shave you off.”

The 40-pound-test line held and redirected the salmon to deeper water. It alternately swam at the small boat, then away from it. It breached the surface, then dove for the bottom. After about five minutes, the fisherman pulled it close to the boat. Instead of netting the fish, however, Grenda examined it closely.

“It’s a buck and it’s still got sea lice on the ventral fin,” he said. “It probably came into the river on this morning’s [high] tide.”

Grenda, 26, has been an Alaska fishing guide for nine years and a bush pilot here for three. Combining his passions allows the Idaho native to thrive during the four-month Alaskan salmon and trout fishing season.

“It’s hard to decide whether I like flying or fishing more,” said the burly, bearded Grenda, who was married a year ago and is looking for a flying career with full-time benefits. “The beauty of this job is that I get to do both.”

Most lodge pilots must choose between flying and guiding—but a few do both. Flying typically pays more, between $7,000 and $12,000 a month during a four-month season, compared to roughly $8,000 a month for guides. Flying also is less physically taxing.

Guides are in constant motion, lifting, rowing, wading, boating, netting, filleting, and performing myriad other tasks for their clients. Pilots typically fly from the lodge to a fishing spot, and then sit for much of the day. They seldom return to the lodge until it’s time to bring passengers back in the late afternoon or evening.

Lodge owner Ferguson said pilots stay with their airplanes at remote locations to protect them from the elements. Alaska pilots tell horror stories about floatplanes becoming stranded by tides, dragging anchors, and breaking free from moorings or being blown off beaches.

“Big winds and adverse weather can come up fast, and we have to be ready to move our guests and the airplanes to safety,” he said. “Too much can go wrong when an airplane is unattended.”

Grenda’s closest call took place when his Beaver was blown off a beach by a 40-knot gust and started drifting away. The pilot charged into the water and swam after it, became hypothermic, and nearly drowned.

“I knew better than to swim after it,” he said. “But when you see a half-million-dollar airplane being carried away, you want to do something.”

Lodge pilots also become experts at flying heavy loads (each Beaver has seven seats and they’re frequently all occupied) and external loads. Boats, outboard motors, and all-terrain vehicles are lashed to floats at the beginning of each fishing season and transported to remote camps, then return to the lodge in the fall. Beavers are so draggy that the pilots say they can tell little difference when they fly with external loads, as long as they’re properly placed near the airplane’s center of gravity. Also, boats should be loaded with the boxy stern facing forward.

“Loading them bow first tends to blank the airflow over the tail,” Ferguson said. “A lot of tribal knowledge about this kind of flying is passed down over the years. I can only imagine how they discovered that boats have to be loaded stern first.”

Not-so-special VFR

Virtually all the airspace in the region is Class G, meaning that pilots can fly VFR in visibility as low as one mile and clear of clouds. Over the sprawling tundra, pilots tend to hug rivers and streams they know are clear of obstacles and follow the lowest elevations. In the mountains they fly through passes, not over the high peaks.

All three of the Rainbow Lodge Beavers are fitted with portable Garmin 796 GPS units, but pilots seldom track the magenta direct-to line. Each GPS also contains a trove of secret user waypoints that identify off-grid fishing spots with names such as Location X, Christmas Lake, and Hope’s Run.

All Rainbow Lodge pilots are instrument rated, but they almost never fly on the gauges. “Rule number one is don’t lose sight of the ground,” Ferguson said. “We’ll only climb above a cloud layer if we know we can descend in visual conditions.”

Some of the techniques pilots have developed for flying in an area defined by persistent low clouds and rain are a bit counterintuitive. For example, if the ceiling is 300 feet, visibility is often better closer to the ground.

“It’s better to be right down on the deck where you can see the horizon than dragging along the raggedy bottoms of the clouds,” Grenda said. “I’d rather be low and have good forward visibility than slightly higher and not be able to see. Also, if things get really bad, I know I can find a lake or a river to land in and just wait things out.”

On a fall ferry trip to Kodiak Island with a coworker, he did just that—for four days.

“I called on the sat phone to let people know where we were,” he said. “I had plenty of food so that wasn’t a concern. When the weather finally cleared, I got back on my way.”

Every week the Beavers make the 25-minute trek to the towered airfield at King Salmon to pick up and drop off clients arriving by airline. And while special VFR arrivals and departures are rare at most control towers, in King Salmon they’re the norm.

“This place is the orthodox church of special VFR,” Ferguson said. “It’s standard procedure for us.”

Pursuing the big catch

  • Pursuing the big catch
    Photography by Chris Rose
  • Pursuing the big catch
    A King Salmon is filleted at the lodge.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Guide Brian Souther prepares to release a rainbow trout caught by Richard Bullard.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    A guide traverses the wire between the floats while crossing from one side of a Beaver to the other—a tricky task performed over icy, swift-moving water.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Guests Richard and Courtney Bullard cast for salmon.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Chief Pilot Ken Strickler uses a satellite messenger to keep tabs on far-flung pilots.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Lodge guests aren’t the only ones fishing for salmon.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Brett Nicholson is one of Alaska’s youngest flying guides.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Tying trout flies in his room, guide Jose Marti prepares for the next day’s fishing.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Flying over the translucent water of Battle Lake in Southwest Alaska in a float Beaver. The brawny airplanes are surprisingly agile in the air, and the control harmony is pitch perfect.
  • Pursuing the big catch
    Chip Ferguson was a camp hand...
  • Pursuing the big catch
    ...and pilot before buying Alaska Rainbow Lodge.

Beavers come and go at a seaplane base less than a mile from the airport, and they coordinate their arrivals and departures with tower controllers even when low clouds prevent them from being seen. When the airport is fogged in, Beavers have been known to make water landings outside the control zone and water taxi the rest of the way. Once outside King Salmon’s five-mile control zone, the Beavers revert to their ground-hugging ways.

There are a half-dozen or so high-end fishing lodges on the Kvuichak and Alagnak rivers near Katmai National Park, and several of them have their own aircraft and offer fly-out fishing for clients. The lodges and fishing guides are competitive, and so are pilots—who tend to keep close track of the places their rivals are flying, what they’re catching, and when they leave and return to their lodges.

But lodge pilots help each other, too. They monitor the multicom frequency, 122.9 MHz, and share information about weather, winds, wave heights, and visibility in mountain passes.

“We compete, but we also look out for each other,” said Strickler. “There’s a strong sense of community among Alaska pilots, and we’re proud to be part of that.”

The bad guy

At Rainbow Lodge, each pilot flies the same airplane almost exclusively throughout the season. Even though the airplanes were built in the same Canadian factory in the 1950s and they all are powered by the same model of 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine, each has a distinctive personality. A pilot who flies the same airplane, Strickler said, is more likely to notice subtle changes that may hint at potential mechanical trouble. And there’s no doubt about who is responsible for keeping it stocked, clean, and ready for its next flight.

Rainbow Lodge pilots get their assignments each evening, and the following morning they meet informally dockside. There, Strickler gives a weather briefing and reviews contingency plans. There’s no formal hierarchy and lodge pilots regard themselves as peers, any one of them capable of doing any flying task that comes up.

Strickler’s leadership style is quiet and reserved. He listens intently and holds eye contact. The team of pilots he’s assembled vary in age, flying background, and place of origin. The one thing they have in common, Strickler said, is that they are independent and “don’t have to be told what to do more than once or twice.”

Clients pay premium prices of roughly $10,000 a week to stay at high-end lodges and fish for trophy trout at some of the most renowned rivers in the world. And that puts pressure on pilots to get their clients where they want to go, even in marginal conditions.

“I’m the bad guy who says no to clients,” Strickler said. “I won’t compromise safety. I won’t send pilots out on days that I won’t fly. And I’ll back them up if they’re ever questioned about it.”

Slow and noisy

Turbine airplanes such as converted Otters and Beavers tend to dominate commercial air taxi and sightseeing businesses in other parts of Alaska. But Ferguson said no other airplane can compete with a piston Beaver in doing the job it does here.

“It’s slow and it’s noisy and it doesn’t like to climb very high,” he said. “But it gets a heavy load off the water in a short distance, and it’s absolutely delightful to fly. It’s perfect for us.”

Because of the seasonal nature of Alaska guiding, pilots must find other ways to support themselves during the other two-thirds of the year. Some fly floatplanes in Hawaii or the Maldives. Some teach flying in the Lower 48, haul parachute jumpers, fly freight, or fly only enough to keep their skills current for the next year.

And even if they’re exhausted from the grueling pace of an Alaska sport fishing season when they leave the lodge, the pilots and guides know they’ll miss the majesty of the place when they’re gone, as well as the responsibility that comes with making aviation decisions of consequence and the satisfaction of doing a difficult job well.

“I’ve been doing this kind of flying for quite a while, and the wonder of it still amazes me,” said Strickler, 62, who has flown the same Beaver, N7283, about 4,600 hours in 14 years. “I love the challenge, and the fact that every flight is different. I enjoy having to be on my A-game every time I get in the airplane.

“The satisfaction I get from flying in this place is hard to describe,” he said. “I love it enough to leave my wife for four months while I’m here. I love it enough to rededicate myself every year to keep learning, and to keep trying to do it as well as I possibly can.”

Email [email protected]

Dave Hirschman

Dave Hirschman

AOPA Pilot Editor at Large
AOPA Pilot Editor at Large Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.

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