A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

August 2009.

North to Alaska, almost...(Part 2)

By Barry Meek.

The summer of 2008 wasn’t a memorable one in terms of good flying weather.   Most of the country endured rain, cloud and cold for three months.   Several full weeks would go by while we sat on the ground.   My seasonal work was flying in Northern British Columbia for the Forest Health Program.   We flew specialists in forest pest identification who mapped the damage to trees caused by, among other things, the Mountain Pine beetle.   Out here in B.C. a huge percentage of pine is already dead, and speculation is there will be none left in a few short years.   Further, the beetle is migrating into Alberta and Saskatchewan, carried by the wind, even the jet stream.   Huge swarms of this insect apparently appear on radar just as rain does. Worst of all, there’s no way to stop them at this time.   All that can be done is assess and monitor the damage until someday, they run out of food …. the pine trees.   

Re-fueling at an isolated gravel strip


The process we used is quite simple, and that was to fly grid patterns where possible allowing the specialists to assess pretty much the entire province for damage and decide what type of pests are active.   Consequently, it was a great way for a pilot to see just about every square mile of British Columbia, at least the section he’s assigned to.   Mine was mostly the north-west quarter of the province, from Tweedsmuir Provincial Park up to Dease Lake, and from the centre of the province right out to the west coast.  

Bennett Dam at Hudson's Hope BC


Although we never went “north of 60”, for a southerner like myself, I consider that area “the NORTH”.   Every small town we worked from is consistent with the northern character.   Many bear resemblance to a mining or logging camp, where the motels and restaurants are full of transient workers, and helicopters come and go by the dozens from local airports.   Businesses in the towns have names like Glacier, Frontier, Northern and Pacific Western.   Pickup trucks rule.   They’re all painted with the same color mud and sport cracked windshields.   Nowhere will you people wearing a suit and tie.   It’s a rough and tough atmosphere resembling a pioneer environment.  

Huckelberry Mine, south of Burns Lake.

Tourists come to this area, including many on their way to Alaska.   Time was when there was one route, the Alaska Highway from Dawson Creek.   In recent years, an alternate highway has been paved through Dease Lake.   Highway 37, now favored by hundreds of travelers in motorhomes, cars and a surprising number of motorcyclists.   They come from all over the continent to take home the bragging rights “I went to Alaska”.   A common shortcut is to drive to Stewart, B.C. then cross the border into Hyder, Alaska.   It’s the end of the road and as such, there’s no U.S. customs to deal with.   Just Canadian customs when you come back.   At that point, the Alaska panhandle is so far south it’s only a short distance from Prince Rupert and a long way south from the Yukon border.  

Stewart BC from 10,000 feet.

Many pilots still make the trek each summer as well.   This is a good place to see the bush planes, several with the big tundra tires grinding up the various routes north.   I enjoyed the company of a Super Cub pilot who flew from Nanoose Bay on Vancouver Island one day.   Shortly after his visit, a restaurant owner from Aspen, Colorado came through in a PA12 which was outfitted for the roughest country he was likely to find.   I hope those two pilots eventually met up and had time to spend together.   They were both looking for similar adventures.


Weather is always a factor in the rugged mountains of the northern B.C.   Some days the wind would blast in and we’d feel like a cork in a Jacuzzi.   Other times, it was so calm and clear that viewing the mountain scenery was like watching it on a movie screen.   After flying so much in the southern half of the country and on the prairies, the north is peculiar in it’s scarcity of population.   It’s pretty much all mountains and bush.   Only the occasional road, village or tiny settlement is seen.   There’s a vast territory out there.

The Skeena River, some 20 miles west of Terrace.


Pilots are sometimes frustrated by the difficulty in obtaining reliable weather reports in this part of the country.  Quite often, contacting Pacific Radio is difficult on 126.7.   Our monitoring was done by the BC Forest Service from the Fire Centres in Prince George and Smithers.   Automated Flight Following is employed, where a signal is sent every two minutes from our aircraft to the centres via satellite giving them GPS co-ordinates.   The tracking lines connecting the GPS ‘dots’ show up on maps in the dispatch office.   Additionally, we were required to make voice contact via radio every 30 minutes.   It wasn’t guaranteed insurance against a crash, but if there ever was an engine failure, we’d be located pretty fast!  


Flying from point A to point B, carrying passengers, supplies, equipment and machinery is the traditional life of the bush pilot.   In this forest health work however, we were airborne for many hours at a time.   Flying the grid patterns sharpened up my GPS skills and ensured a pretty thorough understanding of navigation by degrees, minutes and seconds.  


The assignment lasted just under three months and about 200 hours of flight time.   Not a whole lot, but this particular job depended so much on weather.   Any significant cloud would be cause to scrub the day’s flying.  At the end of the summer, with plenty of great flying behind me, I came away with my fill of mountains and bush.   Not an unpleasant experience by any means, but autumn is a good time to be back on the south coast of B.C.   

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