Many Alaskans we knew were outdoors people – you had to enjoy the harsh weather and pioneer living conditions or you wouldn’t survive in the ‘olden’ days – and we were certainly no exception. Our family used these small aircraft much as the average family in the South 48 used their automobile: We took our weekend trips in a plane. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of trips we took in one or another of these vintage airplanes. We often went to the tide flats southwest of Anchorage where we fished for salmon using gill nets.
Since these craft were primarily two seaters, we made our way to and fro using the shuttle system: With my father at the rear seat’s controls he would fly my oldest brother and me to our destination, then return to pick up my mother. Lastly, he would make the final trip with the two middle boys. Skip, the oldest of us boys, was proficient with the rifle and he would take it with him on every trip. It was his responsibility to set up camp and watch over me until my mother arrived on site. He often went exploring after being relieved of his childcare duties, carrying the Winchester .32 caliber rifle over his shoulder as I later saw Daniel Boone do on the television show. What was he looking for? Often black bear would come down the steep cliffs to feed on fish that got left behind on the beach. He wanted to bag one for himself.
Our favorite fishing area was on Turnagain Arm. This is a broad body of water similar to the fjords of Scandinavia that, together with Cook Inlet, forms two of the boundaries of the triangle of land upon which sits the city of Anchorage. The third leg of this triangle is the Chugach Range of mountains some fifteen miles east of the confluence of these two bays. The Arm’s size and tidal flow misled its early explorer, Captain James Cook, who tried to navigate it in the 17th century as though it were a channel surrounding an island. Local legend has it that Captain Cook first sailed into the larger of the two inlets, which he later named after himself, believing he would be able to circumnavigate what he believed to be a large, low lying island. In fact, he sailed right up to the mouth of the Knik River and had to turn around and sail back down the inlet. The Knik River flows southwesterly from the Chugach Range, and is the northern side of the triangle.
When he reached the second bay he sailed southeast down it as well, again believing it to provide a means of circumnavigating what he thought was an island. When he reached the end of this waterway he was forced to turn around again, hence the name Turnagain Arm. In fact, this Arm is just a backwater for Cook Inlet. It has no river mouth at its end, as Cook Inlet has the Knik River, so tremendous tidal flows work up and down this basin with no place to go when they reach the end. These tidal flows create incredible undercurrents that can suck a person, or a small boat, under water instantly. And the tide created by these flows comes in to shore faster than a person can run. We often heard in the news of someone – usually a “cheechako” from the South 48 – who had been far out on the mudflats at low tide and was overtaken and drowned as the tide came rushing in.
The topography of the tidelands surrounding Anchorage is interesting and challenging. When the tide is out, both Cook Inlet and Turnagain Arm exhibit large mud flats that are cut deeply by streams. These stream beds may be six, eight or even ten feet deep, and usually have very shallow water draining down them. At low tide one can easily walk far out the flats, wading across these stream beds. The mud is firmly packed in most areas so you don’t sink into the muck more than several inches. The ease with which you can traverse this ground is fatally deceptive.
When the tide begins to come in – and the tides around Anchorage can measure twenty or more feet! – a huge undertow is created by the incoming water meeting the flow of Knik River’s water and the standing water of Turnagain Arm. This undertow creates a large wall of water rushing ahead of the tide, a wall we called a riptide. This riptide raced along the flats at amazing speed, catching and ensnaring anyone who was careless, or inexperienced, enough to be far out on the flats when the tide turned.
And while one could easily navigate the flats at low tide, once the water covered the stream beds a person was doomed to step into these deep, watery graves.
Well, putative genius that was my father, he decided that the best place to fish was on Turnagain Arm, and the way to do it was to fly to the beach just as the tide was going out, set up the gill nets several hundred yards out on the mudflats, then fly out before high tide. Hence, our frequent flights to the beaches.
These beaches, at low tide, might be a hundred or so feet wide. On one side was a high, vertical bluff with beautiful and intriguing strata of coal and shale visible. Close to the bluff the beach was sandy and much too soft to land our plane. The sand was littered with huge trees, branches and other flotsam deposited there by the tides. At the high water mark the sand would be wet but hard packed; it was upon this narrow strip of wet sand he would land. After shuttling the whole family from Merrill Field – some thirty minutes away – he and the older three boys would slog a quarter mile through the thick muck of the tidal flats and string the net. Then they would return to a picnic lunch my mother, with me distracting more than helping, had set up for them. As the tide started coming in you could hear the loud, low roar of the riptide. The sound sent chills up your spine even though you knew you would be long gone by the time the water got to you. Long before my dad heard the tide coming he would reverse the order of shuttle and take us all back to the airfield. Although the riptide itself never reached the beach where we landed, the water rose quickly as the tide came in, and there was no time to dally once we started shuttling back to the field.
On nearly every fishing trip his plan worked wonderfully. He read the tide tables and arrived with the first pair of us just as the tide had receded sufficiently to land. And he left the beach with the last two of us just as the tide had gotten within some yards of the plane.
Except on one trip. On this particular trip the tail wheel broke off as he took off from Merrill Field after having ferried the second of the three sets of passengers. With the tide coming in and no time to land and fix it, he flew back to the beach and made a two-point landing. Using the stick to keep the nose down and the tail in the air as he slowed the plane, he dropped the tail into the sand just as he applied the brakes. With the engine running, he opened the door and yelled at Skip to grab me and run to the plane as fast as he could. Skip threw me onto the front seat and squeezed himself in beside me, shouting to our dad to “get a move on” as he closed and latched the door. Waves were beginning to lap at the waterside wheel as our father raced the engine and tried to taxi on the hard packed mud. But the broken gear would not support the weight of all of us, and it stuck in the mud.
He raced the engine again, braked hard and tried to use the stick to raise the tail of the plane so the gear would come up out of the mud, but he had to abandon this effort. He was afraid that if the gear popped loose suddenly he could not react fast enough to keep the plane from nosing into the beach and breaking the propeller. If that happened, we’d all be drowned.
And we weren’t far from that, anyhow, as fast as the tide was coming in.
Finally, in desperation, he told Skip to get out of the plane, go to the back and lift up on the tail. Gunning the engine and keeping his feet hard on the brakes, he held the plane level until Skip climbed back in. Then he released the brakes and we started down the beach. By this time the water was several inches deep and we could not see any dry ground anywhere around us.
We plowed through the water for what seemed like hours until he gently pulled back on the stick and our wheels came up into the air. All of us inhaled deeply to make ourselves lighter as the little plane struggled to rise above the deepening water. Ever so gradually we climbed, with churning water underneath and beside us, and the sheer cliffs menacingly beside and in front of us.
At the last possible instant he banked hard to the left, out over the broiling tide, and leveled off. We were most likely a hundred feet up in the air. The engine was laboring loudly and Skip and I were sweating when from the back seat we heard our father arrogantly announce: “Just like I planned it!”
I wasn’t too keen to be in the last group to be picked up any more, and I began riding with my mom after that.