Talkeetna pilot and mother Katie Writer
was published this month
in Aviation for Women magazine.
(Text and photos follow audio, 12 min 37 sec)
Earlier this year I hit the ten-year mark of moving to Alaska for my first flying job. I recall the unknown of a new adventure being somewhat daunting. As a newly certified flight instructor, the responsibility of teaching others how to fly floatplanes in Alaska required professionalism beyond the years of flight training. Thinking back, I could have easily been stalled by fear of the unknown. My employer’s confidence in my abilities, coupled with the students’ readiness to fly, made for a perfect beginning because there was no room for any doubt or hesitation. There was some magic to being 35 years old, as I was adventurous and willing to take on the challenge.
Moving to Alaska was no big surprise to my friends and family. My first flight instructor and mentor, Al Richardson, was a bush pilot and he taught me survival skills along with the flight training. He outfitted me with hand-me-downs such as heavy duty rain gear, a tool bag for the airplane, a bivouac sack, knives, fishing lures, flares, hand saw, rope, a .30-06 rifle, and a head full of stories about how to survive in the North. My float vest was full of goodies that could keep me going if a situation arose. (A butane lighter, fire starter, nuts, water bottle, cord, chocolate, a leatherman, and a hand saw were items I always packed on my person.) When I arrived that summer of 2004, I showed up with the basic necessities. I did not have any money saved due to the financial demands of flight training. This was an advantage, I thought, because I was primed to work, teach and fly. There was no time for much else, and living near Lake Christiansen was heavenly.
Summertime in Alaska is hard to describe until you make the trip and see why outdoorsy people love it so much. The extended hours of daylight rank at the top of the list because it energizes you so much. In the month of June, there is a constant buzz of activity. There is no need to go inside unless you need to escape the mosquitos or take a catnap. The exponential growth rate of the fiddlehead ferns, water lilies, devil’s club, cow parsnip, and other vegetation seemed to fill the air with an abundance of oxygen that added to the insomnia for summertime residents. The Anchorage air traffic out of Lake Hood and Merrill Field is a constant stream when the weather is decent. It seems that everyone is headed out for an adventure.
The beauty of the wilderness crawling with bear, moose, caribou, fox, wolverine, coyotes and musk oxen is what makes Alaska the gem of all gems. The multiple mountain ranges, vast coastlines, pristine lakes, salmon filled rivers and bays are plentifully immense and full of wonder. Even the Discovery Channel represents Alaska as the ultimate nature destination. The opportunities for hiking, fishing, rafting, skiing and exploring seemingly unlimited miles are endless, and an airplane is one of the best ways to get a head start to an adventure. There is so much to see and do that it can be overwhelming. Train rides, boat rides and driving throughout the road system also offer wonderful scenic pleasure.
Working as a flight instructor is one way to see various parts of the state. Instructing gave me an added set of skills as well as fueled many hours of flying. Yet at some point it was time to stretch my own wings, and that I did. I bought a PA 22-20 in Houston, Texas, and planned to fly it back to Alaska. I had a lot of float time and not a lot of taildragger time, which is almost mandatory in Alaska. Tricycle gear does not handle the backcountry strips so well. I liked the idea of gaining some cross country experience and purchasing a plane 4,500 miles away offered that chance. I flew almost 3,200 miles in Jaune Oiseaux, “yellow bird,” before that fateful day in Mackenzie, British Columbia. Upon landing, a gusty crosswind sent us into a ground loop that ended a very fine journey with a major heartache. The insurance company totaled the plane and I was back to flight instructing floats for the summer in Talkeetna, Alaska. Sigh.
In 2005, I spent the summer teaching for Alaska Floats and Skis and enjoyed having a year of experience under my belt. The students were ecstatic about learning the joys of hopping from one lake to the next and it was not uncommon to see bears, moose and hear the loon making its call. On one memorable flight, we had to abort a landing when we realized a black bear was swimming across our landing zone. I also grew to appreciate what great swimmers moose are after seeing how they’d rather swim across a lake than bushwack around it. I always enjoyed the silence after shutting off the engine and pulling up to a sandy shore in a floatplane. Summer was busy and by the time the colors started to change, I was not the only one who looked forward to the slower pace of the off season.
That fall, I purchased a beautiful Super Cub. I had never felt such love at first sight for an inanimate object. I was sure that when I laid eyes on N4121Z at Birchwood airport that we were meant to be. It came with all of the Alaska mods such as a belly pod for cargo, wing covers, skis, and tundra tires along with the history of an owner who had flown it and loved it for 25 years. And it was only 100 miles away from Talkeetna.
Today, raising a family in Alaska really has become my ultimately satisfying life experience. Parenting can be a thankless job and though there is nothing that compares with the love of having offspring, other family members—like the family Super Cub—suffer. My husband, Tod works as a fishing and hunting guide throughout the state. During my first pregnancy, I’d fly out to his camps to drop off or pick up gear. I was learning some new locations and even some challenging river fIying with the floatplane. I did not mind having a big belly and it seemed that others noticed it more than I. “When are you going to hang up the keys to the airplane and have that baby?” onlookers would ask. I was satisfied with the adventures I shared with my little one while she was in my belly.
Perhaps having been adventurous my entire life made the transition to motherhood so dramatic. I became a homebody. I loved taking care of my babies (we have a girl, Wren, and a boy, Jasper, who are two and a half years apart). Motherhood came with great joy. The challenges did come with the territory. Nothing is more challenging than raising two children in the far north where no grandparents or family reside. There are not too many moments when I am not with my children, and though I find this a huge blessing, it is also challenging to lose 100 percent freedom of time and mobility. How do other women pilots do it, I ask myself. We didn’t use daycare and we all enjoyed being part of each other’s daily lives while we built our cabin into a house, Alaska style. The kids got to see every step of the way—from the septic installation to raising the roof. We got to pitch a tent in the house and live in it without windows or a back door installed until November 2011. I would often lay awake when my husband was away guiding hunts wondering if a bear was going to walk right into our house while we were sleeping. We are committed to raising our kids here in Talkeetna. There is nowhere else we’d rather be.
By the summer of 2011, I found a little more freedom to reconnect with my first baby, my Super Cub. The first week after putting it on floats we all flew to a nearby Larsen Lake for a family outing. We brought along a small raft, fishing gear, rain gear, hotdogs, and a can of spicy chili. Tod and Jasper were happy to arrive and it didn’t take them long to inflate the raft from the float, climb aboard and have their fishing line in the water. As I taxied away from them, I paused to take in how completely comfortable they looked at that given moment.
I flew back to Christiansen Lake to pick up Wren, who was 4 and a half at the time. She was very excited to climb aboard the plane. I love the look she gives me when I check in one last time before taking off. This kid loves to fly! When we landed at Larsen Lake, she wondered why the flight was so short.
It didn’t take but 20 minutes to fetch Wren, but a dark cloud had changed the scene. Tod and Jasper paddled up to the plane just as it began to downpour. The wing sheltered them and as loud as the pitter patter of the rain was, an inner serenity filled me. There we all were with the plane as our shelter and I imagined N4121Z feeling satisfied. Luckily, the sun came out shortly after and we taxied to a small point where we could safely park the plane. We made a small fire and roasted hotdogs and ate the chili with a spoon carved on the spot. No one needed to say much, as we all were feeling quite content. Simple plans make for simple pleasures, and we were off to a good start with that family outing.
Something starts to shift in a family when the kids mature yet are still totally dependent on the parents. Some may call it the golden time of a family and I feel blessed to realize it. There is magic in children’s psyche and the more they are outdoors experiencing the beauty of nature, the more intact their core becomes. There is a reason for the family camping trips and hopefully this will not be replaced with the digital infatuation.
Flying requires confidence, especially when thinking about taking other passengers and family members. Confidence comes with practice. I have made some goals to fly frequently this summer and with this, the garden may not be as vast, but the chance to raise my family as an aviating one is certainly enticing.
There really is a special bond that you share with your kids when you take them flying. They each become so engaged with their perspective of the world while I focus on flying safely and keeping my attention on all that important logic that goes through a pilot’s brain. I know there is something about a mother’s chemistry in the presence of her children. When flying an airplane with one’s children, the pilot has to stay focused on piloting the plane. One has to create a good foundation with their kids to respect, “Mom is flying, be conscientious, be quiet.” If we could only maintain that in the car! With a new headset, we do talk together and share what moves or interests us when the time is right. They know to tell me if they see another airplane—they are great spotters! They take this back seat job seriously and let me know when they see another airplane. All in all, there is a feeling of gratitude and one of hope that the Super Cub will be a part of our family history for years to come. Will they be piloting N4121Z someday while I relax in the back seat taking in the view?
The ignition of my own desire to be a bush pilot in Alaska came to me like a shooting star. The idea was clear, sparkly, out of reach, and bright. Each step towards reaching this goal was rewarded by meeting wonderful people along the way. It was a life-changing bold move. The courage within me blossomed because of the challenge of becoming a pilot. Knowing that I’d be a good match with Alaska ultimately brought me to my home in the North. I am forever grateful for that shooting star.
Dream vs Reality
Moving to Alaska from the Lower 48 is a big change. Here are some things to consider if you are thinking about making it your reality:
– Summer is one of four seasons, and it is the shortest. Consider the lengthy winter and know if you choose to be a year-round resident you choose to love snow and cold. If snow and cold and dark long nights are not your cup of tea, find a summertime job and skip the winters.
– Start saving money and frequent flyer miles so that you can afford a coveted winter retreat to warmer latitudes.
–“Roughing it” is a nice way to think about moving to Alaska. You may end up living in a simple “dry cabin,” which means no running water. This leads to showering less and adding more chores to your daily living. “Simple living” can be more complex like carrying water, using an outhouse with bugs in the summer, and cold buns in the winter.
–Outdoorsy people adapt easier, because it can be like a camping trip. Some find this super satisfying.
-I find the abundance of shopping malls and overly-materialistic American culture to be unsettling. Living close to nature with less stuff is a healthy alternative.
-The Internet is a great place to search for jobs in Alaska. Flying jobs are plentiful, though they often require that you have “Alaska” time in your logbook.
-You can also pack your car and drive up the Alaska-Canada Highway and find work when you arrive. Having your own wheels is not mandatory, but a bonus.
Whatever you choose to do, think of it as a life changing adventure that you’ll never regret unless you don’t give it a try.
Building An Alaskan Life, A decade to cherish, by Katie Writer