Follow Along To An Epic Tale of Flying From Bellingham to Oshkosh via Yellowknife, NWT On Straight Floats!
The following story was submitted by Don Goodman, a pilot from Bellingham, Washington. Seaplanemagazine.com would like to thank Mr. Goodman for taking the time to write and submit his story to be shared with any pilots who may read this in the future and we hope that by reading his story more people will be inspired to take trips such as this one.
10:00 9 July – “You watch for the FedEx truck”, I told my wife, Natala. “I’ll preflight the aircraft”. — 10:30 9 July – “Where’s that FedEx truck, we paid extra for delivery by 1000!!”
Two days earlier; on July 7, we received our new Iridium satellite phone (ordered following the strong suggestion from several seasoned pilots) but discovered it did not come with a sim card…….d’oh!!! So, hustling, I ordered one out of Houston, TX, including a 12 month calling plan, paying an additional $78 for priority overnight delivery.
Six weeks earlier, on 28 May to be exact, we arrived at our Lake Samish, Washington home base with our 182P on floats for the first time under our watch. The aircraft had previously been STC’d on Aerocet 3500L’s and spent a couple of months on floats in 2012. Those floats were sold and the aircraft was back on wheels when we acquired her in 2013. Jim Schwerman, Seaplanes West, refloated her on to new 3500L’s at his base in Vernon, BC. From Jim’s base at Vernon (CYVK) it’s a hair raising 2km drive south using his homebuilt transporter down a rather busy arterial to a public beach at an arm of Okanagan Lake. A 20 minute functional check flight with Jim was followed by a hearty hand shake and best wishes. We were on our own! The return to Bellingham with customs clearance at Renton (W36) went well.
Having received my float rating in the summer of 2014 we planned a good solid month of shake down flights prior to our planned long cross country; first to the biannual “Midnight Sun Fly-In” at Yellowknife, NWT and then on to Oshkosh and back to Bellingham. The shakedown included supplemental float training in and around Flathead Lake and Priest Lake, ID as well as numerous day trips in the greater Puget Sound basin.
We started researching logistics to Yellowknife in mid-June. One of the bigger challenges on straight floats would be fuel management. In addition to the 70 gallons useable in the wing tanks we had 30 gallons additional capacity in six 5 gallon cans in the floats. Our friend and mentor, Rich Carlstad, helped identify Kamloops, BC (CAH7) as the most logical place to clear customs on straight floats. I had resigned myself to clearing somewhere on the coast but Kamloops was more direct keeping us out of busy, Vancouver/Victoria airspace and the B.C. Coast Range. A Beaver pilot out of Vancouver, Steven Jeffrey, helped me fill in the next piece of the puzzle, where to fuel north of Kamloops en-route to Yellowknife. I decided not to establish a detailed itinerary beyond Yellowknife the thought being we’d search out local current knowledge to get to Oshkosh and return to Bellingham.
With this information/plan, several pounds of paper charts and airport directories, updated GPS nav data bases, current Foreflight, camping and emergency gear we were ready to depart Bellingham on the morning of 9 July.
9 July – Lake Samish, WA to Fort St. John, BC CEY7
“Where the hell is FedEx!”. Natala made numerous calls, the only information we could get was our package was on a truck to be delivered today. EAPIS was filed and I had a committed arrival for customs clearance Kamloops. I set a drop dead departure time of 1300 as our overnight destination and final fuel stop for this day was Fort St. John, BC (Charlie Lake – CEY7). I had called CANPASS twice to change the arrival time at Kamloops and was about to give up on the sat phone when Fed Ex arrived at 1205. I threw the FedEx box in the plane and we were off the water at 1220.
I opened my border crossing flight plan with Seattle Radio over Lake Whatcom. The forest fire smoke intensified as we crossed the border. It was marginal VFR until 9000’ where we broke out of the worst of it. I was hoping for much clearer conditions in Kamloops. Fortunately visibility gradually improved as we made our way NNE. Kamloops Tower (CYKA) cleared us for landing on Kamloops Lake (CAH7) after a flight of 1.5 hours. The tower did not have a clue about customs clearance on floats so we pulled up to the empty float plane dock and were telephonically cleared by Canadian Customs. It was nearly mid-afternoon and well over 90F.
We transferred 30 gallons of fuel from the floats to the wing tanks, had some food and fluids, and departed CAH7 at
1500. We slid to the west and started a long, hot circling climb, first east and then north. The cylinder head temperatures were on the high side requiring carefully management of pitch, power and terrain. We quickly left all of the smoke behind and found a comfortable cruising altitude of 11,500’.
The radio fell silent and scenery spectacular as we passed many beautiful alpine lakes and valleys. Fort St. John tower (CYXJ) cleared us to the south end of Charlie Lake where we made an uneventful landing at 1800 in a moderate north wind. Mike Conway runs the CEY7 float plane base which consists of a fuel dock at his house. I had spoken with Mike prior to our departure. He had indicated he was 2 km north of the south end but I did not get what side of the lake he was on. After taxing around for 10 minutes I finally gave up and called him. With a chuckle he said he’d been watching me and wondered what the heck I was doing! A quick 180 and step taxi brought us to Mike’s dock. We were warmly welcomed by Mike who loaned us his personal vehicle and directed us to food and accommodation in town. A bit of a stressful start to our journey but a great day!!!
10 July Fort St John, BC (CEY7) to Yellowknife, NWT (CEN9)
The impact of oil and gas development in the province is clear as Fort St. John is a bustling town. We stayed at a Best Western which was part of a new sprawling commercial complex on the edge of town. The weather closed in overnight and it was IFR in the morning. We took our time returning to the seaplane base where we met up with Mike and the pilot of a C185 which was also moored at the base. The pilot was en-route to Yellowknife and commercial operations at a lodge in the remote Canadian Arctic. He had “blown a jug” a few days earlier and carried out a field repair at Mike’s dock. As we were both heading the same direction he gave me some good advice for navigating Great Slave Lake (“it’s an ocean”) and negotiating forest fires en- route which were the subject of Transport Canada flight restrictions. As we waited for the ceiling to lift we filled the wing tanks, three of the 5 gallon containers in the floats and consulted various weather resources.
By 1100 it was VFR at Charlie Lake and looking pretty good heading north. We departed with the C185 10 minutes behind. We monitored a common frequency suggested by the C185 pilot. It did not take long before we were in the sticks save for the occasional pumping station and gas line. Approx. 30 minutes out of CEY7 I heard the C185 pilot announce he had again “lost a jug” and was putting down in a small lake with coordinates “XYZ”. I quickly did a 180 and advised him I was heading back his way. He responded that he had landed and was in a swamp. It was with great relief to hear a helicopter pilot report he had witnessed the landing and would be picking the pilot up in a few minutes. I wished the C185 pilot well and resumed our course for Yellowknife. Welcome to flying in the bush!!
We dodged the worst of the smoke and, as recommended, hugged the west shore of Great Slave Lake. We were enthusiastically welcomed by the Yellowknife tower (CFYK) who directed ourselves, and a number of other arriving float planes, to the east of the land airport in a sheltered back bay of the lake where the seaplane base is located (CEN9). Docking continues to be a challenge for me. Fortunately, several residents had opened their personal docks to accommodate the fly-in traffic and dock hands quickly and expertly secured our plane. It was a long 3.7 tach time leg and we were happy to have comfortably arrived mid-afternoon.
Midnight Fly-In – July 10-13
While we intended to camp, the fly-in organizers advised there was no camping in the immediate vicinity. We found accommodation at a motel a ½ mile south of the float plane base on the highway towards town. A local kindly offered ourselves and a couple other pilots a lift to the motel. When we hopped in another pilot and I, almost simultaneously said “I know you”. We both scratched our heads, he being from Winnipeg, Canada and I
the Seattle area. After a few minutes of suggesting connections we hit on the common thread. Garth Evans and I had attended a Cessna Pilot Association 182 legacy maintenance training class in California March 2014. This meeting turned out fortuitous for Natala and me as Garth and his buddies had the route from Yellowknife SE to Winnipeg down to a science (Garth and I have similar machines, he also on a straight floated 182P but with the IO-550 engine).
The fly-in officially opened the evening of the 10th with a hosted dinner and a most curious array of entertainment. The old “Ward Air Dock” was made available for the gathering, a sizeable venue in a bay otherwise crowded with residences and commercial facilities. The Mayor of Yellowknife kicked off the evening followed by fly-in officials outlining the program for the next two days. The culmination of the evening was a very interesting performance by the local troupe “Brrrlesque”. This clever play on words was, in fact, a talented and enthusiastic performance including a hilarious skit depicting a “mile high club” consort complete with a cardboard lavatory mock-up. Half way through the performance I turned to Natala and said, “you won’t be seeing this at Oshkosh!”.
The infamous Buffalo Airways of the television reality series “Ice Pilots NWT” was prominent at the fly-in offering tours of their facilities at the airport and DC3 rides. A lunch/fishing fly-out occurred on the 11th but we decided to lay low for the day. Entertainment on the evening of the 11th included well known aboriginal singer Leela Gilday.
On the 12th the local community came out to honor the history of bush flying and bush pilots. The morning included a formation fly-by consisting of 13 aircraft from a Super Cub to Twin Otter within Yellowknife airspace. Having never before flown “in formation” we jumped at this opportunity. I was following a C180 with an apparent faulty altimeter. I finally broke the radio silence asking why he was 500’ below the prescribed altitude. Eventually we got lined up and pleased the crowd gathered at the Bush Pilot Memorial which is on a hill above the bay. The C180 pilot I was following threw me for another loop when he decided to land at a nearby lake instead of the seaplane base. Not being familiar I dutifully followed him until clearly off course for return to the seaplane base. I advised the tower I was returning “to the pack” and all was well.
The Ward Air Dock was packed for a hosted community lunch. The weather cooperated nicely as a breeze from the north kept the bugs at bay. The Midnight Fly-In concluded the evening of the 12th with a dock side banquet, recognition ceremony, and fund raising auction. Somehow I ended up with a very cool aluminum clad scale model of a DC3 with a 3 foot wing span. My plans to ship it back to Bellingham went sideways when advised by Canada Post that would cost several hundred dollars! Instead we placed the carefully packed airplane in the back of THE airplane. However, I cursed myself for the rest of the trip as we packed and unpacked that model!!
My Winnipeg buddies were off and away at first light on the 13th. By mid-morning the weather had closed in and I
understood why they left in a hurry. We cooled our jets and did a lot of walking on the 13th.
14 July Yellowknife, NWT (CEN9) to Kasba Lake, NWT (CJP5)
Prior to the departure of our Winnipeg buddies we had a very productive 2 hour route planning session with them. They gave us a couple of options for working our way SE with strategic fuel stops. The morning of the 14th was still soupy in Yellowknife but the forecast was for very gradual clearing in the afternoon.
As the weather was better to the east of Yellowknife we opted for the more northerly of the route options. The first leg of this option was a 364nm remote run to a fishing camp on the west shore of Kasba Lake. Kasba is a 40nm long north/south lake in the SE corner of NWT. World renowned for its fresh water fishing and the Kasba Lake Lodge was established in the mid-1970’s by an enterprising family based on Vancouver Island.
Reached via satellite phone the resort confirmed they would sell us 100LL. By early afternoon it was MVFR at Yellowknife so we decided to “have a look” to the east. We flew 300-500 AGL the whole way encountering occasional showers which reduced visibility to the 1-3nm range. While flying lower than I was used to we felt reasonably safe in these conditions as there was nothing to run into and we could have landed……..well……..anywhere!! Mile after mile of lakes and bogs, the biggest fears being landing on something too small to take off again and being eaten alive by mosquitoes if you did land!!
Kasba Lake’s 6000’ dirt runway (CJL8) was a welcome sight and the water landing short in a stiff SW breeze. A very well used Beaver was at the dock. The accommodating staff at the lodge arranged for dinner and an overnight stay in one of their cabins. We enjoyed meeting the 25 or so guests who were mostly Americans out of the mid-west. An evening stroll revealed the complexity of the camp made even more impressive when we came to know that EVERYTHING, including small Caterpillar bulldozers, a rock crushing machine, generators, fuel tanks and fuel, building materials, are all flown in from Winnipeg. This did help explain the $13.82/gal 100LL price!
The objective for the 15th was Thompson, Manitoba (CKD6) 310nm SE of Kasba Lake. The weather in the morning was again socked in. The Beaver pilot, a youthful fellow, suggested when we could see the eastern shore of Kasba Lake visibility was likely good enough to head south. Bouyed by our success the previous day we set off as suggested, however 30 minutes later I was regretting that decision. The ceiling forced us down to 200 AGL. Forward visibility went from 1nm to basically zero with known rising terrain ahead of us. I executed a quick 180 and set a back course to Kasba and the safety and comfort of the resort. Upon return to the resort (and top-off with more pricey 100LL) I had an interesting conversation with the Beaver pilot. While he fully understood my reason for returning he advised he occasionally flies with no forward visibility as long as he can “see out the sides”! We also learned more about his Beaver. Line number 38 rolled off the DeHaviland production line in 1949. Wrecked twice and completely written off once it was one well worn machine. If that hull could talk!!
16 July Kasba Lake, NWT (CJP5) to Thompson, Manitoba (CKD6)
The morning of the 16th dawned with clear sky but persistent lake fog. More killing time during a slow burn off. By early afternoon we were retracing our initial route from the day before and an uneventful 2.9 hour run to Thompson. Thompson is the edge of civilization and a jumping off point for points north. Thunder storms were developing as we landed at the seaplane base on the Thompson River so we called it a day and headed into town for the night.
17 July Thompson, Manitoba (CKD6) to Crane Lake, MN (KCDD) via Red Lake, ON (CKS4)
Our original flight plan for this day was Thompson to Crane Lake, MN and customs clearance. Again, the best laid plans as half way into this journey the ceiling again dropped. VFR on top was tempting but I had no idea how far south the overcast went. I came very close to landing at a large unnamed lake to wait out the weather but instead we opted to divert to Red Lake, ON.
Weather was much better at Red and we hung out at one of the FBO’s and took on some fuel. I left a phone message with Crane Lake US Customs advising of our delay. Surprisingly I received a call back from the officer who advised no worries. Following a weather call to NAV Canada we were on our way south again a couple hours later. It felt good to be back in US airspace as we crossed the border 30nm east of International Falls, MN. Customs was a breeze at Crane Lake Resort. We filled the tanks but the resort was full so we taxied to Nelson’s Resort on the east shore of Crane Lake. Nelson’s was very accommodating and had a lovely beaching in a sheltered bay. Three other seaplanes arrived late that afternoon and we had a good time getting to know one another.
18 July Crane Lake, MN (KCDD)) to Oshkosh Seaplane Base (Lake Winnebago 96WI)
The weather turned stellar and we had a very pleasant 3.1 hour run to Oshkosh. Compared to our wheeled plane experience from two years ago, arriving to Osh on floats was a breeze. It also helped that we were the second seaplane to arrive at the base and the first to set-up camp in the seaplane tent camp. The base is very well run by a team of experienced volunteers.
19 – 23 July Oshkosh!!!
It was a very good year for Oshkosh. With the exception of a freak wind storm just prior to our arrival the weather was very good, attendance up, and vendor participation/air shows excellent. The float plane tent camp is quietly removed from the hustle and crowds at Whittman Regional. The only downside being the requirement for occasionally sporadic bus transportation to/from the main venues.
24 July Oshkosh Seaplane Base (Lake Winnebago 96WI) to Devils Lake, ND (land field KDVL) via Mille Lacs Lake, MN
Similar to our strategy at Yellowknife, we took advantage of the wealth of knowledge at the seaplane tent camp. With paper charts and iPad in hand we went tent to tent “anyone have a recommendation for getting from here to Washington State on straight floats?”. We got more than a few blank stares and “are you crazy” looks but gradually we pieced the puzzle together. The “blank on the fuel map” was clearly the stretch from central MN to Flathead Lake, MT. The discovery of a float friendly dock and available mogas at Woodland Resort, Devils Lake, MT being the key.
We bid good bye and big thanks to the base volunteers departing 96WI mid-morning with 100 gallons of 100LL. Our fuel transfer point was Mille Lacs Lake, MN. There were other options but Mille Lacs was directly on the route to Devils Lake and approximately mid-way between the two points. Mille Lacs was relatively calm which helped facilitate the 30 gallon transfer. Natala’s biceps were beginning to bulge after all of the 5 gallon can lifting!
We arrived at Devils Lake in the late afternoon. The resort manager, Kyle Blanchfield, has a Citabria on floats and was very accommodating. He even put us up in a cabin for free! After 5.2 tach hours a cold beer and comfortable bed felt pretty good.
25 July Devils Lake, ND (land field KDVL) to Polson, MT (8S1) via Missouri River
The pilot recommendation for this leg was to add fuel at Fort Peck Lake, MT and that was our plan for the day. We were off Devils Lake at 0900, again with 100 gallons on board. Here is where my planning failed. About 30nm east of Fort Peck Lake I began to study the lake carefully on my iPad. Hold on, the whole lake appears to be a wildlife refuge. “Nat, quick check the paper chart, is that true?!?!”. She confirmed and I worried. Other options? Land anyhow? There would be very few opportunities for landing west of Fort Peck. Nearly resigned to breaking the rules an opportunity came to me which was right at our feet, the Missouri River.
It was wide and appeared reasonably slow moving. Wind was out of the west and just prior to Fort Peck the Missouri flows west to east for 5nm. We circled and proceeded to land where, quite possibly, no other float plane has landed before. Being my first backcountry moving-river landing I thought to myself, OK, what to do now! As we drifted east, using a combination of water rudder and power, I was able to position the aircraft in the lee of a mid- channel island. Shutting down I jumped onto the floats and into the river only to find myself up to my knees in Missouri River mud that had quicksand-like properties!
The lines and anchors came out and after a terrible mess was made we got the aircraft secured. Notwithstanding the mud, the water was actually very pleasant and helped cool the rather high ambient temperature. Again, fuel was transferred and, after washing down the lines and floats, we were ready to depart. OK, now what. I decided to drift backwards to a point near our touchdown. We were primed and ready to start the engine at any time (last thing I wanted was to be pointed downstream with a tailwind). Using a combination of water rudders and ailerons we successfully sailed backwards to near our touchdown point at which time we started the engine and were off the water in short order.
I subsequently came to know that the actual float landing spot at Fort Peck is just east of Fort Peck (37S) in the water immediately behind the dam (but outside of the wildlife refuge boundary). Live and learn!
The flight westward from Fort Peck was very interesting. With head winds that increased as we climbed we decided to stay low. The highest obstacles across eastern and central Montana are transmission towers some over 800 feet tall! At one point we flew directly between two towers with tops above our altitude. 100nm east of Polson we began a gradual climb to 9500’ to clear the mountain range immediately to the east of Flathead Lake.
Once west of the mountain crest it’s “chop and drop” into Flathead Lake losing 6500’ in less than 15nm. Here my planning failed me again as the only local information I had was to land in the river immediately south of the Highway 93 bridge. I was not sure where the floatplane dock was. The AFD said 100LL was available at the floatplane base but this was Saturday. The landing required the disbursal of jet skis and other small water craft using the landing light and various gesticulations. We taxied looking for a float dock. Seeing none, and not liking the looks of the boat marina, we beached in a small sheltered cove just south of the marina. Securing the airplane we walked up to the land airport and checked out a courtesy car. We were spent for the day and decide to tackle the re-fueling in the morning.
26 July Polson, MT (8S1) to Lake Samish
Following a hearty dinner and good sleep we were prepared to tackle the refueling. I gave up on trying to reach the FBO as it was a good 200’ from our beached aircraft to the nearest road. During our second round of filling the cans at the Polson self-service pump we entered into conversation with a local pilot. Without making too much fun of us he let us know where the float plane dock was (1/4 mile downstream from where we were beached) and advised the FBO would bring fuel to the dock with prior notification. After a few minutes of friendly conversation I enquired the gentlemen’s name, “Chuck Jarecki”. That name was very familiar to me and Natala exclaimed that she grew up knowing the Jarecki’s in Erie, PA. In classic “small world” fashion Natala and Chuck recounted how their respective families knew each other, they both had the same dance teacher, etc. I connected with Chuck as he is a founding member of the Recreational Aviation Foundation and a very seasoned floatplane pilot with his C185 on amphibs (with much flying experience in remote Canada and Alaska). The conversation could have gone on for hours but we had a long flight ahead of us with reported marginal weather over the Cascade crest.
It was 1200 by the time we finished schlepping fuel to the wing tanks and un-beached the aircraft. Our route took us over Mullan Pass and the Ellensburg VOR. Snoqualmie Pass had a dark cloud parked on it. Stampede was better with a 1000’ ceiling and that is where we cleared the Cascade crest. The west side of the pass was scattered 2000’ requiring a dance to the NW along the foothills of the Cascades. Lake Samish and our home was a welcoming sight concluding a 4 hour leg and the end of our long journey across a portion of northern Canada and the United States.
By the Numbers:
- 4000+ nautical miles
- 40.5 tach hours
- 16 flight legs
- $13.82/gal – most expensive 100LL (Kasba Lake, NWT)
- $5.35/gal – least expensive 100LL (Oshkosh)
The author wishes to thank the following pilots for their flight instruction, support and mentorship: Howard Wolvington, Austin Watson, James Finson, Mark Schoening, Kurt Boswell, Jim Schwerman, Rich Carlstad, Steven Jeffery, Hal Logsdon, Garth Evans, Rob Cotter, Kyle Blanchfield, Greg Corrado, Tom Bass, Dave Adams and John Scurlock.
Written and submitted by: Don Goodman Bellingham, WA February 2016