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1985 Flight of Discovery:
British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Alaska

by Murray Lundberg

Published on October 25, 2015

    My life has been full of adventures of all kinds, from short experiences to major changes in the direction of my life. One adventure stands out among all the others though, and as its 30th anniversary has just passed, it's time to attempt to tell you a bit of the story.

    Although I mention this life-changing 14-day trip a lot, I've never told anyone the whole story, much less written about it. Perhaps that's because there are uncomfortable aspects to it, but the good outweighs the bad, and because of it's significance, it's time to put it in writing. This article was a multi-month project which I began by posting my log book from the trip.

    Log book? Yes, you see, this trip from Langley (British Columbia) to Tuktoyaktuk (Northwest Territories), Fairbanks (Alaska), and many other places in between, was done in a 1972 Cessna 172L Skyhawk. Registered as C-GWDM, "Whiskey Delta Mike" is seen to the right at Revelstoke, BC, the year before this trip.

    I had bought the plane in November 1973 with 2 partners, for about $8,000 each. A 172 is a great plane to play with - it will go up to 620 miles on a tank of gas cruising at 132 mph, and can carry 995 pounds, which permits the pilot, 3 passengers and some luggage.

    My fellow travellers were 2 guys I worked with, one of them also a partner in the plane. Despite being very close for long periods, Joe, Fred and I got along well - if there were any disputes, they were certainly minor.

    For a trip of this magnitude, we did rather "fly by the seat of our pants", and detailed planning was usually done the day before, or even as we were flying.

Date Route Flight Time
June 14 CYNJ (Langley, BC) - CYXS (Prince George, BC) 3.4 hours
CYXS - CYYD (Smithers, BC) 2.5 hours
June 15 CYYD - CZST (Stewart, BC) 2.4 hours
June 16 CZST - CBM5 (Telegraph Creek, BC) 2.5 hours
June 18 CBM5 - CYSQ (Atlin, BC) 2.1 hours
June 19 CYSQ - CYXY (Whitehorse, YT) 1.1 hours
CYXY - YCYDA (Dawson City, YT) 3.1 hours
June 20 CYDA - Eagle Plains Lodge, YT 2.5 hours
Eagle Plains Lodge - CYEV (Inuvik, NT) 1.7 hours
June 21 CYEV - ET3 (Inuvik Town, NT) 0.4 hours
ET3 - CYUB (Tuktoyaktuk, NT) 1.0 hours
CYUB - CYEV (Inuvik, NT) 1.4 hours
CYEV - FTO (Fort Yukon, AK) 3.3 hours
FTO - FAI (Fairbanks, AK) 2.1 hours
June 23 FAI - CHP (Circle Hot Springs, AK) 1.3 hours
CHP - ORT (Northway, AK) 2.9 hours
June 24 ORT - CYXQ (Beaver Creek, YT) 0.8 hours
CYXQ - CYDB (Burwash Landing, YT) 1.3 hours
CYDB - CYXY (Whitehorse, YT) 1.8 hours
June 25 CYXY - CFA4 (Carcross, YT) 0.9 hours
CFA4 - CYZW (Teslin, YT) 1.0 hours
June 25 CYZW - CYQH (Watson Lake, YT) 1.8 hours
CYQH - CYYD (Smithers, BC) 4.9 hours
June 26 CYYD - CYXS (Prince George, BC) 2.0 hours
June 27 CYXS - CYNJ (Langley, BC) 3.6 hours

This is what the basic route looks like on a map, not taking into account any of our wandering.
Clicking on it will open an interactive map at myflightbook.com.

These log book entries cover all but the first and last leg of the trip, from our home airport of CYNJ (Langley) to CYXS (Prince George) and back. Click on the image to enlarge it in a new window.

    When we began the trip, I had only 147 hours total flying time, and Fred had even less. Much of my flying was in the mountains, though, and I was very good at non-electronic navigation (paper maps and a watch). This trip was done on a very tight budget. We camped most of the time, and I didn't even take many photos, as I really did have to choose between film and fuel. Click on each of the photos below to greatly enlarge it.

Cessna 172 C-GWDM in Smithers, BC, in 1985
When we left Langley (airport code YNJ) on June 14th, our goal was to get as far north as possible, and with a stop in Prince George (YXS) for fuel, we were in Smithers (YYD) that evening after 5.9 flying hours. We met some locals in a bar that night and after they took us on a bit of a tour, we ended up having quite a party with them - a good start to the trip! One of the places they showed us was what is now Twin Falls Recreation Site, a place I still return to whenever I can.

C-FNWY, an L-100-30 operated by Northwest Territorial Airways, at Smithers, BC, in 1985
As we were getting ready to leave Smithers the next morning, bound for Stewart, this commercially-operated C-130 (termed a Lockheed L-100 Hercules when in civilian mode) was struggling to get into the air with an obviously extremely heavy load. It was probably C-FNWY, an L-100-30 operated by Northwest Territorial Airways at that time.

Aerial photo of Anyox, BC, in 1985
While flying between Smithers and Stewart, we did some exploring along Observatory Inlet about 60 kilometers south of Stewart after discovering the abandoned sites of the communities of Anyox and Kitsault, and would have done a lot more exploring if we had larger fuel tanks. At Anyox, seen in this photo, a large copper mine and smelter supported a population of some 3,000 people by 1914, but in 1935 the mine was closed due to low copper prices and high costs of production. An attempt is currently being made to re-open the town of Kitsault.

Fueling up my Cessna with car gas at Stewart, BC, in 1985
Stewart (ZST) was the first place where we discovered that you can't even trust government documents when you're flying in remote areas. Although the Department of Transport's airport guide said that avgas (aircraft fuel) was available, it wasn't. At that time, using car gas in an airplane was illegal (if I remember correctly, the lead in the car gas rotted aircraft hoses), but that was our only option.

Aerial view of BC's Bear Glacier in 1985
Leaving Stewart on June 16th, we flew up Bear Pass, did a circle for a better look at the Bear Glacier, then headed straight north above the Stewart-Cassiar Highway as far as Iskut. In aviation, "IFR" normally means Instrument Flight Rules, meaning that you don't need to see the ground, you fly using instruments only. For many pilots, though, it can also mean "I Follow Roads"! For us, there just happened to be a road below us for much of the trip, though there were many hours of flying with nothing man-made below us.

Aerial view of the upper Stikine River in BC
From Iskut, the next leg was roughly west over the Mount Edziza volcanic complex to the Stikine River, seen in this photo, and the historic village of Telegraph Creek.

Bottle feeding a baby mountain goat at Telegraph Creek in 1985
Our destination for the next 2 nights was the Glenora Guest Ranch which belonged to my aunt, Nancy Ball (it closed in 2012). There was an air strip at the ranch but it was in rough condition, so we had arranged to fly over for a look, and if I didn't like the look of it, we'd return to the Telegraph Creek airport (YTX) and she would make the long drive up to get us. She did have to come and get us, but after walking the strip at the ranch, I brought the plane down (with a load of beer I flew to Dease Lake to get). The baby mountain goat that Joe is feeding in this photo was orphaned when his mother was killed in a fall - the baby was later killed by a bear at the ranch.

BC's Coastal Mountains west of Telegraph Creek in 1985
There are some extremely impressive mountains just to the west of our route between Telegraph Creek and Atlin. We arrived at Atlin (YSQ) on June 18th after a 2.1-hour flight from Telegraph Creek through a maze of mountain valleys that tested our map-reading and navigation skills. At one point we did lose our way, but a short back-track to a known position got us re-oriented with no problem.

Atlin, BC, in 1985
Atlin was wonderful, with old buildings everywhere, the historic steamboat Tarahne on the shore, and a great bar in the Atlin Inn. I slept under the plane that night, while Fred and Joe slept in the little log "terminal" building.

Fueling up my Cessna with car gas at Atlin, BC, in 1985
There was no avgas in Atlin either, but a fellow offered to take us and a couple of hundred pounds of gas to the airport, a couple of miles away (a long walk even when you're not carrying jerry cans full of gas), in his truck.

On June 19th, we stopped for fuel in Whitehorse (YXY), then continued on to Dawson (YDA). We arrived just after 11:00 on a beautiful sunny day, and after looking around the small airport a bit, called the Eldorado Hotel, which had a poster in the terminal building offering free airport pickup. The phone rang and rang and rang, and when the sleepy clerk answered, he told us that they don't usually do airport pickups at midnight. He did come, but charged us $25. That was our introduction to the Land of the Midnight Sun!

Aerial view of the Dempster Highway in 1985
On June 20th, we got off to a late start from Dawson, flying basically up the Dempster Highway. We decided to stop at Eagle Plains for dinner, but the lodge wanted $30 or so to pick us up at the airstrip 20 km to the north (AJ2), so after waiting for a VW camper to get out of the way, I landed on the highway in front of the lodge and taxied into their parking lot. After dinner, a semi that started to pull onto the highway as we were taking off towards him made an abrupt stop and backed up further out of the way. The driver probably tells that story as often as I do. This photo was shot over the Richardson Mountains.

Aerial view of the Dempster Highway crossing the Mackenzie Delta in 1985
Late that evening (10:00 pm or so), we got our first look at the incredible Mackenzie Delta, with the dusty Dempster Highway crossing it. At Inuvik (YEV), I got a photo of sunlit flags flying over the terminal building right at midnight while waiting for a shuttle to a hotel in town, the Eskimo Inn. I'd seen photos of the sun touching the horizon and going back up without setting, but was completely surprised to see the sun go nowhere near the horizon before starting its climb again.

Aerial view of the Mackenzie Delta at 10:30 pm on June 21st
The Mackenzie Delta at 10:30 pm.

Cessna 172 at the Tuktoyaktuk airport (CYUB) in 1985
On June 21st, the summer solstice, I took a shuttle back to the airport and flew the plane to the very muddy Inuvik Town airstrip right downtown (ET3, which appears to be closed now), to pick the other guys up. We then continued on another hour along the east side of the Mackenzie Delta to our furthest north destination, Tuktoyaktuk (YUB). The fellow manning the terminal there said that they see very few planes as small as ours. "Tuk" wasn't just the furthest north from my home at Langley, it was the furthest from any experience I'd had before, and I was fascinated by the whole thing.

On an ice floe at Tuktoyaktuk on June 21, 1985
Fred on an ice floe at Tuktoyaktuk. We thought about flying out to an oil rig we could see far offshore, but we all decided that flying over that much broken ice with no possible "Plan B" if anything went wrong was too far beyond our comfort levels.

Oil drilling ships in Tuktoyaktuk harbour in 1985
At that time, Tuktoyaktuk was a very busy oil drilling base, and the harbour was full of ships and related equipment.

Aerial view of Old Crow Flats in 1985
From Tuktoyaktuk, we returned to Inuvik to load up with fuel, then headed west over one of the most sparsely-populated regions left on earth. This is Old Crow Flats near the village of Old Crow, which had a flight service station (YOC) that we registered our passage with for safety.

We had planned on staying overnight at Fort Yukon (FYU) on the night of June 21st, but when the Customs officer there told me that it was a "dry" community and seized my bottle of Scotch, we walked around for an hour, then, not being able to even find a town (any businesses), I called the officer to get my bottle back, and we continued on to Fairbanks (FAI), which we reached with low fuel (fuel was available at Fort Yukon, but there was a huge call-out charge) and surrounded by storms. That was by far our longest day of flying, with 8.2 hours in the air.

We got stuck at Fairbanks for 2 nights because of very bad weather, but a woman that we met in a bar offered to let us stay at her place (just a place to stay - her ex had been a bush pilot). Fairbanks was a wild place in those days, and by the end of that stay, I'd decided that when I got home I'd write a book about one aspect of this trip - "Rowdy Bars of the North".

Tenting at the Northway, Alaska airport in heavy rain in 1985
On June 23rd, the weather was still quite unstable, but we were running out of both time and money, so headed north to one more nearby spot we wanted to see - Arctic Circle Hot Springs (CHP), 1.3 hours away. Disappointed in what we found, though, we headed southeast - I believe we filed a flight plan for Burwash Landing, Yukon. By the time we got near Northway (ORT), though, the weather was very bad and we decided to stop there. The rain on approach was so heavy, and there was so much water on the runway, that Fred was yelling at me that I was set up to land on the river! That was a really awful evening to set up a tent.

in 1985
On June 24th, with the weather calmed down, we continued east, roughly over the Alaska Highway. We stopped at Beaver Creek (YXQ) about 50 minutes later to clear Canada Customs, and a few minutes after taking off again were over the incredible glacial White River. At this point, the highway was a few miles to the south, at the furthest point of the river visible in this photo. We stopped at Burwash Landing (YDB) and walked a mile or so to the Burwash Landing Resort, a place that I would spend a lot of time at, by myself and with tour groups, over the next 28 years until it closed.

Aerial view of Whitehorse, Yukon, in 1985
As we'd planned when we passed quickly through on the way north, we spent the night of June 24th in Whitehorse, where I gathered more material for my "Rowdy Bars" book. Leaving a massive bar called The Sluice Box while I could still walk, I decided to climb the "clay cliffs" back to the airport rather than spend the money for a taxi. Somehow surviving that climb, I was unable to get as far as our plane, and slept on the grass on the runway approach. Fred and Joe did make it back to the plane, and spent an uncomfortable but very short night sleeping in it.

Carcross, Yukon, in 1985
On June 25th, with bad hangovers, we filed a flight plan for Teslin, but made a bit of a detour and a stop in Carcross (CFA4) on the way. While I loved the character of the place, I often wonder what my reaction would have been if somebody had told me that I'd be living there in a few years.

Returning to the Cessna with a good load of fish from Teslin Lake in 1985
As planned, we tented at the Teslin airport (YZW) on the night of June 25th. Fred tried unsuccessfully to convince Joe and/or me to join him on a fishing charter on Teslin Lake, but returned happy with his substantial investment.

On June 26th, we stopped for fuel at Watson Lake (YQH), then overnighted at Smithers again (though at the airport this time). The next day, it was 2 hours to Prince George for fuel, then the final long haul (3.6 hours) back to our base at Langley.

Although we didn't have enough time or money to fully enjoy the trip, and I wish that I'd kept a journal (as there's a lot about it that I've forgotten) and taken more photos, it remains the most life-changing trip I've ever taken. I fell in love with The North during those 2 weeks - with the land and the people - and 5 years later, an ad in a Vancouver newspaper looking for tour bus drivers in Whitehorse would send me North again. It was initially for a summer job, though I left my family and quit a very good permanent job (driving semi-trailers for Overwaitea Foods) that paid a great deal more to do it, but the Yukon soon became my forever-home. There is, of course, much more to that story - some good, some bad - but now you know about the trip that led to that decision.