MY ALASKA EXPERIENCE
In May of 1986, I was asked to go to Anchorage, Alaska by the Orange County Chapter of the American Red Cross to teach some Red Cross courses to the volunteer nurses. I left Long Beach Airport on Alaska Airlines about 11:00 a.m. on Sun. May 18th. We flew along the coast over Santa Barbara, and were able to see the Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura. Between sun and clouds, I saw Lake Shasta and Mt. Shasta. The mighty Columbia River was visible as we landed in Portland amid rain showers. Twenty minutes later we took off in the pouring rain for Seattle. It was also rainy and cold in Seattle. About an hour out of Anchorage we broke out of the clouds into clear, sunny weather and were treated to beautiful views of Southeastern Alaska. There was lots of snow on the mountaintops with little green visible from our altitude.
One of my seatmates was a young woman who was a radio operator in the Navy. She was flying to Anchorage to connect with an Air Force flight to Adak on the Aleutian chain for a two-year tour of duty. She explained that the base military and civilian population was approximately 500, mostly men. When we landed I could just see some green grass popping up in between the runways. As I deplaned, I was met by Don Mays wearing a Red Cross jacket who drove me to the Holiday Inn. I was given a room on the second floor with a view of the harbor on Knik Arm. I watched the sunset over Point Mackenzie at about 10:30 p.m. The sun woke me about 6:30 a.m. on Monday.
By Thursday I was acquainted with most of the volunteers that were taking my classes. That evening I was invited to the South Central Chapter Volunteer Recognition and Annual Meeting at the Hilton Hotel where I got better acquainted with more people from the Chapter. The entire evening had been organized and nurtured by Gerrie Ivy. As we parted that evening, she made a slight reference to the need to “gas her plane”. She said she would call me in the morning and maybe we could have lunch.
Friday morning dawned at 4 a.m. The day was sunny and clear and after breakfast I walked to Elderberry Park to take many pictures. I returned to my hotel room about 11:30 a.m. There weren't any messages from Gerrie there or at Chapter! I finally called Gerrie at her home. She was having lunch with her husband. She said to give her a few minutes and she would see what her husband was going to do with his afternoon off. She said she would call me back about going for a plane ride if I would like. I assured her that I’d love it! I had already asked Don May if he would go with Gerrie in her airplane if he had the chance and he said emphatically yes! After lunch in the hotel coffee shop I got back to my room just as Gerrie called me from the lobby, ready to go.
I was told that Bill Ivy was one of the highly respected Gynecologists in town. Bill and Gerrie came to Anchorage 34 years ago, right out of med school and newly married. He was a General Practitioner as were the other four doctors in town. They built their own home, one of the nicest in town. (I'm told it took twenty years to finish.) They had the first indoor swimming pool in town. Gerrie began teaching adaptive aquatics at her home for the local Red Cross. They have five children, all grown and married and producing grandchildren. One daughter moved to the San Diego area and the rest have stayed in Alaska. Gerrie, an R.N. taught nursing classes at the University of Alaska in Anchorage for a number of years, but is now retired and a full time volunteer for the Red Cross. She was in the Home Nursing Instructor Course I taught there. She told me that she had always wanted to learn to fly as many do in Alaska because everything is so remote that you either fly yourself or hire a "bush pilot”. Several years ago Gerrie’s husband bought a plane and they decided to take some lessons. Now they own a four seat Cherokee D 180 and also a four seat float or ski plane.
We jumped in her old station wagon and off we went to Chapter. Gerrie said she had noticed that George Day's car was in the Chapter parking lot and maybe we could kidnap him for a plane ride with us. I replied that anything was fine with me, only I had to be back for class at 5 p.m. George didn't need his arm twisted. He closed up his briefcase and said, ”Let's go!” I asked him if he might want to check in with his wife. He said, “Not if we’re going to be home by dinner time!” Off we went to Lake Hood and Anchorage International Airport.
We met Bill Ivy working on the ski plane getting it ready to be picked up with the floats on it for the summer. Gerrie tried her best to get him to go with us but he was not interested. He had his afternoon planned. If Gerrie determined that the ice had melted enough on Big Lake for them to safely land, then they would fly the float plane into their place for the Memorial Day weekend. Bill appeared to be a rather shy, big man. Not many at the Chapter had ever met him before, as the Red Cross is Gerrie's thing.
The three of us drove over to the side of the airport where the private planes were tied down. We were introduced to N871VY, given a walk-around inspection demo and checking of the gas tanks. We taxied over to the Ivy's spot on Lake Hood where they have their own gas tank. We filled up both tanks, washed the windows and then taxied back to the taxiway onto the airport where Gerrie filed her flight plan and got permission to take off for Big Lake. That little plane popped off the runway like a cork out of a champagne bottle! The weather was clear enough to have fairly good visibility. George and I were told that we were also responsible for watching for air traffic. I rode in the front passenger seat while both Gerrie and George pointed out various spots of interest as we flew north over many lakes. The evidence of glacial action is obvious at that altitude. We saw an area where they were burning back cleared tree trunks. Gerrie said, “They are clearing the land for an experimental dairy project.”
In a few minutes we were over a lake that was their homestead property. “We have several acres homesteaded. There’s our building without water or anything. It’s like camping with a roof over your head.”
In another few minutes we were over Big Lake. There was still a lot of ice visible on the lake but Gerrie determined that there was plenty of room to land near their end. It was definitely the best way to get to their cabin since the landing strip is at the opposite end of the lake. From there they take a small motor boat across to their landing, pushing ice aside as they go. We circled around several times while I took pictures. She told us interesting stories about how they got supplies in and built up the place over the years.
We then flew on to Wasilla to land at the gravel strip airport there. As we passed over, Gerrie asked us to look for the windsock, but we couldn't see it. She thought she might have a crosswind. She circled around and landed after radioing her intentions to the ground. As we swung down the runway we all spotted the windsock near the ground and the same color as the ground. Hardly obvious! We parked on the side of the runway and went into a Wendy's for a cup of coffee. Wasilla is a funny little town with stores and shops all in a row down one street that runs parallel to the runway.
Alaska revolves around air travel. These little towns are few and far between. Some are connected by roads, but the distance is such that air travel is faster and easier. Many other towns along the coast are only accessible by air or boat. I asked when we were flying if I was looking at a road or a runway, and Gerrie said that in this part of the country they were often one and the same!
In a little while we took off from Wasilla with George in the front seat and me in the back. We flew all over the northwest side of the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet and then came back into the radio control area of the International Airport. Gerrie took a fast landing instruction so as not to interfere with heavy commercial traffic. The hot asphalt of that runway was not as forgiving as the gravel runway at Wasilla had been. We bounced around a bit, Gerrie giggled, so I knew we were all right. I have never been so comfortable in a small plane as I was with Gerrie that day. She was relaxed about everything. While she appeared to be a little scatter-brained and flighty, she is really very accomplished and organized.
I was back in time for my class, after a once in a lifetime experience. The memories will remain with me forever.
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