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Backcountry Barnstormers

By on January 1, 2010
RoadKing Mag

It was meant to be a joke, an attempt to calm the tension Curly Warren sensed from the passenger sitting behind him, but when Warren suggested he “put this thing down on a rockpile” next to a rushing Alaska river, I wasn’t laughing. The “thing” was his Piper Super Cub — a two-seat, 1,200-pound engine, frame and wings wrapped in paper-thin skin — which serves as Warren’s primary mode of transportation. Warren banked his little airplane hard, looked down at the gin-clear river below and spoke into the microphone against his lips.

“See all those red things in the water? That’s what we’re after,” he said.

As a hunting and fishing outfitter deep in the Alaska wilderness, Warren relies on his plane to ferry clients to and from areas where fish and game are plentiful. One day, he might put his Super Cub down on a bumpy gravel bar next to a river loaded with giant rainbow trout or king salmon. The next morning, Warren might settle down on a windswept mountain, dropping off a bear, sheep or moose hunter. On this day, he eased off on the accelerator and gently glided down to a narrow strip of cobblestone next to the river. In a matter of minutes, the two of us were casting flies to schools of silver salmon a hundred yards from his plane.

It was just another day in the life of an Alaska bush pilot.

“I just love flying, no matter what I’m doing,” says Warren, 63. “I especially enjoy taking people up who have never had the thrill of flying in a small airplane. I can fly at pretty low altitudes and we can see things you’d never be able to see from 5 or 10 thousand feet. The scenery is spectacular.”

Unless, of course, Alaska’s infamous weather is bearing down on Warren and his hunting and fishing camp. He doesn’t particularly care for the unpredictable nature of the wind, rain, snow and fog, but it goes with the territory. Warren understands that some days just aren’t made for flying. He’s never pushed it, and as a result he’s never been involved in a serious incident.

“I’ve parked funny a few times, but I’ve never gotten hurt and no one who has flown with me has gotten hurt,” he says. “I’d say one of the biggest reasons accidents happen is because a pilot flies when he probably shouldn’t have. These planes are very safe and the pilots I know take very good care of them.”

That’s not to say the job isn’t without some danger. If a pilot does have to make an unplanned landing, there’s no guarantee there’s a flat strip of grass or dirt where it’s needed. And if there is, there’s no guarantee help is on the way. Alaska is a vast state and thousands of square miles are not only uninhabited, they are seldom visited by anyone.

That’s okay with Warren, one of more than 10,000 licensed pilots in Alaska, which has more private airplanes than any other state. Spend time away from the major cities of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau and it’s easy to see why airplanes are a favorite mode of transportation: There’s no other way to get around, at least not if you want to cover long distances in a short amount of time. That’s why Warren earned his pilot’s license nearly 40 years ago and got heavily involved in flying when he opened his hunting and fishing camp, Stoney River Lodge, in 1983. The lodge can only be reached by plane. The nearest road is more than 200 miles away, so everything, from guests to food to supplies, has to arrive by plane.

When a group of hunters and their gear arrive from Anchorage, they usually fly a single-engine Otter, which can seat up to 10 passengers and land on dirt airstrips just a few hundred yards long. Most backcountry pilots like Warren favor Piper Super Cubs, a single-engine craft than can carry about 500 pounds, which includes a pilot and only one passenger. A Cub, however, can take off and land with just 100 yards of ground, making it the perfect choice for landing on short gravel bars and flat spots on rugged mountains.

Aside from ferrying clients to and from remote locations where fish and game are plentiful, Warren and his wife Betty also run a trapline by airplane, flying to distant locations to catch wolves, beavers and other furbearers throughout the harsh winter. Other bush pilots use small planes for a variety of jobs like flying mail routes, stopping at remote outposts once a week to deliver mail and other vital supplies to residents deep in the wilderness. They also serve as taxis, shuttling visitors and residents from village to village. In other words, without bush pilots, visitors and residents alike wouldn’t be able to experience Alaska’s true wilderness. And they wouldn’t get to share the nervous thrill of landing on a narrow, bumpy gravel bar next to a salmon-filled river 200 miles from the nearest road.

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