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Discovering Southeast Alaska by Float Plane

I have a friend that worked in southeast Alaska for the Forest Service in the late 1990’s. He was one of those fortunate people that often worked in the back country for extended periods of time. On a regular basis, he would fly into remote lakes and maintain the trails and cabins along the way. Although he enjoyed everywhere he went, he often spoke of one place in particular, Karta Lake.

Thanks to his insistence we planned a trip that would include five days in a remote cabin accessible only by float plane on Karta Lake. Karta Lake is located on Prince of Wales Island in the Tongass National Forest. But before being dropped off in that remote corner of Alaska, we would spend a day in Ketchican.

Our adventure began when the wheels of the flight from Seattle touched down on the island runway at Ketchikan. From inside the plane, all I saw was water on one side and steep mountains on the other. There was just enough flat space to fit a runway on. While waiting for a boat to ferry us across the water to town, I couldn’t help but notice the amazing numbers of bald eagles. They seemed as thick as mosquitoes, but I soon found out how thick the mosquitoes could get.

The shore along town was constantly buzzing with boats and float planes, ferrying people and supplies to and from the remote sections of the forest. Even though Ketchikan is a quaint little town of only 8,000 people, it is still the fifth largest in the state. Main Street ran right along the shore as well, so we found a spot to enjoy the bustle on the street and in the water below.

The next morning we loaded up our gear into a Beaver float plane and hopped inside. We put on our headphones and taxied out into the water. Once the fishing and tourist boats were out of the way we took off and headed west across the straights. Our pilot, a natural tour guide, pointed out every landmark and point of interest along the way, even taking a few extra minutes to circle a pod of whales below us.

Within the hour we were peering down on Prince of Wales Island. It is quite large by island standards, consisting of nearly 2 million acres. Most of it is nearly inaccessible forests, mountains and lakes. Our pilot flew us up the Karta River to a mile wide lake that was going to be our home for the next five days. After circling the area to make sure no logs were in the way, he landed and floated us right up to the cabin door. Within a few minutes, we had unloaded our gear and watched him take off and disappear over the trees downstream.

salmon runNothing beats a week spent fishing in the middle of nowhere. We caught salmon during the day and cooked them at night. When we weren’t busy fishing, we were out hiking. Once, while hiking upstream from the lake, I came across a sandbar where the tracks of a black bear intertwined with those of a wolf. On several occasions we had front row seats to the Northern Lights as they illuminated the skies overhead. At night and in the early morning hours, we were treated to the mournful howls of wolves as they greeted each other from opposite sides of the lake.

But like all good things, our adventure soon came to an end. I’m not sure who was more upset, my buddy who was saying goodbye to his favorite place for the second time or me, who was just getting used to my new favorite place. The roar of the float plane broke the silence we had enjoyed for days. Within minutes the pilot had us and our gear loaded. We sped across the lake and lifted into the air, bringing a close to an unforgettable journey in the back country of southeast Alaska.

Alan Carr is an avid aviation aficionado and outdoor enthusiast. He is an online publisher for globalair.com, where he often provide resources on aircraft related information.

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