BUSH MAIL PLANE
Wrangell/St. Elias, Alaska
Notes from the journal of artist Gail Niebrugge
August 12, 1976
Once a week from Gulkana airport, Alaska, weather permitting, the mail is delivered by small single engine Cessna 180, to remote road less sites deep in the heart of the Wrangell/St. Elias. At Gulkana, the mail is brought to the plane in sacks and boxes, and fills the entire back section of the plane from top to bottom. On this day there is much more mail than usual, the pilot explained that people in the bush were starting to stockpile provisions for the winter. Everything needed for survival, from food to fuel had to be flown, and an inexpensive way to receive goods is to have them delivered by mail.
This year I was on an extended painting summer vacation in Alaska, and after growing up and living all of my previous 35 years in San Diego county, California, life in this remote region was fascinating and intriguing. Before this summer, small airplanes were an unknown to me, and learning that U.S. Mail deliveries are made by small plane to areas not served by roads was something that I wanted to know more about, to see, and to experience. Thus, I found myself on this cloudy August day, standing on the tarmac at Gulkana, waiting for a ride.
Once loaded, we flew to Chitina to wait for the ceiling to lift enough to get to McCarthy, a sparsely populated remnant from the great Kennicott Copper Mines of the 1930’s. Chitina was a major stop for the Copper River and Northwestern Railway during the heydays of the copper mine. Today it is a decaying reminder of the past, with rusty vehicles and falling down buildings scattered throughout the overgrowth of thickets of willow and alder.
After an hour, the clouds lifted enough for the plane to follow the trail of the defunct railway that serves as the only road to McCarthy. The pilot related how beautiful this area is during the fall, within a month the whole countryside turns from green to shades of red, orange and yellow. Numerous odd shaped unnamed lakes scattered below served as visual reference and were given pet names like “Casper the friendly ghost” and “big tooth with roots.” Soon jagged mountains near the Chitina River appeared, shrouded in clouds, an occasional peak ripping through the softness of the cloud cover. Below we spotted the remains of a toppled bridge, a vital link of a road that used to cross the Nizinia River and lead to the settlements of May Creek and Dan Creek. Today the residents rely completely on air transportation.
Dan Creek, our first stop, had a fairly good gravel strip that the pilot handled with the ease of someone who does this daily. The mail drop is an old metal water culvert. Mainly a summer gold mining area, Dan Creek is home to a few year round residents. Removing the side door from the Cessna to unload, the pilot placed the mail in the culvert. A fellow in a jeep sped down the rocky trail to pick up mail and to give the pilot outgoing mail. As quick as possible we were airborne for the next stop, May Creek. The landing strip is similar to Dan Creek, and again we were greeted by an anxious man, this time riding a Honda ATV. Mail day is an eagerly awaited occasion in these remote areas, since delivery is weather dependent, it is sometimes several weeks between distributions.
Our next stop is McCarthy. The road ends at the Kennicott River, where a rickety hand pulled tram replaced the washed out bridge. From the air it looked like about a mile walk from the tram to the town, which itself was as rickety as the tram. I couldn’t see much of the settlement, because we landed at an old grass strip on a ridge across from town separated by McCarthy Creek. The mail is deposited in an ancient log cabin that stands along the runway.
The flight to Cordova is spectacular. We flew over Hannigita Lake and Tebay Lake in the Chugach mountains, and followed the Copper River to the sea. The country is rich in color and drama, glacier ice is sprinkled with lakes that look like scattered turquoise jewels, and silty brownish rivers are lined by shores of golden sand. Some freshwater lakes are so clear that you can see the bottom, and others are muddy. Glaciers are heavily streaked with the soil of the earth as the moving ice scraped past mountains, from a distance it looked like dirt roads curving across the white frozen surface. The largest glaciers were the Allen and the Miles. We passed the partially collapsed Million Dollar bridge, that is part of the few remains of the historic railway from Cordova to Chitina.
Cordova Municipal Airport is a pebble scattered strip which doubles as a road, situated next to a float plane lake, and is the headquarters for the mail plane contract with Chitina Air Service. The city itself reminded me of Ketchikan and other southern panhandle coastal towns of Alaska, and is built on a spit of land between the freshwater lake and an inlet to the sea. With the load lightened, there was room for a passenger on the return trip to McCarthy. Without headphones, in order to talk, we shouted to be heard above the engine noise and listened carefully to the pilots colorful commentary.
Airborne again after dropping the passenger at McCarthy, we headed up the Chitistone Canyon toward the old mining settlement of Chisana. The route passes through the narrow spectacular gorge of the Chitistone Creek, with towering mountains bordering each side. Low clouds covered the peaks, and the pilot was uncertain if the pass, at 6000 foot elevation, was open. At the pass, the pilot found a hole in the clouds, bouncing and shifting with the wind the plane climbed emerging into clear visibility on the top. It was a big adrenaline rush for me, and hooked me on flying forever. The land below, Skolai valley, is grassy and fertile and wildlife are plentiful. The pilot was clearly in his own up here, flying low, making steep banking turns to spot game, as we counted Dall sheep, moose and caribou. On a faint trail below are several abandoned mail cabins that were used when mail was delivered by dog sled.
The sectional map showed the Chisana airstrip as “Hazardous,” due to frequent animals, the pilot explained that he has had to do more than one go around because of moose or other game on the runway. It is clear today, but our landing is rough caused by tricky winds and uneven conditions on the ground. We were soon surrounded by people who seemed to appear out of nowhere. Some are so eager for news, that they sat on the ground and immediately opened envelopes, and were so absorbed in reading that when we departed no one seemed to notice.
The route retraced our flight back through the Chitistone Canyon, we flew so close to the Russell Glacier that the wing tips seemed to graze the ice. At the bottom of the canyon, we circled and had the harshest landing of the day on a rock strewn trail at the mining camp named Pea Vine. The residents are trying to become a regular stop on the mail route, and this is the first delivery. The jury is still out on whether or not that stop will be included.
It is late in the continuous Alaska summer daylight when we approached our last stop. Long lake is surrounded by a lush, green productive valley, along the railway/road to Chitina, and is considered by some to be the eminently prime land of the area. The airstrip is mowed grass, and rests alongside a beautiful cabin that overlooks a gorgeous lake. It is one of the places where I would most love to live in the Wrangells. The mail box is an oil drum, freshly painted red, white and blue.
On the final leg of the journey, we are flying into a glowing sun as it streaks through the clouds, a fitting end to an astonishing day. We had been flying for over eight hours, and this adventure altered my future forever. Once or twice in a lifetime, if you are lucky, an experience can be so impressive that it can cause life changes. I have shared one of those times with you in this journal. Our family never returned to live again in California, and our extended vacation in the Copper River Basin became our new home. One year later I earned my private pilots license and became the owner of a Cessna 170B, and during the next few years, I explored every corner of the remotely rugged, stupendously beautiful Wrangell/St. Elias region of Alaska’s interior. The paintings shown with this journal were inspired by this one single, incredible day.