Hanging off the Buoy: A Day in the Life of a Lodge Pilot
by Ken Bethe, Pilot at Alaska Rainbow Lodge
Today, we’ll be flying deep into the Katmai National Park, an incredibly scenic flight through mountainous terrain and over deep blue alpine lakes and streams. It’s been a fine day so far, with great flying conditions. We’ve been fishing this area for the past few days, targeting Silver (Coho) Salmon, Chum Salmon and Dolly Varden Trout on the fly rods.
This isn’t the place for inexperienced pilots. We land at the outlet of the river where it meets the ocean, where tidal fluctuations routinely vary six to eight feet or more, between mean high and mean low. When the tide is out, sand bars are often exposed, and the strong crosswinds, low water and a multitude of other factors challenge even the most experienced pilots.
We taxi the plane up beside two jet boats moored to a buoy, shut off the engine and exit onto the floats in time to catch the buoy and tie the plane to it. Here’s where coordination between the guide and pilot play such a key role. Together, we grab the buoy rope and tie it off to the front cleat on the aircraft float (before the current/wind/tide decides otherwise) trying all the time not to slip off the floats – or be dragged off by the buoy – into the 40-degree water. This requires some pretty quick thinking and movements, any of which could land you in the drink.
Once we get the boats secured to the floats, we unload the fishing gear and lunch paraphernalia, and transfer the guests aboard.
The pilot and plane remain with you for the day, so we can coordinate a timely departure if the weather changes unexpectedly. I usually hang off the buoy while our guests are upstream fishing, and watch the tide ebb and flow. Today there have been a couple seals swimming around the plane, chasing salmon and each other. They’ve been putting on quite a show. I have my door open and they periodically swim up to look me over. I’m sure they can’t figure out what the heck this plane is all about!
I’m always glad to see the boats returning to the plane after a successful day of fishing, and I look forward to listening to the guests tell the stories about the fish they caught and the bears they saw.