72 Hours With Alaska: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes

Once we landed in Juneau, Alaska EVP External Relations Joe Sprague was in his element. We had big plans until our flight left the next afternoon. As for me, it’s still vacation time.


Preview: A Video Preview Of the Milk Run
Part 1: Introduction to the Milk Run and Getting to Anchorage
Part 2: Aviation in Anchorage
Part 3: The Northern Part of the Milk Run
Part 4: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes
Part 5: The Southern Part of the Milk Run
Part 6: Going Home and Wrapping Up

[Disclosure: Alaska paid for this trip]


There’s not much population in Juneau with just over 30,000 people, but there are three main areas where these people live. First, there’s downtown which sits on the mainland on a small patch of flat land in the shadows of both Mt Juneau and Mt Roberts. Many of the buildings are from the early 1900s and the part of town that begins to creep up the hillsides has a folksy feel to it. In the flats near the water, however, it’s cruise ship heaven. Everywhere you look, you see touristy jewelry stores and bars.

Across the Gastineau Channel is Douglas Island which has steep roads leading to some homes with incredible views of the city, including the one where Joe’s parents lived. But back on the mainland, doubling back toward airport, lies the Mendenhall Valley. At the end of the valley is the mighty Mendenhall Glacier. There’s something awe-inspiring and unsettling about seeing a giant block of ice at the end of a populated valley. You can see its imposing awesomeness in this photo.

After walking out into the cool, misty evening, we drove into the valley to have dinner at the home of Mike “Stedy” Stedman. Stedy taught Joe to fly floats nearly 30 years ago and he remains a good friend of his to this day. Once Wings of Alaska went under, Stedy built up Alaska Seaplanes which flies both floatplanes and landplanes throughout the region. It has both scheduled service and charter operations with upwards of 50 flights a day. It’s quite the powerhouse in the area.

At first glance, Stedy is an imposing man. He’s far taller than I and has a big frame. He also has a deep, infectious belly laugh that just welcomes you into the conversation. Most importantly, this is a man who knows his shit when it comes to flying. His general manager Carl Ramseth (who also goes back to Wings of Alaska days) was there for dinner as well, as were their wives. Carl is the opposite of Stedy, at least in demeanor. He’s more quiet and measured, but he and Stedy do share something very important. They both take their jobs very seriously and run one heck of an operation.

The night started with some freshly smoked cod while the King Salmon (even a couple of the more rare white variety) cooked on the grill. Fishing is a way of life up there, and I felt privileged to be able to eat the bounty. The night wound on as they all shared stories from their youths. I understood maybe half of what they talked about, but I didn’t mind. It was well worth it to just observe the reunion of old friends.

The darkness began to creep in, amplified by the low clouds, and that’s when I realized it was nearly 11 o’clock. We left and headed to the Baranof Hotel for the night.

The Baranof is owned by Westmark, a division of Holland America cruises. The place has been there forever and is the grand dame of the region. It’s not the most luxurious hotel around by a long shot (not even close), but it’s probably the most luxurious in Juneau. It was certainly good enough for me for the night, despite the hallways giving off that horror movie vibe.

I passed out quickly, only to hear my alarm go off all too soon.

Our Milk Run wasn’t set to continue until that afternoon, but I was up early to TRY for a ride on Alaska Seaplanes. I emphasize “try” because the weather looked awful. From my window, I couldn’t see anything and the rain was coming down in sheets. Visibility looked pretty poor, and I’m told heavy rain isn’t all that common (though it does spit a lot). I figured this flight wasn’t going to happen, but I was wrong.

The interesting thing about Juneau is that the weather in one place might be completely different from that just a few minutes away. The mountainous islands and waterways combine to create their own strange weather systems. The geography and weather are so complex that the winds can swirl from all different directions, causing very dangerous situations for aircraft. That’s why a sophisticated system called JAWS was developed to help predict windshear. (It was based off a system in Hong Kong, but it’s not used anywhere else yet, as far as I know.) That along with the use of webcams and weather data means that Alaska Seaplanes has an incredible ability to know if it’s ok to fly even if it doesn’t look that way from one vantage point.

On our way toward the airport, there was some nasty stuff rolling over Juneau, but we weren’t going that way. The other way looked much better with ceilings of 3,000 feet, sometimes higher. Joe dropped me off at the curb, and the weather looked a bit better. I went to the ticket counter and found out it was a go… but with a surprise.

The original plan was to put me on an old Beaver floatplane out to the town of Tenakee Springs about half an hour away. But at the last minute, they opted to combine our flight with one going to Angoon and put us all on a larger Caravan.

This Caravan, N1265U, was amphibious, meaning it has both floats and wheels so it could go anywhere. That, however, was to end a week later when they were looking to replace those with pure floats. The gear weighed too much and they didn’t need it, so they were putting floats on to be able to carry more of a load onboard.

Our aircraft had a Garrett turbine which means it was fast and purred like a kitten when it started. Our pilot Paul Lerma was also the Director of Operations for Alaska Seaplanes. He told me he flew most days, and he loved flying the Caravan. Our aircraft could seat 8 people (including the pilot) plus cargo. We had a pretty full load going out with 3 heading to Angoon, 2 to Tenakee, and then me just along for the ride.

Since it’s amphibious, they boarded the aircraft from the ramp. It’s just a short van ride to the dock from the terminal, but it’s a lot easier to just walk outside and climb stairs if you can. Paul helped everyone in, and then he handed me a headset and told me to take the right seat. Giddyup!

He gave the safety briefing and then hopped into his seat to fire up the propeller. We headed out to the runway and were airborne at 9:10am. Heading away from Juneau we soon found ourselves at 2,500 feet just below the clouds. That was a necessity since we were flying VFR (as they nearly always do, though the Caravan can and does fly IFR).

We cut through Hawk Inlet and came out into the Chatham Strait. It was there that we started getting some stomach churning dips, and I hoped I wouldn’t get sick. But it smoothed out shortly and we didn’t have much of that kind of turbulence the rest of the way.

Cruising down Chatham Strait, I couldn’t believe that ahead of me was a speck of blue sky.

We were so close to the mess in Juneau yet here it was totally different. As Paul noted, the native people, the Tlingit, weren’t stupid. They often settled in places where the weather was best. And our destination, Angoon, was a Tlingit village. After just over 20 minutes, we descended into a little protected waterway that made for a smooth landing just 26 minutes after we had left. I can’t say I remember hearing an automated voice warn us to put our “gear up” prior to landing before.

As we pulled up to the dock, Paul hopped out to tie us down. A little ATV with a cart showed up to take off the mail (yes, Alaska Seaplanes is the lifeline to smaller communities that way Alaska Airlines is to larger ones) and load up some cargo.

Three people got off and another three got on to make the trip back to Juneau. But first, we had to go to Tenakee Springs.

After 18 minutes on the water, we took off and cruised right across the strait before hanging a right into this spectacular glacial valley.

We still hung just below the clouds as tiny Tenakee came into view.

Tenakee Springs is the opposite of Angoon. It is basically a hippie colony for people who want to live off the grid. It sits on more open water and the conditions were marginal when we left Angoon. In fact, Paul told the Tenakee-bound passengers just that in case we weren’t able to land. But once we got close, the swells were measuring at just a foot despite a few scattered whitecaps. We would be fine.

At 10:08am, the floats touched the water at Tenakee, a mere 14 minutes after leaving Angoon. It would have been quicker too had a boat not drifted in front of us as we prepared to land. We had to do a go-around. It was certainly choppier here, but it wasn’t anything the aircraft couldn’t handle with ease. We dropped the two passengers off and then took off again for the flight back to Juneau, spending just 12 minutes on the water.

Paul and I chatted almost the entire morning. He’s exactly what you’d expect from an experienced pilot in this part of the world. Though he had started his career in the logging world, the decline of that industry had him choose a second career. And this was it. For him flying an airplane was like getting in a car. He told me that learning to fly in Juneau was terrifying at first. But once he became more experienced, it was a completely different story. Now he doesn’t break a sweat, and he knows the terrain like the back of his hand.

We came back through Hawk Inlet and had this view of a mine.

Shortly after, we landed in Juneau after a 17 minute flight, parking right where we had started. I thanked Paul for the ride and really appreciated the look into how important a company like this is in these parts of Alaska that aren’t connected in any other way.

Joe picked me up and we drove around on a tour of town. Then we came back for our afternoon adventure, the southern half of the Milk Run.

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2 Comments on "72 Hours With Alaska: Juneau and Alaska Seaplanes"

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Tim Dunn
Member

Another great report. It’s no wonder the Russians are always mad at us considering what they sold Alaska for… and how much the US gained because of the purchase.
Thanks for capturing the aviation side of what makes Alaska unlike any other place on earth.

flbbs
Member

Too bad you did not take a sight-seeing ride on one of the 4 or 5 passenger Beavers. Greatest experience, landing on a lake in the middle of the wilderness was a fantastic expierence.

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