This article is re-printed from the Alaska Airmen’s Association Transponder.
The last day of June saw the birth of a new northern aviation activity that I hope to see continued for many years: the Atlin Fly-In. Organized by a gung-ho group in Whitehorse, this three-day event was a fun-packed combination of aviation and local activities at the historic community of Atlin, British Columbia, on the eastern shore of the 65 mile-long Atlin Lake. About half way between Whitehorse and Juneau, but on the dry side of the coastal mountains, this is a scenic location for a flying, camping and all-around fun place to be. Fifty aircraft from all directions made the trip to Atlin, with close to 100 people enjoying the weather, scenery, food, events and chance to interact with other aviation minded folks.
Getting there is half the fun
After filing our eAPIS report, and calling Canadian Customs, my wife and I departed Fairbanks on Friday, June 29, in our Cessna 185. We were flying with Canadian friends and colleagues Bram Tilroe from Edmonton and Bob Kirby from Calgary, in a Piper Dakota (you will read more about the purpose of their trip in future reports). Skirting rain showers, we headed down the Alaska Highway. Our first stop was at Beaver Creek, just east of the border, where we painlessly cleared customs before continuing down the highway toward Whitehorse. Conditions were not so nice along Kluane Lake and around Haines Junction, but picked up the closer we got to Whitehorse. After refueling both ourselves and the airplanes, we continued down the valley to Atlin. We felt right at home landing on their gravel runway, taxied past an impressive array of aircraft, and parked along the old runway which would be home for the next three days. The GPS track later showed we had covered 644 nautical miles. The Fly-In was also billed as a camp-in, as there are not many commercial establishments in Atlin, a community of about 300 residents. After pitching our tent, we took in the variety of aircraft, ranging from big tired Cubs and Cessnas to a number of low-wing Piper products, even a Mooney. For accent, a beautiful Staggerwing Beech and a resident Skyvan, a handful of float planes tied down at the lake, and at a couple helicopters added flavor to the mix. This is a serious flying community!
This was organized!
The event was organized by members of the Canadian Pilots and Owners Association (COPA) based in Whitehorse. COPA encourages the establishment of local units called Flights, and the Yukon Flight 106 http://www.copayukon.com/) happens to be the Whitehorse group. An energetic and very organized member, Jean Michel Sauve, and a small committee from Flight 106 did the legwork that made this event a pleasure for the participants. But maybe that is just the Canadian way, eh?
If you didn’t wish to cook, arrangements had been made for locally prepared meals, which provided an instant social occasion, and the opportunity to meet other participants. The food was provided, for a donation, by local establishments, who set up and cooked in hangars at the airport. Picnic tables owned by the COPA Yukon Flight, had been trucked down from Whitehorse, making a dining facility.
On Saturday, the tables served as a class room for a talk on mountain flying by veteran Whitehorse pilot Rick Nielsen, and local Atlin pilot Jamie Tait. This orientation to the local area was the lead-in to a fly-out to the Llewellyn Glacier, Juneau Icefield and Taku River, with a landing at a remote strip.
An evening program included a talk by glassier pilot Andy Williams, who flew a Helio Courier for the Kluane Lake Research station, supporting projects deep in the St. Elias Mountains. Tim Cole, the COPA Regional Director for the Yukon and BC, gave an extensive update on COPA activities.
But it wasn’t just about airplanes.
Similar to Dawson, Fairbanks, Eagle and other northern communities, Atlin is a gold rush town. An offshoot of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, mining still plays a significant role in the area. Like many surviving gold rush era towns, there is an interest in history. The Tarahne is an old lake boat that used to haul people and supplies along the lake, but today is drydocked, and in the process of being restored. Once a year, in true British tradition, a high tea is held on the boat. A fund-raiser for the restoration process, locals and visitors alike don their 1890’s attire and come aboard. For women that didn’t happen to bring a suitable hat, they were available to use for the occasion, for a small donation. We went, and met some fascinating local residents—and had a great time!
Sunday was Canada Day. A pancake breakfast (with REAL Canadian maple syrup) was served downtown, which also provided a ring-side seat for the Atlin Canada Day Parade. Leading the procession were a sharp looking group of Royal Canadian Mounted Police, in full dress uniform. The Mountie in the second row looked familiar—oh wait, that is our fly-in organizer, Jean Michel, in the uniform of his day job!
Sunday afternoon following the parade it was back to the airport for another aviation activity. COPA has a program similar to the EAA Young Eagles program called COPA for Kids, where they provide free flights to youth, to introduce them to general aviation. COPA Kids was a hit in Atlin, with flights provided for 30 youngsters. While that may not sound like a huge number, remember, this is a community of a little more than 300 people. On a per capita basis, that beats the pants off of any other event I am familiar with. The local Lions Club provided lunch, both for the kids and the fly-in participants, another example of community involvement.
To wrap up the Fly-In, a banquet was held in a hangar at the airport. In addition to great food and a three piece band to provide live music, a raffle for a host of goods and services was conducted. The raffle along with a live auction for a travel package of hotel, RV, car rental, and air travel raised something over $5,000. The raffle and auction provided the income to cover the costs of the fly-in leaving a healthy surplus, which was donated to a local Atlin youth group.
Returning to Alaska
While the weather held nicely at Atlin, Monday morning saw rain and five mile visibility in Whitehorse, as we motored back north. Neither weather reports nor forecasts looked good further along the Alaska Highway route, so we were treated to two ‘bonus days’ in Whitehorse, which also proved delightful. If you have time spend in Whitehorse, right next to the airport is a transportation museum with a nice collection of historic aviation photos and information. Next door is the Beringia Interpretive Centre, also worth a visit. Clouds finally lifted, and we were able to fly back to Alaska on July 4th. We cleared customs in Northway, which was another lesson in logistics. While we had no difficulty filing an eAPIS report, the Alcan Border Station is short staffed at the moment, and they ask pilots to clear only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. (two hours less than the normal published times). This makes an already short window for entering Alaska even smaller. If you combine weather conditions with customs hours of operations, it makes getting into Alaska more challenging, now that Eagle has no customs officer to allow clearing there. Folks with longer range (and good weather) can fly on into Fairbanks, or Anchorage, but that doesn’t help a lot of the general aviation community. This is an issue we need to address if we want to see more cross-border GA activities.
In reflecting on the Atlin Fly-In, there were several aspects of the event that are noteworthy. First, pilots came from all points on the compass. Of the fifty, ten were from the US. Alaska pilots from Juneau, Sitka, Healy and Fairbanks were joined by a Cessna 172 from Idaho and an Austrian couple that keep a C-182 in the states, who were flying on to Alaska. As we got talking with the Canadian participants, in addition to the locals from Whitehorse, we discovered groups of airplanes from Fort St. John, and as far south as Vancouver. Not everyone who started out made it. A Cessna 140 had departed from Quebec, but encountered strong headwinds, and turned back when they realized that at their current rate of progress, the event would be over before they arrived. These Canadians are a flying bunch of people!
The mountain flying seminar and fly-out over to the Juneau ice field was not only fun for those that participated, but provided an introduction to that type of flying for those not used to this terrain and local weather. While not billed as a safety program, this was an aviation educational element designed into the event.
This fly-in was also well integrated into the Atlin community. By engaging the services of the businesses in Atlin to cater meals, and plug into the local events, the citizens of Atlin were aware that the infusion of visitors (and dollars) into their community that weekend was tied to the Atlin airport. Hopefully, that will help when it comes time to support the airport in the future. Having the proceeds for the fundraiser not only pay off the event expenses, but creating a significant contribution to the local youth centre, also provides another connection for general aviation to the community.
Finally, I would like to recognize the hours and effort that the Whitehorse group invested in making the arrangements, soliciting donations for raffle items and door prizes, and hauling all those picnic tables back and forth from Whitehorse! A big thank you to Jean Michel and the COPA Yukon Flight 106 for starting what I hope will become an annual tradition. You can see more details about the Atlin Fly-In, and the sponsors that supported it at http://www.copayukon.com/flyin_Atlin.html. To have 20% of the aircraft at the Fly-In possessing N numbers was an impressive showing. The challenge I throw out to Alaskan pilots, and our neighbors in the “lower 48” states, is to improve upon that percentage next year. You won’t regret it!
Additional Atlin pictures from the Fly-in
Podcast covering the Atlin Fly-in by My Yukon Life podcast host Jennifer Hawkins