Fantasy flight fulfills man’s dreams, fills Rotary’s coffers

By Daniel LeBlanc, Staff Write, Cadillac News

A man’s dreams of what could be have turned into pleasant memories of what was.

Cadillac adventurer and Rotarian, Keith Johnson, has returned from his three-week solo flight to Alaska. He now struggles to put into words all that he has seen and done.

“Trying to tell you what Alaska is like is like trying to tell you what the people in Cadillac look like,” Johnson said, his feet firmly back on terra firma. “Alaska has 10,000 faces, and you would almost have to describe them all to get a sense of what it is like. You go from rain forest, with its lush swamp, to the vastness of the glaciers. I thought I might see a few big glaciers, but here are hundreds that are immense.

“I saw moose, elk, bear, caribou, sheep and goats. I also saw a lot of grizzlies from the air – which is not a bad way to see them.”

Johnson took off July 22 in his four-seat Cessna from Cadillac to Alaska, to visit his daughter, raise money for the Rotary Foundation and because it is something he has always wanted to do, but never had a good enough reason to do it.

Last week, Johnson completed his leisurely trip back to Cadillac with 10,000 miles of memories. The trip also netted the Cadillac Rotary Foundation about $3,000.

About 3,000 of the miles of his trip were just pleasure flying around Alaska’s high peaks and over glaciers and deep coastal gouges, he said.

“The most spectacular flight was going from Anchorage to Valdez (about 250 miles),” Johnson said. “There is just water and glaciers between the two. I was glad to see Valdez airport.

“I was told by the experienced pilots in the area that you don’t land in the water. Plan ‘A’ is to keep the plane running, but if you run into trouble you should try landing on the tundra. You’ll probably flip, but it will slow you down. It would even be better to land into the trees – as long as you don’t hit a sizable one head-on, you’ll probably do OK.”

He said one of his most stimulating times was flying through a famous mountain pass.

“When I went to White Horse to Juneau, I had to go over the pass at Skagway. Skagway is at sea level, and it goes up to White Pass, at about 4,000 feet. There were enough clouds above the glaciers in the mountains to make me pay attention,” he said.

Johnson said he was told by an airline pilot to keep an eye on the road below as he approached the pass. As long as he could see the road climbing, he would know he hadn’t reached the top of the pass. At the top of the pass, the road would fall away abruptly.

“When I approached the pass, I could see the road that cuts through it. I was under the clouds and a good 150 feet above the road, and turned a corner, but the road was still coming up slightly,” he said.

“I kept going, and looking off my wing, I could see through the passenger side of a semi on the road and see the driver. I was ‘slightly’ above the truck. But, then I turned the next corner, and the road fell away.”

Johnson’s successful jaunt through the pass was a tribute to his airplane, which he said performed flawlessly until he could almost see Wexford Airport.

“The biggest problem I had over the 10,000 miles when I was 18 miles out of Cadillac and all of a sudden the variable speed prop’s revolutions go crazy. That had never happened to me before,” Johnson said. “It would have been embarrassing to go that far without any kind of a problem and have to land somewhere between Cadillac and Manton.

He said what he enjoyed most about the trip was camping at remote airstrips and fly fishing in spectacular streams.

“I did a lot of fishing,” he said. “I caught little grayling fish and caught a 6 to 10 pound chum
salmon on a five weight line. The natives feed the salmon to their dogs, but I think they tasted pretty good.”

Johnson said a return trip to Alaska is not out of the question.

“Alaska is just immense. I thought I saw a lot, but I just saw a small portion of it,” he said. “I will probably need another trip to see it all, I guess.

“I hate to leave anything unfinished.”