Rohn at 40 Below
As an engineer for the FAA Weather Camera Program, I travel extensively throughout the state of Alaska. I enjoy my job tremendously and have flown with some of the finest pilots in Alaska. I travel to some very remote places and once there, use several modes of trans- portation. Most of our camera sites are off the road system which means flying or boating to them. The majority require small planes to access and depending on the time of year, we use aircraft on wheels, floats or skis.
I have accumulated a lot of stories over the years, most of them aviation related.
In 2008 fellow engineer, RJ Vassar and I, scheduled a trip to Rohn. The site was down and it was our job to get it up and running before the Iditarod. Rohn is a check-point on the Iditarod trail so a lot of volunteers fly in and out. Mushers also fly in supplies such as dog food, sled parts and straw. Pilots in the “Iditarod Air Force” rely on the cameras along the trail to watch weather conditions.
With all plane related trips, weather is the critical factor. In the winter, warmer days are typically cloudy and the clear days bring frigid temperatures. We needed to get a lot of work done so we planned to spend at least one night at the only structure in Rohn; an old log cabin built in the 1930’s. Availability of aircraft capable of landing on an unimproved strip can be a problem as well. We used a Dehavilland Beaver that day; big enough to carry all the gear we needed to take with us. The camera site runs on solar power, wind generators and batteries so we needed spare wind turbines and a generator in case we needed to charge the batteries.
It was -20 F in Anchorage, but Talkeetna was reporting -5 F. Not bad. We of- ten work in below zero temperatures. We decided to go for it. We had arctic gear, food, sleeping bags, fuel for the generator, snow shoes, and a satellite phone. We were prepared.
Rohn is about 100 air miles from Talkeetna. The view of the Alaska Range was spectacular that cold day in February. Because of clear weather, we were able to fly over the range instead of trying to fly through mountain passes. As we got near the airstrip, we could see another aircraft had landed recently: an Otter had been there a couple days prior to drop off fuel for the upcoming Iron Dog Snowmachine Race.
After landing, the pilot tried to turn around in the soft snow at the end of the runway and got the plane stuck. I looked up at the thermometer and it registered -40 C. I did not need to calculate what that was in degrees Fahrenheit. -40 Celsius is equal to -40 Fahrenheit. Any way you cut it, that’s a four letter word: cold. RJ and I hopped out of the aircraft and got it unloaded. We then helped the pilot get out of the soft snow by pushing on the struts of the aircraft as he blew prop wash over us. Nothing like prop wash at -40 degrees.
The pilot was ready to go but we asked him to wait so we could check on the cabin. We wanted to make sure the cabin was in good shape. The pilot came with us as we checked it out. We made sure the wood stove was in good work- ing order with plenty of wood stacked. We had a splitting maul and chainsaw just in case.
I stayed behind to get a fire going in the wood stove while RJ and the pilot hiked back to the runway. A few minutes later I heard the Beaver throttle up for take off and then… nothing. Not a good sign. The pilot had tried to avoid the ruts formed while landing and in doing so, had clipped a spruce tree. He sheared off the top of a tree and sent the Beaver into a spin about a 1/4 of the way
down the runway. RJ saw nothing but a cloud of snow and thought the aircraft had crashed. The pilot was shaken. He checked the damage to his wing and decided he could make it back to Talkeetna. We called Talkeetna an hour and a half later: he made it.
We warmed up in the cabin as we gathered our tools for the hike to our camera site. The site is about a quarter mile from the cabin, but there is no trail. We used our snowshoes, and when we got there, we found the site in good shape. The batteries were charged, the wind generators were all working and the cameras were still producing images. But our satellite communications had failed. We looked deeper and found the DC power supply for the modem was dead. Swapping out the power supply was no easy task. Moving wires at -40 can be tricky. Any sharp movement will break the insulation and cause a short to the system. It took us about 30 minutes to get the new power supply installed then we hiked back to the cabin to warm up. On our second hike to the site, we were able to get the cameras operational. We completed some minor maintenance around the area and returned to the cabin for the night.
All night we kept a fire going in the stove. The temperature inside was comfortable enough but never did get out of the 40’s F.
The next morning we cooked a hearty breakfast and packed our gear for our scheduled 10am pick-up. We hauled our gear to the airstrip using the sleds we bought along and then went back into the cabin to wait. We had let the fire in the wood stove go out, so it was cold. At about 11am we called Talkeetna to find out no pilot was coming: the plane had been damaged on take off and needed repairs. That meant Plan B, but in the mean time, RJ and I worked together to start up the wood stove.
We made a call to my boss on our satellite phone. Because talking on a satellite phone is so unreliable (and frustrating), we arranged for our people in Anchorage to try and arrange transportation for us. After a couple hours, it became clear that we would be spending another night. Daylight hours in the winter are very short, so there is not much of a window for an airplane to come get us. What we didn’t know was that we’d be spending a couple more nights, not just one.
We settled into the warmth of the cabin and read. I read the Rohn log book. The log goes back years and there are many stories of pilots and hunters getting stuck at the cabin.
My favorite stories were from the volun- teers of the Iditarod checkpoint. They fly out to the cabin before the start of the race and stay until the last musher goes through. There are some real characters in the book, including the Sheriff and the Mayor of Rohn who have been coming out to this remote cabin for years. Keeping the wood stove going was a priority, so we split wood throughout the day. We also took some short trips in our snow shoes to explore the area. After all that physical activity, we slept well at night.
Day 3 we hauled our gear to the airstrip again. Talkeetna said they were sending a Cessna 185 out to get us. That meant we wouldn’t be able to get all our gear into the airplane, but we were more than ready to get out. We endured -46 degrees Fahrenhiet the night before, and we were ready to get back. We heard the 185 well before we could see it. We were going home! We used our VHF radio and tried to communicate with the pilot while he circled the airstrip. We had the correct frequency for the area. But he never responded. He made 2 broad circles and to our dismay, he flew away, back towards Talkeetna. He didn’t even tip a wing for us. We called back to Talkeetna immediately, and were told the airstrip was not suitable for landing. Now we were getting worried.
My boss was trying to get a helicopter out to get us, but the availability of helicopters in the winter is pretty scarce. She was ready to declare an emergency, but we assured her we had plenty of food, we had shelter and plenty of wood so it wasn’t an emergency. We would be spending another night.
The next morning, Talkeetna told us they had lined up someone to come get us. The only problem was that it was a Super Cub. Super Cubs are great Alaska airplanes and can get in and out of remote places like no other aircraft, but we brought in much more gear than it could handle in one trip. It was Jay Hudson himself, of Hudson Air, who came out in his Super Cub on Day 4.
Jay was a well known bush pilot in Alaska and had participated in many Denali mountain rescues. (He died in 2009 after a courageous battle with cancer.) He was one of the nicest people I ever met, and on this day, he was determined to get us out of Rohn.
His plan was to ferry us and our gear to Puntilla Lake where Rainy Pass Lodge is located. From there a Beaver from Anchorage would come to haul us and our gear back to Talkeetna. It took Jay 5 or 6 trips to complete the task, but he did it in fine style. That was his way. When we arrived on the lake the folks at Rainy Pass Lodge welcomed us with a fresh pot of coffee. We sat with the lodge caretakers, Dick and Sharon, while we waited for our aircraft to arrive from Anchorage.
Rainy Pass Lodge is a wonderful place. We have a camera site about a mile from there so we fly in there quite often. The Perrins, who own the lodge, are top notch hosts and always make their guests feel at home. I appreciate the hard work that the whole family has put into the lodge to make it work.
Our adventure in the wilderness of Alaska ended shortly after hot coffee at the lodge: in a few minutes the Beaver from Anchorage arrived. The pilot came into the lodge for a quick visit and we left soon after for Talkeetna.
Sometimes they don’t pay me enough for what I do. Other times they pay me too much. Remind me another time to share a story where they don’t pay me enough.