Charlie’s Last Freedom Flight
Posted on 04/25/2022 Evan Swensen
Charlie’s pilot’s son Jesse’s first sheep hunt took place on Mt. Gordon among other snow-capped peaks of the Wrangells. It was in the days before the National Park Service entered the scene and stopped hunters from hunting and flyers from landing. It was when Alaska was for Alaskans, when wilderness meant something entirely different than the definition and restrictions given and forced upon us by those in Washington and regulated by the superintendent of the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Those were the days never to be forgotten. Days when Alaskans were in charge of Alaska, when government regulation was an invitation to enjoy the freedom of flight, fishing, and the farness of the real Alaska. Then came the “keep out” regulations and restrictions rent upon us by Big Brother and his park ranger bullies.
Charlie, a post-World War II Stinson model 108-3, flew from her tiedown at Anchorage International Airport to the hunting area across from Gold Hill. Circling low and carefully looking over the surface of Nebesna Glacier and finding an extended flat place free of holes and cracks in the ice, Charlie’s pilot pointed the plane’s nose into the wind and landed uphill on the glacier’s back. Short field procedures were executed: flaps were quickly brought upon touchdown, and brakes were applied hard, bringing the 1948 vintage airplane to a safe stop. Charlie’s pilot taxied Charlie to where they intended to tie her down and leave her while they went chasing sheep around Mt. Gordon.
Charlie’s pilot used 18-inch mountaineering ice screws for anchors to hold the bird on the glacier in the event wind decided it didn’t like 857C parked on top of Nebesna. The hunters spent the first night in a tent on a glacial moraine sandhill off the side of Nebesna. About morning the wind decided to test the ice screw anchors and tiedown ropes and the tent’s wind-shedding ability. Tent, ice screws, and tiedown ropes passed the test and beat the wind. Before leaving the glacier for the Dall’s bedroom, they gave the ice screws another couple of turns into the million-year-old ice and checked all tiedown knots.
Charlie’s pilot and his sons roamed around Mt. Gordon for the next five days, camping in a different spot each night. Like all sheep hunts, Charlie’s pilot had been on the hunters had their share of rain, snow, and blow. Toward the end of the week, Jesse’s creation of Jonathan Browning filled the measure of its creation as Jesse joined the ranks of the few who have taken a pure white sheep at the top of the world.
As the hunters began their downhill climb to their winged transportation back to civilization, they could see the red and white Stinson parked on the spine of Nebesna Glacier far below. The mammoth size of Nebesna dwarfed the little flying machine resting on the river of ice where they had left it days before. They descended the mountain, and the plane’s size seemed to grow as they lost the perspective of hugeness of Nebesna. When they reached the airplane, they discovered the ice screws on top of the ice and the tiedown ropes listing limply under the wings.
They had not counted on the glacier melting as fast as it did—more than 18 inches in just six days. Had the wicked wind returned before they did, the flying machine would have been nothing but a pile of twisted aluminum and airplane fabric in one of the crevasses down the glacier. As it was, a kind breeze began to blow from down below, giving them the advantage of a downhill-into-the-wind takeoff. Clearing the glacier, Charlie climbed to altitude and, in minutes, traced the route the hunter had taken days to walk and climb.
Little did they know as they flew under the tops of Wrangell and Sanford that this would be Charlie’s last freedom flight in this area of Alaska’s wilderness. With the passing of hunting and flying as they knew it, they also lost even their individuality. Where once they were one against the elements, they are now grouped with the masses, restricted to a TV-like experience with the wilderness. At the same time, the National Park Service holds the land in trust, for who knows what, except the continuation of the regulators and the loss of their freedom to the real Alaska, which is only a memory in the minds of those who were here when the land beckoned, and free men could answer and take their sons to the tops of the mountains to stalk sheep.