Alert Bay, Cormorant Island, BC

We flew into Alert Bay airport (CYAL) on Cormorant Island, British Columbia, in early September, experiencing low stratus fractus and bouts of heavy rain along the way–quintessential coastal BC flying. Aerial of red fishing boat, Alert BayWith mist-shrouded barges torpidly plowing the Johnstone Strait below us, and the pines and cedars of the channel’s dozens of sparsely inhabited islands cloaked in cloud, we eventually reached the little island that possesses the world’s largest totem pole, which tops out at 173 feet.

Trail sign
Trail sign, Alert Bay

Situated between Broughton Strait and Pearse Passage off the north-eastern coast of Vancouver Island, Cormorant Island has a 2900 foot airstrip, as well as a water aerodrome in the village of Alert Bay.  Non-pilots can travel here by ferry  from Port McNeill, on the north-east end of Vancouver Island. Stop sign unique to Comorant Island A large flock of stubborn Canada Geese temporarily vacated the runway after our low-and-over pass and returned immediately after we landed. We taxied our plane to the Alert Bay Cabins, situated right on the north side of the airport, at the threshold of runway 27. If you’ve rented a cabin, the only thing that prevents you from taxiing right up to your doorstep is a short but steep descent!Alert Bay cabins Despite the drizzly weather, after unloading the plane and whipping up a yummy lunch in our cabin, we rambled beneath the hemlocks and cedars along East trail. East trail starts just across from the Alert Bay Cabins’ reception building and wends through the forest to the island’s Ecological Park (once called Gator Gardens, though there are no gators, which probably was the reason for the name change). Ecological Park boardwalk The park originated when, in 1881, a fish saltery converted to a canning factory and built a dam to serve the factory’s needs, flooding the top of the island’s hill. Although the plant closed in 1941, the dam remains, with the freshwater spring continuing to bubble up at the top of the hill faster than the water flows down.

Witches' hair moss
Witches hair moss, draped over the trees & underbrush

The East trail is part of a 16km network of trails throughout the island, and it’s very easy to get turned around in here because of the many forks and unmarked “unofficial” trails linked to them. But as the island is only 4.9km long and 0.8 wide at its narrowest part, we were confident we’d find our way by nightfall. (I’d recommend obtaining a map from the reception at the cabins, or in town at the tourist info centre.  Do not rely on the Google map of the trails! It will lead you astray.)

Aerial of marsh boardwalk
Aerial of the boardwalk at the Ecological Park

 As well as being a haven for kayaking, fishing, whale watching, and hiking, Alert Bay is traditional Kwakwaka’wakw territory. More than half of the village’s 1,200 or so residents are First Nations people.Totem Over 23 totems can be found on the island, many of them in the original ‘Namgis Burial grounds, which is about a 20 minute walk away from the threshold of runway 09.   The tallest totem pole is located on the northwest end of the island; we took the local taxi (phone: 250 947 5525) to see the world-record holder, as well as the ‘Namgis Traditional Big House and the nearby U’mista Cultural Centre. Tallest totem in the worldThe taxi ride in a hard-loved family van turned into an impromptu tour from our driver, who was born and raised on the island. Her stories of island life and lore were absolutely unforgettable. I’d take the taxi ride again for more stories, even if I had nowhere to go.U'mista Cultural Centre The U’mista Cultural Centre houses a collection of elaborately carved masks depicting the Potlatch Ceremony of the Kwakwaka’wakw , as well as several historical artifacts that have been painstakingly repatriated from museums in both Victoria and Ontario.Tourist information centreThere are a number of small restaurants and cafes in town, among the heritage buildings and old village houses, all easily reached on foot from the airport.  The menus offer everything from fries and burgers to fresh-caught halibut.

Historic court & jailhouse
Alert Bay’s old court, jailhouse, & living quarters for the local police officers

Back in our cozy and immaculate cabin with our happily exhausted canine co-pilot, we self-catered with a veggie stew and homemade biscuits, before settling down beside the fire (electrical) to listen to geese honking as the night settled over us. cabin

Note for pilots: there is no Av-gas at Alert Bay.

Right downwind 27
Right downwind, runway 27

 

Six day July road trip in Iceland

Rain, fog, high winds, and teeth-clattering temperatures that required toques & down jackets beneath our rain gear: this wasn’t the Iceland I remembered from previous trips.  This was my third summer-time visit, and my hubby’s first, and we both had a challenging time reconciling the weather with photos of pristine glaciers under a blue sky.  The cloud ceiling was so low and the gusting drizzle so fierce, the country could have been flat as a pancake, for all we could see of it. Regardless of the weather, there were a myriad of spectacular sights: impressive craters, stunning waterfalls, lunar lava fields, weird rock formations, and multi-hued earth that bubbled with volcanic heat. On the fifth day of our trip, the weather did clear, gracing us with wonderful sunshine. Our itinerary for the 6 sight-packed days (and blog posts for each activity):

Day One: Kleifarvatn and Graenavatn lakes, Seltun (geothermal field), Eldborg volcanic caldera, and the Gerðuberg Basalt Columns.

Day Two: the Snaefellsnes peninsula–Bjarnarfoss waterfall, Djúpalónssandur Black Sand Beach, Vatnshellir Cave Tour, Saxholar Crater, Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss, and Erpsstadir dairy farm.

Day Three: the Vatnsnes peninsula– Ánastaðarstapi & Hvitserkur rock formations, Illugstadir, Borgarvirki Viking fortress, Kolugljufur waterfall, Glaumbaer Turf house & historic farm, and Akureyri.

Day Four: Godafoss waterfall, Skutustadagigar craters, Dimmuborgir lava field, Grjótagjá cave, Myvatn Nature Baths, Detifoss waterfall, and flight from Akureyri to Reykjavik.

Day Five: Reykjavik airport, airplane rental, & self-guided flight to Stykkishólmur and back; Tjornin Lake in Reykjavik.

Day Six: Geysir, Gullfoss, Kerið (lake in a crater), and then Keflavik airport to return home.

There are about 335,000 people in Iceland, though that swells to an astonishing million or more each summer due to visiting tourists. And there’s a good reason why so many visit: the country is truly spectacular. There’s a plethora of information available on the Internet about where to go and what to see, but I’ve provided precise driving times in my blog to help when you’re planning what to see, but are wondering how long it will take at each stop and how long that gravel road really does take to drive.  Plus, of course, Day Five has the unique details about renting a plane and flying yourself in Iceland (pilot license required, of course!)Tjorn Lake with Hallgrimskirkja

Three days in Lima, Peru in May

x02_02On a recent 3-day trip to Lima, Peru, not only did we have the pleasure of meeting with members of the Peruvian aviation community & flying a rented plane over Lima’s nearby barren peaks and beautiful coastline, but we also visited some of the city’s spectacular sights.  Our itinerary for the 3 whirlwind days (and blog posts for each activity):

Day One: Huaca Pucllana, Mercados Artesanal, and a self-guided cycle tour with rented bikes in Miraflores, along El Malecon, the cliff-top promenade overlooking the Oceano Pacifico.

 

Day Two: Lib Mandi Aerodromo, Playa San Bartolo, Cruz de Hueso ultra-light airstrip

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Day Three: Urban Adventures cycle tour of Morro Solar, Chorrillos, and Barranco; and a self-guided tour of the Basilica Cathedral of Lima, the historic district of Lima, and the Olive Grove Forest (Bosque El Olivar).

There are 10 million people in Lima, and the traffic is horrific.  Taxis are cheap and Uber is cheaper.  It’s a city of contrasts: sky-rises and shanty towns, manicured parks and barren hillsides, ancient ruins and upper-class manors, haute cuisine and greasy cafes. Modern meets ancientDuring the Peruvian winter (June to September), clouds frequently clot the sky along with garúa, a thick mist which is the only source of ground moisture in this subtropical desert region. Despite all the clouds, rain occurs only a few times in a century in Lima, making this the driest city on the planet.  Three days was, for us, ample time to enjoy Lima’s bustling main streets, historic plazas & architecture, and bohemian districts of artists and musicians.

Flying a Cessna over Lima, Peru

A Stearman in downtown Lima, Peru
Our aviation adventure started in the heart of Lima, where we discovered an old Stearman behind an imposing iron fence on Avenue Arequipa, Miraflores. The fence was ajar; we went in & snapped a photo. An armed guard politely but firmly prevented us from exploring further.

Lib Mandi is a privately owned and operated aerodromo in Lima, Peru (see below for airport info). It’s about 30 miles south of Lima; however, it’s almost a 2 hour drive to reach, not only due to traffic, but because there are so few exits off the highway.  We had to drive 30 minutes past the airport, then 30 minutes back down the other side of the divided highway to access the aerodromo entrance.

 

 

Even then, our driver almost missed the entrance to Lib Mandi, as there is no paved road; one simply pulls onto the shoulder of the highway at speed, then onto a dirt track.  Entrance to Lib Mandy
Peru has no “private” aviation and is home to only around 87 GA airplanes, all of which are commercially registered and operated, 17 of which are based in Lib Mandi.  The only way for us to rent a plane & fly as PIC was as flight students of Masters of the Sky, Lib Mandi’s sole flight school. Organizing this took place well in advance of arriving in Lima, with much assistance from Raul, a local aviation enthusiast.

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Raul is the first one on the right, across from his brother, a retired military pilot

Aviation in Peru is far different than in Canada. It takes one year to register a newly imported plane, and during that year, the owner must pay storage fees and wages to keep a mechanic “active” for the plane. Fuel can only be purchased by those with a fuel purchasing license; this was originally done to control the use of kerosene (jet fuel) in purification of cocaine, but 100LL got caught up in the same bureaucracy. Transportation officials actively and openly discourage aviation so as to lessen their own workloads, and because Peruvian airlines prefer to hire Venezuelan pilots for half the wages of hiring Peruvians, prospects for young commercial pilots are very challenging.

Lib Mandy aerodrome, from the Control Tower
View of Lib Mandi, from the control tower

From the moment we arrived at Lib Mandi’s gate, it was clear that we were entering a markedly different aviation world.  The drive along the short entrance road into the bleak airstrip, looking up at the control tower atop its desolate hill, did nothing to dispel that unsettling feeling.Lib Mandy control towerAt Masters of the Sky, we were given headsets & high-visibility vests, then briefed by our flight instructor, a friendly Peruvian with the very non-Peruvian name of Halfdan Bryhner. The immaculate airplane was completely incongruent with the surroundings: a late-model Cessna 172 SP, with a G1000 Glass Cockpit.  Pre-flight briefingThe weather was about 200 broken and 1 to 2 miles visibility in garúa, a thick mist which is the only source of ground moisture in this subtropical desert region. But we did have a fully IFR capable plane with a G1000 cockpit, no possibility of icing, and plenty of fuel to reach nearby instrument runways, so we completed the start-up procedures and headed towards the run-up area.

Glass panel, location Peru
During my turn as PIC, David snapped this photo of the glass panel

The 3200-foot runway has an elevation of 240 feet at one end, about 180 feet 2/3 of the way down, and 200 feet at the other end.  Heading downslope, we were airborne well before the middle!  By about 2000 feet, we were above the broken layer, with no cloud above. Visibility was still only around 2 miles, so we headed south, looking for a break in the under-cast. Desolate, dry mountains surrounding LimaHeading back to the airport, we wondered if we’d be diverting over-the-top to Pisco, an airport to the south, to do an instrument approach, but Halfdan assured us there’d be a hole right over the approach at Lib Mandi. We rounded a partly obscured hill for base, flew down a short valley, and, as promised, found the only hole in the under-cast for 20 miles in any direction. Apparently, prevailing winds combined with land-forms conveniently provide this access hole.

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Approaching base

 

Although the flight was exhilarating and Halfdan was a congenial and excellent pilot, we left Lib Mandi disturbed.  Where was the opportunity for a recreational aviation community, and for youngsters to pursue a passion for flight beyond a flight school? We found it at Cruz de Hueso, just across the highway from Lib Mandi.  Despite its close proximity, it was another amazingly long drive to reach it, due to lack of highway exits. 

BBQ!
Peruvian BBQ at the Cruz de Hueso pilot clubhouse.

Located in the seaside town of San Bartolo, Cruz de Hueso used to be a golf course.  Indeed, all the maps and aviation charts still list it is as such.  However, it’s now home to a thriving GA community of ultra-light pilots, with a few helicopters thrown into the mix.

IAOPA meets COPA
Here we met the Presidente of iAOPA Peru, Guido Fernandez, an 85 year old retired airline pilot and current ultra-light pilot.

Accompanied by several tail-wagging canine co-pilots, Guido gave us a tour of the new taxi ways and helicopter pads under construction and the “control tower” atop the clubhouse.

Cruz de Hueso control tower
Clubhouse “control tower”

We were impressed by the existing airstrip and the plans & enthusiasm for the future of Cruz de Hueso. 

 

 

During an incredible BBQ of sausages, pork, ribs, and alpaca, with sides of steamed asparagus and delicious “asparagus cream” (a savory, velvety concoction that I will crave for the rest of my life), Guido regaled us with tales from his airline captain days, the most notable being how a combination of turbulence, fumes from a bottle of aftershave in the aircraft lavatory, and a flickering fluorescent light fixture caused an in-flight fire and explosion that haunts him to this day (yes, he safely landed the aircraft, the fire was successfully extinguished in-flight, and there were no casualties).

Pilot & asparagus king
Helicopter pilot & one of Peru’s top asparagus farmers, “The King” made some divine asparagus cream to accompany the BBQ

We ruefully learned from Guido that we had paid a “special tourist” price of $250 USD at Lib Mandi; a local student would’ve paid $180 USD. We deemed the loss acceptable in exchange for the gain received: an exhilarating flight at a truly unique aerodromo, and a valuable perspective on how crucial it is that we Canadian pilots continue to actively fight any restrictions and regulations that threaten our own freedom to fly.

Cruz de Hueso Ultralight field
Cruz de Hueso Airfield

After saying goodbye to the folks at Cruz de Hueso, we popped over to San Bartolo, strolled along the beach, then headed back to our hotel in Miraflores. The entire day was extraordinary, and truly underlined what a wonderful privilege it is to fly, and how it is essential in Canada that we protect our “freedom to fly” as private pilots.

 

 

 AIRPORT INFORMATION ON LIB MANDI:

Airport: SPLX or Lib Mandi Airport (about 30 miles South of Lima) in the town of San Bartolo
Elevation at SPLX: 200 feet
Runway 32/14 (we used 32) is 3280 feet long by 55 feet wide. Significant DIP 2/3 of the way down 32.
Only one taxiway on/off of the runway – Taxiway ALPHA at the 32 end.
Flight Service Station (Lib Mandi Radio) on 118.80