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

Our favourite litte way-point–Kelso, WA, USA

With the I-5 running like a zipper down its centre and the regional airport a poetic stone’s throw away, Kelso has been our way-station for almost every trip we’ve taken south of the Canadian border in our little plane.


With a clean, pet-friendly hotel (Guesthouse Inn & Suites) conveniently located in the nearby Three Rivers Mall, Kelso makes for a perfect place to fuel up the plane, pick up camping food supplies that we can’t cross the border with, stretch our legs, and overnight if we need to. img_4890Right across from the mall going east is the lovely Tam O’Shanter Park along the Coweeman River.  Dog-friendly and picturesque, it’s a wonderful ramble and can be accessed from the mall via Monasco Drive, located directly behind the Fiesta Bonita Mexican Grill (which does a decent take-out, btw).


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Lake Sacajawea Park is also quite lovely, located in nearby Longview about 3.2 miles from Three Rivers Mall, but this park is much more popular/crowded. Dogs are allowed on leash on the lakeside walking paths, and there are Japanese gardens to explore and kayak rentals available.


The first thing we notice every time we fly into Kelso KKLS (see airport diagram at the end of this post), is how very busy the frequency is — it sounds like the circuit is clogged with air traffic.  It never is.  The small regional airport is always delightfully quiet.  The air-wave clutter is a result of several airports sharing the same frequency.


As soon as we land at KKLS and before we’ve even tied down, we call a taxi–they arrive at a very leisurely pace: Uptown taxi (360) 577-TAXI (8294).  It’s about $10 USD from KKLS to Three Rivers Mall. img_5311If you have extra time on your hands and want to rent a car, Kelso is a great jumping off point for exploring Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Park . Located right at the end of SR 504 in the national park is the 2+ mile-long Ape Cave, the longest lava tube in the continental United States.


En-route to it, there’s Silver Lake & Mount St. Helens Visitor Center–via I-5 N and WA-504 E, approximately 20 minutes from Kelso.  This is the park’s original Visitor Center and the displays are rather dated, plus you have to pay to get in.

Silver Lake

Further up route 504 on mile marker 33, there’s the free Mount St. Helens Forest Learning Centre, touted as the best exhibit on the mountain (there’s a helicopter for kids to play in, and an `eruption chamber’ that’s apparently pretty awesome).

golf course

If you’re a golfer, the Three Rivers Golf Course  runs along the Cowlitz River and is snug against KKLS—but separated from the airport by fencing and railway tracks (you have to get to it via a somewhat wandering series of roads, requiring either a car, or great energy & a yen for walking).  You can get your hundred dollar hamburger here, too, at The Scottie Dog Café. afd

Airplane camping in the “Covered Bridge Capital of Oregon” – Jim Wright Airfield, Cottage Grove.

An idyllic riverside spot for pitching a tent under the wing, Jim Wright Airfield makes a splendid, peaceful overnight campsite for pilots.Row River, end of runway 33 On one hot day in late July, we flew into Cottage Grove State Airport 61S (diagram at end of blog) and parked our plane on the lovely grass airfield, off the end of runway 33.  Grassy area end of runway 33With Row River (pronounced like “cow”) burbling and chuckling right next to our tent, we spent the day swimming in the river, picking an enormous amount of fat, sweet blackberries from the airport bushes, roaming the banks of the Row alongside the airport, and gathering wild mint to mix in with our camp-stove fried rice. Airport camping at its best! When we were present, the “Deathmobile” replica from the 1978 movie Animal House was onsite at the airfield.  Parts of Animal House had been filmed in Cottage Grove in ‘78, and the “Deathmobile” is stored in one of the hangars.Death mobile from the movie Animal HouseWe were also extremely lucky to meet Ron Englund at the airfield, one of the volunteers who helped Jim Wright build his H1-Racer Replica (H-2).  Soft-spoken Ron gave us a delightful tour of Jim Wright’s hangar, the very place with the H-2 was built.  Now filled with a fascinating mix of antique phonographs and H-1 Replica-building history, as well as several ongoing plane-building projects, the hangar is funded by Betty Wight, Jim’s widow.  We felt privileged and humbled to be given an intimate tour of the incredible workplace where such an awesome plane had been built.

In 1935, Howard Hughes’ H-1 Racer set a Land Plane Speed Record (352mph) and in 1937 set a transcontinental record (L.A. to New York Non-Stop in 7hrs 28 min at 327 mph).

Jim Wright & his replica H-1 Racer at Cottage Grove
Jim Wright’s H-1 Replica, on site at Cottage Grove (photos from “Guy’s Blog”

Jim first flew his stunningly beautiful full-scale H-1 Replica in 2002. The plane was so close to the original that the FAA granted it serial number 2 of the model. 300px-Hughes_H-1_Racer_Replica_Oshkosh_2003 On August 4, 2003, Jim unveiled his replica at the 2003 AirVenture at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.  Alas, on the way home, he fatally crashed just north of the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park.   In December 2003, the Cottage Grove airfield was named after him. Zeus checking out Jim Wright Airfield signThere’s a public museum near the airfield’s roadside entrance. Run by the Oregon Aviation Historical Society, the hangar museum boasts more than 6 pre-war Oregon home built aircraft that help to tell the story of experimental aircraft in the US.   We toured the museum and David charmed them into allowing him to use their shower while I bought a t-shirt of Hughes’ H-1 Racer.  (While there is a “Johnny-on-the-spot” outhouse for airplane campers back on the airfield, there’s no showers).Street entrance to airfield & museumAlthough we didn’t venture off the airfield because of all the river-swimming, blackberry picking, & hangar visiting we did on-site, Cottage Grove is well-known for its six historic covered bridges.  There’s a very pretty bike route to them, the Covered Bridges Scenic BikewayCentennial_Bridge Apparently, there is an airfield courtesy car available, and if you venture into town, bike rentals are possible from Rainy Peak Bicycles, (533 E Main,OR, Cottage Grove, 97424, tel: 541-942-8712).  There’s also a scenic bike trail along the Row River. We’re already planning to fly back to Cottage Grove next summer and cycle these trails.

If you want to explore the town itself, there are 20 outdoor murals commemorating Cottage Grove’s history.mural cottage groveBack near the airfield, there’s the 18 hole Middlefield Golf Course.  If you don’t have a car, it’s within walking distance of runway 15, through a cosy little neighbourhood whose houses have backyard lawns leading right onto the airfield (no fences!) middle_field_golf_1Further afield, there are several impressive waterfalls very close to each other in the Layng Creek Watershed– Moon, Pinard and Spirit Falls.  Just a short drive from Cottage Grove, these spectacular falls can be reached by short hikes through mossy, wooded trails.  Again, we are definitely returning for this! (photos plucked from the USDA gov website)



If you’re planning an under-the-wing camping stop at Cottage Grove, beware the Cottage Grove Speedway noise on Friday and Saturday nights!  Racing is every Saturday night, April through September, KART racing on Friday nights, and racing starts at 6:30 or 7:30, depending on the event.  Although the speedway isn’t that close to the airfield, by golly, you can certainly hear it loud and clear while snuggled in your tent.  When we were there, the racing went until 10:30pm! The Racetrack phone number,  if you wish to inquire about what nights they’re racing so you can avoid camping at the airfield on those nights, is: 541-942-7561cottage_grove

Jim Wright Airfield at dusk