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A Life of Adventure in Alaska Skies

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Alaskan Bush Pilot Andy Harris

February 27, 2002

A lot of young men —perhaps especially those on farms in the relatively flat and tame Midwest — dream of someday striking out for less-civilized open territory and making a life amid mountains on some frontier, far from a safe 9-to-5 lifestyle.

What set Illinois farm boy Chalon “Andy” Harris apart from most of his peers is that he followed his dream, chronicled in his new book, “Alaskan Bush Pilot — Chalon’s Memories.” The factual account centers on his time in Alaska from 1956 to 1983.

Academically trained as an engineer and wildlife biologist, Harris learned to fly in a college aviation club. He bought his first airplane in 1961 in Spokane for $2,600. From 1969 to 1978, he operated his Denali Flying Service, transporting tourists, hunters, scientists and locals in the area around Alaska’s Mt. McKinley, or “Denali,” the highest peak in North America.

“I can’t imagine anybody having such an exciting life, and I can’t imagine me doing it,” Harris said. “I did things people dream about, and a lot of things they can’t even dream about. I just thank the Lord I got to live it.”

Harris, 65, almost didn’t live through it at times, surviving numerous plane crashes caused by freak weather, mechanical malfunctions and even a collision with a moose on takeoff. A savage attack by another bull moose in 1978 dislocated both shoulders and ended Harris’ flying career. A born-again Christian, he credits his survival to his faith in God.

Today, he operates a berry farm near Hope, returning to the rural lifestyle he loved as a child. Last year, prompted by friends in Alaska and his two daughters in southern Idaho, Harris set down his recollections of life in the Alaskan interior.

The book took only a month to write, and was proofread by a conference of Harris’ wife, Karla; daughters and co-editors Lisa and Nona; and a few people who reviewed early drafts of the text. Harris used journals, flight invoices and other materials to supplement his memory in crafting a mostly chronological story of his life as a bush pilot.

The finished product is a 192-page memoir in 42 chapters, liberally sprinkled with photographs and brief asides. A glossary of Alaskan jargon, an appendix of geographic and historical names, and an index are included at the back. Through a family-run publishing house, Blueberry Books, a first edition run of 5,000 copies was printed last year.

The Harris family lived on a homestead in a log cabin he built, and in the early years had no telephone, electricity or indoor plumbing. Television watching and shopping malls were distractions they never had to deal with. Groceries were shipped all the way from Seattle, and hunting and fishing provided a major part of their food supply.

Harris takes the time in his book to provide readers with detail and anecdotes besides just the air taxi adventures. Real-life frontier characters, not far removed from the “sourdoughs” of the Gold Rush days, were his neighbors and business associates. Ghost towns and abandoned cabins with tables still set for dinner and rifles still hanging on the wall were explored. Wildlife, both friendly and dangerous, figure largely in the story.

But it’s the joys and scrapes of being a real bush pilot, beginning when Alaska was still a territory, that make up the core of Harris’ story. A photo titled “Ooops!” shows his plane in a post-crash headstand after its carburetor iced up and killed the engine. Just another day on the tundra, where emergency landings are a fact of aviation life.

“I never did fear danger, personally, while anything was happening,” he said. “When I had time to think about it later on, I got a little more excited.

“As a pilot, you’re trained to react instinctively, without having to think things through,” Harris said. “You’re so busy reacting and doing the right things to get your plane back to where it should be, that there’s no time for emotion.”

After nine years operating the commercial air taxi service, Harris decided to turn to other endeavors after the moose attack that would have sidelined him from flying for an entire summer season. The family lived a few more years in Alaska, then went back “Outside” — the Alaskan term for the lower 48 states.

Would he do it all over again? Has Alaska changed so much since the 1960s and ‘70s?

“Yes, I would. But once you walk away from it, it’s never the same again, no matter where you live,” Harris said. “Everything is changed. The community where we lived had maybe a dozen people and now there are around 450. New houses all around; new faces. Roads have been put through. Around 3,000 tourists a day now go through there. It’s not the same country.”

He said the cost of buying and maintaining a small plane has skyrocketed since he got his first Cessna 140, due in large part to increased liability concern on the part of manufacturers. Airplanes cost 10 times more today than 30 years ago.

“Private plane ownership is out for most people now, unless they’re wealthy,” he said.

Harris remains rated as a commercial pilot, although he no longer owns a plane. He has two other books in the works: one on Alaskan glaciers and another on ox teams in the American West.

“Alaskan Bush Pilot” currently is available locally at the gift shop at Bonner General Hospital, at The Chair Factory in Clark Fork, and from Harris himself, at 264-5538. He is planning to market the book in Alaska this year in advance of the summer tourist season.

Writer Mike Gearlds works from his home between Hope and Clark Fork. He pilots an old Mazda pickup truck.

 

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Mike Gearlds

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