I Flew Into The Past

by Erich Maren Schlaikjer

from "Through Hell and High Water" by Members of the Explorers Club, National Travel Club, NY, 1941.


With these words I was wide awake, and sat up in bed just as a rather jovial woman, was backing out the door with three old-maidish, bulgy-eyed female faces peeking around from behind her.

I pinched myself and found I was still alive. I was in a room at the far end of the hall on the second floor of the Pioneer Hotel in Fairbanks, Alaska. The rain on the tin roof outside my window sounded like the roll of drums before the firing squad gets the command to fire. My night's sleep, or rather my half-night's sleep, was ended.

Downstairs I learned that the jovial woman was the hotel proprietress, the three pairs of bulgy eyes were tourists, and I had been sleeping in the bed occupied by Will Rogers the night before his fatal plane accident.

I was in charge of an expedition sent to Yukon Territory and Alaska for the American Museum of Natural History to make a reconnaissance survey of the Tertiary deposits. This survey involved a search for pre-ice age vertebrates, not even a fragment of which had ever been recorded from that territory, and a study of the Tertiary sediments especially from the point of view of their origin. We had spent a month and a half on the upper Yukon River and had now come overland from Circle to carry on our investigation in the interior of Alaska.

We had learned that in this work by far the most effective procedure was first to make an aerial survey of the region in which we were going to work. Naturally you can't see fossils from the air, but you can see the best outcrops of rocks in which they are most likely to occur. This saves weeks of time that would be required by ordinary ground methods in a country where there are no roads at all. Also, in carrying out such exploration from the air the general concept of the geologic history of an area seems clearer. You can see many things at once, and their interrelationship becomes more understandable. Somehow those ancient streams, whose channel deposits now form the tops of peaks, seem to come to life and flow down the sides of mountains long since removed by erosion. It is like flying into the past. Our particular objective was the region along the north flank of the Central Alaska Range. The plan was to fly from Fairbanks south-westward to Kantishna, and then eastward over the foothills to investigate the extent and accessibility of the Tertiary rocks in I that area.

It rained all day and, so far as I knew, all night. By the following morning the rain had turned to mist, and during the forenoon the sun winked a couple of times at Fairbanks through the heavy damp clouds that were still rolling in from the southwest-the direction of Kantishna. There is only one thing you do about good flying weather-you wait for it. About noon the telephone jingled. It was Lonny Brennan of the Pollock Airways. He said that, since the clouds had broken a little and since they were coming from the southwest, he thought we could fly through and find clear skies beyond. Furthermore, he didn't see how there could possibly be another drop of water left in the heavens after all that rain. His .reasoning seemed sound.

The airfield, a rather smooth, fairly large clearing-the then typical better airfield in Alaska-was a veritable mud flat. The small Stinson taxiing in from the middle of the field looked like a red duck on a muddy lake. As we took off, water began to seep out of those heavy clouds and they soon turned into a wet blanket that hung only a couple of hundred feet above the forested swampland of the lower Wood River Country. Flying conditions kept getting worse instead of better. The atmosphere above was solid and rain began to fall. As we flew along it was like pulling down a curtain behind us. There was no turning back. Also there was no radio-no beam to fly on. Those pilots up there don't fly by instruments; they fly by the seats of their pants.

Lonny seemed nervous. He craned his neck to look forward over the nose of the plane, then leaned over in front of me to look down on my side of the ship, and again down out his window. The rain and fog were solid above and around us, and below were the tree- tops jutting up from an oozy marsh green with extensive patches of deep moss and decaying timber.

I thought of that room at the end of the hall, and asked, "Lonny, you don't intend to set down in that mess, do you?"

His whole face smiled as he replied, "Hell, no, I'm looking for moose."

The rain was coming down harder now, and it was obvious that we were flying deeper into the storm rather than through it. Fairbanks was sixty miles behind us. It might just as well have been six thousand.

I felt much better when Lonny remembered the Alaska Railroad somewhere ahead of us-a thin little life line connecting that vast interior with the coast several hundred miles to the south. We could follow it to Nenana. Someone, he thought, had made a clearing on the south side of town. We could wait there for the weather to clear. It wasn't long before we came upon a narrow clearing that faded quickly into the rain and fog to both the north and the south. Lonny turned the Stinson northward, and down the tracks we went. All seemed well, and in a short while the scattered little buildings of Nenana came up the tracks to meet us.

"There's the clearing," said Lonny, and we both felt better- for a second. Someone had imported a horse, converted the clearing into a pasture, and built a fence across the middle.

"It can't be done!" was Lonny's stern remark. I knew the rest- Fairbanks was the only possibility. We circled the village. Lonny Brennan is a resourceful fellow; he probably was thinking out a plan. Again we circled the village, and then Lonny said:

"We'll follow the Tanana up until we come to the Chena, and following that river will take us right to Fairbanks."

I thought those were the nicest words I had ever heard!

About that time the soupy ceiling started to let out sheets of rain and we had to fly closer to the ground than ever. The best "road" back was the meandering Tanana, and at times the rain was so thick that we actually had to follow the meanders in order to avoid the treetops that seemed to be puncturing the low clouds. On either side of the river, there was water everywhere, and a number of large streams-rivers-entered the Tanana. I began to wonder how Lonny would be able to determine which was the Chena. He had anticipated my thoughts and said:

'I think there is a wreck of a riverboat at the mouth of the Chena. That will be our guide."

It wasn't long before we saw a half-sunken old river steamer over on her side. We banked to the left and started upstream. After only a minute or so of flatland and meandering water, the stream suddenly straightened and we found ourselves in a narrow valley that was pinching closer in on us by the second. It wasn't the Chena. Again I thought o that room at the end of the hall! I Lonny is a perfect natural with a plane. There was a sudden roar of the motor, we darted upward into the mist, made a sort of half-loop, and dropped quickly out into the clear now heading down-stream.

With his usual smile, Lonny looked at me and said: 'I guess that was the wrong river."

Once more we were over the Tanana, and in a few minutes we saw another wrecked boat at the mouth of a large river which at that point looked more like an endless lake. The ceiling lifted a little. This was the Chena, and we could now see quite some distance up its tangled course where it flows across that great flat oozy terrain. In a few minutes we could make out the ghost of Fairbanks through the mist, then the clearing on the west side of town. We made a three-point splash, the plane got another mudbath, and we were at the hangars.

That one almost turned out to be a flight into the future!

The next morning fluffy white clouds came sailing in from the deep-blue sky to the southwest, each bringing a message of clear weather ahead. We were off for Kantishna again. Above the clouds, the atmosphere was unbelievably clear, and far ahead the silvery top of Mt. McKinley stood out in glorious view. The lowland of the great interior rolled under us, and after an hour it merged into mountains. We had crossed the Toklat River and were flying south of Chitsia Mountain among the peaks that stick above the downy clouds. Moose Creek valley was just ahead and soon we could see Kantishna-a half dozen log cabins huddled near the opening of a mine shaft.

The landing "field" there is enough to give anyone the jitters. It is in a deep valley alongside of Moose Creek. It consists of nothing more than a narrow, short, rough, and very rocky bar which stops abruptly at the downstream end at a fifteen-foot bank. Landing was just like going through a hailstorm-rocks flew in all directions. One smashed through the front of the right stabilizer but did no serious damage.

Lonny emptied several tins of gasoline-part of our load coming over-into the Stinson, and soon, with a sigh of relief, we skimmed the tops of the willows on that fifteen-foot bank. We turned eastward, flew through a high pass at the head of Bearpaw River, and began a zigzag course along the north flank of the Central Alaska Range. It was only a matter of minutes before we began to see outcrops of the light-colored clays, sands, and gravels of the Tertiary rocks, which stood out in clear contrast to the more somber-colored older rocks. From the air it was not difficult to spot them where they were exposed along steep canyon walls kept clear of vegetation by rapid erosion. In places those rocks were seen to contain miles of great black ribbons of coal, aggregating hundreds of feet in thickness-enormous storehouses of fuel for future America.

I mapped each outcrop of Tertiary rock and we flew in hide-and- seek fashion through the canyons and around mountain peaks looking for probable landing places for carrying on future groundwork.

It seemed a miracle to be able to accomplish so much in such a short time. In about two hours we had made a geological reconnaissance and had explored country which would have consumed months with a pack train.

East of the Nenana River we found exposures of these rocks more numerous and more extensive. We could see that in this area a great blanket of Tertiary sediment, hundreds of feet in thickness, had been tilted and broken by earth movements and today is being dissected mainly by California, Hoseanna, and Healy creeks. Here also these rocks seemed most typical, and their sequence most complete. Fortunately they were also the most accessible since they are in the proximity of the Healy station on the Alaska Railroad. These were the reasons why I decided that detailed work should be carried out in this locality first. As we flew over Healy Creek, we looked down on those silent cliffs where a few days later my accomplished assistant, Mr. David Bradley Cheek, and I were looking for fossils and Dave picked up the first fragment which led us to discover what turned out to be a quarry of fossil fishes-fishes that lived in great numbers in the quiet streams of interior Alaska when that vast blanket of sediment was deposited more than twenty million years ago. The thrill of this discovery lay not only in the scientific importance of these fossils but also in the satisfying fact that they were the first pre-ice age vertebrates to be recorded from Alaska.

Lonny turned the plane northward, we dropped a bag of mail to a small group of miners on upper Tatlanika Creek, and started back to Fairbanks along the winter trail.

Our flight into the past was ended.

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