My Northern Wisconsin

Covering Ashland, Iron, Lincoln, Oneida, Price, Rusk, Sawyer, Taylor, and Vilas Counties


Written by:  Sandy Onchuck


This was quite an undertaking for these young fellows.  The word got around about their departure plans, and they were surprised at the interest and the number of friends and family from Lugerville, Phillips, Park Falls, and even Ladysmith that came out to the airport to see them off.

While this adventurous trip has been long forgotten by the community, mainly because many of the family and friends involved have now passed on, still, I thought the readers of My Price County would enjoy this story from 50 years ago.

Jerry Niebauer, a Park Falls native and cousin to Dennis, was 26 at the time, and even though he had a history of motion sickness, he was gung-ho when Dennis approached him about this adventure.

The following paragraphs are his recollection of the trip:  Even before reaching Aberdeen, SD we were enveloped by massive, dark clouds and being tossed around like a feather in the wind.  Duane Grant and I were sitting in the back while Dave Tarcon was upfront in the right seat serving as the co-pilot/map reader.  I couldn’t hear anything over the plane engine, but could tell Dennis was praying out loud for safety.

One of the most unforgettable moments happened when we were flying into Edmonton, Alberta.  The Aberdeen airport was small with small airplanes.  This airport was large, and I was fascinated by the large planes.  I watched as Denny began the descent, and as we approached the landing strip, I could see something was wrong.  I could tell something was happening that was making Denny and Dave quite excited.  All along Denny was speaking with the tower as we were heading down for our landing, but again, because of engine noise, I couldn’t hear what messages were coming over the radio or Denny’s responses.  I vaguely remember that at some point before touching down I understood that we were in communication with the tower for another airport.  Yes, we were headed straight toward a landing strip at a major airport that wasn’t expecting us, and worse yet there was another airport somewhere in the city that had heard Denny announce that we were heading in for a landing, but we were nowhere in sight.  Thankfully, before the wheels touched the ground, Denny and Dave realized this strategic error and Denny abruptly pulled the nose of the plane up and veered off to the right…or...left.. I couldn’t tell you which way or what happened after that.


Our planned route was to follow the Alcan up to Fort St. John in British Columbia and then fly into Watson Lake in the Yukon Territory before flying on to Alaska.  We made it to Fort St. John before our *best-laid plan* hit a snag.  A weather system moved in and since we were relying on visibility and not equipped with radar, we were forced to hunker down - and for 3 days we did.  We spent long hours visiting with other stranded pilots, checking the weather, and playing cards.  We slept in our sleeping bags on the concrete floor in a large hangar.  I don't remember if we could buy meals from vending machines, but I do recall we shared a tea bag way too many times to really call it tea.

We, along with several other pilots, did attempt to leave Fort St. John and fly up a river valley beneath the clouds into Watson Lake.  We were able to fly quite a distance, but eventually, the valley wall got higher or the clouds came down farther, and we hit a wall of thick, white fluffy clouds.  This entailed a fast banking swoop to the left following the other 4 or 5 other planes.  It also entailed the pulling out of the long plastic bag.  I didn't have to use it, but I did feel green.

But that was when Denny and three other pilots decided to put together a plan to fly east around the weather system rather than following the Alcan.  The positive part of this plan was that we could fly east to Great Slave Lake and then follow the mighty Mackenzie River up to the Arctic Circle and Inuvik, Canada.


The sky was clear and the sun shined brightly as we flew east to Great Slave Lake.  From there we flew to Ft. Simpson.  I don't recall where the airport was located, but I remember that landing well.  We were the second of the four planes to attempt a landing.  As Denny tipped down and approached the runway, he animatedly called our attention to the airstrip.  It was not grass or hard-packed sand, but MUD, lots of it….Deep, soft, dangerous MUD.  Denny quickly had me and Duane pull out the sleeping bags behind us and place them between us and the front seat.  Obviously, Denny wasn’t sure how this landing was going to turn out.  The plane in front of us hit the mud, lost control, and spun off to the right.  We were next.  We made it and were safe, but the airplane did not fare as well.


* This is what Dennis recorded in his journal about this landing:  Thankfully, the Apache didn’t flip, but the nose gear retraction link was bent because of the mud.  From that point on there was a loud bang every time the landing gear was retracted.  Needless to say, the takeoff from there was one muddy mess.  He also noted that while the hold-up in Fort St. John and the messy landing at Fort Simpson were not fun, the friendships made there were wonderful.

Both Jerry and Dennis agree the rest of the northerly trip up the magnificent Mackenzie River to the small Eskimo village of Inuvik in the Northwest Territory, Canada was uneventful and the scenery was awesome.  They arrived around midnight in the land of the never-setting sun to find the whole village outside and wide awake.  The adults were congregating in groups talking, and the dogs and kids were running around playing games and making lots of noise like children do everywhere (just not at midnight).  They put up their tent and tried sleeping with the sun shining and zillions of mosquitoes buzzing around the tent door.

From the Inuvik, they flew diagonally to Fairbanks, then on to Talkeetna, Alaska.  Duane Grant was 16 at the time, and he recalls this being one of the highlights of the trip.  Someone drove them to a place on Fish Creek owned by a lady named Evil Alice (named such because she was a fighter against corruption in government).  The Salmon were running, a sight none of the fellows had ever witnessed.  They had a blast using landing nets to scoop up a ton of fish and the next morning they enjoyed a breakfast feast prepared by the owners of the Talkeetna Motel who graciously cooked up the catch from the day before.


Unbeknownst to the guys at the time, Dave’s parents had been notified in the middle of the night by an FAA official their plane had been reported as missing.  This was 1972, years before cell phones and the Internet, so the fellows had no communication with home until they arrived in Anchorage.  The call had come from a former Kennan native, Fran Balsis, who was an official of the FAA in Eau Claire.  He must have gotten on this immediately and tracked the guys down because neither Dave nor his sister, Cindy, remember their folks being traumatized.  Dennis remembers the error came because a Canadian air controller failed to cancel a changed flight plan.


A highlight for all of the guys was flying close to Mt. McKinley, presently known as Denali.  An incredible view few people will ever enjoy.

When I asked Dave Tarcon what he remembered about this trip he humorously wrote:  The trip was either too uneventful or too traumatic to think about.  I do remember meeting Tennessee Ernie Ford in the terminal restroom.  He was using the urinal next to me, and we discussed the fishing vacation he was on.  He was shorter than he looked on TV, but he was a real gentleman. *Only Dave!

He also wrote this:  FYI, the Piper Apache is unique in that it does not require a "key" to start the engines.  Unfortunately, we experienced this fact after we took off from Homer Airport with the "keys" hanging from the baggage door lock.  We enjoyed our second visit to Homer on the same day.

Another mishap occurred after one of their stops that was a little disconcerting.  They had no more than gotten airborne when the door flew open on the Apache because they failed to lock it on takeoff.  Dennis wrote in his journal that it was all they could do to manage to get it partially shut and keep the aircraft under control.  So he circled around, landed, shut the door, and took off again.

After visiting Dave’s relatives in Anchorage for a few days, they headed back to Phillips.  All in all it had been a great trip.  Despite the delays and mishaps, the guys had a great time, and several weeks after their return over 60 people gathered at the Lugerville School to watch their slides and hear all about their adventure.


This Alaskan adventure changed the direction of Dennis' life forever.  On March 30, 1973, he recorded these words in his journal:  Well, my friends, as I pen these words, I am no longer an employee of the Price County Highway Dept.  However, I feel that the good Lord is with me 100%, and I look forward to whatever befalls me with a courage that is great and strong, and I pray I will never falter.

He left for Alaska on April 24, 1973 to follow his heart.  He never looked back or regretted that decision.  I will be sharing more of his Off the Road Again stories in the Off the Road Again Column on My Price County.
(This post was last modified: 05-31-2023, 04:14 AM by My Northern Wisconsin.)