Customs is Hell

I was hoping that the log for the first day of flying was going to be filled with sunshine and roses. It's not. It's primarily comprised of pee and frustration.

Packing and preparation

Our morning preparation was frantic and hurried. I had to file an eAPIS for departing the United States, call Canadian border patrol, call for the latest databases for the GPS, and re-pack my backpack from the work trip. Meanwhile Katie and Emma had to get themselves ready and packed. Of course, we left the house about an hour late. Being late today is a theme.

Once we got to the airport we were only just able fit everything in the plane. Even after all of our work trying to optimize our packing. We still had to use a laundry basket to carry stuff we're planning on leaving in the plane most of the time. We preflighted the airplane, took our bathroom breaks, and were ready to go... Except that we had to call Canadian border patrol again. I couldn't find a way to edit my manifest on the US customs site, but I did read about the possibility of using the radio to do it.

First leg

Mountains and clouds

The flight portion of our first leg was honestly unremarkable. We departed VFR from Corvallis and got our IFR clearance to Port Hardy in the air. Once we were handed off to Seattle Center, I asked the controller if there was a frequency I could use to contact CBP (they mention this in their documentation) that I could use to adjust my estimated border crossing time. The sector that services most of Oregon (125.8) didn't know, and thought that a sector closer to the boarder would know.

Possibly a crater

We went through Portland's airspace, and when we were handed off to Seattle center again, I asked again about the customs thing. This controller was more knowledgeable about these procedures. She said that as long as I was on an IFR flight plan, I didn't need to worry about border crossing times. She did say that she couldn't help me with the customs at the destination. As I had already notified Canada about the change, I was all set.

Border Crossing

The actual act of crossing the border between the US and Canada was incredibly mundane. I took a picture, but that's all that happened.

The Canadian controllers we worked with were friendly and helpful, and gave us shortcuts several times during the short time we were in their charge. Eventually, we had to ask for a descent, because we were still at 10,000' quite close to Port Hardy. Apparently a Saab 340 had been slowly creeping up alongside us, and they had to have us do some turns to let them pass before we could be descended. By the time we could finally descend, we needed to do so at about 1,500'/minute. Emma's ears had a hard time clearing, and she let us know about it!

Rocks in clouds

One procedural difference about many Canadian and Alaskan airports is the "Mandatory frequency". It's almost like a tower, except that they don't really give you directions. When we initially called them up, they gave us a list of all the planes they knew about in the area. It was kinda cool to have a situational awareness brain dump, but it came quickly enough that it was hard to retain all of it.

It was really bumpy on the last portion of this flight, and the winds when we landed were 10 knots gusting to 18. It was sporting, but ended up being sufficiently smooth (the plane was reusable).

Port Hardy Runway

Once on the ground, we asked Port Hardy Radio where to park for customs, and they just had us park in a little parking area along the (only) taxiway. None of our phones worked, so we had to power on the plane radios again to ask how to get a hold of customs. They said that one person could leave the plane and use a landline. I ended up walking over to the Pacific Coastal Airlines fuel office and waiting for the Line service tech to return. He let us use his phone to call Canadian customs. They verified our information, gave us a "contact number" and said that we were all set. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Then, we had them fill the plane with the most expensive 40 gallons of 100LL I've ever purchased. ($2.39cad/lt. or about $7us/gal.)

Port Hardy

Port Hardy welcome sign

The Foreflight airport page for Port Hardy (CYZT) listed an airport Cafe that seemed fine for lunch. I did notice that they had no ATM, nor could they take cards. So, I was able to get some Canadian cash from Travelex in the Boston airport when I was flying home from my work trip. By this point, we were all pretty hungry (it was about 2PM after all) and looking forward to lunch.

Port Hardy Terminal Construction

Unfortunately, however, the terminal was in the process of being torn down. This was definitely a frustration, but the guy that fueled our plane recommended a sushi restaurant at the Airport Inn which was a ten minute walk away.

Emma and Katie went out ahead while I stayed during the fueling of the plane. I thought about the fact that we were basically splitting up and walking around a place we've never been before without cellular phone service. This is something we did all the time growing up, but we've become so accustomed to the safety net that it feels weird without it.

By the time I got to the restaurant and inn, Katie was walking out the door looking pissed off. It turns out that the restaurant had been closed for some time, and the closest alternative was a ten minute drive away. We were already running quite late, and this was starting to turn into a quagmire. Ultimately, we decided to buy the snacks closest to food that we could at the inn and go back to the plane. However, the inn had internet, and I had to make sure to file the eAPIS for our return to the US. Finally, all that was finished and everyone got back to the airport at a time somewhat resembling the original planned departure time.

Port Hardy Radio was able to get our IFR flight plan, and clear our departure, but taking off was "at our discretion". This was something we're not used to, but it wasn't an issue.

Second leg

The majority of the second flight was unremarkable, though exquisitely beautiful.

More mountains

Until about an hour in, when Emma declares that she needs to pee. NOW. We frantically searched for an empty bottle had Emma pull down her pants and luckily we made it in time - except since Emma is five and has never peed in a bottle before she didn't have it lined up perfectly at first so she peed all over the floor mat anyway. We adjusted and caught the rest, but some had already gotten on her pants and the floor, she spent the remainder of the flight half naked in her seat.

Naked Emma under a blanket

The approach into Ketchikan was odd. First of all, though I had updated databases, the RNAV 29 approach wasn't in the GPS database. Anchorage center was keen on clearing me for it, though, provided I had the plate, and that ZIKMU was in my database. He said "because we've already had a problem with this today, I want to make sure you fly to ZIKMU, do the procedure turn in the hold and proceed inbound." I acknowledge this, and about that time, it was time to turn. Because I wasn't working on an approach the PROC button in the GNS430 knows about, I had to manually add ZIKMU to the flight plan and activate it direct. Then, I had to go to heading mode in the autopilot to fly the hold in lieu of procedure turn (this is normal for a GNS430 [not WAAS]). I was cleared for the approach and told to contact Ketchikan Radio at ZIKMU inbound.

Annette Island, home of ANN and ZIKMU

Once past ZIKMU, we called Ketchikan radio, and gave them an initial position report. I don't remember exactly how they responded, but they basically said "whatever, talk to me when you're 8 miles out". I heard them mention to other traffic "there's a cirrus out there, but they're more than 10nm away". Once we were 8 miles away, I called them again, and they told us to call again. Eventually Ketchikan radio told us that Anchorage Center wanted to know our altitude. I told them 1,500'. I thought that was odd. Immediately afterward, an Alaskan Airlines 737 asked me if I was on short final. I told them I was. Then I heard them talking about doing some S-turns to make up space for me to land. I realized that I should keep my speed up and land longer than usual. I did these things (within my comfortability) and taxied as fast as I could. There are only two places to get off the runway at Ketchikan; one at each end. Once on the ground, I heard Ketchikan radio throwing shade at "That cirrus that decided to land short". I don't think they believe in taxiways up in the north. Port Hardy had one taxiway, Ketchikan has one taxiway. I'm looking forward to seeing how few airports don't have them.

I've noticed that Alaskan flying is next-level. The controllers expect you to be better. I've flown in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Los Vegas, and Phoenix Class B airspaces, and I've never been thrown shade as I've gotten from Anchorage Center. I think this is a good thing, and I'm committing myself to rise to their expectations.

Ketchikan runway

Customs hell (and a silver lining)

CBP "truck" waiting for not us

When we got to the FBO we saw a marshaller showing us where to park. We followed his instructions and shut down the engine. When he came up to the plane, I explained that we needed to get checked out by Customs and Border Patrol. He said "No problem, I'll get them for you." We noticed there was a white SUV near by, and thought that might be the officer. But, the truck looked empty. We patiently waited for a while, trying to convince ourselves that waiting in a plane that you've spent 6 hours in is better than the giant football-field sized corral they have in Cancun. Then, we noticed that the truck disappeared. Now, to be clear, you are not allowed to leave the plane while you're waiting for customs. We decided that we had better call the local customs office and see what happened...

The phone rang, and a woman answered. I explained where we were and what we needed. Then she went off. She condescendingly explained that we were very late, and that the officer had waited as long as he could. Then he had to go to another float plane, and that he had gotten the ferry to the other side of the river. She said that my planned arrival time was 3:45 and that I was over an hour late. I tried to remain very calm, and tell her that I was looking at my eAPIS acknowledgement right now, and that I did not put 3:45 down as my time. I offered to read to her my filing confirmation number, but she said she didn't want to login to her computer. She said that the officer would come back when he was done with the other plane.

We sit in the plane for an hour. We are hungry. The plane smells like pee. Emma has no pants on.

After a while we decide to clean up the plane; putting things away, cleaning up the pee, trying to dig out clothes for Emma.

I called CBP again. This time it's a Male officer. He's a lot nicer, but basically says "I'll get to you when I can"

We decide to move the plane to the overnight parking area. We're still confined to the plane. Emma has to pee again (goddamn camelback).

After nearly two hours on the ground, stuck in the plane, we see the office arrive. He turns out to be ridiculously nice. He apologized for everything and checked our documents. He said we were good to go.

We started unpacking the plane and getting our packs together. I called the FBO to ask for a van ride to the ferry. They're apparently already on their way, because they saw the CBP truck (awesome service, Aero Services! 👏).

Once we arrive to the ferry dock, it's just pulling up and we sit down. Of course the customs officer is waiting to cross the river back to Ketchikan. We chatted with him a little on the ferry, and he offers to give us a ride to Creek Street! (It's basically right next to the Federal Building). We chat some more with him, and learn about what brought him up to Alaska from his prior work on the southern border.

To be honest, being imprisoned in the plane for two hours sucked a bunch, but the officer's kindness pretty much made up for it all in my mind.

Ketchikan from the air

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