Most of us try to make our lives as comfortable as possible. Then, there are the people for whom that’s too boring.
Mark Reed and Chris Buchanan are in the latter group. The husband and wife spend 11 months of the year living in the Seattle neighborhood of Ballard, where they recently moved into a fixer-upper with their five-year-old daughter, Rachel. They spend the other month of the year in Alaska. Their home there is a tent they pitch wherever they’re able to land their plane. They drink water filtered from a stream. They eat fish they catch themselves. They’ve been hooked on that wide open space ever since their first trip up in 2008.
“We were traveling over terrain pretty soon into our trip where we couldn’t see a town or settlement or even a road outside of any of the windows, and that’s kind of hard to do in the Lower 48,” Buchanan said.
They let the weather dictate their way. If it’s clear, they can make it to the northernmost reaches of Alaska, such as Prudhoe Bay, the Brooks Range, and the Colville River – places where they’re more likely to encounter caribou or bears than other humans. Their means of transportation is kept in a hanger at Paine Field in Everett.
It’s a single-engine propeller plane, canary yellow, a bit longer than a Subaru Outback.
Reed wheeled it out on a recent sunny afternoon to head up to the San Juan Islands for a weekend trip.
“This is the machine,” he said with a measure of pride. He built it himself over a couple of years, using a kit from a company in Arlington, WA, called Glasair Aviation.
“There’s thousands of rivets in there,” he said, pointing to the wings. “Lots and lots of hours of riveting.”
Reed did all of that himself. And he’s not even an engineer – he studied architecture in college. Building the plane involved a lot more than just following instructions. He added lots of customization, mostly to make the plane safer. He has three global positioning systems and two electrical systems.
I asked him, what was it like taking it in the air for the first time?
“Oh, it was a hoot,” Reed said. “There’s a certain amount of trepidation. I’d spent almost 3,000 hours building it. I didn’t have too many doubts about it. But you are a test pilot and that first flight is always an exciting one. It’s always something to celebrate when it’s done.”
Reed has always loved making things – especially things that go up in the sky. In college, he taught himself how to make technical, high-end kites, the kind that can do flips. He turned that into a business called Prism Designs. Then, about a decade ago, he reached a point where things were going well but he felt a little bored.
“When that happens for me, it’s always been helpful to think about what would you be doing if you could be doing anything at all and time and money was no object?” he said. “And one day, that idea popped into mind, and the idea was to build an airplane and fly it to the northernmost point in Alaska and fly it to the southernmost point in South America.”
People guess that he had to do a hard sell to get his wife on board. Not so, says Buchanan.
“There’s an assumption that this is a mad idea that my husband had that I somehow had to be convinced to go along with, and my friends who know me are just as likely to think the idea came from me,” she said.
They share an adventurous spirit. Reed already had his pilot’s license, and Buchanan got hers too. After their first trip, they decided they wanted to go to Alaska every year and they ditched the South America idea.
“We really had our minds blown by the experience of being in that landscape,” Reed said.
Two years after that trip, their daughter was born. It didn’t cross their minds to stop doing their annual trip to the wilds of Alaska in their home-built plane. They just installed an Evenflo child car seat in the back of the plane. They rejiggered what they take to accommodate kid gear. Some necessities these days include Dum Dum lollipops and a few stuffed animals. The trips are special for Rachel, too.
I ask her what she likes most about going to Alaska.
“Picking blueberries,” she said.
I’m fascinated by that. I have kids, and sometimes I feel almost paralyzed by fear about the dangers that exist. When they climb too high in a tree, I get freaked out. It’s hard to imagine taking them to isolated parts of Alaska in a small plane. But I admire it. It’s all about teaching kids to jump into life with both feet.
Buchanan and Reed want their daughter to experience how amazing our planet is.
“There’s something to be said for appreciating the scale of the world that you live in, and it shouldn’t be scary,” Buchanan said. “We like taking Rachel out, it’s fun camping with her, it’s really enjoyable to just spend time out in the tent, listening to the birds and listening to the water and being out in the world.”
Making good judgments is another thing they want to teach Rachel. They plan extensively before each flight. That is how they handle the risks of flying in Alaska – the massive mountains, the unforgiving weather.
“You spend a lot of time looking pretty far ahead of the airplane trying to think about what could happen next, what you may be headed toward next and what you’re going to do about it,” Reed said.
That means not just having a plan B, but plans C, D, E and F. Still, flying’s not the only risk, there’s also wildlife.
“We’ve seen everything from 50 bears in 20 minutes from a safe distance in the air to bears pretty darn close to our camp site to a bear on the runway in front of the airplane as we were trying to take off,” Reed said. “We haven’t had any bear encounters that I would call terrifying, but certainly enough to respect them.”
One reason they do the trip every year, besides the pure adventure, is to take photos of Reed’s kites in spectacular settings – in front of glaciers or aquamarine colored lakes. On one particularly memorable day, they caught the attention of a curious caribou that slowly approached them, fascinated by their kite.
“That caribou just decided it was time to come check it out and see what was going on with this colorful thing in the air and these strange bipeds on the ground,” Buchanan recalled.
It sounds amazing. And that’s why, when Reed asked me if I want to go up with him in his plane, I agreed, even though I was a little nervous. And I was kicking myself for not buying life insurance like I’ve been meaning to. But if it’s safe enough for them to take their kid in the plane, I decided to chill out. Reed had me put on a life vest, complete with a medical kit and a satellite beacon.
“It’s the survival gear that we typically like to travel with,” he said. He showed me where the fire extinguisher is and how to open the door latch in case of an emergency.
We climbed into the plane. It’s not roomy. It felt teensy compared to the giant Boeing 777 that rolled down the runway before us. I felt pretty calm. I know Reed is a careful guy.
But then I saw a sign on the dashboard: “This aircraft is amateur built and does not comply with federal safety regulations for standard aircraft.”
Relax, Reed said. He said the plane actually exceeds a lot of those regulations. We got the go-ahead from the control tower and took off.
If you’re used to flying in a jet, being in a small plane feels almost like you’re hardly moving. Reed said we were flying 140 miles per hour, but it didn’t feel like it.
We also were closer to the ground than in a jet, making it much easier to pick out each familiar place. It was mesmerizing to see Seattle landmarks from above. We got a great view of Husky Stadium and Gas Works Park. I could see every color of Lake Union in a way that you can’t from a boat.
Then Reed asked me if I wanted to take the controls. I said, “Really?” I felt a little bit chicken, but I suspended my fears and took the control stick. I lightly pushed the stick forward and the nose dipped. I banked the plane slightly to the right and slightly to the left and after 30 seconds, I told him I’d had enough.
Back on the ground, Reed loaded up for a weekend trip to their cabin on Decatur Island near Anacortes. This is a familiar routine.
So is there anything outside their comfort zone? Reed and Buchanan said yes, city life is what can feel hard now and then.
“Sometimes birthday parties are a little challenging,” Buchanan said with a laugh.
Come July, they won’t have to worry about a birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. Instead, they’ll be monitoring the weather in Alaska, figuring out good places to land their plane, and keeping an eye out for bears.