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Keith Knighten, Part 2

This is a continuation of an interview with Keith Knighten by Rachel Mason, Shannon Kovac and Karen Brewster on August 7, 2010 at the offices of Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, Alaska. In this part of the interview, Keith talks more about flying around the Seward and Kenai Fjords National Park area, the mine and airstrip at Nuka Bay, and being a bus driver for Dan Seavey's tour bus operation.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2010-05-13_PT.2

Project: Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park
Date of Interview: Aug 7, 2010
Narrator(s): Keith Knighten
Interviewer(s): Rachel Mason, Karen Brewster
Videographer: Carol McCue
People Present: Shannon Kovac
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Flying to Nuka Bay, south of Seward

The landing strip at Beauty Bay

Flying tourists around Seward

Russian Lakes and a D-7 dozer

Flying businesses he's been involved in

Driving a bus since he retired

First bus across the new bridge on Exit Glacier Road

Navigating the ice field

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


KAREN BREWSTER: I wanted to turn to Shannon and ask if she had any questions.

SHANNON KOVAC: I think you pretty much answered all my questions about the Exit Glacier area, but if we can digress before we wrap up, I'd like to hear about the flights over to Nuka.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Oh. Well, the Beauty Bay Mine was going, and Lee -- Lee Holen (phonetic),

and I forget who was -- he had for crew down there.

And Don Simpson who had Seward Building, they had the predecessor at ASBS, he was in partners with Lee.

And we'd would fly probably once a week down there, either supplies or whatever.

And Nuka Bay is -- as you probably well know, is full of arsenic.

And Lee would take his wife down there, and within a week, I'd have to -- they'd have emergency come and get her.

And she couldn't breathe because she'd been drinking the water, and there was so much arsenic in her it caused her to have same as a heart attack.

And then over in Palisades, Dave Millers -- or Dave Moore had his wife and a couple three kids down there, and they were sick.

And I'm going to say DEQ, but some -- some government entity went down and checked the water,

and there was so much arsenic in the water there that he made them move out, he wouldn't let them -- they closed that mine down.

And then Don Simpson used to tell about their -- what the hell do you call it -- fines -- not fines, concentrates from the gold mine.

They'd -- they'd run, take, get the big pieces of gold; the concentrates, you had to send them outside to a smelter.

Nobody would smelt them because there was so much arsenic in the gold, or in the -- not the metal --

SHANNON KOVAC: In the tailings? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah, that the EPA would try to shut the mill down for pollution,

and they had a hard time getting their gold processed on the outside because that -- that Nuka area is apparently loaded with arsenic.

And I was thinking on the way in who's left the mine down there, and I think the only one in that Beauty Bay Mine was Max Fackler, I think, was the only one left

because Lee is Outside, and Martin Gorrison died, and, oh, what the hell is the other guy's name, died, so I think Max is the only one left that -- that mined down there.

KAREN BREWSTER: Are they still mining there now?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, I don't think so. The park -- it's park. KAREN BREWSTER: Once the park came in that ended it?

SHANNON KOVAC: No, some people still had claims there. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, I thought they -- SHANNON KOVAC: They continued to file on them, but they've all -- everyone has quit filing on them now.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, that, and I thought the parks paid some people off for their mines, didn't they?

John Kinney, I thought -- SHANNON KOVAC: The one at Palisades. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah.

SHANNON KOVAC: I heard about some sort of agreement, but I don't know the legal details.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, I don't either, but it was something to do with John and the Palisades and the same thing over at Beauty.

But I don't know -- I haven't been down there for years, and I don't know what's going on.

KAREN BREWSTER: Was it as challenging flying in there as some other places?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah, it was lousy. Because you had -- we did it -- had to do it on wheels.

And so you had about 60 miles that you're flying over open water, when you leave -- well, when you leave Seward going that way, there's no place to land until you get to Nuka Bay if you're on wheels.

And so you kind of -- the pucker factor was kind of high, especially if the wind were blowing.

There were a few times I had to -- I could get in there, and to get out I'd have to go all around by Homer over to Homer Point and come in the other way because you couldn't get back into Seward this way; you could get in the other way, but you couldn't get in from this way.

KAREN BREWSTER: And they had an airstrip down there at the mines? KEITH KNIGHTEN: An airstrip of diminishing returns.

SHANNON KOVAC: So you used the strip at Beauty Bay? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Hum? SHANNON KOVAC: You used the strip at Beauty Bay?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Have you been in there? SHANNON KOVAC: Yes. KEITH KNIGHTEN: On that strip? SHANNON KOVAC: Yeah, I haven't flown in, I've walked in.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Oh. Well, you know, then -- where did you -- how did you -- oh, by boat? SHANNON KOVAC: By boat, yes.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Okay. You know what I'm talking about. The strip went right out on a sandbar, that was so much above sea level.

When it was low tide, my God, you had a long strip. The tide come in and you didn't have a long strip.

And the first time I was down there, went down there, nobody told me any different.

And I was on wheel skis, fortunately, and so I loaded up, I guess, over three passengers and a bunch of gear, whipped around to take off, and all at once I'm out of runway and nowhere to go.

And I just kept cobbing it, and I hit the water with the skis, they kept me up, and I finally got off on skis off from the water.

And from then on I always checked the tide before I went into Nuka Bay, but that was -- that was quite exciting for a few minutes there, for a few seconds, probably.

There's something, a couple of things that you haven't mentioned about Aialik Bay.

Did -- have you read -- I wrote this down so I wouldn't forget her name --

Anne Hoover's work?

SHANNON KOVAC: A little bit of it, not too much. She does seal work. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Pardon? SHANNON KOVAC: Seals.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Seals and birds.

And she and a girlfriend spent several summers out there.

And then that seal work, that was kind of interesting. And I don't remember the doctor's name from Fairbanks, but they were doing an oxygen study.


KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, I don't think so.

It seemed to me like he had a -- not an accent or not -- didn't stutter, but a stop -- but he had a speech difference, but I can't remember his name.

But they were doing that oxygen study.

And they had two seal hunters out there and -- in a boat, and when we'd -- I'd fly over on Anne -- we were flying an Amphib --

I'd fly over, and when I circled, they'd shoot the seal, pull it over into the boat, and gut it and take the brains and the heart and the liver and all the internal out,

throw it on ice, reload it into the airplane, fly it back here, and they'd run it into the lab. It was -- they were trying to see why a seal could stay under so long, what -- why a seal could go with oxygen -- without oxygen for so long.

And I don't never know what happened to that study, but that was kind of interesting out there.

And then I used to have a copy of Anne's report out there, I forget, a hundred and some birds I think she catalogued out there.

And then strictly a sideline, one of the first lady astronauts was a friend of Anne's, and we flew her out there and she spent a weekend or a week with Anne out in Nuka Bay -- or Aialik Bay.

And then she flew a jet aircraft up here solo, and came down and flew with us bums out to Aialik Bay, and we flew her back in, and then she went to Anchorage and got on her jet -- got her jet and went back,

but I forget which lady astronaut it was, but it was kind of unique, I thought, that she's spending a week out in the boondocks. RACHEL MASON: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

In your -- all your years of flying, you know over all this country, do you have wildlife sightings and have you noticed changes in the animals, in the populations?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: No. Because, now, remember, I haven't flown for 15 years over here.

And I -- I wouldn't say I saw any -- really any change in the moose or -- and there's lots of black bear that got over there in Aialik Bay and over there in Pedersen Lagoon.

We used to fly down -- fly through, come down off of Pedersen Glacier -- or Aialik Glacier, come around that Pedersen Lagoon, and you'd always count four or five, six brown -- or black bear,

and occasionally a brown bear in there. And I imagine they are still there.

SHANNON KOVAC: There's a lot of bears.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah. And that was a beautiful spot, you could just practically guarantee your tourists that they were going to see bears because there were always bear in there.

And before it became parks, that was a joy, if you really had a good customer, that's where you took him for bear hunting because you knew he was going to get a black bear no matter what and --

RACHEL MASON: Have you noticed changes in the numbers of hunters or the pattern of who goes hunting?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: No. Because as I say, I've been away from that for probably 15 years, and I've been involved with tourism since then, and I've lost all contact with the pilots and the guides and whatnot.

I really don't know. KAREN BREWSTER: But in the years you were doing it, did you see an increase in hunters or a change? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Not particularly, no. It remained pretty static.

KAREN BREWSTER: You mentioned tourists and wildlife. So did you take tourists out for wildlife viewing -- KEITH KNIGHTEN: Oh, God. KAREN BREWSTER: -- from the airplanes?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah. We had a regular trip, and I forget again what the price was per person,

but we took four -- yeah, if we were using the 180, we could take two, four, five -- five passengers.

Or if we had the Beaver, it was three, six -- seven passengers.

And we took off from Seward, went up Exit Glacier, down the snowfield,

down -- come circled around, played around up there while I showed them, especially in the fall, when the lakes are all showing up, the blue lakes about the color of your jacket, beautiful.

Anyway, then we come down Bear Glacier, either Bear Glacier or over at Aialik Glacier, and then back to Seward.

And after the hundred and fifteenth time, that was the most boring flight in the world.

The pilots, myself and our hired pilots, somebody would come in and want to go sight seeing, everybody'd disappear.

And the office manager had to hunt a pilot down to make that trip because, good God, it was the same thing over and over again, except if we were using an Amphib.

I used to land out in Bear Glacier and taxi around through the icebergs and up there in the lagoon.

And that was always good for a pretty good tip because if you'd land and let them take pictures from the air up to -- I mean, from the water up to the iceberg,

and it was kind of unique to taxi around through the icebergs out there, but basically, that around the block flightseeing trip was bor-ing.

KAREN BREWSTER: So what was your preferred flying to do?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: I think in the winter on skis.


KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, you could land everywhere and there wasn't anybody around, you could get up in Paradise or up in the valleys and look at wolves or moose, and

I don't know, the weather -- and it's calm in the wintertime, especially in the spring, you got some crystal clear sunny days and not a bump in the sky.

It's just -- just nice if you're just goofing off flying, that's -- that's the time and the place.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you did flying just for yourself and without clients? You'd just go out?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah, you'd have friends or family or something, and...

KAREN BREWSTER: Did you go out flying and camp overnight in places?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: I have, yeah. I did. I used to. I like to fish, and if we weren't doing anything particular, I'd take an airplane and go up to Russian Lake or somewhere over Kenai, and land and fish.

And you always carried a camping gear in the airplane for emergencies.

So I had a weird deal up at Russian Lake one night, I was up there with myself, and there was an old platform up there.

I don't know what, where, why that platform was built or what, but it was half as big as this room. Have you saw it?

SHANNON KOVAC: No. KEITH KNIGHTEN: It's on this side. You know where the old Cat is? KAREN BREWSTER: Up the river? KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, up at Russian Lake. Upper -- KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, we have on the -- KEITH KNIGHTEN: Upper Russian.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, somebody marked the map here. Around here. This is Upper Russian.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah. Yeah, right -- where the hell would that be. Right in here somewhere there's a trail that comes across to -- KAREN BREWSTER: Here maybe on this map.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: I doubt it. First off, that's an older version. KAREN BREWSTER: This is an old map.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, that was an old trail.

Years and years and years ago, before I came here,

there was a -- the -- the water came down here, glacial water came down here, and was going to bust over into Russian Lake.

So in the wintertime, they walked out a D-7 Cat and dozer.

I'm not sure how they got it up there, but they walked it up from somewhere, probably from over here at Cooper Lake, up here.

And they dug a channel here, channeled this back down into Resurrection, so it didn't go over and pollute Russian Lake.

So they figured it was going to happen again, so they just left the Cat up there.

Well, you know the mentality of a lot of the hunters here in Alaska, next thing you know that Cat got all shot to hell.

And so the Cat, to my knowledge, is still there. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, somebody indicated it might be up around here.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, it's just for the -- it's right in here.

KAREN BREWSTER: Do you want to mark that?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Because you could -- I'm guessing that Cat's about in there.


KEITH KNIGHTEN: And it -- and anyway, right here on this line is where that flat, wooden platform is.

And I was all by myself, and middle of the night I woke up, I couldn't figure out or think what woke me up.

And so I laid there.

And this light flashed.

And I'm thinking, boy, is this UFOs or what. Pretty soon it flashed again.

And what it was was heat lightning way off, but it was flashing up there on that lake and reflecting.

And that was the weirdest sensation to lay there and watch these lights flash way up in the --

in the mountains where there was no lights around, but I finally figured out it had to be heat lightning that I was watching, but --

so again, I'd say it was weird. SHANNON KOVAC: Sounds eerie. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you said you stopped flying about 15 years ago? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: Did your whole time you worked for Harbor Air or did you fly for somebody else?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yes. I started out for Harbor Air, and he fired me two or three times, and then Al Rule (phonetic) and Jim Wallace tried to buy Harbor Air.

And I'd been laying around, we'd sold the Fish House, I was laying around on my butt, so they said, hey, how about you managing Harbor Air.

So I said okay. Be pilot manager. So I called in my old hands from the Fish House and we took it over.

And come the end of the season, found out that they were losing money hand over fist, and they were going to give it back to -- to the -- to Stanton.

So being spiteful, my -- Sue, who -- the gal that worked with us, she and I decided we'd buy it.

So we picked it up, and unfortunately, we bought Harbor Air.

And so I flew for myself as half owner of Harbor Air for about 12 years, I guess.

And in the meantime, once in awhile I'd fly for John Kenda in Kenai -- or in Moose Pass, or Wayne Racine in Moose Pass.

And one year I flew in Cordova for, yeah, hauling fish, but I can't think of who the guy's air taxi it was, but mostly I flew for our own company.

KAREN BREWSTER: And then why did you decide to retire and stop flying?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: I just got tired of it. We -- I kept -- I didn't stop flying, I kept -- when we sold out, I kept a Super Cub on -- it had wheel skis and floats on it.

And I kept it and I used it for personal flying.

Then we started becoming -- we became snowbirds and started going Outside, spending four or five, six months outside.

Well, when I was active in flying, the joke amongst the professional, I guess you'd call it, pilots was every fall reading in the newspaper of all the doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs that are wrecking their airplanes moose spotting.

Or going into places they couldn't get out of.

And you'd laugh about it because what was happening, they had maybe 10 hours that year, and the professional, we'd have maybe a thousand hours, and considered ourselves a little better pilots than the guy that's just flying on the weekend.

And all at once I found out, hey, I'm that 10 hour pilot, and I -- I don't want to leave a 35 , $40,000 airplane laying up on the side of the hill, so I sold my Cub.

And I thought I'd really miss it, but not really. I do once in awhile, but I survived.

KAREN BREWSTER: And so what have you been doing? You said you're a snowbird, but what else have you been doing since you retired?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: We've been friends for -- from the beginning of time with Dan and Shirley Seavey.

And Dan was out one night having coffee and he said he was going to buy some -- going to start a tourist guide, bussing tourists.

And I said, "Hey, let me know, I'll drive for you." Ho, ho, ho.

I don't know, it was a couple months later Dan called and said, "Are you ready to go to work?" And I said, "Well, I guess so."

So I went down and I got a commercial driver's license, and I drove bus for Dan and Whitey for, oh, God, maybe 10 years between -- and at that time Dan and Whitey had the Seward Bus Line, too.

So, you know, summertime we drove tourist bus, and then in the wintertime we'd switch off driving the Seward to Anchorage bus.

So that was how I got into that. That's how I spent most of my time.

KAREN BREWSTER: So what was the summer tour bus deal?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, you know -- you know, I'm saying you know this, you're not from here, Dan Seavey and Whitey VanDusen bought -- I think -- now, don't quote me on this exact amount, but I think somewhere around 14 surplus school busses.

And they painted them green, put a yellow sign, Trails North on them.

And when the cruise ships came in or the trailer people, they'd take bus tours up to Exit Glacier and they put on a little dog and pony show, and then bring the people back.

You'd generally make two trips a day.

Then Dan and Whitey split, and I went with Dan, and he bought some bigger busses, some 35 or 40 passenger busses, and we were doing two or three things.

We were running tours as far north as the mountain, where -- I want to say up north. And then --

RACHEL MASON: Denali? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Denali, yeah. Boy, again, I'm stuck -- KAREN BREWSTER: We didn't know how far north you were talking about. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah, we were going up to Denali -- Denali.

And then they had real good, for about three or four years, he had a real good contract with the cruise ships doing crew changes.

And we'd pick up the -- if there was -- generally, always there was at least a half a dozen and sometimes 15 or 20 crew member's time was up when they got to Alaska, so they had to go to Anchorage, fly them out of Anchorage back to their home of record.

Well, we were responsible for them to take them to Anchorage and turn them over to customs -- customs and immigration.

And they'd get them on the airplane, and we'd pick up a new crew and bring them back.

And generally we'd leave here at 6:00 in the morning and be done by noon, so that was a real good, and they got a full day's pay, and that was a real good job.

And I did that for about three or four years, I guess.

And then things just kind of petered out.

Dan got out of the business, and kind of more or less turned it over to Mitch.

And I drove a couple of times for Whitey later on, but primarily those green busses were -- oh, and they also ran what -- it used to be when a cruise ship came in, the cruise company would hire,

oh, some four to eight busses that ran local here, ran from the dock downtown, to haul ships people back and forth.

And then, of course, the tours to Exit Glacier and out to Dan's dog show, Mitch's dog show, and that was our primary deal.

KAREN BREWSTER: So this was after it was a park? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: And after there was a bridge across the river? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah. Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: Okay.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: In fact, I was the first bus to cross the new bridge. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Were you here then when they -- SHANNON KOVAC: No.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Okay. They put the bridge in, and they put two stanchions right in the middle so people wouldn't drive across it, they didn't want people -- they weren't ready for people up there.

But they made a deal with the tour busses, you could drive up there.

So there was a -- there'd be a parks representative there, you come up in the bus, they would pull the stake out, let you go across, and they put the stake back so nobody else would.

Well, I'm coming back one day, and they pulled the stake out, and there was some people walking ahead of me.

So I'm easing along and this one guy, he stops.

And he was fried because they were letting busses go across and not him.

And I just about had to run over him. And finally, one of my passengers was going to get out and whip him, and finally he got out of the way, but that lasted, I guess, all one season. That bridge was in and they wouldn't let traffic across it.

And now -- of course, now, everybody goes and there's a lot of traffic up there.

And that road wasn't all that good, either.

You know, fall was always a good time, it was really good for tourism because that road would flood out, and you'd have to go right past the glacier bridge up there,

there was about a hundred yards that sometime you'd have water running into the floorboards of the bus until they put that fill in, but that was always interesting and good for some quaint comments from the passengers.

KAREN BREWSTER: So how was that road back, you know, in the '70s?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: It wasn't -- KAREN BREWSTER: It wasn't here when you first got here, that road wasn't there, was it? KEITH KNIGHTEN: No. No.

KAREN BREWSTER: Do you remember when Herman Leirer was putting it in?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, Herman started up the other side, and then they switched over to that side. And I don't remember, Herman, Ollie Amend was running the Cat on that, and I don't remember what year that was, that Herman started that up there, or when it was completed.

KAREN BREWSTER: I was wondering how much it was used by people.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Quite a bit. Quite a bit.

You know, that -- just before you go to the bridge -- cross the bridge, there's that parking area down in there.

Originally there wasn't any drain out of there.

And I came over there one morning and kind of looked down, and here's about six cars that used to park down in there.

Well, it had rained and that whole thing had become a pond and you could just see the roofs of the cars sticking out down there in that pond.

Since then they put a big culvert in there so it drains, but that was -- I imagine that people were pretty excited when they came back from their camping at the glacier and their car was flooded up on dry land.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Did you ever do any snow machining or skiing or anything?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Not much, not to speak of. A little bit, but not too much.

KAREN BREWSTER: We were just wondering, you know, other activities you may know about that people may have done out -- up the valley or up the glacier and onto the ice field.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: Not really. That was just a one time affair when Freddie Woelkers and the Episcopalian priest and somebody else, they went up to the snowfield, up the center of Exit Glacier,

and I think it took them, what, three days to get all the way up to where the cabin was.

At that time the cabin was still usable, but it was below about 5 feet of snow.

All that was sticking out was the flagpole, and they found that and dug a hole and got down, and they spent one night before I come up and picked them up down in that cabin, like living in an iceberg.

RACHEL MASON: How did they get up there?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: They -- they -- by foot and snowshoe. They went up the center of Exit Glacier. RACHEL MASON: I see. KEITH KNIGHTEN: This was in the wintertime. RACHEL MASON: Wow.

KEITH KNIGHTEN: And they did it just for kicks. Freddy was always trying something like that. And...

KAREN BREWSTER: I did have a question back, I'm jumping around, too, about flying and navigating, how you managed to navigate around up here. Flying over the ice field, how do you know where you are?

KEITH KNIGHTEN: From your chart. Follow -- again, VFR.

Or as the joke is IFR -- IFR -- IFR stands for Instrument Flight Rules, but most of the Alaska pilots it stands for I follow rivers.

And so, yeah, it's all visual.

Because most of the time you're not that high off the ground, so you learn to recognize rivers and it's -- it's even different flying the same area in the wintertime and summertime,

the terrain totally takes on a different characteristic, so you've got to rethink it in the wintertime or the summertime.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, and I would think flying over the ice field, it would all look the same, but it doesn't ? KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, there's nunataks and glaciers and what, you get to learn it pretty rapidly, because --

KAREN BREWSTER: What are nunataks? KEITH KNIGHTEN: Am I mispronouncing it? SHANNON KOVAC: I don't think so.

KAREN BREWSTER: I think I know what they are, but I wanted you to explain it. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Well, they are a hunk of rocks sticking up through the snow.

KAREN BREWSTER: That's what I thought. KEITH KNIGHTEN: Yeah.

RACHEL MASON: Okay. Well, anything else you'd like to share with us that we haven't covered yet? KEITH KNIGHTEN: No, I think I probably bored you to death as it is.

KAREN BREWSTER: No, it was great. Great stories. Pilots always have good stories. KEITH KNIGHTEN: We lie a lot.