This week on The Homer Alaska Podcast we sit down with Stephanie Greer, the founder and chief pilot of Beryl Air air taxi service in Homer. She talks to us about her suffocating first few months in Alaska working in a gold mine, how the freedom of air travel lured her into being a pilot, the perils of bear guiding on Katmai, why floatplanes are the best, and the aviation tourism industry in Homer.
Alex, JJ, and special guest Ilse discuss an airman at JBER peeing in the office coffeemaker, what to do about people dying to see the "Into the Wild" bus, and events.
We also talk to Dr. Neil Schott of South Peninsula Hospital Rehab Clinic about knee injuries!
Best of Alaska News and Events (0:39)
Dr. Neil Schott on Knee Injuries (14:44)
Interview with Stephanie Greer (20:51)
Stephanie Greer is the Owner, Founder, and Chief Pilot of Beryl Air, a Part 135 air taxi based in Homer, Alaska.
Beryl Markham wrote a book called “West with the Night” that Stephanie loves. She was a pilot, horse trainer, and adventurer in Africa. Great storyteller. First pilot to cross the Atlantic against the tradewinds - East to West. She was born in 1902 and was a counter-cultural figure.
West with the Night is a collection of short stories that weaves Beryl’s life together. Stephanie loves the way she weaves stories together and is a “jill-of-all-trades” with different stories from different pursuits.
Stephanie was already flying commercially when she first discovered “West with the Night.” She got into flying commercially in her mid-20s. She came up to Alaska as a private pilot to work for her Uncle in his gold mine in the interior. She had stopped aviation by then because she didn’t want to be a “bus driver.” But when she saw small planes working doing different jobs in Alaska she worked on her ratings more to get her commercial license.
Alaska really struck Stephanie right away. She was blown away by the stories people have here. It didn’t feel like anywhere else she’d been.
Stephanie worked in her uncle’s small plaster/strip-mine. She worked for crew share. The mine was up in Fortymile, close to Chicken. The Fortymile is the Alaska side of the Klondike, where there was the original gold rush. Her Uncle was 10 hours from Tok. They used Cats and heavy equipment to dig up dirt and run it through sluice boxes. Everyone is really remote - maybe 4-5 hours from their neighbor. There are tiny towns like Chicken (population 17) and Boundary (population 6), but if you needed supplies, for example the nearest Napa was in Tok. Her uncle said “redundancy is really important.” You need the part to fix the part to fix the part.
Nome is more where they dredge. They used to dredge Fortymile, but it’s mostly strip mines.
Stephanie grew up in Minneapolis. That’s where she came from. Being remote in the Alaskan wilderness made her “claustrophobic.” It made her feel trapped. You could get out, but there wasn’t everything at your fingertips including communication and needs. People describe it to her now that they feel that way when her plane leaves when she drops people off. At the end of the first mile she walked out of the mine 27 miles to the road. They couldn’t get a vehicle out, but she couldn’t stay any longer. Her plan was to hitchhike, but when she got to town everyone in Boundary - population 6 - was gone. So she broke into one of the cabins and slept the night. The next morning the mail plane came in - a super cub. She got a ride with him back to town. That plane ride sparked her aviation interest. She saw how an airplane opened up the state.
In Bush Alaska it was kind of an unofficial policy to leave your place open and you left dry wood for the next person. Stephanie thinks people are getting more closed off from that. Additionally, it’s harder to hitchhike. She thinks culturally we’re closing off to helping people.
Is Alaska’s culture in the past or is it a parallel universe?
Can you run the state with podcasters?
Stephanie was born and raised in Minneapolis. She wanted to go away and go to school and went to North Carolina for college. Because of how different it was in North Carolina she was inspired to travel and see other places. Besides the weather, she thought the racial divisions were very different. In college black kids and white kids still sat on other sides of the cafeteria in the late 90s. Kids were still being bussed to school there. The girls went to debutante balls.
Stephanie went to school on an army scholarship. She got her private pilots license in high school but didn’t fly in college. Her dad sold weather computers and he traded a computer to a flight school for pilot lessons for him and his kids.
She blew her back out snowboarding before the end of college and didn’t have to go into the army. All of her peers went to Iraq - she was glad she didn’t have to go. She then got a job as a bus driver and did the goldmine and became a pilot.
Stephanie’s first pilot job was with Smokey Bay air in Homer flying mail and people and things to and from Seldovia, Port Graham and Nanwalek. Did that for a few years then bought a float plane in Minnesota and flew it up to Homer. Then worked for Stellar Air and started her own business four years ago.
Everything becomes a job at some point no matter what you do. It’s really cool to be a connection to those communities. You see the same people over and over and become a part of their life. You take people to the doctor. You take pregnant women to have a baby and then take them back home. Take pets to the vet and deliver pizza. You don’t just bring cargo, you’re truly a taxi. Everything you’d put in the minivan in the lower 48 you put in a Cessna here.
The weirdest thing Stephanie ever delivered was an eagle in a crate.
The advantage of float planes is they give you access to tons of places. It’s also the most fun parts of planes and boats combined. When Stephanie took a float plane lesson the first time she just loved it.
The biggest differences are mostly in takeoff and landing and taxing around on the water.
Stephanie has had a lot of run in with wildlife. Had to jump a bear once in a plane and almost hit a swimming moose.
Stephanie sees a lot of bears - almost everyday in the summer - because she does bear guides in Katmai in the summer. There’s a controversy whether to name the bears or not.
Surprisingly there are no bear guiding licenses. We can only see the bears at Katmai because we don’t feed them.
Most people get surprisingly complacent about bears. Photographers tend to be especially complacent to get a great picture.
Large human populations don’t mix well with salmon and bears.
Stephanie explores and creates some trips and others are pretty standard. One trip she created was trips to go see walrus haul out in Bristol Bay. Last year the haul out moved. The fishermen and the biologists know where they are.
Walrus are actually bigger than bears. But you have to be careful because they will spook easily and trample each other.
The haulout is very loud and they stink. There’s anywhere from a few hundred to thousands of animals. Walrus change color. When they come out of the water and they’re cold they’re pink.
She also takes people flying over volcanoes and the Pacific ring of fire, harding ice fields, and Kenai Fjords.
Some of Stephanie’s favorite clients are the Alaskans who plan more creative hunting or hiking trips.
There’s a new big trend of people who want to see all the national parks. These tourists have a passport and want to stamp it for all the parks.