Kristin Knight Pace Flies for Her Family
After retiring from sled dog racing to raise her children, she thought the adventurous part of her life was over. Then she learned to pilot a bush plane.
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Kristin Knight Pace shared her story with producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It was edited for length and clarity.
So he fires at the engine and starts taxiing out on the lake. And I feel something kind of welling up within me. And it was just my heart coming back to life, like in time with the engine. And I felt so alive for the first time since I had had that baby.
And so as we took off the surface of the water, I just had tears streaming down my face. And I thought, like with every fiber of my being, I want to do this.
My name is Kristin Knight Pace and I live in Palmer, Alaska. I’m very loud, I’m not small, I take up space. I’m not for everyone. I’m a mother of two adorable, beautiful children. I am the wife of a gorgeous husband who loves me. And I am a veteran of the Iditarod Trail 1,000-mile mile sled dog race and the Yukon Quest 1,000 mile international sled dog race, and I’m also a writer.
I think Ada was six months old when I decided to sign up for my third 1,000-mile sled dog race. I signed up with a little baby in my lap. And I was so intent on holding on to this identity that I had created for myself before I had children. I’d been working really hard to train the dogs and I was doing a pretty good job of that, but also only a pretty good job of parenting. And I started to realize that I don’t think I want to be away from my kid for that long—for two whole weeks, running a thousand miles. You have to really call on some incredible inner strength to do a race like that.
So I kind of realized, Okay, I don’t think I want to do this anymore. And I also don’t know if I can do it anymore. But because I can’t do it and I don’t want to do it anymore, who am I now? And I started to get pretty lost.
Learning to Pilot a Bush Plane in Alaska
I work for the National Park Service and I was going to go do a site assessment of a national natural landmark out in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, which is up in the Brooks Range north of the Arctic Circle. And I went up to Bettles, Alaska, which is a tiny little outpost up there, population 24. I brought my big duffel bag of things. I knew that I was going to get on a float plane to go out to Walker Lake, which is the quietest soundscape in the entire National Park Service that’s ever been recorded. It’s a big lake out in the Brooks Range and just crystal clear water and surrounded by huge mountains.
So I sit in the backseat and the pilot loads everything up. He gets in the front and he jokingly says, after he gives us a safety briefing, “Beverage service at 10,000 feet, hahaha!” And then slams the door. So I’m like, Oh, God, this is insane.
So he fires at the engine and starts taxiing out on the lake. And as we’re going over the water there are lily pads, there are little loons paddling away from us. I’m just kind of feeling the sensation of us on the water and it reminds me of being in my dad’s boat as a girl. And my dad’s boat is a place where everything is always good and happy and okay, you know? So instantly I just felt like this sense of, This feels like home.
We’re kind of chugging along in the water, taxiing over to the very end of the lake before turning and then firing up that engine. He put that engine full throttle and we start picking up speed on the surface of the water. And as we’re picking up speed, my heart is just starting to pound and I’m looking out the window, I’m seeing the water splashing off of the pontoons.
Walker Lake came into view and you could see just these huge whitecaps on the water. It was so windy. I see the little cabin that I’m going to stay in, and I’m just thinking, Holy shit, I can’t believe he’s going to land a plane on this. But he did. It was a beautiful landing and he coasted right on into shore.
And I saw right away, I can bring my kids to a place like this. I can include them in this part of my life without having to train 28 sled dogs and get my kids ready to go out in 20 or 30 degrees below zero, or brave a blizzard or any of that. I could share this really important part of my life with them, which is being out in the wilderness and being in remote wilderness, especially up here in Alaska. I wouldn’t have to give up part of who I am to include them.
So after that trip, I went and took my first flight lesson two weeks later. And I loved it. A lot of people were kind of like, What are you doing? You’re a mom. What if you die? Is this a career that you could actually do? Like, what is the rationale behind this? And you know what? None of those people were people in my family that asked me those questions.
The minute I was in that airplane and all of the muscle memory kicked back in, it was like, you’ve been training for this. You’ve been studying for this. I would come back and my heart would just be soaring. And Andy, my husband, he was like, “Who you are when you come back to us from flying is like the essence of Kristin. And so I know you think it’s this big ask for all of us to fill in our schedules around your flying and take care of the kids. And you think it’s selfish and you think it’s this huge risk. But when you come back to this family from flying 150 miles by yourself, we all get the privilege of being in your presence having just done that. Like you are more you than you ever are.” And man, what an incredible thing to tell someone and what an incredible thing to hear.
In May 2021, we moved to Bettles, Alaska, the place where I first got on that float plane, and I took over the ranger station for the Park Service there. They were like, “Someone quit.” And they threw a Hail Mary, like, “Would you move your whole family to run this ranger station?” I said yes.
So I went up there with the family and I got to fly my plane. I bought a little airplane, a 1946 Stinson Voyager named Ruby. She’s red. She’s got a wooden prop. She’s like an extension of my being. I love this airplane. I sit in this airplane and just feel like, Oh, like this is me. This is my safe place, my happy place, this little airplane. And we have been through so much together at this point. We’ve flown across the whole state of Alaska together.
I made it a goal for myself to fly my kids by the end of that first summer. And so by August, I put my whole family in that little four seater airplane of mine, and we flew around the Brooks Range together and looked at the fall colors and I felt like I was winning at life.
Kristin Knight Pace is a former dog musher, a mother, a park ranger, a pilot, a writer, and an Alaskan. She is one of 35 women who have raced both the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod. Her memoir, This Much Country, can be ordered at kristinknightpace.com.