Flight-Seeing Mt. McKinley–Part 2 Glacier Landing
Finally, the last Alaska post! After the McKinley flight on Thursday July 3rd we went back to Anchorage for a good-bye visit with my son and then left the state on Sunday July 6th. It took us 5 days to get across Canada and we were back in the Lower 48 on Friday July 11th. I’ll do some recap posts but they won’t be travelogues. I’ll post about a couple living in a van, for example how we converted Judy’s van, and how we did in such tight space. But first, let me answer a couple of questions about the flight around Mt. McKinley.
- Aren’t you scared of flying in small planes? I can easily see how you would be If you have never been in a small plane before, but I’ve spent a LOT of time in small planes. My father brought our family to Alaska in 1961 mainly because he loved hunting, but Alaska has so few roads that the only good way to hunt is with an airplane. So as soon as we got here my dad got his Pilot’s license and bought a Super Cub, the best small bush plane you can buy. So I’ve spent hundreds of ours in the back seat of his plane on wheels, skis and floats. I’ve flown in all kinds of bad, turbulent weather and landed on some tiny little landing strips including beaches, tundra, lakes, gravel bars, and tiny clearings. So getting into this DeHavilland Otter was second nature to me.
- Do I get to enjoy the trips, or am I so busy with the camera taking pictures that I don’t fully participate in it? That’s a question I’ve given a lot of thought to because the camera is basically glued to my eye the whole time there is any action going on. Occasionally I put it down and look around, but the great majority of the trip is seen through the viewfinder. Am I cheating myself out of the full experience of the trip just for some pictures? The simple answer is no, I’m not. It’s impossible for me to express how much I enjoy the act of photographing these trips. My single greatest joy in this life have been the moments I’ve spent with a camera to my eye, or standing behind the camera on a tripod waiting for something (sunrise or sunset, better light, an animal to move, the Northern Lights to glow brighter, etc.). I’ve written about this before so I won’t repeat it but there is something about the technical requirements and the creativity of nature photography that brings me to a state of almost ecstasy. It sounds silly but I think more of my brain is engaged then, than at any other time of my life. More than that it puts the event so deeply into my memory bank that at any time I can look at those photos and the joy of that moment floods back to me just like I traveled back in time and was literally reliving it.
In my last post we left off with the flight around the peak of McKinley. After we were done with that we slowly descended by flying all around the area and the Peak of Mt. Foraker. While we were breathing oxygen from the masks, the cabin was not pressurized so we were going to drop fairly quickly from 21,000 feet to 6,000 feet. We’ve all experienced needing to “Pop” our ears after descending in a jet but this was that taken to extremes because it happened so quickly. I was actually pretty uncomfortable for a while.
On each of Talkeetna Air Taxis flights you have the choice to include a glacier landing or not and I had chosen to include it. No way was I going to miss out on a chance to be on a glacier that close to the McKinley peak. So we descended to about 7000 feet and flew over the landing site and there was already a plane on it, but as we flew past he was taking off. There was a lot of air traffic around McKinley! The pilot was talking to us over our headphones but when he talked to the Air Traffic Control tower at Talkeetna, or to other pilots in the area, we could hear it also. He was very careful to report to other planes our position at all times so there was no risk of collision. He had also been speaking to the pilot on the ground so he would know we were coming in for a landing and he was gone before we did. I imagine it’s all well laid out between the different Air Taxis flying over McKinley so it runs smoothly.
It was so cool to be this low in the mountains because the walls of the Ruth Glacier gorge were all around us. For this the pilot dropped the skis and we landed right on the snow. It’s actually uphill so it was a very short landing and then he took off downhill so we very quickly lifted off after we had been there for about 20 minutes.
While it is ice in the winter in the summer the top layer thaws so we were walking around in about 5 inches of snow—that’s why they had given us Gore-Tex over-boots. If you are familiar with most snow in the mountains, as it thaws in the spring you “posthole” down into it. That means your leg sinks through all the way down to your crotch and then you have to struggle out of it. But this is an actual glacier so only the top few inches thaw in the summer; underneath its ice year-around.
Because we were the last flight and landing of the day, the pilot didn’t hurry us at all, everybody but me stayed right beside the plane but I walked out about 150 feet and did a circle around the plane taking pictures. Finally he said we needed to go and we all climbed back in. Because we were down to about 6000 feet, we didn’t need oxygen for the flight back to Talkeetna. On this leg of the flight I rode in back so someone else could be in the co-pilots seat. One of the cool things about this airplane is that everybody gets a window seat and the windows are actual bubbles. I could put my Nikon point in shoot actually outside the body of the plane and shoot forward. I think it makes for some interesting photos.
The pilot kept up his tourist information on the way home and it was also very interesting and made the trip go faster. When we got back to the hanger and we were climbing out, I make sure to tip the pilot a twenty dollar bill so other passengers could see me. It seems odd to tip a pilot because usually we never see them, but on flight-seeing trips it’s normal to do so, even if it is not expected or required. On the Bear viewing trip I tipped the pilot who flew me $20 and Dereck the naturalist guide $50; that’s 10% of the cost. I thought he went so far and above what was expected that I wish I could have given him more.
And so ends our amazing Alaska Trip! It had its ups and downs, good times and bad, but it was something I wouldn’t have missed for anything. For the rest of my life, it will probably be one of my most treasured memories! My wish for all of you, is a life full of treasured moments and memories that take your breath away and knock your socks off!!
If you don’t have that, now is the time to start. If not now, when?