Whenever I reach a summit I am elated at the accomplishment. But at the same time there is no moment when I am more nervous about my safety. The goal at the summit shifts from one of discovery and personal perseverance to getting back down safely. Going up, I’m not thinking of home and the people I miss. But I do going down. The challenge is always increased by the fact that, by the time you reach the top, you are fatigued, both mentally and physically. Additionally, retracing your steps, you are rarely as sharp as you were discovering the terrain the first time. Combine these factors, the desire to get home quickly, fatigue, and a false sense of security after having reached your goal, and it should not be a surprise that more accidents happen on the descent. Most mountaineers are aware of this. Ask someone who doesn’t climb and most will respond that the trip up is likely to be more dangerous. There is a similar misconception about flying. Passengers who get nervous during a flight are generally worried most during the landing phase of the flight. In a single engine aircraft, generally, people are concerned that the engine will fail at some point in mid-flight and with no second propeller spinning to keep you in the air, you will fall back to earth and crash. The reality is, without the engine running, a single engine plane simply becomes a poor version of a glider. Depending on the altitude of the plane when the engine quits, the plane can glide for many miles before making a forced landing. Hopefully at an airport, but a field or even a highway will do in a pinch. When landing in a small plane, the engine is typically close to an idle anyway, and the craft glides to the runway. The most dangerous phase of flight, for any airplane is the takeoff. On takeoff the engine is running at full power. At no other time is the engine as stressed. Combine this with the fact that on takeoff the plane is very close to the ground, leaving very little room to maneuver should there be a problem. Until nearly 1,000 feet above the runway, there is no possibility of turning back to the runway for landing without hitting the ground first. It’s in this first minute of flight that the best of pilots are left helpless with no good options. Believe it or not, for reasons of physics and something called asymmetric thrust, this danger is made even worse in a twin engine aircraft. None of this digression is particularly important to my story, except that the entire trip I’ve been thinking of this runway. At 1,850 feet long, it is the shortest runway I’ve ever landed at or taken off from, it is made of dirt and gravel, is 35 feet wide, has trees lining three sides and a river flowing past the end. I am deep in Denali National Park, and I am not an Alaskan bush pilot.
Learning to FlyThis trip, like most adventures, began as a daydream nearly five years earlier. My younger brother Brett just finished college and I had just left the world of investment banking after seven tumultuous years covering the Internet boom as a research analyst. Brett was looking for work and I was looking for someone to share some new endeavors with. Fortunately for me, the job market was difficult in the San Francisco Bay Area after the dot-com crash so Brett had some time on his hands. Although we grew up together, Brett is eight years younger and as a result we were never particularly close. After he finished school I encouraged him to come live with me while he looked for a job. He ended up accepting a position with the U.S. State Department, but the hiring process took nearly a year. During much of that time we started flying. Three months of work for a private pilot license, another few months for an instrument rating. I later went on to get my multi-engine instrument license. I bought an old 1967 Beechcraft Bonanza, replaced the antiquated instrument panel with a new GPS, autopilot, and radio and added a CD player. To be insured in the plane, the insurance company required each of us to fly 25 hours with an instructor that was familiar with the make and model. My choice in aircraft was driven largely by performance and useful load or carrying capacity. The plane is considered by the FAA to be a high-performance, complex aircraft. It cruises at 200 mph has retractable landing gear and has seats for 5, although with full fuel, the plane can only carry 600 lbs of people or baggage. The plane is perfect for fast trips to Los Angeles from San Francisco (1 hour 40 minutes) or to Las Vegas (2 hours 10 minutes) or Lake Tahoe (50 minutes).
Long before I even thought of learning to fly I was into the outdoors. My interest really began in earnest when I was 16. My cousin and I spent three weeks of the summer on a Colorado Outward Bound multi-environment course. This was my first introduction for rock climbing and mountaineering and I was hooked. Over the years I have been at times more or less involved in climbing and the mountains. Another passion I developed early on was for skiing and I spent as much time on the slopes as I could growing up. As a result of these interests, I very much wanted to be able to leverage my newfound mobility in the air to benefit these outdoor activities. Consequently when looking for an aircraft I specifically looked for a turbo-charged model which is surprisingly rare. In a piston-driven prop plane, turbo-charging does much more than increase the performance as it does in a car. It increases the performance at higher altitudes making the plane reliable to fly over the mountains. Air entering the cylinder is compressed to the equivalent of sea level giving the aircraft the same performance at 15,000’ as it has at sea level. Most piston driven aircraft lose performance about 8,000’ and cannot climb well, or at all, above 14,000’, particularly on a hot day with a fully loaded plane. I love the mountains, and much of my daydreams of flying involved hard-to-reach mountain locations. With a ceiling of 24,000’ I figured I’d have no trouble flying over anything in North America. Although I hadn’t really thought about Denali at the time.
Making PlansOver the next five years Brett traveled for the U.S. government and I went back to work in finance, but at a more reasonable pace. I started climbing again, studied for an outdoor emergency care certification and joined the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol as a volunteer. Of course I flew to Tahoe. I flew a lot. Then Brett decided he wanted to broaden his career possibilities. He applied to business schools and settled for Harvard. With change comes opportunity. And opportunity for something bigger than your typical road trip. We discussed trekking in South America. He had already spent time in Southeast Asia. I had spent considerable time in Europe and he had been several times as well. At some point I mentioned the plane. “Why travel abroad when there’s so much to see here?” I was in the process of rediscovering the Eastern Sierras in California which are less than an hour flight away, and I really wanted to combine a backpacking or climbing trip and the plane. I thought of maybe Colorado or Wyoming, but they didn’t seem remote enough. Somewhere along the line Alaska was mentioned and due to the particular challenges of geography in Alaska, a trip by plane is really the only way to go, so the trip seemed ideal. Brett would be leaving work in early May and needed to be in Boston in early June. I began to research conditions for that time of year in the great state of Alaska.
Although most of my friends and family don’t realize it, my interest in flying, as well as mountaineering, is only partly due to a thrill seeking side of my personality. Another smaller part of the attraction is the mental stimulation, focus, and responsibility that are required by each. To me, however, the thing I love most about both activities is that a certain basic mastery can take you places that would never be accessible otherwise. Remember when you were handed your first drivers license? Driving was fun, but most of all it enabled a new sense of freedom. Freedom to get you somewhere you could not have easily gone before.
Try driving in Alaska. There are very few roads that actually connect very many places. In fact, Juneau, the capital, is totally cut off and requires a ferry to get anywhere. Valdez is even more remote. According to the Alaska Travel Industry Association, more than 90% of tourists visiting Glacier Bay, for example, are on cruise ships. Very few people drive from Canada. Obviously few wishing to visit Alaska have access to a plane let alone the inclination to fly one there. As a result, I had a very difficult time planning our trip. I could find very limited information about flying to Alaska in the first place. On the other hand there was no difficulty finding places to go and possible activities from hiking to sea kayaking. But I was unable to find any information that combined the unlimited access of a plane and with some of these activities. We did not want to plan a lot of detail to our itinerary. First of all, we assumed that flying in Alaska would be difficult at times due to weather which could create delays. After all, it is not unusual for the southeast part of the state to receive more than 150 inches of rainfall a year. While both Brett and I am instrument rated, flying in unfamiliar environments in the clouds with possible icing dangers is as dangerous as skiing the Utah backcountry immediately after an avalanche warning has been issued. You can do it and you may make it, but you might not.
I suggested that Brett invite a friend, if he had one that was competent outdoors. He immediately suggested one of his best friends from college, Ben. I had met Ben before but had never spent much time with any of Brett’s college friends. We grew up near Los Angeles. Brett decided to go to school on the East Coast and as a result I didn’t meet many of his friends until I went out for his graduation. My memory of Ben was watching him play a drinking game with Brett involving cups of beer and a ping pong table. The balls were tossed back and forth in an attempt to land them in your opponents’ cups. I had never graduated past playing quarters in college. Clearly my college education was considerably less than Ivy League. Ben turned out to be a perfect companion in the Alaskan backcountry. He is very relaxed and easy going, has a sharp sarcastic wit, and is very comfortable in the outdoors. He is a more than competent photographer and had apparently climbed Mt. Rainier. I’m not sure how Brett’s and my misunderstanding of Ben’s success, or lack thereof, on Rainier started, but when Ben later confessed at having been turned back due to weather, we hazed him mercilessly, jokingly accusing him of purposely misleading us of his prowess. Ben was also willing to share the cost of fuel, help plan the trip and most importantly wasn’t afraid of flying several thousand miles in a small plane.
As it evolved our itinerary ended up centered around only two planned activities. The first was a reservation for a chartered boat to take us from Seward and drop us and three rented Kayaks into Aialik bay. This was the only scheduled plan and we left plenty of buffer in our schedule for weather in case we had a difficult time making it into Seward for our reservation. The second planned activity was a backpack trip through Denali National Park. Brett had read in National Geographic Adventure about a hike in the park to McGonagall Pass that the magazine called one of the best in North America. The hike follows the approach of the first ascent of Mt. McKinley in 1910 by a group of miners mostly from Kantishna. The official route starts from the north in Denali National Park at Wonder Lake and is about 20 miles in one direction, requires a crossing of the McKinley River, and gains about 3,800’ in elevation to the Pass and the Muldrow Glacier. The hike sounded great. And then I learned that Denali National Park wouldn’t open until June 4th.
I was excited to be going to Alaska in mid-May. I am adverse to crowds and try to avoid tourists. I would rather get a feel for a place from the local perspective. In early May the Alaskan tourist season is just slowly waking up from the dark winter hibernation. And there are other advantages to going in May. We expected the infamous Alaskan mosquitoes, which I loathe as much as tourists, to be mostly dormant. We also expected that since it was still so early in the season, that we could get by without making any real reservations by counting on the fact that there wouldn’t be others competing for resources. Based on our reading, the crossing of the McKinley River is not an insignificant hurdle, and we expected that it would not be flowing as heavily in the early season. Lastly, while May is still on the cool side, it is statistically the driest and has the best visibility, particularly around Denali. Most McKinley summit attempts are made in May and early June. After several emails with the mostly helpful National Park Service staff in Alaska, we established that the park did not technically open until June 4th. But it wasn’t really closed either. You see, the park is closed to private cars year round and the forest service doesn’t start its shuttle until June. There is only one road through the park, The Denali Highway. This “highway” is a dirt road that extends 90 miles into the park with a posted speed limit of 15 miles per hour. It takes 6 hours to get to the Northwest corner of the park, to Wonder Lake, where we wanted to start our hike. The shuttle service would not start running until June 4th. So from a practical standpoint, the park would not open until the shuttle began service. If we were able to get around the park on our own without a car before June 4th, we were permitted. In other words, we were welcome to walk the 90 miles. Then I emailed the NPS staff about the little airstrip I saw on the map about 10 miles north of Wonder Lake at the historic mining town of Kantishna. Could we land there? And would conditions be good enough in May? No one at the park service had any real information. After a few more emails, the response seemed to be “well of course, why not?” I later found that attitudes toward any sense of regulation, even by government officials, in Alaska are a little different than they are in the lower 48. There seem to be fewer rules and less structure. People are expected to be responsible for their own actions, but are granted the freedom to decide for themselves what is reasonable. I find the contrast to be similar to the difference in attitudes between the ski areas of North America and Europe, for example. On the Squaw Valley Ski Patrol in Lake Tahoe, we carefully stake caution signs over nearly every small cliff and stake bamboo markers to warn of hidden rocks. Creeks and gullies are fenced off and signs warning of possible icy conditions are posted at the lifts. Compare that to skiing in Europe. Go ski at Chamonix, France. Nothing is marked and it is your responsibility, by deciding to ski there, to be careful, alert and to know what you are doing. The first time I skied Chamonix, I hired a guide. I looked again at the map and the description of the tiny “gravel” airstrip at Kantishna. And then I thought of having the entire Denali National Park to ourselves. And the bears of course.
Wheels UpSo we had a plan. Depart on or around May 10th, be in Seward by May 16th to catch our charter for three days of Sea Kayaking and get to Denali sometime after that. We just really had no idea what the conditions would be like. Should we bring 32 degree sleeping bags or 0 degree? Will snowshoes be necessary, or crampons? Will we do any climbing, or glacier travel? Should I bring a rope, harness and protection? Reports about conditions in May were very conflicting and confusing. No published material discussed backpacking in May in Alaska. If you want to climb Denali you could find plenty of information, but not for hiking. Would the tiny dirt strip be covered in snow in May? We would have to see.
May 10th approached and I spent more and more money on gear. There’s nothing like a big trip traveling through multiple environments to provide an excuse to get outfitted. Fortunately the plane required us to keep things as light as possible. My Bonanza is rated to carry about 1,100 lbs. That sounds like a lot. Subtract 80 gallons of fuel, weighing 480 lbs, three people totaling 450 lbs, and you have 180 lbs remaining for gear. Divide the gear three ways and you have only 60 lbs each. Then consider the little gravel airstrip in the back of my mind. The lighter we are the easier it will be to get off the ground. Less would be better.
We departed early the morning of May 10th. Brett and Ben spent the night of the 9th in my living surrounded by piles of gear. We could not wait to get to the hangar and be off the ground and we headed to the airport shortly after sunrise. Brett took the first leg of the trip in the pilot seat with the idea that the first leg, to Seattle would be somewhat easier than flying in Alaska. Brett is an excellent pilot with skills easily commensurate with my own, except that he has had far less opportunity to fly. Like any skill unused, it gets a little rusty. Ben sat in back taking photos as we flew by Shasta, Hood, Rainer, and St. Helens. Before noon we were in Seattle after an awful landing by Brett. Ben videotaped each landing from the back seat and the footage is hilarious. Brett simply wasn’t used to the plane being so heavily loaded, he flared a bit too much, too early, and we sank to the runway with a hard thud. You generally as a passenger don’t want to hear an explicative coming from the mouth of the pilot as you finally touch down. While it wasn’t pretty, the landing was fine.
Not wanting to deal with all the commercial air traffic around Seattle-Tacoma International, we elected to land at Olympia for our first refuel. The flight had taken 4 hours. Initially we had planned on possibly staying the first night in Seattle to catch up with a college friend of Brett and Ben’s but we were anxious to get to Alaska and it was still early in the day. As can often be the case, the services at the smaller airports can be very gracious. We refueled the plane and to our pleasant surprise we were offered the use of a car to go get lunch. We eagerly piled into the early 1980s Suburban and refueled ourselves.
While possessing the means and the ability to fly provides an unparallel sense of freedom, as a newly minted pilot you quickly learn that one of the biggest difficulties is the lack of transportation once you arrive at an airport, particularly if you’re not intending to stay long. I love the idea of flying into a destination to go do something for the day, but often renting a car is impractical or from many remote airstrips unavailable. In some cases, the airport may be only 10 miles from a point of interest, but 20 miles round trip takes a long time to walk. This was one of the primary difficulties in planning the backpacking portion of our trip. Where can we fly to that is remote and within walking distance of somewhere worth walking, or has other means of transportation from the airstrip, such as a shuttle? Backpacking for a week, we did not want to rent a car that would sit at a trailhead. I did not like the idea of flying into Anchorage to rent a car to go backpacking. The remote quality of Alaska was why we wanted to go there in the first place. We never did see Anchorage. In fact when we finally did fly over the city we were in the clouds the whole time and never saw more than few buildings.
Unfortunately we discovered a small mechanical problem on the way up. Just south of Seattle the number two radio had died. The number two radio is, as its name implies, a backup but it is nice to have and can be helpful for navigating complicated instrument approaches in foul weather. I addition we were missing two aeronautical maps of our flight path over part of Canada and a segment of Alaska. Before we crossed the border, we opted to fly to a bigger airport and find a radio shop and the missing maps. I had hoped that in Washington the maps would be readily available. While we had no intention of landing in Canada, we needed a map just in case. If we ran into trouble and needed to land, we would want a map of the terrain. With the advent of GPS, navigation in small planes was revolutionized. Flight planning that used to take hours could be accomplished in a matter of minutes while in flight, but the capability of GPS has not made the need for maps obsolete. We elected to head over to Boeing Field to find a radio shop to look at the radio and hopefully find the missing maps. Boeing Field is only five nautical miles north of Sea-Tac, so we ended up having to fly right through the middle of all the Seattle commercial air traffic anyway. Experienced bush pilots in Alaska get overwhelmed by dealing with air-traffic control in busy airport environments. Even professional pilots, when flying under visual flight rules can have a difficult time. The 10 minute jump to Boeing was one of the more stressful flights of the entire trip. At the airport, we found our maps after some difficulty and the radio was definitely broken. I arranged to have it fixed and the shop would mail it, via general delivery to the Talkeetna post office when the work was done in a week. There was no point in waiting around. From Seattle we flew directly to Alaska.
"You Boys Looking for Work?"The website for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association has a page with information on flying to Alaska. It says that the coastal route from Seattle to Ketchikan is scenic, but not recommended. Most of the flying is over mountains and there are no airports to divert to should you run into a problem north of Vancouver Island. From Boeing Field the trip to Ketchikan is 586 nautical miles and with neutral winds should take 3 hours and 35 minutes. I chose the coastal route anyway. I did not want to have to clear customs twice, once in Canada and again in Alaska which would mean losing a full day. In addition, with the turbo-charged engine, we could fly higher, and somewhat safer, than most small aircraft. The trip was uneventful, except that we had a significant headwind resulting in a 4 hour flight time. I had initially hoped to skip Ketchikan altogether and continue on to more rural Petersberg or Wrangell as our first stop in Alaska, but the headwind and scattered showers along the coast made Ketchikan the safe destination with only 40 minutes of fuel remaining. We landed in the evening to a beautiful display of light and shadow caused by the interplay of the sun and scattered showers among the islands that surround Ketchikan. We parked the plane, asked to have the plane refueled and to our surprise we were offered the free use of a car until the next morning at our planned departure.
Everywhere we went throughout our trip locals were surprised to see us. And we were equally surprised at their surprise. Alaskan tourists come on ships, or less often they fly into Anchorage or Fairbanks and drive to Seward or Denali in the summer. Everyone we met was extremely gracious and very helpful. When we returned to the airport the next morning we were told that the airport café at Sitka on Baranof Island had amazing pies and was a beautiful place. We departed Ketchikan and flew low over the water dodging the clouds and rain showers flitting between the lush islands. The scenery 2,000’ below my wing was like none I’d ever seen before. The 180 mile flight took an hour and we arrived in time for lunch. The runway at Sitka is built right into the pacific and probably the closest I’ll ever come to landing on what looks almost like an aircraft carrier. The pie was good and the island was beautiful. It was raining off and on. Again, we were provided with a car despite the fact that we didn’t take on much fuel. After a few hours we felt we’d seen the place and headed back to the airport. Ours was the only plane there.
In only 30 minutes we were descending through the clouds, on the instrument approach to Juneau airport. This was the first airport I have ever seen that has a man-made water runway next to the paved runway for sea planes. There were far more small sea planes parked along the water runway than there were in the paved transient parking area. Juneau, not surprisingly, was much bigger than our first two stops. Because there were no passenger jet arrivals when we landed the terminal was mostly deserted. We had to call for a taxi to take us the 20 minute drive into the town itself. There, we were dropped for the first time at a Juneau institution; The Alaskan Hotel.
With a shift in Alaskan tourism from the more traditional where visitors had need of accommodations to cruise-based tourism, the Alaskan and other hotels have transformed. They have become less a hotel and more a residence for the transient summer work force that comes to Alaska from the lower 48 every spring. We were shocked by the impact of the cruise-based tourist economy throughout Alaska. When the cruise ships arrived, the population of Juneau and smaller towns swelled. Lines grew long and the streets were filled. Since May is still the early season, there were only a few ships, but it still seemed like too many. Fortunately they didn’t stay long and each evening the streets would empty and locals could enjoy the many bars in peace. When Brett checked us into the hotel, he was promptly asked “you boys looking for work?” Brett looked back at the woman behind the desk with a confused look. “Ah…, no” came his reply. This was the first of many times we were asked this question throughout our trip. It was assumed that because we were not on a ship we weren’t tourists. Because of this strange situation we were able to take part in the other side of Juneau, and all of Alaska, for that matter, the local side. We had a lot fun enjoying drinks at the Alaskan, making new friends and eating Russian dumplings around midnight after the sun finally set at Pel Meni.
Our first day in Juneau we hiked part way up Mt. Juneau. It had been unseasonably cool and wet up until our arrival. On May 12th it was very hot and sunny and the snow on Mt. Juneau was very unstable. After watching several slides near us we opted to head back to town and get another beer at the Alaskan. As much as I enjoyed Juneau, I was anxious to spend more time in the wilderness.
The next day we had an amazing flight out over the Glacier Bay on the way to Seward. Direct, the flight is about 3 hours, but we flew low over several of the glaciers taking pictures and shooting video. We dipped down low to where the glaciers calved into the water and then gained altitude with the glacier following it up to the ice field. The sheer expanse of white snowfields in every direction was amazing. I felt like the plane was moving in slow motion between the white ridges as we headed North and East over Cordova to Seward. For the several hours of the flight, I was content to watch the parade of mountains rising literally right out of the Pacific. From the air we could see Mt. Logan and Wrangell-St. Elias Park. We flew over Cordova and descending between fingers of the Kenai Peninsula I was continually awed by the height of the mountains covered in snow surrounded on two or three sides by the Pacific blue. The trip to Seward from Juneau was the most spectacular display of rugged coastline I have ever seen.
The Alaskan flight regulations are a little different than they are in the rest of the U.S. While there are generally fewer regulations than there are in the lower 48, there are a few extra rules that make you sit up and take notice as a pilot. For example, up until a few years ago, all flights in Alaska required a firearm be carried on board. This regulation had nothing to do with 9/11 or terrorists. The regulation was established, because it was determined that a firearm would come in handy if the plane had a “forced landing” in the backcountry. In Alaska, almost everywhere is backcountry. Other required items include mosquito head nets for each passenger, food sufficient for one week of survival per person, an axe, fishing tackle, and a knife. If you’re flying in winter one pair of snowshoes and one sleeping bag are required. In other words if you do crash, be prepared to stay awhile. When you are training as a pilot you are taught to always be looking for a safe place to land if the engine ever does fail while in flight. As a result of the training, I am always looking at the terrain on the ground with the possibility of a forced landing in mind, but in Alaska, most of the time there was just no good place to set down if push came to shove. Statistically speaking, losing the engine is a very remote possibility, but the thought is always in your head.
We arrived in Seward with a full day to kill before our Kayak departure so we grabbed our snowshoes and headed for the Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield. We had to take a taxi to get to the trailhead and arranged a time for the cab to pick us back up at 5:30. The most amazing thing that struck me about the Exit Glacier, is how much it had receded in the last 100 years. There are markers that indicated where the edge of the glacier was at particular points in time as you hike the dirt trail up to the edge of the glacier itself. Our brief day hike was enjoyable, but like Mt. Juneau, it only whetted my appetite for more.
Taking to the WaterThe next morning we were finally on our way for what was the most scenic portion of the trip. We arrived at the outfitters early in the morning, sorted our gear, reviewed the itinerary and loaded the boat. Because we all three had some kayak experience we were going alone without a guide. After a two hour boat ride we were let off on a pebble beach on the Holgate Arm in Aialik Bay. Once the boat left, we were totally alone. Well, at least Brett rented a satellite phone so he could call his girlfriend.
We put the kayaks in the water and started paddling. The air was cool but very comfortable under my paddle jacket. The water was obviously cold and if the occasional splash of water didn’t remind you just how cold, the floating chunks of ice did. Because the kayaks glide quietly over the water, they turned out to be an incredible platform for viewing wildlife. We took photographs of bald eagles, black bears and otters. The otters were very curious, swimming out toward our kayaks in groups. They would watch us for long stretches as we paddled through their territory. As suddenly as their little heads popped out of the water to take a look, they would dive back down and disappear beneath the surface. We didn’t see a single other person until the third day just before our departure. Over the three days we paddled more than 20 miles timing the tides to get us into Pederson lagoon to see the seals. We camped on the moraine at the foot of the Aialik Glacier and watched in our camp chairs for hours as the 700 foot wall of ice calved into the bay, one massive chunk at a time. Some of the waves that get created when a wall of ice breaks off are so big, we had to haul the kayaks nearly a half mile up the beach to make sure they didn’t get washed away.
On the third and final day in the kayaks, we awoke to a cold, drizzling morning. I had optimistically brought my 32 degree sleeping bag and was always a little cold. With the hood of the bag over my head and the bag completely zipped I was just warm enough. When we awoke that morning the entire north end of the bay was filled with floating ice. With seven miles to cover to our rendezvous with the boat at the ranger station, we had no choice but to paddle through it; and what fun it was. I felt like I was paddling in a 7-eleven big gulp. The chunks were a several feet around and not particularly hazardous, although they did slow us down quite a bit. After a few hours we had made it out of the ice floe and the sun came out. Shortly thereafter we were lying on the beach sunning ourselves and drying out our gear. It was a pleasant from the cold of the morning contrast making the sun all the more pleasant.
We arrived in Seward mid week and the town was pleasantly quiet, although it lacked the charm of Juneau. On the weekends the town wakes up with visitors driving down from Anchorage. While the sea kayaking was absolutely fantastic, Seward itself did not have any hold on us and once back in town we immediately prepared to head to Talkeetna for the final part of our trip.
Beautiful Downtown TalkeetnaTalkeetna is a very, very cool little town. Particularly if you have any affinity for climbing. It is the staging area for nearly every Mt. McKinley expedition. As the highest peak of North America, McKinley, or Denali as the locals appropriately call it, is a gem coveted by climbers worldwide. With hostile cold, the mountain can be a difficult endurance test to more than 20,000 feet above sea level. What’s truly impressive about Denali is that the surrounding area is close to sea level, meaning Denali rises straight up nearly 20,000 feet from its surroundings. We experienced our worst flying weather coming into Talkeetna from Seward. The flight takes you straight north over Anchorage, although we never got a glimpse of the city as we spent most of the 50 minute flight in the clouds. I was intently focused on flying, glancing out the window every fifteen seconds to evaluate the status of the ice forming on our wings. This is the only stretch of our trip that we could have driven between destinations and although it is 133 nautical miles in the air, by car it will take you close to five hours to navigate the 240 miles of winding highway 1 and 3 between Seward and Talkeetna. When we landed at Talkeetna the clouds appeared to be breaking. There were lots of climbers milling about the air taxi facilities of K2 Aviation, Talkeetna Air Taxi, and Hudson Air, wearing their boots and expedition gaiters despite the heat. Piles of gear were strewn about on the grass as climbers sorted through it all in preparation to stuffing as much as possible into a small plane. Apparently our arrival coincided with a clearing of the weather for the air route into Denali base camp. This is the same route we were planning to fly the next day to Kantishna. For the last several days air traffic into Denali base camp had been shut down due to low clouds. The first window of good weather was getting everyone excited after waiting for days. The climbers were particularly anxious to get to the mountain and start getting acclimated. The elevation at Talkeetna, only 50 miles from the tallest mountain in North America, is only 358 feet above sea level.
The flight from Talkeetna directly to Kantishna on paper is very short, but on paper, Denali doesn’t rise more than 20,000 feet into your path. Flying over mountains requires some respect on the part of the pilot. Often air flowing over the mountains is disrupted causing turbulence that you wouldn’t experience flying over flatter terrain. In addition, flying low over mountains, updrafts and downdrafts can cause significant and sometimes unexpected changes in elevation. Normally I just go up and over the mountains in California. Even Mt. Whitney, the tallest in the lower 48, at more than 14,500’, I’ve flown over on the way back from Lone Pine to the Bay Area. Denali, unlike any mountain, completely dominates the entire landscape and dares you to fly close to it. We flew slowly along the southwest of the mountain, then the west, and the northwest, looking in awe at the size of the glaciers flowing down the sides of the mountain, taking pictures all the while.
We flew low over the National Park to stay below the clouds. The massive mile-wide riverbed of the McKinley River was below us and Denali was just behind us to the south. We flew up a small canyon and overflew the small dirt airstrip that had been on my mind since the planning stages of our trip. I dipped the wing in a sweeping turn to take another look at the strip. The ground was dry, the condition from the air looked pretty good. We continued north about two miles so I could make a long approach. I wanted to land as close to the edge of the runway as possible, but the edge abuts a small river so you can’t cut it too close. I throttled back the power and put the flaps all the way down. My eyes bounced back and forth between our airspeed and the edge of the runway as I cut the throttle. I wanted to keep our speed right at about 60 knots as we crossed the river. This would be fast enough to keep us from falling out of the sky and hitting the river but not so fast that we land long and go into the trees. My hands were sweating on the controls. Just as we crossed the water I pulled up, slightly slowing the plane and stalling the wings. We immediately fell the few feet until the wheels made contact in the gravel. Due to the rough surface I didn’t want to brake too hard, but the gravel helped to slow the plane to give us a little room to spare. We were on the ground, and I was very pleased.
In the Shadow of DenaliWe quickly tied down the plane, shouldered our packs and we were off down the “highway” with eleven miles to Wonder Lake on the dirt road. Unfortunately it took Brett only about five miles to develop a pretty painful blister. Despite this, we made good time from the dirt road past the lake down to the river basin. The trail from Wonder Lake to the McKinley river was in excellent shape although it was very wet. Keeping our feet dry was going to be impossible. We passed several very large bear tracks but no bears. Although they are bulky and heavy I suppose we were glad to be carrying the bear canisters.
The hike to McGonagall Pass was exceptional in my mind for one reason in particular. The changes in environment were tremendous. We went from Wonder Lake with a forest and almost alpine feel, to wetlands, and then to the partially frozen river basin and the river itself. From there we crossed tundra and frozen creeks. As we rose in elevation we trudged through the snow to the pass.
The first day we crossed the river and decided to spend the night on the far bank of the river with the hope that our boots would dry somewhat by morning. This was wishful thinking as our feet were perpetually wet throughout the more than seventy miles we traveled. Ben did his best to keep his feet dry by changing into sandals that he had brought for the crossing. Brett and I didn’t bother and just waded into the river wearing our boots. I’m still not sure one technique was any better than the other. The McKinley was split requiring us to cross two separate segments each about thirty yards across with the icy water reaching our upper thighs. On the far side, now very cold, we searched in vain for the trail and just decided to make camp on the gravel of the broad, open river basin. It was not the most comfortable or picturesque of sites, but we were exhausted, cold and wet. We didn’t realize that we would be that way for the duration of the hike.
A significant difference of the Alaskan backcountry from all my other experiences, apart from the complete lack of any other people, is the length of the day. Ben and I both marveled at the fact that we did not need to have any concern regarding the time. Normally on any backcountry expedition some planning is necessary to be sure that an adequate camp is found and established before nightfall. This is particularly true for a day hike from a base camp. Traveling with minimal gear, it is important to make it back to camp if weather or darkness should make travel difficult or impossible. A forced bivouac in the cold is something to be avoided. But not in Alaska, even in May. We didn’t bother to keep track of the time. We hiked until we got tired and slept until we were ready to go since there was always plenty of sunlight. By the third day, we found ourselves hiking until 11:00 pm. We would pitch our two tents and boil water for our dehydrated dinner in the surreal twilight that never seemed to transition fully to night. We usually didn’t stir from our sleeping bags until after 10:00 am. We slept-in frequently because we were tired but also because things would finally begin to warm up about 10 degrees between 10:00 and 11:00. Nights were about 35 degrees and mid-day hit about 45 degrees. I lay in my tent as long as possible wishing I had brought my 15 degree bag.
The second day on the trail was tough. Partly because we couldn’t find the trail. From the river we hiked cross country. Our inability to pick up the trail was not particularly distressing, we knew we were heading in the right direction, but south of the McKinley River the ground was a sodden marshy mosquito breeding ground. Relative to the stories I have heard about the infamous Alaskan mosquitoes ours were only an early season precursor of what was to come. But we hated them nonetheless. It didn’t help that the ground was very uneven, wet and difficult to walk across. We were trying to move higher in elevation and gain what the map called Turtle Hill. On the map the hill looked insignificant, but marching through the wet, mosquito infested bog, we were each in our own little private hell. Few words were shared between us, in fact Ben and Brett and I chose slightly different routes and we split up for time, keeping each other in sight with as much as a half mile spread between us. When we finally did gain the hill we commiserated that we had felt like we were on a military expedition to take some worthless land that had been deemed strategically important by some far off general. Things improved somewhat once we crested the hill. From the top we could see our path to Denali where the fingers of the cluster of minor peaks that make up Denali’s sides extended creating the pass to the massive Muldrow Glacier.
At the top of the hill we ate, wrung out our socks and picked up the trail. At least for a time, anyway. On this side of the hill the trail was relatively dry and we moved fast. The vegetation was low, there were few trees, several small lakes and there was no snow on the ground. We reached Clearwater Creek and looked for a place to cross. The ground on either side of the creek, like at the banks of the McKinley River was frozen in a white hard crust that was easy to walk, but not always secure. The ice crust formed a complete cover over the water in winter, but with the spring thaw, the middle sections had fallen so that ice extended over the lerge creek on either bank with open water flowing in the middle. We found a section where the gap between the ice shelf on each bank was only about four feet. We did not want to wade into the cold water and get our slowly drying boots wet all over again. We opted to jump across. Brett volunteered to jump across first. He left his pack with Ben and I on the near bank and concerned that the ice on the far bank wouldn’t hold, he stripped down to his pants in case he fell into the water. He made the jump easily as we videotaped his jump. Ben and I tossed our gear across to Brett and then to see who would have to go last we played Roshambo. After a few mis-starts due to my apparent inability to count properly, Ben won the contest. He jumped across but not without a significant chunk of the ice ledge on the near shore breaking into the water. With an even wider river crossing , I prepared to jump. In my nervousness, I cut the launch from the near bank a little too close on the thinner ice, and it gave way into the water as I jumped. The near shelf collapsed into the water and I fell with it, although my momentum carried me across to the far side. Ben grabbed my arms and helped me onto the far shore as my brother filmed the event while laughing hysterically. I was wet from the midsection down, but safely on the far shore. It would have been easier to wade across, but far less entertaining.
We hiked a few more hours after my mishap, but due to the creek, we had lost the trail again. We began to dread crossing any water because it always resulted in losing the little bit of trail that existed. We camped late that night about twelve miles from our target, McGonagall Pass.
The weather had deteriorated overnight. We could no longer see the mountain. We woke in the late morning to a wet drizzling mist. After a little breakfast, we elected to leave camp set up and opted to leave our gear and day hike to the pass. We had a lot of miles to cover and more than 3,000 feet of elevation gain, but our pace would be considerably faster without our packs. In our initial plans I had envisioned camping one night at the pass itself with a close-up of Denali, the glaciers streaming down the mountain and a view of the famous Wickersham Wall to the west. We set off mid-day in an overcast mist. The air was somewhat cooler as we gained elevation and we followed a branch of the Clearwater Creek up to the pass. We were able to make good time despite the lack of a trail since we could walk directly on the ice that covered the creek. We did have to take some care as the ice opened into holes periodically exposing the water and in some cases interesting ice caves carved out by the flowing creek beneath. We were exhausted as we neared the pass. The terrain steepened significantly as we entered into a true alpine setting. There were almost no trees and the vegetation was sparse due to the harsh winters more than to elevation. Soon we were hiking in snow, moving up in a spiral toward the pass. Each of us walked separately, Ben leading, myself 50 yards behind and Brett another 50 yards behind me. It began to snow and the snow in our path deepened. Our feet were wet and the wind was picking up as we continued on. I glanced at my GPS every five minutes to check our slow progress wishing each time that the numbers would change faster. By mid-afternoon we stood at McGonagall Pass overlooking the glaciers with a fantastic view of Denali, except we were in a whiteout. Visibility was no more than 20 yards, the wind was howling, we were cold and I was a little worried about our wet feet freezing. “Ok, here it is! We made it. Let’s go.” We headed down back to camp. We arrived at the tents, totally spent, around midnight in the eerie twilight of the Alaskan night. Despite the foul weather at the pass we enjoyed the journey immensely and we were very pleased we had made it to our destination.
The next morning we broke camp and retraced our steps. We were able to find the trail and avoided the worst of the mosquito bog we all detested. We made it to the campground at Wonder Lake in the late evening. Ben had lost his tent poles that were strapped to his tent somewhere along the way so we were fortunate to be at the forest service campsite that included covered picnic areas sine Brett and Ben would have to sleep in the open. It was a little strange, and pleasant to have the entire camp area to ourselves. Wonder Lake is a beautiful campground with an extensive number of built out sites. In the summer, Denali National Park is visited by nearly a half million visitors. We had the entire place to ourselves. In the morning the sun came out and the sky cleared to a perfect blue and we enjoyed an amazing view of the Alaska Range from our camp. After breakfast we headed for the airstrip at Kantishna. We were ready to head home. We just had to get the plane off the ground.
Taking OffI arrived at the plane about 30 minutes before Brett and Ben. I loaded my pack and checked it over to make sure everything looked good. I took a walk down the runway to take a closer look at the condition of the mostly dirt field. As I returned up the runway an SUV approached with a woman driving. She rolled down the window and smiled. She asked if the plane was mine and asked if I minded if she took a picture. She said a certain relative wouldn’t believe that a Bonanza had landed at Kantishna. Apparently she lived in the area. Alaskans are far more familiar with general aviation and small aircraft that most Americans. On a per capita basis, more Alaskans hold pilot certificates. While her surprise at seeing a Bonanza in Kantishna and her desire to take a picture did little to bolster my confidence, hers was not an uncommon response to seeing my plane. A Bonanza in Alaska stands out. They simply aren’t the most practical plane for country like Alaska. Beechcraft built the first Bonanzas in the 1950s and with their low wing configuration and retractable landing gear, they were clearly designed for paved runways and flying fast. On a low wing plane, the wing is attached to the fuselage below the windows of the cabin, like a jet as opposed to the high-wing configuration where the wing is attached to the top of the cabin. The advantages of the high wing are better visibility of the ground, since there is no wing to obstruct your view, and more importantly greater clearance between the wing and the ground which is very handy for avoiding low brush or terrain on landing or while taxiing in the backcountry. The retractable landing gear is also an important difference. Retractable gear results in less drag, and faster airspeeds because the wheels aren’t hanging out there in the wind as you fly. The trade-off is that the wheels are generally smaller because they have to be able to fit up into the fuselage when they retract and because they retract, they are less stout structurally, which can be important when landing on a rough field or gravel runway. Of course you can’t fit skis for glacier landings or floats for water landings on a low wing airplane with retractable gear. For these reasons we stuck out as “not being from around here.” We only saw one other low wing aircraft on our entire trip. She and I chatted awhile, she took her photograph and left. I wasn’t sure whether to feel proud that I had made it into here with my obviously unAlaskan plane or foolish for attempting such a thing.
Brett and Ben arrived as I was taxiing to the end of the runway. I was clearly anxious to get this part of the trip behind us. I shut the engine down and we loaded the plane. I had studied carefully the Bonanza’s manual, calculating wind direction and speed, weight of the aircraft, the length of the runway, and the air density relative to sea level, and according to the book we should make it with a little room to spare. Fortunately the wind was blowing directly up the runway at about 10 miles per hour giving us a big boost.
With the engine warm we were ready to go. Brett sat in the copilot seat with the video camera running. I pushed the throttle forward and held the brakes until the prop was spinning at nearly full speed and then let go. We began to roll forward in the gravel slowly. Frightfully slowly. My eyes bounced between the airspeed indicator and the water flowing past the end of the runway. We needed about 60 knots to get airborne. Pull up too soon and we wouldn’t get off the ground, I’d only be slowing us down. I started breathing again as the plane lifted into the air and we crossed above the water. Needless to say, we made it. A look at the video shows how nervous about the take off Brett was as well. The film is mostly of the sky out the window. He was too busy looking at the airspeed indicator to film the takeoff properly. Meanwhile Ben sat in the back in ignorant bliss.
We arrived in Talkeetna 40 minutes after takeoff. On the south side of Denali, Talkeetna was forty degrees warmer than Kantishna. We sat out on the deck of the pizza restaurant for several hours warming ourselves and enjoying the heat immensely. The number two radio was waiting as promised at the Talkeetna post office. After a long lunch we began to head for home returning first to Juneau to spend one more night at the Alaskan hotel. On the way back to Juneau we flew directly over Valdez. Part of me wanted to stop, but we continued on towards home. The view from the air of the town surrounded by mountains on three sides and the pacific on the fourth was truly amazing.
After spending the night in Juneau we left for California. We made it uneventfully to Seattle after stopping briefly for fuel in Ketchikan. In Seattle we learned that there were thunderstorms and foul weather over Oregon and Northern California and rather than push our luck, we elected to stay over in Seattle. It was the only weather delay we experienced the entire trip.
We all had a fantastic and unique adventure that is unlikely to be repeated. There is so much to Alaska that despite our ability to travel easily from one place to another, we only got a taste of an amazing place. We found in our discussions with locals throughout the state that most Alaskans have not traveled widely within the state and most everyone was interested to hear of our experiences. There are so many places on this planet to go visit and so many that I have yet to see, but I hope to make it back to Alaska again. If I do, you’ll spot me easily. I’ll be the pilot in the only low wing aircraft, the one filled to the windows with gear. Hopefully I still won’t be looking for work.