Friday, June 21, 2013

Alaska, Day 2 - Flying Over Denali

Thursday morning dawned crystal clear and beautiful...good thing, because this is the day I drive to Talkeetna to take a flightseeing tour of Denali.  It's a crap shoot whether the mountain will be visible or veiled in heavy cloud cover.  There'd be no way of knowing until I got there.

Representative photos posted here.  Go to my photo album to see all photos taken this day.

It's a pretty drive from Anchorage to Talkeetna.  The highway to Wasilla looks like any interstate freeway in some of the northern states in the lower 48.  Then north of Wasilla the road became a 2-lane road, and then it started to look a little more "wild" and untame.  A long stretch of construction slowed me down a bit.  The road was completely scraped away, down to mud and gravel and was down to one lane and controlled with a flagger and pilot truck.  I had a 15 minute wait until it was our turn.  It was slow going and very rough.  But eventually I was back on real pavement again. 

Coming into Talkeetna I was treated to a fabulous view of Denali rising up over the river valley.  It was completely visible with no cloudy shroud.  It was majestic and huge!  The perfect day to take a flightseeing tour!  I really lucked out on the weather!    A convenient turnout spot gave me a photo op.

I was taking a chance that there'd be a seat for me on one of the tours.  Since I was traveling alone, I thought my odds might be good; easier to do this when traveling solo than with someone else or a group.  My internet research found two different flightseeing companies located on 2nd Street.  I stopped at the first one, K2 Aviation, went inside and inquired.  Yes, they had a seat available on the 12:30 flight.  Perfect!  It was 10:30 AM and this would give me just enough time to go off in search of brunch. 

Just outside of town, I drove past a great looking little place called Flying Squirrel Bakery & Café, so I headed back there for a light meal.  It was an adorable little "organic" cafe tucked off the road and in the woods, and the women running the place were wonderful to talk to.  I lingered over a multi-grain bagel with cream cheese and a bottle of sparkling pomegranate juice.  I enjoyed my brunch while reading an e-book on my Smartphone. 

Then I drove back to K2 Aviation to wait for my 12:30 flight.  They were running a number of flights this day so I sat on their beautiful deck and watched as they loaded and took off, as the planes came and went.   The planes varied in size, the smallest red planes holding 6 or 8 passengers, the largest plane holding maybe 12 passengers. 

At 12:15 they called my name along with 3 others and then herded us over to a little white plane, a Piper 300, not like the others.  It was going to be a small, intimate tour with a great pilot, a young man who sometimes works as an expedition guide on the mountain, so he knows the mountain intimately and in great detail.  Adding to my luck this day was the fact that while I paid for the basic 1 hour tour, I'd been upgraded to the 1.5 hour tour so that they could accommodate two folks who were together on the basic tour. 

View of Susitna River as we
take off.
Off we went, careening down the runway and in seconds we were airborne.  I love flying in these little Pipers!   We banked to the right and headed straight for the big white peak of Denali, flying over the Susitna River and up the river valley.  It was gorgeous, if a bit turbulent, running along the river.

Then we began to gain altitude quickly and the various peaks and ridges and buttresses began to loom ahead of us.  Off the left wing, we could see a group of peaks referred to as Little Switzerland.  Indeed, they did look like the Swiss Alps with their sharp pointed peaks.

"Little Switzerland"

We continued to climb, skirting around peaks and ridges, until the Denali summit appeared just off to the right.  It was breath-taking!
First view of Denali South Peak

 For the next hour the pilot wove his way around the various peaks and ridges and summits, through tight passes, pointing out glaciers, interesting formations, and showing us the base camp used by climbers intent on scaling the summit.

Beneath us we could see occasional brilliant blue ice where snow cover had melted, exposing the glacier beneath.  Wow!
Pools of blue glacier ice visible where snow has melted

Ruth Glacier
The pilot pointed out the wavy lines on one of the glaciers - the Ruth Glacier - which are an indicator of glacial surging.  He pointed out several glaciers to us:  Traleika Glacier, Tokositna Glacier, Ruth Glacier.  The pilot banked to the right or to the left, flying close to the peaks and buttresses so that we could see sedimentary striations on the exposed buttresses left there when this was covered by an ancient sea, or to show us ice falls or avalanches. 

Massive glacier bed in the Great Gorge

Blue ice visible at leading edge of this glacier

It was all so beautiful, I just kept snapping photos; each view was more breath-taking than the last!  The time in the air just flew by! 

View of Susitna River as we return to Talkeetna

We banked toward the south and headed back to Talkeetna, following the river below.  And then we could see the tiny little airport runway ahead.

Coming in for a landing:

Runway approach

What an experience!  Here's a map of what we saw from the plane:

Camera and imagination filled with spectacular images, I climbed into my little Kia Soul and returned to Anchorage.  It was a day I'll never forget!

Tomorrow (Friday):  My birthday!!  Race packet pickup day and dinner with friends from the "lower 48."


  1. I missed your birthday - so Happy Belated Birthday!!

    The trip on the plane sounds fabulous. I swear I could see you smiling while I read it.

    Beautiful photos.

  2. WOW is what comes to mind. And I thought Ranier was spectacular.