Landing a plane on glaciers, gravel bars and mountainsides is a burly business, but Mike Meekin, who has been at it since 1975, is one of the gentlest souls you’ll ever meet. When I called to confirm that we’d be arriving at his airstrip at 7:30 the next morning, he replied, “Okey-dokey,” before issuing this warning: “The weather has been a little squirrelly. I won’t know anything until I look out the window tomorrow.”
Tourist flights go up only in good weather, which can often mean delays, so it’s best to have a flexible itinerary. For pilots, there’s risk in flying in marginal conditions. “If you make the wrong mistake at the right time, it can be devastating,” Mike told me.
Meekin’s Air Service is on the Glenn Highway two hours northeast of Anchorage. Mike and his bush pilot son-in-law, Matt Keller, greeted us. Matt’s Super Cub was already on the dirt airstrip; Mike moved his out of the hangar by pushing on a wing strut. Super Cubs are a “rag and tube” design, meaning that the gleaming red and white fuselage isn’t metal but painted fabric stretched over a steel frame. These planes are the flying equivalent of duct tape: versatile and tough beyond belief.
Looking at the cockpit, I wasn’t sure how to get in. It was a bit like climbing into a piece of origami. The side window folded up, the door folded down, then I stepped up and folded my torso over the pilot seat to maneuver my lower body into the narrow rear seat. Mike followed. Up came the door, down folded the window and we were all set to go.
The propeller whirled. We spurted down the runway on squishy, cartoonishly outsize tires, and in less than 100 yards we were off the ground. Bright-green tundra fell away beneath us.
The Super Cub flew slowly up a huge valley. There was a dreamlike quality as we floated above the intertwining braids of the Nelchina River. The churning water was the color of chocolate milk due to all the rock flour — stones powdered by the grinding of the glaciers.
Farther along, we glimpsed a moose leaving a gravel bar for the marshy brush and forest. Mike banked into a turn that brought us closer to the mountainside. I found myself meeting the gaze of Dall sheep at eye level as they briefly paused their grazing high on a steep, rocky slope.