As we soared through the air in what seemed like a fishbowl with wings, everything vibrated with engine thunder. Squeezed behind the bush pilot in a tiny two-seater Piper Super Cub, I might have felt claustrophobic if it weren’t for the views. Soaking in green rolling tundra, the roiling Nelchina River and the glacier-encrusted peaks of the Chugach Mountains, I felt as close to the transcendent reverie of Ralph Waldo Emerson as I could imagine. Flying a few hundred feet above Alaska was absolutely exhilarating.
In much of the far north, where large distances separate towns and the road system is limited, bush planes are a part of everyday life. For tourists, flightseeing is a wonder-inducing way to experience that vast, varied and spectacular part of the country. Last summer, photographer Kim Hubbard and I spent 11 days flightseeing in various parts of Alaska.
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.
Speaking through a headset that damped the engine noise and let us talk in a normal voice, Mike told me that Matt — ahead of us in the other Super Cub with Kim aboard — flew regularly for scientists monitoring these animals by radio-tracking the population.
There are a few larger companies that specialize in flightseeing, but most fliers have small operations that offer all-purpose air taxi services. In areas without roads, that might mean flying people to doctor’s visits; shuttling the local high school girls’ basketball team to an away game; hauling supplies to gold miners, scientists or wilderness expeditions; and delivering mail or even the occasional pizza. This means that pilots often know a great deal about the place where they live, letting them add context to the stunning sights.
Moments later, we were flying between the mountain and the glacier. Where everything seemed slow in the open expanse, tighter quarters introduced some drama. A turn headed us straight at a 100-foot wall of ice. With a gentle swoop, Mike pulled the plane above the lip and brought us bouncing to a stop on the Nelchina Glacier. For miles, the bare ice looked like undulating ocean waves frozen in place.
The chill of the air hit me as I stepped out of the plane. The ice wasn’t slippery, except where water was flowing. I stooped to scoop a mouthful of water from a rivulet. Barely above freezing, it had a slightly salty, mineral taste. The surface streams funneled into a hole five feet across — a moulin. The water cascaded down so far that we couldn’t see the bottom.
Returning to the planes, we jounced along, gaining speed but heading for the ice cliff. With a stomach-flopping drop, we caught air just as we came off the glacier.
The surrounding peaks were snow-covered even in midsummer. We flew into a cirque, a small, bowl-shaped valley, where a remnant lobe of ice had all but melted away. The meltwater was dammed by the glacier, forming a lake that glowed cerulean. Towers of ice stood side by side, like a flooded block of row houses. Bungalow-size icebergs dotted the water. It was a beautiful raw spot almost impossible to reach any other way.
As we returned to the airstrip, we spotted a grizzly hunched over the kill of a moose calf. I watched with fascination as the bear worried meat from bone even as we circled overhead.
Bush pilots tend to downplay the skill involved in what they do. “Up here flying a plane is like driving a station wagon,” one flier said to me. But there’s a bush plane rodeo in Valdez every May, with such events as competitions for the shortest takeoffs and landings and for dropping bags of flour at a target from 350 feet in the air.
Pilots will recount extraordinary sights. Phil Driver, who flies out of Kotzebue, a coastal town about 33 miles north of the Arctic Circle, recalled a herd of what he estimated to be 300,000 caribou spread over nearly 20 miles. There was awe in Mike’s voice as he described seeing a pack of 40 wolves. Willy Fulton said that he once saw upwards of 100 bears gathered around the carcass of a whale that had washed ashore on Kodiak Island’s Aliulik Peninsula.
We met Willy, who has been flying on the island for 14 years, at Island Air’s float plane dock in Kodiak City. We later learned that he was the pilot who discovered that Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend had been killed by a bear, events documented in the Werner Herzog film “Grizzly Man.”
As we took off into slight chop on the harbor, the water proved to be more pounding than the ground. But we were quickly airborne. Low clouds meant that we couldn’t fly through the mountains that run along the center of Kodiak Island; instead, we followed the coastline, where near-shore kelp forests leaned with the tidal current. Willy said that the strong flow through the channels attracts whales; sure enough, moments later the spout from a surfacing fin whale left a smoky spray hanging above the water. Willy circled, letting us watch three whales repeatedly surface and dive. From above, the animals’ size is startling.
Summer salmon runs helped raise the density of bears on Kodiak to among the highest in the world. As he pointed to a brushy ravine above a river feeding into Uganik Bay, we heard Willy’s voice in our headsets saying, “It gets stinky with bear in there. The hillside is full of bear beds during the sockeye and chum runs.”
We didn’t spot any bears, but we were happy enough with whales and the eagles sitting in the trees on a hillside only 100 feet off our wing.
Back in Anchorage, we rented a car and headed north to the town of Talkeetna in hopes of snagging a flight around Mount McKinley, commonly known as Denali in Alaska. But visibility was low, so Talkeetna Air Taxi’s flights were on hold. We took a look at the planes on the tarmac. Many bush planes were manufactured in the 1950s and ’60s, but as one pilot quipped, with constant maintenance, “the only thing that’s original is the data plate and the ashtray.”
We wandered into the hangar. It was spacious, bright and smelled of coffee and oil. Danial Doty has been both Talkeetna Air’s chief pilot and head mechanic. When she was growing up in Colorado, her father flew small planes and experimental aircraft. She was doing takeoffs and landings by the time she was 11 and got her license right after high school. In 2001, she flew her own plane from Colorado to Talkeetna and camped beside the runway there until she got a job.
The sense of community is what keeps her in Alaska, and the pleasure of flying keeps her piloting. “You see such vastness when you get above the ground,” she said. “I still get excited about it.”
When the cloud ceiling lifted, we found spots on an 11-seater de Havilland Otter flown by Talkeetna pilot Richard Olmstead. The interior was spare and the seats a little bony, but everyone had a window and we felt as if we were flying in another era.
Minutes after a smooth takeoff, we were over the Kahiltna Glacier. This is a river of ice 36 miles long and two miles across at points. Medial moraines, jumbled rock dragged along the edges of smaller glaciers that flowed together to form the Kahiltna, left ribbons of red, black and brown rubble stranded mid-glacier. We flew up-glacier, and the colors separated as we passed the different side valleys and rock formations where they originated. It was like running a time-lapse geology film backward.
We took a steep turn to the left so that the windows were filled with the fins of ice on the glacier’s cracked surface. If felt as if we were just feet above the ground. The Kahiltna originates high on Mount McKinley, the highest mountain in North America at 20,320 feet. Down low, the glacier is big enough for meltwater lakes to form in low spots. They glitter in implausible hues of brilliant blue.
The plane spiraled up into the clouds until we broke into a clear sky. We could see several peaks poking out of the fleecy blanket. Covered in snow, Foraker, Hunter and McKinley shone in the sun.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Alaska, and I’ve seen some beautiful sights. But the views from the bush planes were some of the most amazing of all.
O’Callahan is a Washington-based freelance writer who leads wilderness expeditions around the world.