Exploring Alaska by Small Plane

Alaska: Denali Natll Park, Air flights to Mt. McKinley

Alaska By Small Plane – Images by Lee Foster

by Lee Foster

Nothing captures the magic of Alaska better than the adventure of flying across the vast wilderness in a small bush airplane.

I’ve made three such flights that a typical traveler could easily duplicate.

From Fairbanks I flew north to a remote Eskimo village at Anaktuvuk Pass in Gates of the Arctic National Park, visited for the day, and flew back to Fairbanks that evening.

At Denali National Park I took a 70-minute flight-seeing trip to get a close-up view of Mt. McKinley, the highest peak in North America. From the plane, McKinley seemed almost close enough to touch.

In Anchorage I flew west to a wilderness area for a day of northern pike fishing at Alexander Lake and saw moose, white beluga whales, and soaring eagles on the return trip.

Small planes, otherwise known as bush planes, called Beeches, Navajos, Otters, Widgeons, Beavers, or Cessnas, are the signature transportation mode of Alaska. Ever since the first bush planes appeared in the 1920s, they have been important links in the state’s transport system. Large commercial jets serve Anchorage and Fairbanks in central Alaska, but beyond that the small plane becomes critical.

So much of Alaska remains a roadless wilderness that bush planes are, in fact, the only way to get around. Some bush planes sport wheels to land on small airstrips. Others have floats to alight on the State’s many small lakes and rivers. In winter, skis can be strapped to the bottom of the plane. Anchorage’s Lake Hood is said to be one of the busiest seaplane bases on earth. Similarly, Anchorage’s Merrill Field boasts boasts a huge number of takeoffs and landings, but the planes are small bush planes rather than jumbo jets.

The freedom of the small airplane, creating your own road above the wilderness, is exhilarating. The ability to drop out of the sky into a wilderness lake few people visit is exciting. Sighting big game, such as caribou, moose, grizzlies, and wolves, is common. Because small planes fly at low altitudes, perhaps only a thousand feet above the ground, you experience an intimacy with the terrain.

The safety record of bush pilots in Alaska is also impressive. It takes some adjustment for many passengers, who would fly with no worries in a 747, to sit next to a lone bush pilot in a small plane with nothing but spruce forests stretching to the horizon below. However, most bush pilots have remarkable longevity. The pilot who flew me into Gates of the Arctic had flown almost every flyable day, in all kinds of weather, for the past 30 years, without incident. When the weather turns nasty, as it often can in Alaska, the bush flights will be canceled, so allow some flexibility in your schedule for a second-day flight.

From Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass

Anaktuvuk Pass is an inland Eskimo village in Gates of the Arctic National Park, north of the Arctic Circle, about 260 miles north northwest by bush plane from Fairbanks.

From time immemorial these inland Eskimos have hunted the caribou that migrate through the region, with herds reaching a quarter of a million animals each autumn.

By the early 1950s a legendary bush pilot, Sig Wien, was landing with some regularity at a small strip in Anaktuvuk Pass, causing these nomadic peoples to congregate and settle in the region. When I visited, there are about 250 of these Eskimos, called Nunamiut Inupiats, or inland Eskimos, living in the village at the airstrip. They are the furthest inland of the various small Eskimo populations.

The flight north from Fairbanks in Frontier Flying Service’s Beechcraft plane took me over broad tundra flats, across the serpentine Yukon River, and then through the spiky Brooks Range mountains to the village. I passed beyond the northernmost forests. Below me I could sometimes glimpse the pipeline through the wilderness, carrying oil from Prudoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south.

A flight goes to the village from Fairbanks each morning and afternoon, making it easy to fly in during the morning and out in the afternoon.

At the village we were met by a mammoth of a man, Steve Wells, a white outsider who came to Alaska to teach. Steve arrived in Anaktuvuk Pass and married a village girl, Jenny Paneak, from the prominent family, that of Simon Paneak, patriarch of this Eskimo community. Paneak’s rapport with bush pilot Sig Wien set in motion the founding of the village.

I toured a small museum run by Jenny Wells, showing how the Eskimos lived from hunting the migrating caribou, fishing for grayling trout, and harvesting berries and other plants during the brief summer. The chief virtue of a man was to be a good hunter. As nomads, these Eskimos lived in portable skin houses, following their food supply. Caribou would be killed in the autumn and then consumed through the winter and spring. A typical family would take about 12 caribou during the autumn as the caribou passed through on their annual migration. These Eskimos are one of the few subsistence people who survive on hunting rather than gathering.

At Jenny’s house I sampled the full range of the typical meat and fish diet of the Eskimos. I ate caribou leg, marrow of smashed caribou bone, grayling trout, and muktuk, or whale blubber. All these foods were shaved off frozen chunks with the typical rounded Eskimo knife, the ulu. Jenny Wells’ mother, Suzy, living on a traditional Eskimo diet, ate this meat and fat diet, raw or boiled, three times a day.

Especially in winter, you need to keep caloric energy output high. This previous winter Steve Wells traded in his two broken thermometers, which stuck at Fahrenheit 40 below zero, for the latest improved temperature-measuring devices, which now go down to 80 below.

I rode out with Steve in a small all-terrain vehicle to a promontory above the village to enjoy the scenery. The vehicles, called Argos, seat six people and are capable of going over land or water, with four balloon-like tires on each side. We could make our way at will over the rocky tundra and small streams. Until a few years ago, dog teams would have been the only way to move in this region, especially in winter.

Steve and I savored the grey mountains, sprinkle of saxifrage wildflowers, discarded caribou horns, and lichen-covered terrain, the domain of moose, sheep, bear, caribou, and wolf. Steve’s family would go later in the day to the hunting camp a few miles from the village. During the summer the area enjoys sunlight virtually 24 hours a day.

Life has always been brutally difficult in this region, even with the abundant caribou, and still remains challenging. The village is 70 miles from the oil pipeline and the nearest road, making the bush plane the only link with the outside. Small pre-fab houses are flown in, but cost a great deal. The houses are built on stilts, so as not to melt the permafrost, which would cause the house to sink. Former dwellings of sod are now deteriorating, but there are still two livable sod houses in the village.

The local Eskimo populace accepts modern life on their own terms, controlling the identity of their people and displaying it with pride in their museum. The village has chosen to be dry, meaning no alcohol is allowed, which is a local option in Alaska.

Anaktuvuk is known for an important craft, caribou masks, and Jenny’s mother, Suzy Paneak, was one of the foremost practitioners of this art. Hundreds of the masks are displayed at the local village store, the Nunamiut Store, the place to get lunch while in the village.

Due to the oil wealth of Alaska, the village at Anaktuvuk Pass is relatively secure and well-to-do. The Eskimos are part of the North Slope Borough political mechanism, benefiting from royalties associated with the oil resource.

Only about 600 outsiders fly into Anaktuvuk Pass each year, so the traveler who seeks an off-the-beaten-path experience in Alaska can be rewarded with a fresh adventure.

Alaska: Denali Natll Park, Air flights to Mt. McKinley
Alaska: Denali Natll Park, Air flights to Mt. McKinley

From Denali National Park Around Mt. McKinley

The Alaskan name for Mt. McKinley, Denali, means “the high one” or “the great one,” and that is what you notice most about the mountain, the tallest peak in North America, at 20,320 feet. Its broadly-curved top, even from a distance, is immense. Up close, you also see the steep vertical rise of 14,000 feet, called the Wickersham Wall, along the north side. This is one of the steepest rises from a base of any mountain on earth.

Many visitors to Denali, however, never see the mountain because of cloudy weather. I didn’t see it on my first trip. But on my second trip, the mountain was “out.” I could observe the peak from the Park Service Wildlife Tour bus, a wonderful experience, highly recommended. The sighting whet my appetite for the ultimate Denali experience, the flight in a small plane close in to the peaks of the mountains.

I booked Denali Air for the event. During the May 20-September 20 tourism period, they fly visitors to see the mountain. For the rest of the year they fly into remote Eskimo villages carrying routine cargo. Seven passengers and the pilot crowded into a Cessna 207 for the excursion.

The flight went well, the weather was ideal, but the air was turbulent, something to be mentioned because small planes, flying over glaciers and amidst mountain passes, get buffeted around considerably. A prospective passenger should be prepared for this and not worry. However, the first time your plane drops or rises a few hundred feet in a violent wind draft can be unnerving.

So vast is Denali National Park that the flight west from park headquarters to the mountain takes over a half hour. At takeoff, everyone watches for moose around park headquarters, where the cow moose like to drop their calves in relative safety because grizzly bears tend to avoid the park headquarters area. Dall sheep, moose, caribou, and grizzlies are sometimes spotted on the flight out to the mountain.

During the trip out to Denali, the scenery is spectacular. You pass jagged wave after wave of the 300-mile Alaska Range mountains. Below you stretch the braided rivers, so named because the sediment of the glaciers divides the stream into crisscrossing braid patterns. You witness the grandeur of miles-long glaciers, such as Muldrow Glacier, a huge river of ice moving in slow patterns clearly discernible from the air, chewing up rocks into a fine powder called “glacial flour.”

If there are photographers on board, the pilot will turn periodically so that all passengers can aim their cameras at the peaks, glaciers, river valleys, and the ever-approaching Mt. McKinley. The vastness of this Alaska wilderness park, only barely penetrated by a single road, will impress a visitor.

The small plane flies to about 11,000 feet, the highest prudent elevation without oxygen masks. If the weather is relatively clear, as it was on my flight, the plane can snake its way close to the peaks, riding the turbulent air. Sometimes, when weather is cloudy at park headquarters, you can still get a clear view of Mt. McKinley from a plane.

The north peak at Denali is spikier and shorter than the south peak. The Wickersham Wall of sheer vertical clearance is an inspiring feature. During my flight, in late May, we were able to spot climbers, a few of the roughly 1,100 who make the ascent annually. In 1908 climbers made the first successful assault on McKinley.

From Anchorage to Fly-In Fishing

Inspired by Alaska fish stories and recalling the many wonderful fishing adventures of my youth, I looked forward to a day of fly-in fishing from Anchorage.

I flew with the company owned by Craig Ketchum, whose family has been prominent in setting up this kind of adventure. Already in the 1960s the Ketchums of Anchorage were operating fly-in fishing trips. Today they have multiple planes going full time in the summer. They maintain cabins at various wilderness lakes within 25-200 miles of Anchorage, all accessible only by float plane. The Ketchums can drop you at a lake in the morning and pick you up in the evening. Or they leave you for a specific number of days. They even have raft trips where they drop you and the raft, picking you up on a future scheduled day at a point down-river.

Ketchum’s pilot decided to take me and a few other prospective anglers for a day to Alexander Lake, where the Ketchums have boats and a small cabin, affectionately known as The Homestead. When we arrived, we put on daredevils and caught pike, but not as many (this is honest reporting, however painful the truth is) as the three fellows lounging at the cabin.

“If you had been here at dawn, you’d have caught one on every cast,” said one bewhiskered type, devoted at mid-day to relaxation, imbibing, and male-bonding. “Why, some of my lures have all the paint chewed off them.”

The pilot can take you to a pike lake or to a dolly varden trout lake, depending on what you want and what’s biting. Their Cessna 206s, Otters, and Beavers carry 6-8 passengers, plus an allowable 70 pounds of gear per person. They can provide a fishing guide, if desired.

“I’ve flown into about a thousand wilderness lakes in my day, flying around up here for the last 15 years,” noted my pilot.

The flight back proved to be special. We took off from the lake, passing abundant birdlife, including clusters of whistler swans. The scenery proved spectacular, with 90-mile visibility as we crossed the Big Susitna River watershed. At one point we found ourselves circling a few hundred feet above three soaring bald eagles. Then the pilot exercised his moose-spotting skills and we circled around a half dozen of the magnificent large creatures scattered over the landscape. The piece de resistance, however, occurred when we passed over the Cook Inlet on the way into Anchorage and saw beluga whales, white behemoths in the dark water, cruising up the inlet, following the schools of smelt, one of their major summer food supplies.

Although I have traveled several times to Alaska, few experiences have captured the magic of the area for me as much as small bush planes traversing this huge wilderness.


Alaska by Small Plane: If You Go

Some providers of services to keep in mind:

Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk via Frontier Flying Service at http://www.flyera.com.

Around Mt McKinley with Denali Air and others at http://www.nps.gov/dena/planyourvisit/flightseeing.htm.

Remote fishing lakes from Anchorage via Ketchum Air Service at http:///www.alaskaone.com/anchorage/ketchum-air-service-inc.htm.

General tourism info from Alaska Travel Industry Association at http://www.travelalaska.com.