I live in Alaska, and like many Alaskan residents, I assumed I knew what my state looked like. Trees, mountains, rivers, and lakes; to my one-dimensional way of thinking the 49th state is indeed a colorful montage of untamed beauty. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could match what I see from the ground on a daily basis, fortunate as I am to travel often the highways and byways of Alaska. Then I went high. Up, that is.
When K2 Aviation’s Talkeetna crew offered AK Fam the chance to take a late-afternoon ride toward North America’s highest peak, we said ‘yes’ with little hesitation. In business since the 1960’s when Hank Rust founded the inaugural flying outfit that expanded in the 1990’s to the current service we know and love today, K2’s staff and pilots know their stuff. Experienced, knowledgable, and incredibly patient with all sorts of incoming passengers, some of whom have never set foot upon snow, K2 seems to provide only the best of the best, and it shows.
Offering four flightseeing tours with the option of glacier landings on three of those, K2 transports guests into the private and pristine world of “The High One”, Denali (or Mt. McKinley, depending upon who you talk to). From short one-hour flights (“McKinley Experience”) that provide a sweeping view of the six million-acre wilderness of Denali National Park and Denali herself to the “Denali Grand Tour” with added glacier landing, every flighsee takes visitors to a world unseen from the ground and unknown to most; Alaskans included.
Our trip began on the front porch of K2’s Talkeetna office, where a very important check-in for weight and gear is mandatory, especially for lugs like us carrying camera equipment and a kid. For those opting for a glacier landing, a swing by the huge locker filled with glacier boots awaits, and AK Kid found the big, clumsy overshoes to be quite entertaining. Suggested clothing included jackets, hats, and gloves, welcome on our flight day as intermittent drizzle threatened. Oh yes, and the office? It had a playground on the grassy lawn. Bonus!
With a fleet of aircraft well-suited to Alaskan flightseeing and icy landing situations, K2 operates Cessnas, Pipers, and famous deHavilland Beavers and Otters, well-known for their throaty noise as they depart for points wild. Ten passengers in all sat in our Otter’s window-seated aircraft, as our pilot, with moi in the co-pilot ‘s seat (no way, yes; I was the co-pilot) taxied to the end of Talkeetna’s tiny airport. With a caution to be “fastened in our seatbelts real good”, the tail of our Otter rose, the propellor spun, and we were off into the blue yonder of interior Alaska.
Allowing an hour to fly around the many glaciers and peaks surrounding Denali, both named and unnamed, the reverence of such stark beauty seemed to strike each and every one of us. People don’t walk or hike or ski here. They don’t live here; if they are lucky they might achieve minor fame by climbing a rocky face or icy slope, but the mountains don’t care. They just are. And we were but a tiny dot in their landscape. Humbling, that’s what it was.
I sat with my mouth hanging open, snapping photos now and again as we neared such landmarks as Kahiltna Glacier, Sheldon Ampitheater, and our destination, Ruth Glacier. Coy as ever, Denali peeked out now and again from between the grayish clouds but always ducked back behind them as if a shy child unwilling to meet strangers.
Our pilot swung south and announced his arrival on the radio with a quiet “Anybody coming out?” gently putting the Otter down on the deep snow and ice of Ruth Glacier with nary a bump. Shutting down the engines and opening the doors, we all carefully climbed out of the plane and stood, awkwardly for a moment, upon a pile of ice and snow that descended for thousands of feet below our own boots. Our breath was frosty and damp in the late-afternoon air, our eyes squinted against the snowy backdrop as we trod every so carefully around the plane, looking at the massive monoliths of rock that make up the Alaska Range. Even the always-exuberant AK Kid was quiet for a moment.
Twenty minutes later, we were back in the air, ducking and weaving as a weather system moved in from the north and rain began to fall. Arriving back at the Talkeetna airport, we touched our feet upon the blacktop, noting the strangeness of its surface and the green trees surrounding us, thinking back to this other world from which we had just arrived.
K2 offers trips all year round, for all ages. Kids two and under fly for free, and youngsters 12 and under fly for $50 off any tour. The Alaska TourSaver also offers a two-for-one deal for the McKinley Flyer tour. In addition, Costco also carries discount coupons at its check-out kiosks.
Average cost for a tour is around $250. Is it worth it? Yes, if for no other reason than to show your children the true depth and breadth and scope of our Alaskan landscape. It is miles and miles of raw wilderness that for many children is something they will never see again. At what price, this?
Find K2 Aviation online at www.flyk2.com or by calling 800-764-2291; local number is 907-733-2291.