Day 7: Friday
We woke up early and ready to leave the awful bed and breakfast (indeed, there was no breakfast) and investigate flights. I refused to shower in the funny shared bathroom, but Robert managed to shower there and forget our shampoo there (I always carry extras). After a quick stop at the Park Ranger climbers’ headquarters just for fun (really, because Robert didn’t believe me that there was only info on climbing Denali there), we headed straight to the Talkeetna Airport. At right, Robert and the pilot peer into our plane.
All the companies were really alike, with virtually identical prices and flight routes. All of them were grounded at the moment we arrived (10:00 in the morning) because of a low ceiling in the airport area: They kept saying the mountain was clear, and they were just waiting for the airport to clear up from the fog and smoke (from surrounding forest fires).
So, we chose a company relatively at random--supposedly the pilots and employees all move around among them, so there really is no difference--and we ate our breakfast of cold leftover pizza from the night before (and some ube, purple yam, pastries I’d gotten in Anchorage) while we waited for the weather to clear up. We ended up taking Fly Denali, and we were on the first open flight out, leaving just after 11:30.
We got on a grand tour, the most complete kind of trip around Denali without going on one of the turbo-prop planes that go directly above the summit, and make you use oxygen masks for half the flight. We were on a little red and white Cessna, with the pilot and Robert up front, then a Venezuelan couple, then me in the back, able to see from left and right both. We had an internal intercom which was dominated by Robert and the pilot, with no one else talking at all (I was too busy taking pictures). Robert’s half of the conversation, at least in the beginning, went like this: “What can I touch? Oh. What else? Okay, so really, I can touch nothing. Hm. Can I use my cell phone? Yes, I know they can’t hear me. Can I use my GPS? You have a lovely pilot’s voice.”
At left, a braided riverbed viewed from the plane shows how it got its name.
The flight was an hour and a half long, around all three peaks, both south and north side, getting really close to things (just 500 feet away). None of the planes that day were doing glacier landings because there hadn’t been snow lately, just rain, so the glacier surfaces were down to bare glacier ice, and you could see the crevasses quite deep in them. That was okay, though, even though a plane with skiis landing on a glacier would have been cool, because the crevasses were so neat to look at and because the entire plane ride was quite so amazing. We got really close, much closer than Robert expected (he kept being afraid that we were going to hit things, but strangely we didn’t). Our pictures aren’t wide enough angle to try to convey the sense of scale and immensity here, but it was really amazing. We could look down and see the tracks from the spring’s climbers up Denali (Mount McKinley--same thing, but the official Alaskan name is Denali). We saw a funny five-acre patch of private land with a house on it, dating from homestead-era laws and a surveyor. We loved the swimming-pool-blue pools that go down to the glacial rivers, and we had no trouble with turbulence or clouds at all: in fact, it was totally clear, with what the pilot said were the best possible views.
Here are some of the amazing views from the plane, always remembering that things were even greater and larger up close:
The glacier-river-fed lakes, a startling brilliant blue.
Snow-covered peaks and bowls.
Crevasses in the glacier, showing bare blue glacier ice, and a snow bowl showing peak after peak in the distance beyond.
From the airport, we went back into town and ate at the outdoor salmon bake at the main intersection, which I highly recommend. I had wonderful king salmon chowder and Robert had the baked salmon with parmesan and a side of potatoes and a corn salad.
Still on a high from the flight, and not minding that you could really smell and taste the smoke from forest fires in the air, we drove north to Denali National Park, stopping at a few scenic views, where because of the smoke, we couldn’t see the mountain at all--it’s like there wasn’t even a mountain there, and had we not been up in a plane just a few hours before, we’d really not believe it was there.
At the park we were relieved to be able to get our choice of bus tickets for tomorrow--the guidebooks had scared us that “all the desirable busses” would be booked up, and we’d have to come back at 7:00 in the morning to take our chances with a newly released set of tickets. Still, this seemed not to be a danger, even on a Saturday. The entrance center, exhibits, trails, and parking lots are all very unclearly marked, possibly due to new construction, but we finally managed to see a nice movie on the history of the park in the wilderness center, which had another espresso bar. We briefly previewed the museum at the brand-new visitors’ center, but since it was already 6:30, we decided to skip it tonight and come back tomorrow.
Sitting outside on a bench (again, go Cingular with the telephone reception), we called a bunch of motels--no more B&Bs with shared baths, ever--and finally booked a cabin which wasn’t in our guidebook, but was referred to us by another, fully-booked place. Rooms here were hard to get, so we settled on the cabin sight-unseen. After a quick stop for white coffee and praline cashew ice cream at Hot Licks, a homemade ice cream mini-Alaska chain (which was oddly fully staffed by Russians for the summer), we went to get some supplies for lunch for tomorrow (Alaska Popcorn Company popcorn and buffalo sausage), which we’ll probably supplement with a prepared sandwich: the park, in addition to not allowing in private cars (the busses are the only way in), doesn’t have any food or drinking water, though it does have bathrooms, beyond the entrance area at all, so you must bring a bagged lunch for the day-long bus safaris.
We went to the salmon bake in Glitter Gulch, the small touristy area right around the park on the highway, for dinner--we split a fried halibut burrito and a coconut-battered deep-fried salmon (which was very good with lemon--it cut the sweetness). Good food, and neat atmosphere.
When we finally saw our cabin, around 9:30, we were very pleasantly surprised. We really recommend Healy Family Cabins in Healy, just twelve miles north of the park. and fairly convenient. They are fabulous cabins, on a nicely paved road, very well landscaped, and really nicely planned out inside; they’re not more expensive than other things we’ve had, and much much nicer inside, with a kitchenette and all. The staff is very friendly, the cabins are very close to the local mini-golf (which didn’t look all that exciting, sadly), and the forest around each cabin is private and dead quiet. Knowing we’d have to get up early the next day, we made it an early night