Last Saturday I flew into Anchorage from Orange County after a quick lay-over in Seattle. Two days later I caught an eight-seater dual prop plane from Anchorage to Glenallen (186 miles / 300 km) and then squeezed into a Cessna mail plane to get from there to McCarthy (100 miles / 160 km).
Nothing too spectacular happened on my flight from OC to Seattle. My flight from Seattle to Anchorage, however, was like something out of the Twilight Zone.
We were wheels up at 8:55 pm. There were clouds overhead, and it was so dark that I could barely see the grounds crew except for their glowing red-orange signal batons. Our plane climbed above the clouds quickly, just in time to catch the final deep red death throes of sunset – or so I thought.
Thirty minutes in and humming somewhere over the mountainous islands of western British Columbia, I realize we seem to be perusing an ever-yellower horizon hosting a dusk that won’t give up.
It’s hard to tell the clouds from the mountain snow.
Fifteen minutes later and my suspicions were confirmed. The diffuse high-altitude clouds regained a nosey tint, and by swiping through my pictures I could tell the sky was getting brighter.
We were gaining on it.
And then, in a much anticipated and overly drawn-out instant, that great sphere of fire cleared our right-hand wing and finally answered the door.
Hah, believe me – I get it. We were covering 14 degrees of latitude north and 27 degrees of longitude west, allowing the earth to spin underneath us. Legal sundown in Seattle is currently 8:52pm compared to 11:07pm in Anchorage. But still, understanding what would happen when you fly northwest was a whole lot different than actually experiencing a sunset in reverse.
If the name “Anchorage Museum” sounds a little vague, there’s a reason – It has a bit of everything.
On display are impressively ornate or ingenious Native American artifacts displayed alongside interesting present-day video interviews from each of the eight major tribes.
“Unangax women created lightweight, waterproof parkas from the intestines of sea lions, seals, whales, and grizzly bears.” -Anchorage Museum
The native history takes center stage, but in addition there are huge spaces dedicated to Alaska’s Russian and American history, Alaskan geology and ecology, and most evocatively, Alaskan art, the goal of which was to communicate the complexities of American influence on an area so rich in culture and industrial resources.
I had a blast, and I think they did a phenomenal job presenting what could be summarized as “Alaska Orientation.”
[If you have time I also recommend you see the Alaska Naturally Aurora Show ($13). It’s a 45 minute projection of Aurora Borealis scenes, and it came highly recommended to me. I couldn’t see it because the theater where it’s held is closed on Sundays.]
The distance from Anchorage to McCarthy is about one third of the width of Alaska.
Monday morning I gave my gear a final once-over and caught a cab to the Reeve Air staging area at the Anchorage International Airport. There I would board a plane and head east into the wilderness.
No luggage drop, no security check, no other passengers besides me. My taxi parked 20 feet from the plane.
I met my pilot, Mike Reeve, and after he weighed my 52 lb duffle bag, two backpacks, and two bags of groceries and input their weights into a center-of-gravity, or CG, calculation we were buckled in and donning headsets tuned to the air-traffic controller channel.
Mike giving the windscreen a last minute spit-shine.
While still in the light aircraft parking lot Mike locked the brakes and throttled up to test the engines. After bringing them back down to a loping idle we pulled out onto tarmac.
Mike began communicating with the tower in that low clear steady voice we’re all familiar with.
He called in our tail number and take-off runway. The tower echoed his script and added present wind vector. Once we were lined up, the chugging engines began to drone and and then quickly ramped up. A half second later the brake was released. We accelerated with force, and only after reaching faster than adequate lift-off velocity Mike eased back on the yoke and pulled the plane away from of its impatient jostling into the smooth sun-soaked blue.
We followed the Matenuska River east between the Chugatch Mountains off our right (to the south) and the humbler Talkeetna Mountains to the north.
Tazenia Lake pictured
Flying in light aircraft was a new experience for me, and the excitement of turbulence was the biggest difference from commercial aircraft. The up and down bouncing is somewhat familiar. The quick left and right rolling motion is a good bit different from a big plane. But the horizontal left-to-right spinning motion, called yaw, was a completely new sensation. Not only does it feel like the nose is pulled left or right, but the tail kicks out from behind. Unnerving begins to describe the sensation.
If there’s any type of movement that could give you motion sickness, it’s yaw.
Landing in Glenallen was smooth and easy. Thirty minutes later I loaded my gear into an even smaller airplane, a 1968 Cessna 206, that was packed with cardboard packages destined for McCarthy.
Fill ‘er up
John, the pilot, taxied over to the gas pump and put seven gallons into the right wing. When I asked him about balancing the out the additional fuel between the left and right wings he reassured me, explaining that the plane “seems to fly a little straighter with more fuel on the right.”
We continued east, this time following the Chitna River, and I smiled through even more bouncing, rolling, and spinning.
This is the dirt road I drove last year from the edge of Wrangell St Elias National Park in Chitna to McCarthy, deep in the heart of the park. It’s a slow-going 3.5 hour 60 mile excursion with the only paved segments being bridges.
We detoured off the McCarthy road route to take a short-cut through the mountains.
[If you’re curious about why the propeller looks wonky in the video, check out this Wiki explanation.]
Success! Without a cubic foot to spare.