The Coast News Group
Hit the Road

Anchorage’s sites best seen by air

We are high over the Knik Glacier north of Anchorage, trying to take in the vastness and splendor that is Alaska. As far as our bird’s eye view takes us, there are rugged snow-covered peaks, braided rivers and giant sheets of moving ice that have created the valley where Alaska’s largest city sits.

Because the state is so big, when you visit, you must come with a plan.

“You can’t come with three hours to kill and expect to drive up and back to Denali (National Park),” says Jack Bonney of Visit Anchorage. “You need to come with a focus. It’s just too big to see everything.”

One focus of our 10-day stay in June was to get up in a plane and see a portion of south central Alaska, which includes some of the 50 glaciers within as many miles of downtown Anchorage. We sign on with Rust’s Flying Service, which has been hosting “flightseeing” tours in the area for more than half a century. Its pilots have logged thousands of hours before flying for Rust’s, whose planes take off and land from Lake Hood, the world’s busiest seaplane base.

It’s hard to grasp how close the wilderness is to civilization here, until we are up in our six-passenger DeHavilland Beaver (for which die-hard bush pilots have reverential devotion). It doesn’t take long before we must contemplate just how insignificant humans are compared to the forces of nature.

“This valley was once under 4,000 feet of ice,” explains our pilot, Stu, who immediately after our plane ride will remove the seats and load barrels of oil destined for somewhere north. When asked if I may contact him later, Stu replies that “I don’t have email, I don’t have a computer, I don’t have a TV and I don’t have a cell phone.”

But the longtime pilot is plenty forthcoming when it comes to pointing out land features and explaining the mighty geological forces that shaped Alaska and are still doing so. Stu notes that the dark ridges of the glacier’s snow were created by volcanic ash that rained down from Mount Redoubt, southwest of Anchorage, when it erupted in 2009. By contrast, a deep, almost eerie shade of aquamarine emanates from glacier crevasses, and we see broken chunks of blue and black ice floating in frigid glacier lakes.

It may be summer by the calendar, but this is one place where snow is a constant. However, our pilot notes that goodly portions of the glaciers no longer exist — the result of climate change.

“The only way to see all this is from a plane,” Stu declares, as he takes the single-engine aircraft down to less than 1,000 feet. A bit later, we fly just a few hundred feet from the steep mountain slopes, where, with the pilot’s help, we spot a few moose, sheep and even a bear loping uphill.

In about 90 minutes, we turn toward Anchorage and Lake Hood, where our flight began. I have to watch the plane’s pontoons to tell when Stu puts the Beaver down on the water because the landing is so flawless. I take a deep breath; I’m thrilled and — OK, I admit — also relieved.

It is only three miles back to the heart of Anchorage, where about half of the state’s 710,000 residents (plus 1,500 moose) live. It is easy to see from the air how only 18 percent of cities and towns are on the state’s road system. The rest of the state is accessible only by plane, boat or snow machine (snowmobiles).  We’re talking 663,000 square miles of open space, as compared to California’s 163,000, or Texas’ 267,000. Texas’ secondary status in the size category is a fact that Alaskans like to exploit every chance they get. A favorite souvenir T-shirt shows a silhouette of Texas within the borders of Alaska and claims that “We’ve been pissing off Texas since 1959,” the year Alaska became a state.

Since those who live outside the road system are mostly Native Alaskans who reside in tiny isolated villages, the roads have become a reference point for defining culture. Some say this rift is wide, while others think of Anchorage more as a place through which peoples of many cultures and beliefs eventually must pass.

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E’Louise Ondash is a freelance writer living in North County. Tell her about your travels at [email protected]