Thursday, August 19, 2004 –
On Thursday morning, we had to say goodbye to Denali National Park. We drove south on the George Parks Highway, also know as Highway 3, through Cantwell. Then we headed to the adventure town of Talkeetna.
Talkeetna is a colorful little town that serves as a gateway to Denali and supply base for mountaineers. A number of mountaineering, camping and hiking stores dot the town along with several good restaurants and cafes. Most of the town’s buildings are made of wood and the street has a number of Old West looking boardwalks. Truthfully, it looks like the small town from the television show, Northern Exposure. After eating lunch, we headed to the small Talkeetna airport.
At the airport, we booked a small DeHavilland Beaver with Talkeetna Air Taxi for a flight into Denali. The weather was iffy for a while, but we were lucky it cleared. When we received an okay to fly, our pilot told us that we might not be able to land in the backcountry like we had planned. It didn’t matter too much to us because we were just happy to be flying
The DeHavillands Beavers take quite a few mountaineers to Denali base camp, along with their gear. As we left, our pilot told us about the areas we would be going to and presented great commentary. His name was Rico and he was originally from West Palm Beach, Florida, but had been working in Talkeetna for several summers.
We flew over several glaciers before flying over the massive Kahiltna Glacier. You cannot really grasp how large these glaciers are until you see them from their air. The jagged crevasses were a beautiful blue, but the rugged ice fields hid the dangers of numerous thousand-foot drops through the ice. We passed over Denali and it rose even above our plane. It was easily to see why it was called “the Great One.” It wasn’t simply tall but almost an entire range to itself. I think my adjective of the day was ginormous because the snow-covered peaks were so massive.
As banked around Denali, we started to ascend. Rico saw an opening with the weather and decided to land. He descended the sleds on the landing gear and went for a landing on marking ice field with a few pylons set up. Dad could believe we were landing until we actually were on the final descent. After a smooth landing, all Dad could say was wow! You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. We weren’t too far from Denali base camp, and Rico helped us out of the plane.
The views were absolutely stunning. We were surrounded by mountains on three sides that rose dramatically above us. Despite in a valley at high altitude surround by deep snow, it was actually pretty warm and the wind was calm. We stayed for a few minutes and took photos before, saying goodbye to one of the prettiest and most remote places we have ever been. I’ll never forget how quiet and pure the air was there.
Rico fired up the engine and we taxi to a far pylon. Then he turned the Havilland around. After a safety checked, he gunned the engines and took off down the downhill runway. A cone marked where the runaway ended and was not level. Rico carefully took off well before the cone and we were airborne. We made one more loop around Denali and some surrounding peaks before crossing back over the Kahiltna and another ice field back to Talkeetna.
After landing, everyone gave Rico a large applause and a nice tip. It was by far the best scenic flight I have ever done – even better than a helicopter ride in Kauai.
Back in Talkeetna we visited the McKinley Cemetery to pay our respects to the mountaineers who died climbing Denali. Then we headed to the Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, one of the most famous lodges in Alaska. We had dinner that night with a beautiful view of the mountains outside. Late that evening, I went running on the beautiful resorts trails behind the lodge. I slept well that night after another remarkable day in interior Alaska.