“Oh, Betty, you’ve just got to see it with your heart and your eyes!”
These words stuck with me throughout our recent incredible trip to The Last Frontier, Alaska.
They came from a 75-year-old adventurer, Sally, to her 85-year-old friend, as she struggled to get her camera working properly while we were up on a glacier near Denali.
Yep, Betty and Sally flew up with us on a de Havilland Otter, a turboprop plane operated out of Talkeetna by K2 Aviation. As eight of us loaded into the plane, Brad and another taller gentleman were instructed that they could sit anywhere but the back. My assumption was that even though the aircraft is the quintessential bush plane, and has incredible STOL (Short takeoff and landing. Good in case moose happen to be on the runway. Seriously. It happens there), a heavy tail doesn’t help.
As I strapped on my seat belt, I got a little nervous seeing that the plane was manufactured in my birth year. Granted their turbo props had been upgraded, but I was still a bit anxious, knowing at this age sometimes my body doesn’t want to fully cooperate. I said a silent prayer, hoping that today this plane’s systems were all in working order for our flight.
As I was untangling the cable to my headphones, I heard my daughter Kyle’s voice behind me.
“You just press the headphones in at the top to make them fit,” she said.
I turned around to see that she was helping Betty and Sally. It both warmed my heart to see Kyle assisting them, and to see their gratitude in their eyes.
Take-off was quick and easy. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so we didn’t experience any turbulence from heavy, low-lying clouds. We flew up from the base at Talkeetna, the launching pad for many of Denali’s climbers.
We were flying a popular route, both for drop-off of hikers at base camp, as well as for those of us ultimately landing on a glacier. I’m grateful I didn’t discover this information from an FAA Denali flight information guide until just now: This can be a very high volume route during May and June. Aircraft are leaving Talkeetna and flying the most direct route to “base camp” on the Kahiltna Glacier. Watch for “One Shot Gap”: minimum altitudes 8500 ft MSL, listen, stay right, watch diligently for opposite direction traffic, listen for reports of downdrafts and turbulence. Don’t get caught with no way out.
I’m sure Betty and Sally were glad not to read this before our trip as well. Kyle might have been helping them with more than their headphones.
The Denali peak, at 20, 320 feet, was clearly visible throughout our flight. It is majestic, snow covered, incredible and almost beyond words. As we flew around the mountain, it gave me an even greater appreciation for those who scale the monster. Over 100 climbers had reached the summit the week we were visiting.
We flew through a section called the “747 Pass.” The name was reassuring, because from my perspective, it seemed as though it was just wide enough for our small plane to fly through.
The pilot brought us down a few thousand feet before landing on Ruth Glacier, in an area known as the Mountain House. Yep, there is a small cabin, built by a famous pioneer aviator, Donald Sheldon in 1966. We could see the house on the rock outcropping, with the outhouse nearby, seemingly on the edge. Wouldn’t want to take a wrong turn on that early morning trip.
We unloaded from the plane, one at a time, carefully on to the softened snow below. We all stumbled over the tracks from other plane landings, our sun-protected eyes still blinded by the glaring sun and bright blue sky.
Kyle and our son Ian threw snowballs at each other, Brad and I hugged, simply in awe.
And Betty and Sally tried to take pictures with their camera. I felt sorry for them, knowing that for all of us, this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
That’s when Sally offered her sage advice.
We should take in everything with our eyes and keep it embedded in our hearts.
Our time on the glacier was up entirely too soon. Our pilot ushered us back into the plane. Betty was having a bit of a challenge walking across the snow back to the plane, so I offered her an arm. Then, with an apology for getting a bit too personal, I pushed on her backside to help her up into the plane. She giggled at my comment. Or maybe at my goose, I’m not sure which.
Before we took off, Brad gave Sally one of his business cards, suggesting she email him, and he would be happy to send her pictures he had taken up on the glacier. Her eyes glistened as she accepted his card and offer.
Our flight back was smooth, no apparent downdrafts or turbulence and certainly didn’t experience the “no way out.”
We landed safely, and the adorable ladies, gushing with their gratitude, were kind enough to grant my request of taking a picture with them before we went our separate ways.
This Alaskan trip was symbolically our last frontier, as it was our 50th State to visit with our children. It was the completion of a mission we began in earnest after losing our daughter, Claire, in 2000.
I know I will hold on to all the big and small memories of all our journeys forever in my heart.
And just maybe I’ll share them all with you some day.