Friday, December 23, 2016



When I first started teaching Freshman Composition over twenty years ago, I ran across the audiobook version of Charles Kuralt's A Life on the Road. I thought his wonderful storytelling style would provide a great example for my students of how to write a personal memoir (which was their first essay assignment), and so every semester for several years I checked out the worn box of cassette tapes from our local library and played a couple of chapters in class.

One of my favorite chapters, entitled "Flight," was about Kuralt's madcap journey with his photographer and a soundman around Denali in a small Cessna piloted by the legendary Don Sheldon. After circling the mountaintop for a while, Sheldon put the plane down on Ruth Glacier, and Kuralt and his photographer ended up spending the night in a cabin on the mountain built by Sheldon for exhausted climbers but, at the time of Kuralt's visit, inhabited by a Catholic priest. (Those kinds of anomalies tend to occur in Kuralt's essays.)

Kuralt's very visual description of his fantastic celestial voyage and glacial bed and breakfast stuck with me for twenty years, and when we booked a flight around Denali with a landing on Ruth Glacier, I couldn't have been more excited (and yes, nervous that we might end up spending the night up there).

The flight was everything I had hoped for and is probably my favorite experience from our trip to Alaska. Naturally, when we got home I decided I had to find a print copy of Kuralt's story. It was harder than I thought because I couldn't remember which one of Kuralt's books it was in. First I ordered a used copy of On the Road with Charles Kuralt, but that wasn't it. Finally I found the similarly titled A Life on the Road, and voila!, there was the essay. Having shared his experience, I found Kuralt's telling even more appealing than I had twenty years before.

We began our adventure by checking in at Talkeetna Air Taxi at 11:00 AM, where we were each issued a pair of snow boots that fit over our shoes:

We waited around for fifteen minutes or so while our single-engine propeller ski plane was checked over and fueled. Our transport was a de Havilland Otter plane, a plane developed in the 1950s. Impressive durability, but not exactly a confidence builder. I thought we'd be flying in something of more recent vintage.

We climbed aboard with eight other people: another couple, a family of four who I think were Japanese, and a very young couple who were perhaps Amish (the girl wore a long skirt and a white cap):

Bob and I were seated at the back of the plane:

Ready, set, go!

A river winds down the valley like yarn from an unraveled sweater:

We crossed the wide, rippled valley and headed for the mountains in the far distance:

Getting closer! Pictures can't capture the magnificence of these glacier-fed rivers as seen from the air:

Mountain highways made by creeping glaciers came into view over the tops of rocky spires:

And suddenly, the valley was behind us and we were flying high above the mountains, the engine grinding so loudly that Bob and I could only communicate by pointing out the window, squeezing each other's hand, and contorting our faces into "Oh. My. Goodness." expressions:

Our guide/bus driver in Denali National Park the previous day had given us these stats:
* 16% of Denali National Park is covered by glaciers, or 1,475 square miles.
* There were about 750 glaciers in 2012 in Denali, down from 1,100 in 1952.
* The longest glacier in Denali, Kahiltna, is about 45 miles long.
* The deepest glacier in Denali, Ruth Glacier, is about 3,800 feet deep.
* Denali's glaciers are "valley" glaciers, or streams of flowing ice that are confined in steep walled valleys.
* Glaciers store about 75% of the world's fresh water.
* Presently 10% of the land on earth is covered in glacial ice.
* If all land ice melted, the sea level would rise about 230 feet worldwide.

If all you know of Alaska is its cruise ports, you have only tasted a bit of what the state has to offer. We were fortunate to have not just one but three flights over different parts of the state, and seeing this wild, lonely, diverse, burly terrain from the air presents a completely different experience than a cruise:

The Denali flight was our first exposure to blue glacial ice. It looks more like exotic turquoise jewelry or sapphire gemstones than ice:

Note the two blue ice flows on the left and on the right in the photo below:

The 400-mile-long Alaska Range, of which Denali is the centerpiece, is the highest mountain range in the world behind those in Asia and the Andes. Its high peaks trap the frigid Arctic cold fronts, giving the Alaska Range some of the harshest weather in the world.

In places the snow clings to the mountains like a very heavy fur coat that is worn threadbare in places, exposing bits of blue ice beneath:

These forbidding pinnacles are just foothills of the colossal 20,310-foot-tall Denali, which was completely hidden from our view by heavy clouds. The Alaska Range does have two more mountains over 14,000 feet (Mount Foraker at 17,400 and Mount Hunter at 14,573) and seven more peaks between 11,670 feet and 13,832 feet:

Our pilot told us he was going to look for a "hole" in the clouds that we could go through so that we could take a look at the top of Denali.  

In "Flight," Charles Kuralt writes, "Izzy [the cameraman] thought it would make a wonderful shot to fly through a cloud straight at the mountain with the camera rolling, so that when we came out of the cloud, the sunlit peak of McKinley would appear suddenly and dramatically. . . . [T]he mountain scenery tilted dizzily as Don Sheldon banked one way, then the other, to oblige. We flew toward the mountain through one cloud after another. Izzy was never satisfied that we had captured quite the desired spectacular effect. There were a lot of clouds to try, and we tried most of them. I found myself gripping the armrests and trying to keep my breakfast down each time we broke through into the sunlight, steered straight for Mount McKinley and veered sharply away at the last minute."

We headed up into the dreary fog, ephemeral patches of visibility taunting us:

We popped out of the clouds at about 12,500 feet into brilliant blue skies . . .  and there it was. Spectacular. Breathtaking. Monumental.
The young man on the plane with us let out a whoop. I think he spoke for all of us.

Like Kuralt, we too made several passes at the king of North American peaks. It looked like a white island rising from a frothy sea. It was almost hard to believe that below the clouds there were about three miles of mountain that supported this mass:

Some passes were so close that we seemed to be within touching distance

In the distance we could see Mount Foraker (17,400 feet):

But our focus was definitely on Denali:
I couldn't help but think of John Gillespie McGee's sonnet "High Flight," written in 1941 shortly before the died in a mid-air plane collision:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings:
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds,--and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of--Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . . 
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

I just read the Merriam-Webster Publishers declared "surreal" as the 2016 Word of the Year. It certainly applied to our "high flight."

Our little prop plane did not have a pressurized cabin, and I found myself taking deep breaths to try to get enough oxygen. All of us were feeling it, and after about ten minutes, our pilot looked for another hole in the clouds. When he found one, he took us back down to more reasonable elevations.

Down, down, down . . . 

There were mounds of marshmallow topping all over the place:

We came to a wide, flat glacier that is perfect for a ski plane landing-- the upper portion of Ruth Glacier known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, named for the pilot who took Charles Kuralt on his flight around Denali and who was a pioneer in Denali glacial landings:

This map shows its location relevant to Denali/Mount McKinley:

Our pilot landed far away from this dangerous spider web of deep crevasses:

They look like computer-generated graphics for some Arctic-themed video game:

Of his own landing on Ruth Glacier, Kuralt wrote, "When Sheldon shut down the engine and we stepped out into the sunlight, I was nearly blinded by the brilliance of the white world around us. The glacier formed a vast, silent basin surrounded by massive slopes, a universe of ice and rock. Range upon range of mountains stretched before us into the measureless distance, and behind us, towering almost straight up from the ice field, rose Denali itself, with snow blowing from its summit thousands of feet overhead."

We were not so fortunate, and Denali remained shrouded in heavy clouds, but we had seen him above those clouds, and we knew he was there.

Once out of the plane and on the glacier, we frolicked about like a bunch of twelve year olds--laughing, taking pictures, throwing snowballs.

Bob and I posed together in different places with different backdrops, trying to capture the wonder and excitement and awe of being together in that other-worldly place:
One of these photos served as our Christmas card for 2016.
You would think we'd be more warmly dressed, or at least looking cold, but it was quite warm, perhaps as warm as 60 degrees. The reflection from the glacier warms the air, yet it does not melt the snow. The snow was very crusty, and in our company-issued footwear, we did not sink at all.

The other side of the expanse didn't seem all that far away, maybe a quarter mile, and it was tempting to walk across the basin. Our pilot warned us that it was an optical illusion, however, and that the distance was more than six miles.

Look at the tiny orange figure in the photo below. That's a passenger from another plane that was parked what seemed like a short distance from us.

The Ron Sheldon Amphitheater is surrounded by tall cliffs. From the top of the cliffs to the bottom of the glacier is a distance greater than the depth of the Grand Canyon:

Our pilot pointed out a fissure in the glacier and warned us not to play around with it. The glacier is about 3700 feet deep here. You wouldn't want to have the sides of the fissure break off when you were standing on the edge.

However, even our pilot couldn't resist a look into the depths:

We got to see blue ice up close. This would make an excellent setting for a live action filming of Disney's Frozen, don't you think?

By the time we left, two more planes had landed on the glacier. There are several companies who run this glacier taxi service:

After about 45 minutes or an hour on the glacier, it was time for us to head back to Talkeetna.

"Houston, we have lift-off":

Spots of that sapphire ice look like drops of food coloring:

My trad-climber son would love these cliffs. Our pilot told us he flies climbers into this area all the time.

Our driver/guide in Denali National Park used this drawing to teach us about glaciers, and it helps describe what we saw on our flight out.  Note especially that black line that separates the two glaciers. It's called a "medial moraine." A "moraine" is a collection of dirt and rock pushed up to the top of a glaciaer. When two glaciers merge, this black track forms between them, keeping the two floe paths distinct:

We followed the Ruth Glacier floe down from the Sheldon Amphitheater to the valley, marvelling over its scaly blue ice that looked like a monstrous leviathan winding its way down the mountain. The medial moraine is clearly visible in the picture below, running like a spine down the center of the mountain creature and indicating that this floe comes from two different glaciers:

As we descended, the ice began to lose its color:

, . . but that medial line was still there:

Coming out . . .

Green starts to replace white:

Giant Sasquatch paw prints are filled with glacial water:

Back to the vast valley:

And over the rivers and woods:

Don Sheldon died of cancer less than a year after giving Kuralt and his crew an air taxi ride to the top of North America, but his fame lives on all over Alaska. We're glad he had the courage to pave the way so that the hearts and minds of mere tourists like us could be filled for a few hours with nature's magnificence.


  1. One of the all-time most fun things we've ever done. Hard to imagine a more impressive set of mountains - perhaps the area near Mt. Everest or K2. It would be fun to make it to the top of that beast.

  2. What an amazing way to see Alaska. I love the Kuralt comments.