Land of the midnight sun

This article is taken from Lane Wallace’s book “Unforgettable,” available from Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

The most significant and defining feature of Alaska is, quite simply, its size. It’s a landscape on steroids; a wild land defying the sky to contain it in a voice that resonates with a visceral, primal power. Nowhere else in America are humans so dwarfed by the land they make noises about inhabiting. I say “make noises about” because, even with all our modern technology and oil pipelines, humans have not yet conquered Alaska. They’ve made inroads, to be sure. But many of Alaska’s cities … including the state capital of Juneau … are still not accessible by road. And from the air, the coastal settlements look like precarious toe-holds that the towering nearby mountains might shrug off their lower mantles at any time, flinging the human inhabitants back into the sea.

Nothing in Alaska is small. Not the mountains, not the distances, not the hazards, not the moose, and not the mosquitoes. And living in the midst of such a massive, challenging wilderness, where darkness and light themselves don’t even attempt balance, there’s also a different standard for “normal.”

On my first trip there, for example, I was introduced to the concept of “AFR” flight … “Alaskan Flight Rules.” Because the conditions and hazards are so much harsher than in the lower 48, Alaska Flight Rules basically consist of doing everything your primary flight instructor told you never, ever, ever to do. Things like scud running at 400 feet in low visibility above the ocean, navigating the fine line between hitting the towering mountains to your left and getting lost in low visibility over the ocean to your right by paralleling the ocean breakers just barely in sight off the left wing. Or flying in conditions that make Los Angles look like good VFR. (IFR routes in Alaska have to be high enough to clear terrain and get good radio reception, which often puts them in icing conditions above the mountains. So there’s a lot of dicey low-level bush flying that goes on.)

Columbia Glacier in Alaska
The face of the Columbia Glacier looms above Lane.

During that first trip, at the very end of September, I saw the sun … and the stunning mountain peaks surrounding us … exactly one time in six days. But my second trip was first weekend in May, to attend the Valdez, Alaska, Bush Pilot Fly-In. And that visit was a radically different experience.

For one thing, the sun was out in force. For three solid days. And at the beginning of May, each “day” lasts about 18 hours. The temperatures also hit an unprecedented 70 degrees, the skies were completely clear, and the winds were calm. For three solid days. You really have to have spent some time in Alaska, or talked to people who have, to understand what a miracle that represents. Especially on the first weekend in May. There were still huge piles of snow around, of course, which was a bit bizarre. But, again … in Alaska, the concept of “normal” takes on whole new parameters.

Valdez, Alaska, is tucked up in the northeastern corner of Prince William Sound, at the southern terminus of the Alaskan pipeline. It sits on a placid blue bay surrounded by mountain peaks, and the area has a stark and powerful beauty to it that’s evident as soon as you land and glance up at the 6,000-foot mountain ridge looming just north of the Valdez runway. But like the rest of Alaska, it’s also a wild place, where 80 mph winds are not uncommon throughout the long, dark winter, the regional airline only makes it into the airport 65 percent of the time and, even by the beginning of May, all a pilot has to land on for 30 miles in any direction is snow.

Airports in those parts are scarce, and the terrain in between is pretty hostile. So even Cessna 172 pilots put skis or big tires on their planes, and pilots who routinely take on and master the land’s formidable weather and terrain challenges can achieve the status of minor heroes. It would probably be a bit of a stretch to equate the Ellis brothers of Nesbena with Tiger Woods, Roger Federer or Eli or Peyton Manning, but famous bush pilots here do seem to command a kind of respect and reverence—at least locally—that approaches that of more typical sports heroes down south.

The bush flying competition at Valdez was interesting, in and of itself, with competitors arguing vociferously (as pilots are wont to do) about the best way to outfit and fly a plane for the best results. Some of the veterans told me they’d incorporated as many as 22 Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) modifications on their small bush planes. When the competition dust settled, however, the short-landing champion wasn’t one of the old hands, or even a pilot with a highly modified airplane. It was 22-year-old bush pilot from Wasilla named Matt Piatt, who managed to get his 100-hp Piper PA-11 down and stopped in a mere 99 feet.

Piatt’s performance was impressive, to be sure—especially because it was on a hard surface, with no wind, on very warm day. But pilots at the fly-in were also quick to point out that none of the competitors’ performances were really reflective of true bush conditions, where the planes are usually heavily loaded and those short field landings often take place at the end of tight, curving approaches through trees or other obstacles, and where the landing zones themselves are rarely straight and level. To really understand the challenges and the rewards involved, they said, you need to experience what all these modifications, skills and performance buy you, far from an airport ramp or competition chalk line.

So at 6 p.m., as the fly-in wound down to a close and the northern sun began to think languidly about moving slightly down and to the west in the still-bright springtime sky, I climbed into a big-tire Super Cub to go flying. This is not something you want to do with just anyone, mind you. Skills honed in the lower 48 are not adequate for the backcountry here. Local knowledge, a humble sense of respect for nature, and razor-sharp airplane skills are as essential for survival as fuel in the tanks. But the pilot I was flying with was a former professional bush pilot/ guide named Mike Stitzel, who’d been flying in Alaska for many years and had won the short field landing competition at the fly-in the previous year. I was in good hands.

The first sign that I was with a bush master was when Mike called our departure from the taxiway, put the power up and simply took off across Valdez’s 150-foot-wide runway, straight toward that aforementioned mountain ridge. We immediately turned west and hugged the ridgeline’s slopes as we made our way toward the nearby Shoup and Columbia glaciers.

Bush pilot/guides like the Super Cub because they need an aircraft that maneuvers well at slow speeds and close to terrain in order to spot potential game targets. It’s a kind of flying that takes some getting used to, however, as snow-covered ridgelines loomed beside us, in front of us, and then passed beneath us close enough to take my breath away at the sudden dropping-off of the earth as we sailed past their jagged, rocky peaks. As he flew, Mike pointed out several bears moving around on the really, really nearby slopes of the ridgeline north of Valdez. It was a little weird to be looking straight out of an airplane window at a bear, but there you have it. Welcome to Alaska.

Mike and I climbed toward the Anderson Pass, which separates the smaller Shoup Glacier from the expanse of the massive Columbia Glacier, which lies slightly further to the west. As we climbed, we entered a surreal world of drooping snow overhangs above deep, clumped-up, and untouched snow fields that looked very much like a real-life version of the Grinch’s cartoon mountain hideaway. The only marks on the snow beneath us were from wind, snowfalls or avalanches, and any semblance of civilization seemed a distant, disconnected memory.

As we cleared the pass, however, all intelligent thought left my brain. Ahead of us stretched the 330-square-mile ice flow known as the Columbia Glacier. And the Columbia Glacier is a landscape for which there are simply no adequate words. As far as the eye could see were chunks of ice—some of them 2,000 feet thick—that had been forming and moving toward the ocean for more than 10,000 years … ever since the days of the Ice Age. Fissures and crevasses of blue ice opened up everywhere beneath us, leaving pools of clear, turquoise water that Mike said was the most delicious taste on earth, if you could stand its almost-painful chill.

An engine failure here would be sporting, to say the least, although Mike pointed out several small patches of snow where he said he could put the Cub down safely. Looking down, I understood quite well why pilots around here take their short-field landing skills so seriously.

Lane on a glacier
Lane standing on a stray iceberg on Heather Island, Alaska.

We flew along the glacier’s face, which was an impossibly massive wall of ice that stretched miles ahead and behind us and towered several hundred feet in the air. Nothing makes you feel so small as flying right in front of a glacier’s face, several hundred feet above the water, and still having to crane your neck upward to try to see the top of the icy cliff. Or makes you feel the sheer force of nature’s power so viscerally as hearing a crack as loud as lightning and then watching a huge chunk of that ice, larger than most skyscrapers in Manhattan, break off, or “calve,” from the wall and collapse with a deep, shattering BOOM! into the blue water below.

It’s the scale that’s so impossible to convey. When we attempted to take some air-to-air photos in front of the glacier the next day, it proved all but impossible to capture both the airplane and the wall in one image. If we shot the airplane in front of the wall large enough to see the plane, we got such a small piece of the wall in the photo that it didn’t even begin to do justice to the grandeur and enormity of the setting. If the photographer captured the full width and height of the wall, the plane became be an indistinguishably tiny little dot against it. Joe Prax, the talented local photographer who shot photos for me during the weekend, finally had to put the subject plane close to the photo plane and a long distance away front of the glacier, in order to get both of them in the frame at the same time.

But on this flight, Mike and I didn’t have to worry about photos. We were just out to explore and enjoy. After a couple of passes along the Columbia’s face, we turned and headed south over the iceberg-strewn bay connecting the glacier with Prince William Sound. We passed pine trees and white, snow-capped peaks as we flew toward a tiny beach on a small spit of land known as Heather Island, a short distance in front of the glacier. As we circled toward the island, I looked down in awe at the icebergs and water beneath us. The water was such a clear shade of green that I could see the ghostly white mountain slopes that plunged deep beneath the “tip of the iceberg” pyramids rising above the water, conveying a startling sense of three-dimensional depth and strength.

Mike curved around a rocky point of land at the tip of the island, dodged some pine trees, and straightened out just as he touched down on a short, sandy strip of the stone-covered beach. We were down and stopped with at least 100 feet to spare. Piece of cake. Mindful of our limited time and the requirements of my job, I jumped out of the plane and immediately started setting up for some photos.

I hadn’t gotten very far when Mike came over and touched my sleeve. “Stop,” he said. I gave him a blank and slightly confused look. “You’ll get your photos,” he answered gently. “But just stop for a bit, first. Be here. Listen.”

Mike grabbed our jackets from the plane. “Come on,” he said, gesturing toward the beach. “Walk with me a bit.” We hiked up the beach to the northern point of the island, where I entered a world more surreal, and more beautiful, than any I have ever known.

The clear blue and green water that stretched between us and the blinding white face of the glacier was filled with a thousand translucent ice sculptures, each carved into a unique and exquisite design by the forces of time, wind, and weather. A couple of sea otters swam leisurely around the nearer ones, and the retreating tide had even left a few sculptures perched jauntily on the edge of the beach. An artist couldn’t consciously have created a scene this perfect if she had tried.

I sat down quietly on the stone pebbles of the beach and, as instructed, listened. The only sound that reached my ears in the stillness of the place was a remarkable and melodious symphony composed entirely of water. There was the steady gurgle of water flowing past the icebergs and the exclamation cracks of ice breaking away and falling with a splash into the waters below. There was the patter, gulp and splash of the otters’ strokes, the dripping notes of ice drops melting in the sun, and the distant rush of glacial water cascading through the trees behind us. As wild as this place was, it had a peace about it that was contagious, extraordinary … and so profound it resonated through me like a powerful, reverberating bass note. This kind of beauty wasn’t something you saw. It was something you felt, throughout every cell of your body.

I turned and found Mike watching me. “It’s a special place here,” he acknowledged, with the understatement of someone who understands, and who sees that you understand, all that words could never convey about a place, experience, or moment. It was also a place, he might have added, accessible only to those who could land a Super Cub in less than 300 feet.

After lingering on Heather Island for a while, we traveled on and visited a number of other stunning places, flying high over mountain peaks and low over swamp grass, brown bears, and hatcheries of kitiwas and seagulls on stony beaches strewn with remnants of oyster and clam shells. We watched the sun get low in the western sky sitting on another grass-and-shell beach with the incongruous name of Hell’s Hole––a name, I told Mike, that I suspected the locals chose to keep too many outsiders from coming in and spoiling its remote beauty.

I still have two perfect white, fluted shells from Hell’s Hole beach sitting in a place of honor on my bedroom bureau, just so I don’t ever forget that the rare and silent beauty of that evening. Because by the time we finally made our way back to Valdez, I was aware that I hadn’t just had a great or memorable flight. I’d been given a gift few humans get to experience––an intimate encounter with the song of life that runs through the earth with humbling power and soul-stirring beauty.

The weather in Alaska may be harsh, the mosquitoes huge, the winters long and dark, and normal landing sites few and far between. But what an acceptance of all those challenges—as well as big tires, a long prop, and a lot of practice in short field landings—buys you is something even more valuable than a set of Bushwheel tires. It’s admission to some of the few remaining places on earth where nature, in all its wildness, power, beauty and mystery, still sings a song of miracles with a true and unspoiled voice.

It’s a song whose magic could light even the darkest winter night … and a song that every Alaskan bush pilot gets to know by heart.

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