“Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” With the camera and oxygen mask in my lap, that’s what I heard as I sat in the co-pilot seat of a twin-engine Piper Navajo ready to depart from Talkeetna airport for a flightseeing trip to view Denali from high above.
But the story really begins a few days earlier.
Midway between Anchorage and Denali National Park, off the main highway and on its own spur, sits the historical village of Talkeetna. It is full of log buildings, a railroad depot, a general store, various food trucks, cafes, and restaurants. It looks like a mining and gold prospector town right out of the 1800s, with a modern artsy twist. And the best part–the best part of all–is the buzz of all the flightseeing airplanes and helicopters overhead.
Unfortunately the popular (and what I thought was the only) campground was full by the time I rolled through town, so I turned back towards the main highway in search of a place to sleep–at 11 o’clock at night. Knowing I really should snap some photos of what little I had seen of Talkeetna and thinking I may never get back, something made me turn around in the middle of the road after I had completely left town. On my way back to town, I saw people parked–cameras and binoculars in hand–next to a “Scenic View” sign. With nothing but a big sun beginning to set behind the clouds, some gentle rain falling, and trees for miles and miles, I didn’t see anything that remotely resembled a scenic view, but I parked anyway. An older couple pointed out at the horizon, and asked me, “Do you see it?”. They sensed my confusion and said, “Denali. It’s right in front of us, 60 miles away, once the clouds disappear.” Excited to see the famed mountain in person for the first time, I asked the old man how long he had waited here to see it. He responded, “40 years, son, 40 years.”
It’s true. Denali is so big that it creates its own weather. Even if the surrounding area has clear skies, there is generally a cloud layer obscuring the actual mountain. In fact, the guide books say that only 25-30% of visitors actually get to see Denali appear. So, yes, I was pretty excited when–about 30 minutes later–the sun went behind the Alaska Range, the clouds parted, and there stood the 20,320-foot Denali flanked by the 17,400-foot Mt. Foraker and the 14,573-foot Mt. Hunter. The other peaks–many over 10,000 feet–look like tiny hills compared to Denali and the other two “big” peaks.
After talking with some of the others who had stopped to get a glimpse of Denali, I still had to find a place to sleep. At this point, it was well past midnight, so I took a chance and drove into town one more time, hoping to find a spot on the street to park and sleep. By chance, I found a not-so-published campground back in the woods, put my money in the honor box, and stumbled into bed. Little did I know I would spend the next two days in Talkeetna.
The next day, I ended up finding a spot at the main campground that was full the night before. And my campsite happened to back up directly against the Alaska Railroad Depot for the Hurricane Turn train. It is one of the last true flag stop trains in America. Instead of scheduled station stops, passengers between Talkeetna and Hurricane Gulch simply flag down the train as it approaches. And passengers already on the train let the conductor know they want to detrain because their cabin, or lean-to, or fishing hole, or campsite is near. There are no other ways to reach these incredibly remote places. There are no roads, and the Alaskan Bush is too thick for airplanes in this part.
Since I was literally staying only a few yards from the depot, I bought a ticket impromptu, and stepped back in time for a six-hour roundtrip journey by rail. It was an experience! Honestly, the scenery itself started to look the same after a while, but the people I saw and stories I heard were priceless. Of course the train was full of tourists just like me, but it was also full of locals on their way to their property. In some cases, they were heading back to their childhood home. Some brought supplies: like two-by-fours and tools, beer and water, rifles and fishing rods. Some got off right away, did some fishing, and then got back on when we returned a few hours later on the inbound leg. There were two passenger cars with comfy seats and big windows, but there was a third car–a cargo car with doors wide open and a safety net strung across the bottom. In Alaska fashion, we would stick our heads out the open door as the train raced along the tracks–at speeds up to 60 mph! We even passed Alaska’s smallest town, population two. And at one point, the train stopped at a rail crossing so we could all get out to see a grizzly bear that had just been shot a few hours earlier. It was a crazy, crazy ride!
The conductor kept track of everything and everyone, yet still found time to share stories and answer questions:
“So why have I been saying Denali and what happened to Mt. McKinley?”, he asked. “Well, they are the same thing. Denali, an Athabaskan word meaning ‘The High One,’ is the official Alaskan name for the mountain. But nationally, Mt. McKinley is named in honor of President McKinley, a man who never even visited Alaska.” As he politely explained, “If you call it Mt. McKinley, we know you’re a tourist. If you call it Denali, we know you are a true Alaskan.”
So, from now on, I’m calling it Denali. Oh, and by the way, most of the locals pronounce it with a hard “a” sound: as in, rhymes with “alley”, and not “Molly.”
And that brings be back to “Talkeetna radio, Navajo 27633, Denali direct, one hour 30 minutes, nine souls on board, with information Hotel.” As everyone was packing up to depart by the ubiquitous 11AM campground checkout time, my next door neighbors mentioned they were on their way to take a flightseeing trip to see Denali from above. One thing led to another, and I found myself in the co-pilot seat of a Piper Navajo, about to depart on a 90-minute adventure of a lifetime.
Since Denali is just over 20,000 feet in elevation, we would have to climb to just under 21,000 feet to see it from above. And since oxygen starts disappearing at around 12,500 feet, we would need supplemental oxygen and masks. I am pretty certain that it was my first flight in a twin-engine general aviation airplane, and it was certainly my first flight in a non-pressurized cabin in Class A airspace. The other passengers just heard white noise, but I could hear all communication with air traffic control in my headset. It was reassuring to hear “visibility greater than 10 miles, ceiling greater than 10,000 feet” when the pilot got the weather report from ATIS and verified with the Flight Service Station he had listened to the most recent report tagged “H”–as in “Hotel.”
Within 15 minutes after takeoff, the Alaska Range appeared below the horizon. And because it was such a great weather day, other airplanes and helicopters started to appear, too. There were close to a dozen aircraft in our airspace, and I got to help the pilot spot them as their positions squawked over the radio. We flew over some glaciers that had carved a river of snow, dirt, and ice out of the landscape. We flew over what looked like little tiny peaks of a massive meringue pie. And in just a few more minutes, with a cotton candy-like covering of clouds, we were staring at the South Summit of Denali, almost four miles above the surface of the Earth. We were five miles out, but it looked like we were just a few feet away. After circling the summits a few times, we started our descent to get a better look at some of the other buttresses and glaciers, like the Ruth and the Kahiltna. We flew through jagged black and white canyons, over bright blue water surrounded by white ice, over brown sandy glacial deposits, and along lush green vegetation. I took some 200 photos of that flight; it was like something out of a children’s storybook.
Almost 90 minutes later, we landed, the pilot closed his flight plan, and I shook my head at what I had just seen. And then I waited for my ears to pop.