Kenai Peninsula


Beautiful scenery is even better when the weather is beautiful, too. 

Thursday, September 19, 1996


My, what an extraordinary day I have had. Actually, two days were involved but today is the one that I will want to remember. I guess that I must have seen about 50 mountain goats. And about that many glaciers, too. Today, I was on one of the most memorable flights that I will remember, despite the fact that 24 hours ago I would not have believed that the events of today would actually happen and I was praying that they would not. 

Here is how the story goes. Early yesterday, I flew on a commercial flight from Anchorage to Homer with 16 other people. Altogether, we were various staff representing the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration Program, each in our own way and each for a different purpose. We were on a field trip that included community forums to talk to as many local people as we could in each of three places, Homer, Seldovia, and Port Graham. We wanted to give them information about the status of the projects and the program, answer their questions, and listen to their concerns. In addition, most of the group—others, not I—were there to examine several pieces of property that are under consideration for possible purchase by Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Restoration funds. 

After we arrived in Homer yesterday, we boarded a chartered tour boat, about 50 feet long, for a trip across KachemakBay to Seldovia. It was raining and windy, but the captain was confident that it would be a safe trip. He was a good captain, but things really did go downhill fast from there. Everything seemed all right as we rounded the end of Homer Spit and headed out across the bay. Soon, however, the seas were running about 10 feet tall with some swells even taller and with about a 2 foot chop on top of that. 

The boat bucked and lunged off each wave. But the boat churned on. 

Of all the travelers, fully half were seriously seasick. Half or more of the remaining travelers were on the edge, too. Only about three were still standing at the end of the 20-mile trip. 

It was not fun. 

We had originally planned to go directly to Port Graham to meet with villagers and later transfer to Seldovia for a second meeting, where we would spend the night because there was no place to stay in Port Graham. The wind was from the wrong angle and the water was too rough to reach Port Graham, so we went ashore directly into Seldovia. 

Before we could settle in and relax, however, someone came up with the idea of flying to Port Graham for the meeting! I was among the group of four who were selected to go. It was a short, but awful flight. It was big time bad! Visibility was horrid and the wind was rocking us all over. The plane was shaking and rolling and the pilot took us down at a steep angle. It was one of the roughest flights I have been on. We finally rolled to a bumpy stop on the gravel runway. 

Before the meeting started, we had a good meal of dishes prepared by the Natives—about half the recipes had salmon. One interesting menu item was herring roe on kelp. I tried it but was not impressed. 

The meeting was good but we could not see all the things that we had wanted to see because of the pouring rain. We flew back to Seldovia. The weather seemed to be improving. But the rain continued to fall. This trip was a little less harrowing. 

We took a break. Then, we had a wonderful supper of grilled salmon and halibut, halibut chowder, wild rice, and wild blueberry cobbler for dessert. We had a good meeting with the villagers after the supper. Afterwards, as we walked back to our lodging, we could pick out a few stars in the partly cloudy sky. Despite the pleasant ending to this day, we were all concerned, apprehensive, and skeptical about the weather because we were scheduled to return across KachemakBay to Homer by boat and later we were to fly back to Anchorage. 

This morning, however, it was calm. It was mostly clear. Most of the clouds were over the mountains and they slowly coalesced and rose higher off the mountains. The sunrise was very pretty. The seas were calm. There was only a slight swell. The sky was a brilliant blue—the kind of blue that appears only after the cleansing action of a storm. The clouds continued to merge and become better formed. 

We boarded the boat and began our passage. The shadowy, ominous gray clouds morphed into a playground of bright whites that were silhouetted before the deep-blue sky. Scattered everywhere across the traverse were big and small clusters of birds and sea mammals. Scoters, murres, murrelets, cormorants, loons, gulls, and sea otters. All were busy feeding and relocating after the several-day storm. It was beautiful. It was just a wonderful, gorgeous boat ride to start our day. Unlike our trip just the day before, not one person became seasick. 

Before noon, we drove north of town and hiked down a path to the shore to tour the site of a newly purchased property that will become a state park. We could not see much because it was undeveloped, but it does include some wonderful tide pools. 

We visited several potential properties for purchase and another project site. Later, we had a good meeting with the people of Homer. 

But then it was time to return to Anchorage.

Our plan was to return on a charter flight so we could look over some special real estate along the way. It was best seen from the air. In fact this special terrain is accessible only by air or by boat. And as it happens, the best aircraft that was available to transport this many people was a special aircraft. We flew in a vintage DC-3. This aircraft had been refitted to recreate a feeling of flying in the 1940s. Nevertheless, even though the weather looked good, I doubt that any of us had expected to complete this trip as planned. I certainly did not think that we would complete the trip as planned. Otherwise, the DC-3 was perfect for this trip because it could accommodate all the passengers and with top speeds of 100 to 150 miles per hour, we could have a good look at the landscapes along the way. 

Oh my, what a flight! The trip was magnificent! We flew virtually the entire outer length of the Kenai Peninsula. This was on the outside of the peninsula. We flew along the outer coast where it meets the Gulf of Alaska. This coastline had been oiled by the spill but now it was clean. 

This was the kind of trip that few people would normally take. And, probably some two-thirds of all the days of any year, it would not be flyable because of bad weather. We saw mountain goats. They were mostly small spots of white on the greenish-grey, seemingly vertical slopes, but some were close. And glaciers. We saw so many glaciers. They were everywhere. They were mostly huge streaks of white with long black streaks of the rocky rubble lateral moraines. Some intertidal inlets were huge, some were small. Lakes and lagoons reflected all shades of blue and green. There were spire-like mountaintops and a 900-foot-tall waterfall.

The sunshine was brilliant in the crystal-clear newly cleansed air. Colors were intense and multihued: deep greens, azures. Bright blues and brilliant whites. Mountain slopes and vertical cliffs showed dark greens and blacks. Crashing, foaming white waves. The bright sun sparkled like broken glass off the small waves. Tall, vertical, cascading white streaks turned into waterfalls or remnants of snow that filled narrow gullies. There were pastels, too, of the changing season: pinks, oranges, greens, browns. Light gray. Blue. Green. 

The clouds became enormous, tall towers and rounded cumulus bulbs. Grayish white below and overtopped with striking white hovering in the dark blue sky. 

And the DC-3 droned onward. 

It was a wonderful and most memorable flight. Smooth and steady. Spontaneous, breathtaking scenery. Just when I thought I had seen the most impressive view, another appeared. We reached ResurrectionBay and turned inland toward Anchorage. 

It did have to end. We flew up over Seward and through a rainbow. Soon we were over KenaiLake. We looked down and saw the RussianRiver. And Anchorage at last. It had to end. 

This was the flight that had to end. It was at the end of a wonderfully special day. Yesterday, we did not think that today was possible. But with all the special things, the sights, the sounds and smells, the skies, and the clear air, that so often follow closely after a storm, I suppose that we should not have been surprised. What a wonderful, classic flight in a wonderful, classic aircraft. 

Often, a payback is not pleasant. Today, our payback for a day of bad weather just yesterday, was truly extraordinary. 

Gotta go. Later.


February 12, 2009

Oh, wait, there is more . . . You have probably heard this before, but airplanes and Alaskans just go along together. It has been awhile since I have seen the old DC-3s in Anchorage and that is quite sad. That was a terrific aircraft for a leisurely flightseeing trip. Karel and I took one trip with a flight plan that began in Anchorage and traveled up the KnikRiver and Glacier, over the Chugach Mountains, into Prince William Sound, down College Fjord, and returned over PortagePass and Turnagain Arm. Unfortunately, we were never able to take another flight that circumnavigated MountMcKinley. That would have been a magnificent flight on a clear day such as the one we had when we flew the outer Kenai Peninsula coast. Nevertheless, it is always easy to arrange for a flightseeing trip or an air taxi dropoff and pickup. 

Anchorage is the largest community in Alaska and there are air traffic connections worldwide as well as throughout Alaska. The TedStevensInternationalAirport in Anchorage began operation as AnchorageInternationalAirport in 1951 and by the 1960s the city became known as the Air Crossroads of the World. Most visitors and most air freight arrive in Alaska through the international airport and, of course, many travelers from bush Alaska also come through this airport. It is entertaining to watch baggage from flights that arrived from instate flights as it rides around the luggage carousel. You will see tool boxes, outboard motors and collapsible boats, coolers, backpacks, moose or caribou antlers with any sort of improvised protectors over the sharp tines, fishing gear, and more. 

It seems that small aircraft are everywhere in Alaska. A dozen or so neighborhood airstrips are sprinkled around Anchorage subdivisions and there is an airstrip in most communities throughout Alaska. Some people even have private airstrips. Of course, floatplanes also abound. Many lakes in Anchorage have slips for privately owned floatplanes. Most villages are served by an airstrip, many of which are unpaved. There are, in fact, more pilots per capita in Alaska than in any other state in the nation. 

Adjacent to the TedStevensInternationalAirport is the LakeHoodAirHarbor, the busiest floatplane base in the world. LakeHood is connected to LakeSpenard by a long dredged channel that serves as a taxiway. There are also additional dredged channels with slips and tiedowns. But this is not enough. Some floatplanes are also equipped with wheels on the floats and are semi-amphibious. Some floatplanes slide up on dollies so they can be pulled out of the water and parked in floatplane parking lots. True amphibian aircraft like the Grumman Goose are strange at first to ride in. You take off from a runway like any other wheeled aircraft but when the Goose lands on a water body, the belly is underwater and the spray is at eye level. During winter, many floatplanes are changed out and equipped with skis. 

Of course, small, wheeled aircraft can use the runways, but most of the small wheeled aircraft are across town at Merrill Field, which was established in 1930. Merrill Field was the only airport in Anchorage until the international airport began operations. Today, it is a public-use, general aviation airport and it is one of the busiest in the nation. Merrill Field is owned by the City of Anchorage and it houses about a thousand aircraft. 

The original airfield in Anchorage was just a few blocks south of present-day downtown Anchorage. That airstrip was developed into our Delaney Park Strip, roughly a city block wide and 11 blocks long. Today, this grassy park is used for tennis, baseball, basketball, kite flyers, special events like the annual Governor’s Picnic, and more. 

Helicopters are also available in many parts of the state. Over the years they have become ubiquitous and they have become an invaluable asset for working, search and rescue, and medical emergencies. 

You may wonder why there are so many airplanes in Alaska. Alaska is a big land with lots of space and few roads. Airplanes, big and small, are important for commerce, work, and recreation. 

One last tidbit. The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver was developed in Canada in 1947. It is popular throughout Alaska as a dependable workhorse to haul big loads in remote locations. It can operate on wheels, floats, and skis. Although production was ended in 1967, many are still operating in Alaska.

Link: Visit the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum–