Always fun to waken in a place you were not able to see the night before. It was gloriously wet and green and yellow. We had arrived in the Talkeetna fall. And each and everyone with whom I discussed the weather commented on our excellent timing! Everything was beautiful birch trees glittering from green leaves to gold, with a stripe of red undergrowth.
Talkeetna is a little town. The railroad conductor announced that it was small enough that were no police in Talkeetna, but that the vigilante justice employed for any infraction of the law was rough and sure. Hmmm.
Katherine had said that there was a place where she liked to get her coffee, and when Patty and I wandered out, we saw her and the other Catherine sitting at the picnic tables in front with cappuccinos in their hands. The weather was lovely. I had brought warm over clothes, (Alaska. 40% chance of rain) but didn’t really need them. The sun was breaking out to be a grand day. We ate crepes at Katherine favorite coffee place, and there were two crows who shouted back and forth to each other in the treetops.
We got a tour of the Susitna Salmon Center which Jeff and Gae had built. They were researchers into the salmon life cycle and habitats and had built the center to educate people on how and why the place should be cared for in order to protect the salmon who run there. There are five kinds of salmon, the Chum, the Sockeye, the King, the Silver, and the Pink. (The thumb, the pointer finger, the tallest finger, the ring finger, and the pinkie finger). We had arrived at the time the salmon were fighting their way back up the streams to spawn, to fertilize the eggs, and to die. The center is charming, with a gift store downstairs, and an earlier art piece of Katherine’s on the deck, which has very artistic interpretations of the 5 kinds of salmon on a pole.
Upstairs they keep fingerlings in a few tanks, which is evidently quite a challenge to manage as the fingerlings are very fussy about the water in which they are wiling to survive. There is also a CHARMING movie about one of the most delightfully passionate activists I have ever run across, Mike Woods. Here is a review of the movie: https://www.shortoftheweek.com/2017/01/07/the-super-salmon/ and you can watch the movie itself at: The Super Salmon on Vimeohttps://vimeo.com › Ryan Peterson › Videos
Anne and Patty and I followed Katherine down to the Susitna river, fast flowing, looking cold and opaque with the shale of glacial melt. Then across on a railroad trestle, to a rocky beach filled with a grand flourish of many colors of pebbles and stones. Spectacular colors of white and red and even green and yellow abounded. We arranged white stones of quartz and some which were, I think, shell and bone, into the shape of a fish on the shore.
Back across the river, Katherine wandered off saying that she was going to see about getting us a discount ticket for the “Flightseeing” rides over Denali. Talkeetna boasts the Natl Park Service Ranger station for Denali, and the three week trip starts with a flight to what is known as “Base-camp Strip” which is on a flat glacier at 7200ft. The mountaineers say that the climb to the top of Denali is a challenge for one’s ability to deal sensibly with cold and altitude sickness and bad weather, rather than significant technical climbing. HOWEVER, a number of people have died during that climb by just falling off the mountain, so it seems to me that it is a stinking hard challenge. About 1/2 of the people who climb it do not make it to the top and instead call “Mission Abort” rather than risk disaster. The weather is so changeable that any sight of a clear day becomes a high priority to take advantage of the opportunity and grab a flight.
When she returned, she announced that for $25, if we announced that we were the artists who came to work on the Mosaic for the Susitna Salmon Center, the K2 pilots would take us up, providing that there was space available in their flight. I think we were all worried that we should start by getting the sign up, taking advantage of the good weather and all, but she shooed us off, saying that was the last thing she was interested in doing today. Patty wasn’t planning to fly, and she was more concerned that we actually get the mosaic up on the building, but the rest of us headed over to the airport to sort out when we could go up, leaving the two of them to sort out whether that mosaic was going to be attacked immediately, or later…
Enthusiastically, we kicked on down the main street and across the railroad tracks that stretch from Seward to Fairbanks.The streets are muddy and filled with puddles from the recent rain. Patty and I had brought Muck Boots and they were the perfect shoe for Alaska. The town is filled with pretty little gift shops set up in old log cabins, lots of flowers in hanging baskets, and just off the main street, old cars sunk into thickets of bramble and antler strewn garages. The sky had a sweep of white clouds that were scudding across it, and there were just the tiniest glimpses of the mountains in the distance, because we were basically set in a clearing in a forest with no long distance view, except at the river’s edge.
It turned out that there were two big Denali flight-seeing operations, K2 and the Talkeetna Air Taxi service. K2 was really cheap, but you had to be on stand-by, and I was thinking that the nice weather might get me booted off the flight when the time came. Anne and I slogged down to the Talkeetna Air Taxi place, and they did give us a 50% break on the price, so it was $215 to fly. For that we got to land on the Base camp glacier, and we got a reserved seat as well. Anne and I decided to go for it.
My Muck boots were perfect for the hop off on the glacier, so after Anne got fitted for some snow gators, we were set to go. The plane was a Dehavilland Turbo Otter, built from about 1951 – 1967. These a real workhorse planes, developed to be a solid STOL bush plane. Ours was fitted with Ski-wheels that were hydraulically operated. The pilot’s name was Andy and I was happy to see him doing all the things that I knew of to ensure a safe flight, like starting the engine with his headset off so that he could listen to the revs of the engine without interference. We had excellent headsets, and we could hear Andy perfectly as we took off from the Talkeetna Airstrip. The plane holds 10 people and we were only missing one. A group of 6 sort of commandeered the front seats, but I thought that the rear seat would give us a better view in some ways as we were far back from the over hanging High wing. The co-pilot’s seat was captured by one of the other guests on each flight. Those were the only customers whose voices could be heard over the intercom, and Andy asked them to be sure to ask questions, but in neither case did he elicit even the slightest comment from them.
It was a fabulous day for a flight. Clear as a bell. I bet we could see 100 miles, if we had been looking anywhere but up at the big monster in front of us. The ground swept under us starting flat and stippled with forest, with glittering ponds and lakes sliding under the wings. Then the hills started to rumple up beneath us, and the heights ahead started to demand the plane stretch upward. The edges of the mountains started to get sharper and sharper and the rough crazy ridges, cut by glacier after glacier, led the eye up and up to the high peaks above. So magnificently deceptive is the clear air, the height, it feels like you can stretch out your hand and touch the rocky shards of mountain as you fly by. The glaciers roll like huge highways of ice and dirt beneath, and the white cap of Denali was still above us, big, massive, bigger than you can take in. Andy set the plane on her skis down into fresh snow on the glacier, on a slightly upward tilting flat, then slewing us around in the snow, to face down the glacier for takeoff. We piled out into new snow and were simply captivated by the overwhelming bowl of mountain range surrounding us. The usual horseplay and selfies were underway as Anne and I learned about Andy and his time in the sky, the history of the de Havilland Otter. You got the sense of someone who’d rather die than exaggerate their accomplishments. Can’t help but like that. I walked around the plane in our 15 minutes, looking at the solid struts, the carefully repainted siding. It glistened with perfect care. For 50+ years old, she looked beautiful.
As all the planes in the Talkeetna airport, she was a taildragger. The prop has to stay high in the sky, important for bush landings.
A bit away from the posing and chatter, the mountains stared down at us, black rock, white shoulders, grey walls, our silly gamboling, so insignificant. “It will be quieter, better, when we leave.” I thought.
Then Andy’s walk around the plane, his test of the prop, we pile on board, he listens without headset to the start and the rev of the engine, he puts on his headset, and we are off, quick as a floating bee. The STOL aspects of the plane are on display. The ground disappears, and we are suddenly up hundreds of feet above the glaciers that are falling away below us.
The way back was super, still, sharp, the mountains and ridges, stunning, clear light falling across the early fall colors, ponds flashing the sunlight at us, valleys painted with stripes of greens and yellows and reds. “You picked the perfect time to come” said Andy.
If I had wondered how lucky we were with that flight, my questions were put to rest. Another pilot asked over the radio, “I didn’t catch the weather, Victor Yankee? How was the view up on top?” “Stu-pen-dous, Victor Yankee, Stupendous.” Andy replied.
Anne and I smiled at each other.
When we got back the sign was already installed. Jeff, Mr. Susitna Salmon Center, had gotten up on a ladder, and evidently with much wrangling and declarations of “too high” “put it over the door” “Center it where the stairs are” it had been affixed to the wall. It still needed the missing glass tiles over the screws cemented in place, and then those glass tiles grouted and cleaned, but the first step was complete.
Then Jeff took us on a hike along the river and we saw multiple salmon, in the river, right there, not 2/10 of a mile from the Susitna Salmon Center itself. I was enjoying the forest, the beauty of it, after seeing it from the sky. All the colors of fall. The yellow leaves on the path. The red berries everywhere. No bears.
We came across a couple of guys who had come across a big moose on their outing in a big aluminum boat. They’d killed it. We saw the head and the huge antlers they had loaded into the big pickup. They will eat the moose up. I couldn’t tell if they had been out hunting, or had just happened on it. I felt sorry for the moose.
That night we made BBQd a dinner of the Salmon and salad fixings that we had bought at Fred Meyers. Easy to fall asleep.