Gerard Smith | 01.08.2015

The plane glided effortlessly into the air and the snowy runway strip disappeard as the view opened out to the frozen Susitna River Valley and the alpine tundra below. As the plane lifted off we spotted moose tracks near the airstrip. The stark white blanket of snow, the blue ice of the partially frozen Susitna River, and the imposing face of Denali beckoned.

There is a quiet eeriness in the landscape at this time of year, and save for the low thrum of the propeller and occasional commentary by our pilot, Paul, the silence is truly captivating. The sheer vastness of the mountain ranges surrounding Denali National Park and Alaska itself is unimaginably grand, and from our aerial perspective I see mountains or tundra extending all the way to the horizon. The soft winter light and low sun lends a warm, surreal glow to the winter scene. We fly through the Ruth Gorge in Denali National Park and Preserve, the sheer granite faces basking in sun. As we fly through gaps between peaks and turn toward Denail, the wings of the plane seem to skim just a few feet away from the rock faces.

My wife, Joanne, and I had been looking forward to this incredible perspective for some time. We wanted to see Danali and the Ruth Gorge from the air, and early winter seemed a wonderful and quiet time to do it. We booked this brief pre-holiday trip with  Talkeetna Air Taxi in Talkeetna, taking a route up the Sustina River Valley before heading into Denali National Park and Preserve through Ruth Gorge, home to many classic climbing routes I was keen to see. We were also on the lookout for a climber that had flown in a few days before. This turned out to be Lonnie Dupre, who was on his way to becoming the first person ever to solo summit Denali in January. When we spotted him he was moving slowly up a glacier toward Denali's West Buttress, and the pilot said it looked like he had covered 5 miles in two days! The lone climber in this vast expanse of white was a tiny dot of humanity in this unending winter landscape, his insignificance out here magnified by the surrounding peaks.

Denali – the native Koyukon Athabascan name for ‘The High One’ did not disappoint. It rose emphatically above its surrounding brethren, its volume something to behold. I have spent a good amount of time in mountains around the world, and while Denali may not be the prettiest, it is certainly impressive, if not foreboding, in its size. We had a good view of the various glaciers as we circumnavigated the peak. We moved round the north side of Denali, its faces covered in black ice and shadow as the summit loomed above us and blocked out the sun. To the north the landscape was tinged pink in the early afternoon haze, and it was as if the tundra ahead of us was glowing and taking advantage of the fine weather before being wrapped in a winter cloak for the coming months. The Cessna turned and emerged from Denali's shadow into the sun, the mountains and wilderness awash with light as we headed back to Talkeetna. All I wanted was to continue gazing at the expanse around me, my mind buzzing with future trips and a longing to return.

That evening we crunched through the snow amid Christmas lights on our way to Denali Brewing Company for a fantastic dinner and a sampling of their brews; their general manager hails from the microbrew-heaven of Oregon, so we were in good hands.
On our way back to our cozy cabin at the Susitna River Lodge we kept an eye out for the promise of northern lights, and just as the clouds rolled in we could discern a faint light in the sky to the north. A visit to Talkeetna would not be complete without a visit to the The Roadhouse Bakery in the morning, where we had a great breakfast and picked up some wonderful pastries to sustain us on our return trip to Anchorage aboard the Aurora Train on the Alaska Railroad.

Note: If such a trip is in your future and you plan to shoot photos from the plane, choose your lens wisely. I did make a tactical error by using a camera lens I hadn't used before from a plane. Generally a wide angle lens works well, but if your lens is any wider you will get the wing struts in your frame. For a full frame sensor, you may not want to go wider than 28mm; if you are shooting with a cropped sensor, you may be able to get away with a 24mm. Also, if you do bring a telephoto or zoom lens, bear in mind these planes are very confined, so a large lenses could prove difficult to use.

 

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