Circling the Peak of Denali: A Scenic Flight Tour to Kantishna
DENALI, ALASKA- For me, the crown jewel of activities over the summer has been the chance to go on a scenic flight-seeing tour around the peak of Denali. Our friends over at Kantishna Air Taxi (KAT Air) were constantly encouraging Kelly and I to come on a flight, so after a few weeks of selling their tour packages we finally had the free time and decided to take the plunge: flying into the park on a small, single engine propeller plane, and taking a bus out.
Arriving at the airfield, I got that familiar flutter of nervous excitement that always seems to arise when I realize what I’m actually going to be doing. Sitting at work that morning brought a feeling of excitement that I’d be going on a cool tour of the park, but it’s not until we were standing in the airfield that the stomach-dropping prospect of taking off on a small dirt runway in a plane where you can watch the pilot handle all of the controls really hit home.
itting in the back seat with the entire row to myself, I was able to have a view out of both windows while we taxied to the end of the runway. Taxiing in a small plane feels like riding in a car. You lack the comfy sensation of total insulation from the mechanics of flight so common on commercial airlines—in a small prop plane, there is no hiding the fact that you are going to experience the miracle of flight, actually, like, right now, as the plane races forward, the pilot gunning the engine. It feels as if you are in the left lane on the New Jersey Turnpike, flooring the accelerator and trying to pass the truck on your right, until suddenly the rumbling of the wheels softens and you look out the side of the window and see that the landscape is changing, and you’re slowly lifting off the ground, slowly, and your stomach drops, just a bit, just a wee feeling of weightlessness, and before you know it the plane banks to the right and you realize that you are airborne. Just like that.
Soaring through the sky in a miniature plane like this gives you unparalleled appreciation for man’s triumph over the laws of physics. Not that I could ever imagine getting behind the controls, but the chance to see everything the pilot is doing has a way of removing some of the mystique from the experience, and gives a distinct feeling of well, I wouldn’t mind trying this…
ut the wonder of flight is soon numbed by the landscape. The chance to fly through Denali National Park gives you a bird’s eye view of the ever-changing terrain—from tundra, to valleys carved out by glacial runs, to mountain ranges, to lush green forested areas—you get to see the topographical variety in all it’s macrospective glory. And that’s if you’re looking out the right side of the plane.
The left side of the plane is the bread-and-butter of the Park—the arching spines of the Alaska Range, one of the world’s great mountainous regions, capped with snow and jaggedly dotting the landscape as far as the eye can see. It is difficult to convey the scope of the size of these mountains; from a small dot in the sky we really have nothing with which we can compare the size of these monstrosities. And they only get bigger…as we fly past mountaintop after mountaintop, we are heading deeper into the chain, until suddenly we are circling around the tallest peak on the continent—the peak of Denali. It’s best if you just looked at a photo of it.
The most amazing part of this experience was as the plane flew away from the peak. Difficult to put into perspective when we were flying a few hundred feet away from it, perspective is brought into focus as the peak became smaller and smaller in the distance: all 20,156 feet of prominence becomes apparent, and you realize just how far the vertical drop is from the peak of Denali. To the northwest of the mountain, the direction we were flying to Kantishna lays low-lying tundra plains—miles of them. The prominence of Denali is exacerbated by the fact that there is little else in front of it.
Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain on Earth, but it does not appear as tall as Denali because it is situated in the company of other, insanely tall mountains. Denali is the tallest in the range, and also happens to sit at the edge of the Alaska Range, meaning that it’s next to a flat of land basically at sea level. It’s not perched next to another mountain that will serve to dwarf it in the mind’s eye.
So it happens that I spent the rest of the flight to Kantishna, at least, staring out the window in wondrous awe at the mountain. I was never so happy to have the back seat to myself, and constantly scrambled to and fro in an effort to capture the beauty of what I was seeing on camera—there are a few worthwhile attempts, but on the whole I have to say this is an experience which needs to be seen with one’s own eyes to appreciate the true grandeur of Denali. It was an experience which put the 6-hour bus ride through the park to shame.