Preface: This is perhaps more a travelog than anything else. Since my goal is for this blog to be a collection of posts of quality wildlife and landscape photography, this post may be out of context. But I have no other place to put it, so here it sits. If you feel misled, dear reader, please accept my apology.
During our Alaska visit last June, our daughter Elizabeth treated Donnette and me to a “flightseeing” view of Mount McKinley, the highest point in North America at 20,320 ft above sea level. Our airplane was a 10-passenger de Havilland DHC-3 Otter operated by Talkeetna Air Taxi out of Talkeetna, AK, a
small, tourist-oriented town 110 mi north of Anchorage. Mount McKinley is roughly 90 mi north-northwest of Talkeetna.
Each passenger in our airplane occupied a single tight seat and had a window to look through. The seat location and small window size resulted in a rather narrow field of view. I took two instruments aboard, a DeLorme PN-60 GPS receiver and a Canon SX40 camera. The GPSr sat on the window sill the entire flight; when in use, the camera was held against the window pane to maximize the field of view. I recorded a good GPS track of our flight; however, only a minority of the photos were acceptable, as might be expected from the cramped and unsteady conditions under which your faithful photographer worked. A few shots I considered post-worthy appear later in this post.
The image below is a screen capture of the recorded GPS track after loading it into my GPS mapping software. The location of the flight path relative to Anchorage and Talkeetna is shown on the left, and the portion of the flight in the Alaska Range is magnified on the right. The round-trip flight proceeded generally in a clockwise direction as indicated by the arrows. While in the higher mountains of the Alaska Range, our ground speed was generally between 120 mi/h and 150 mi/h; our altitude, between 10,000 ft and 15,000 ft above sea level.
Most of the loops in the track are 360-deg turns the pilot made so passengers on both sides of the plane could get a look at what he was describing. The single exception was the last loop on the east side of the flight path which was executed to decrease altitude for the glacier landing. My seat was on the left (port) side of the plane, so my view was almost always toward the outside of the clockwise flight path. Only during a small time interval halfway through the 360-deg turns was I able to look toward the inside of the flight path, e.g., toward Mount McKinley.
The three smaller loops in the northmost segment of the track afforded us views of the summit of Mount McKinley. Given the small field of view, the tightness of the turns, and the plane’s speed of roughly 120 mph, I had the summit in view for less than ten seconds for each turn. I had to be quick to get in some visual ooh-ing and aah-ing, adjust my sitting position, focus the camera, and get off a good shot in such a small time interval.
The wider loop on the west is near the base camp used by climbers of Mount McKinley. It is at an elevation of about 7000 ft just inside the small fork off Kahiltna Glacier southeast of the loop. From our altitude of 11,200 ft at that point, the hikers, tents, and a helicopter at the camp were visible to the naked eye. Unfortunately, they appeared too small to photograph with my camera at the wide-angle focal length I had been using. I wasn’t quick enough to zoom the SX40 to its maximum focal length of 840 mm (35-mm equiv.) during the short time the base camp was in view. Even if I had succeeded, camera shake would likely have ruined such a telephoto shot under these conditions.
Below are nine photos from the flight I considered most interesting. As you view the photos, you may find it useful to refer to the map above. The eight tags on the map indicate the locations of the aircraft when the nine photos were taken. The tag pointing to the landing site on Ruth Glacier accounts for two of the photos.
The first photo was taken as the aircraft was entering the Alaska Range. You can see the various creeks joining the Tokositna River at that point
Just after entering the Alaska Range, the pilot was able to get high enough to see Mount McKinley peeking through the clouds.
As I looked down on the several glaciers over which we flew, I often saw what appeared to be blue “pools” of water on their surfaces. I know that glacial ice exposed by the calving of seaside glaciers has a bluish appearance. Perhaps the ice was melting to form these pools and the newly exposed ice surfaces appear blue for the same reason. That is just a guess on my part.
Below are the three views of the summit corresponding the three northmost “loops” in the flight path, shown in chronological order. Our altitude at these positions was several thousand feet below the summit. Thus, from only about five miles away, we were somewhat looking up the side of the mountain.
After viewing the summit of Mount McKinley, we descended to a landing near the north (higher) end of the very impressive Ruth Glacier. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ruth_Glacier.) We approached the glacier by rounding Mount Dickey, then descending between that mountain and the peak to its right.
You can see the landing spot on the east side of the track in the map above. The pilot made a 360-deg
turn before landing on the glacier at about 5800 feet above sea level.
Here is our trusty aircraft soon after we stepped onto the snow-covered glacier. Our pilot was the only one not wearing a coat. As Donnette and I learned during our Alaska trip, the concepts of “warm” and “cold” are certainly relative.
Finally, here is a shot of Donnette in front of the glacier wall adjacent to the landing site. The lower portion of the wall is hidden by snow. A careful inspection of the photo shows that the bottom level of the wall is in the background directly behind her. Although this wall extends more than a thousand feet up, other cliffs lining Ruth Glacier are much taller.
It may be illustrative to view a video simulation of the flight in Google Earth. This video was created by importing the GPS track into Google Earth, condensing the two-hour flight into a five-minute “tour,” and recording the result using video capture software. The video contains a real-time clock indicating the date and time (Alaska Daylight Time) during the flight. At each location where a photo was taken, a small copy of the photo pops up. Click the link in the box below to view the video:
I consider the quality of the photographs from the flight less than spectacular, but they were the best I could do, given the conditions under which they were taken and the camera I was able to comfortably carry. My slight disappointment with the photos was far outweighed by the two hours of nonstop visual thrills. The Mount McKinley flight was a very exciting and rewarding experience. I recommend it to all.
Thank you, Beth.