On another occasion, we had Jim fly us on a flight around Denali. On the day of our flight , a storm had just cleared out of our intended flight path so the visibility was spectacular. We had a magnificent time circumnavigating Denali and photographing it in all its splendor. In between photographs, I pointed out the places on Denali that I had been previously. Patty was enthralled by the flight and she was really excited when we to landed on the glacier airstrip at Denali basecamp. Flying in and out of basecamp is always hairy, even on this beautiful day, but she loved every minute of the experience. As we took off, I recalled a previous takeoff with an overloaded airplane, accelerating down this same airstrip toward the massive ice fall at the end of the ‘runway’ and the crash that awaited us if we failed to takeoff. Patty and I weighed much less than the four people and all their mountaineering gear that was in that earlier airplane and we made into the air with ease – as expected!
Jim flew us on a scenic flight over the Talkeetna Mountains and Patty quickly showed herself a very good spotter of wildlife from the air. She would announce she saw something on the ground and Jim would maneuver the airplane back to look at what Patty had seen. Jim was a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel and he was a former fighter pilot (F-86) so you can imagine how he maneuvered that airplane as he turned back. What makes this story unusual is the two airsick passengers that were occupying the airplane’s rear seats. Every time Jim maneuvered that airplane back so we could see what Patty had seen, the two passengers would experience a bad case of the ‘heaves’. They were as tolerant as can be expected with our maneuvering and they did not complain (to us anyway).
We took Jim up on his offer of a trip which he described in his business brochure as “a circle Tour” around Denali. The ‘circle’ began with a flight from Talkeetna to an airstrip near Kantishna (in Denali N.P.). After arrival, we went by van to the Lodge near Wonder Lake. We stayed there for several days. We rode about one hundred miles a N.P. bus to McKinley Park with along stop at the Eielson Nature Center. The passengers on the bus that day were among the few lucky people that were able to see Mt. Denali. Clouds obscure the view most of the time and Denali is only ‘out’ one day in four; most Park visitors never see Denali! We were ‘happy campers’ as we boarded the train in McKinley Park for the ride back to Talkeetna.
We saw trees and more trees on the flight to Kantishna, but we were in luck. Denali was ‘out’ that day and we had great views of the 18,000 foot high Wickersham Wall on the North side of Denali. We were flying in the general direction of Siberia and after a while I began to wonder where we were going to land. All I could see was trees and more trees. I had flown with Jim before and I saw that Jim was preparing to land. But where? All I could see were trees in every direction. Jim was well into his final approach before I spotted what I thought at the time most have been the narrowest and shortest airstrip I had ever landed on. Jim landed with ease as usual and taxied over to the tin covered ten foot by ten foot ‘terminal’ building. The sign on the door was particularly amusing; it read: ” Kantishna International Airport”. Really! I never would have guessed.
We were soon on our way to Kantishna Lodge where we stayed for the next several days. We panned for gold in the large stream that ran by the the Lodge. We did not find enough gold to brag about but the people at the lodge put my meager amount of gold that we had found into a glass vial for ‘safekeeping’. We ate, ‘familystyle’ at large picnic style tables in the dining hall which also served as the commons area of the Lodge. It was there they told me of the approximately one pound gold nugget that a guest at the Lodge had discovered the year before. I do not know if this was a ‘story’ meant to create a desire to pan for gold in the stream nearby or if a nugget actually was found. No matter, the food was good and I was very relaxed as the lodge was peaceful and quiet. We had a very pleasant stay over the several days. On our last day we were driven by car over to the Park Road There we boarded the Park – operated bus for our one hundred mile long sightseeing trip through McKinley Park. At McKinley Park station we boarded our the train for the return trip to Talkeetna. The bus ride was very interesting as we saw many animals and a lot of their tundra home. We were introduced to the Tunda’s ‘belly flowers’; so called because you had to get down on your belly to see them. It is true; Tundra is like a miniature forest that can only be properly observed by closeup viewing while on your belly. The park grizzly bears are smallish in size, about 750 pounds for males, because of their low meat and high plant diet. By way of contrast, the same species bear on Kodiak Island can get to 1500 pounds and over nine feet tall because of their diet of Salmon, I have learned by observation of grizzlies during my travels in Denali Park the it would be very unwise to try to outrun a grizzly. They are very agile and run like deer. We were happy to stay on the bus whenever we encountered a bear.