Nothing captures the magic of Alaska better than the adventure of flying across the vast wilderness in a small bush airplane.
Recently I made three such flights that a traveler could easily duplicate.
From Fairbanks, I flew north to a remote Eskimo village at Anaktuvuk Pass, in Gates of the Arctic National Park, visited for the day, and flew back to Fairbanks that evening.
At Denali National Park, I took a 70-minute flight-seeing trip to get a close-up view of Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet the highest peak in North America. From the plane, McKinley seemed close enough to touch.
In Anchorage I flew west to a wilderness area for a day of northern pike fishing at Alexander Lake and saw moose, beluga whales and eagles on the return trip.
Small planes -- otherwise known as bush planes -- are the signature transportation mode of Alaska. Ever since the first bush planes appeared in the 1920s, they have been important links in the state's transport system. Large commercial jets serve Anchorage and Fairbanks in central Alaska, but beyond that the small plane becomes critical.
So much of Alaska remains a roadless wilderness that bush planes are, in fact, the only way to get around. Some bush planes sport wheels to land on small airstrips. Others have floats to alight on the state's many small lakes and rivers. In winter, skis can be strapped to the bottom of the plane. Anchorage's Lake Hood is said to be the busiest seaplane base on earth. Similarly, Anchorage's Merrill Field is reputed to have more takeoffs and landings than any other airfield, but the planes are small bush planes rather than jumbo jets.
It takes some adjustment for many passengers, who would fly with no worries in a 747, to sit next to a lone bush pilot in a small plane with nothing but spruce forests stretching to the horizon below. However, most bush pilots have remarkable longevity. Mick Van Hatten, who piloted me into Gates of the Arctic, has flown for the past 29 years on every flyable day, in all kinds of weather, without incident. When the weather turns nasty, as it often can in Alaska, bush flights will be canceled, so allow some flexibility in your schedule for a second-day flight, if possible.
From Fairbanks to Anaktuvuk Pass
Anaktuvuk Pass is an inland Eskimo village in Gates of the Arctic National Park, north of the Arctic Circle, about 260 miles north-northwest by bush plane from Fairbanks.
From time immemorial this inland group of Eskimos has hunted the caribou that migrate through the region, with herds reaching 250,000 each autumn.
By the early 1950s a legendary bush pilot, Sig Wien, was landing with some regularity at a small strip in Anaktuvuk Pass, causing these nomadic peoples to congregate and settle in the region. Today there are about 250 of these Eskimos, called Nunamiut Inupiats, or inland Eskimos, living in the village at the strip. They are the farthest inland of the various small Eskimo populations.
The flight north from Fairbanks in Frontier Flying Service's Beechcraft plane took me over broad tundra flats, across the serpentine Yukon River and through the spiky Brooks Range mountains to the village. I passed beyond the northernmost forests. Below, I sometimes could follow the pipeline through the wilderness, carrying oil from Prudoe Bay in the north to Valdez in the south.
A flight goes to the village from Fairbanks each morning and afternoon, making it easy to fly in during the morning and out in the afternoon.
At the village we were met by a mammoth of a man, Steve Wells, an outsider who came to Alaska to teach. Steve arrived in Anaktuvuk Pass and married Jenny Paneak, who comes from a prominent village family -- that of Simon Paneak, patriarch of the Eskimo community. Paneak's rapport with Sig Wien set in motion the founding of the village.
I toured a small museum run by Jenny Wells that showed how the Eskimos lived from hunting the migrating caribou, fishing for grayling trout and harvesting berries and other plants during the brief summer. The chief virtue in a man was to be a good hunter. As nomads, these Eskimos lived in portable skin houses, following their food supply. Caribou would be killed in the autumn and consumed through the winter and spring. A typical family would take about 12 caribou during the autumn as they passed through on their annual migration. Even today, these Eskimos are one of the few subsistence peoples who survive on hunting rather than agriculture.
At Jenny's house I sampled the full range of the typical meat and fish diet of the Eskimos. I ate caribou leg, marrow of smashed caribou bone, grayling trout and muktuk, or whale blubber. All these foods were shaved off frozen chunks with the typical rounded Eskimo knife, the ulu. Jenny Wells' mother, Suzy, living on a traditional Eskimo diet, will eat this meat and fat diet, raw or boiled, three times a day.