Winging It In Alaska Bush planes are flyways to Nirvana of the north

March 08, 1992|By Kim McHugh | Kim McHugh,Contributing Writer

Some people take their adventure seriously. Consider Indiana Jones. After fending off tarantulas, a wayward boulder and an angry bunch of headhunters, he zooms to safety on the wings of a floatplane. In Talkeetna, Alaska, adventure is a bit more tame, though the bush plane still can come in handy as a means for escape. Ten minutes after takeoff, you can be deposited on a lake so private the fish will get to know you on a first-name basis. And few sensations can match skimming full tilt on mirror-smooth water, or glacial blue ice, engine howling, prop tugging, then sputtering to a halt as you glide to the front door of a hand-hewn cabin surrounded by thick woods and jagged mountains.

Alaska is a land where glaciers, river beds and ponds are runways that lead to Nirvana, where one spin through the neighborhood at 7,000 feet will leave you begging for more film, convinced that this is the only way to fly.

Bush flying isn't reserved for the rough-and-tumble crowd, although history speaks otherwise. Like the barnstormers and war aces in the 1900s, Alaska's pioneer bush pilots negotiated the landscape on guts, intuition and luck. Because of advances in equipment and training, pilots rely much less on the seat-of-the-pants technique -- opting for a much safer if less romantic method of ferrying passengers around.

Elevating the bush plane to its star status took the work of two local notables, Don Sheldon and Cliff Hudson. When Mr. Sheldon died 15 years ago -- Mr. Hudson is still taking to the air -- he left a legacy of spirited pilots. Kitty Banner-Seamann is one of them.

"I was ferrying gear off a glacier when suddenly I heard this huge crack, and an avalanche began spilling down Mount Huntington," Ms. Banner-Seamann begins one story. "The spray of the avalanche whited out everything, and I wondered what had happened to the plane. I knew it was the only thing that could get me out of there.

"When the spray settled, and I could see again, I saw the plane still sitting there. The avalanche had stopped just short of it. I didn't waste much time in flying out of there."

Mountain climbers, skiers, fishing parties, backpackers, rafters -- Ms. Banner-Seamann has flown them throughout the state.

After 40 years in the air, Cliff Hudson tunes into the land below almost physically. "I'll take you to the best reds runnin'," he says. Mr. Hudson is speaking of red salmon, a favorite of anglers in Alaska.

Along with his son, Jay, Mr. Hudson operates Hudson Air Service, one of a handful of charter companies flying out of Talkeetna, the Land of Oz for bush piloting. Talkeetna's proximity to Anchorage, Fairbanks, Mount McKinley and the wilderness makes it an ideal jumping-off point for travelers who wish to put civilization on the back burner.

Doug Geeting, a Californian in a past life, prefers gliding his cherry-red Cessna over glacial ice to surfing. He's been whittling this playground down to size for nearly 25 years. With a landmass of roughly 600,000 square miles, it's no small task.

The state of Texas can fit within Alaska's borders twice. A section of one park in the Arctic Desert is larger than 40 of the 50 U.S. states. Sand dunes stretch for miles. Frozen tundra, mountain ranges, lakes the size of Rhode Island -- that's Alaska.

The trick is to decide where to go. Begin by picking a season (bush planes operate virtually year-round), an area (mountains, lake, glacier) and vocation (fishing, dogsledding, trekking, climbing).

June through late August is best for silver, red and king salmon -- trout and grayling are running too. Fall brings the caribou migration, a reason for long lenses and plenty of film. In winter, you can ski, climb mountains or rub noses with Eskimos via dogsled.

On the day you leave the bush, warn the pilot. Because, as you become airborne and the real world gets closer, you might grab the controls, pull a U-turn and fly back to paradise.

If you go . . .

Bush plane trips are popular, so consider making reservations in advance. Sandy Norberg runs Talkeetna and Beyond, a central reservations and referral service. Contact her at P.O. Box 122, Talkeetna, Alaska; home (907) 733-2366.

Sobek International arranges fishing, rafting, hiking, dogsledding, sea kayaking and wildlife photo safaris. Contact Sobek International, P.O. Box 1089, Angels Camp, Calif., 95222; phone (800) 777-7939, Ext. 21, (209) 736-4524 or FAX (209) 736-2646.

Wildlife, white-water rafting and backpacking trips are offered by Nichols Expeditions. Contact Nichols Expeditions/Canyon Country Bed & Breakfast, 497 N. Main St., Moab, Utah 84532; phone (800) 635-1792 or (801) 259-5262.

Trips to the Hula Hula, Kongakut and Tatshenshini rivers, using float planes in most cases, are run by Alaska River Expeditions, 669 Second Ave., Salt Lake City, Utah 84103; call (801) 322-0233.

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