Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Alaska 2018: Seaplane Excursion

Conundrum and Solution

While planning our vacation to Alaska, we debated about an inland trip to see Denali, the tallest peak in North America that reaches 20,310 feet above sea level. My concern was The Bear. A land excursion to Denali would require two days of travel to get there and back again. It seemed like a lot to ask an eleven year old to do. Because the mountain is often obscured by clouds, only a fraction of those who journey to see it actually do. The solution to that is to schedule more time in Denali in hopes of catching good weather, but I had limited vacation time available.

Our solution was to book a Denali flightseeing trip with Rust's Flying Service. We would depart Anchorage in a seaplane (a first time for all three of us) to see the mountain, returning the same day. If weather hid the mountain from us, the trip likely would not go and we could do something else. It compressed the timing and eliminated the scenario of extensive travel with little payoff. 

On the morning of our excursion, Rust's called to say that the weather was terrible in the direction of Denali and that the flight was cancelled. However, they offered an alternative seaplane tour of the Knik Glacier northeast of Anchorage. We accepted the swap and Rust's picked us up right at our hotel in Anchorage, the Voyager Inn.

Lake Hood

Rust's is based at Lake Hood (LHD, PALH), which purports to be the world's busiest seaplane base with an average of 190 operations per day. Lake Hood is directly adjacent to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, whose tower controllers provide tower services to Lake Hood.

I was pleased to find this stained glass seaplane in Rust's lobby. Now that's what I call art!

When we arrived at Rust's, I immediately spotted this de Havilland Beaver being prepped for flight.

Was I finally going to fly in a Beaver?


Instead, our pilot Mike directed us to the Cessna 206 beside it. Oh well. I flew right seat, Kristy and another passenger (who spent the whole flight inexplicably playing with his phone) were in the second row, and The Bear was on her own in the third row.

I looked wistfully at the Beaver as we pulled away from the dock.

Lake Hood offers sufficient take off and landing directions that taxi diagrams actually exist for it. This one was created by the team at ForeFlight, but a similar diagram can be found in the FAA Chart Supplement (A/FD).

The take off was smooth from the water as the large Cessna dragged us and those big floats through the air. Mike navigated the airspace around Ted Stevens International, resulting in a low fly-over of Anchorage.

We flew east toward the Chugach Mountains, then turned northeast toward Palmer.

The Chugach Mountains seemed to tower over our altitude as we flew low to avoid the approach corridor to Ted Stevens.

Knik and Colony Glaciers

We followed the Knik River into the mountains, observing several moose foraging for food on their spindly legs.

In the distance, the Knik Glacier was distinctively marked with a huge moraine that ran down the center of the glacier.

The Knik River appeared gray from glacial silt.

We passed rather close to clouds at times. "Class G airspace," Mike indicated preemptively before I could ask about cloud clearances. He had noted my Alton Bay Ice Runway hat and surmised that I was a pilot.

From over the end of the Knik Glacier, we could see Lake George and the Colony Glacier, a smaller glacier that feeds into the same valley as the Knik.

Interesting things always happen at the edges.

Sometimes the headwaters of the Knik River are physically blocked by ice floes.

I am fascinated by glacier morphology. There is a great deal of variation over the surface.

We flew far enough along the Knik Glacier to see the origin of its prominent moraine.

We made a brief excursion to the Colony Glacier as well.

When we returned to the Knik, we focused on the massive icebergs that had calved from the face of the glacier. These were no tiny "bergie bits".

After being so used to shooting photos from my Warrior, I became frustrated by how often the Cessna's strut ruined my shots.

It was a thrill to zip along low over the glacier in the burly Cessna.

This was our final broad view of the Knik. Mike indicated that the Knik Glacier was the location for some of the Star Trek VI scenes when Kirk and McCoy escaped the Klingon prison Rura Penthe.

As we returned to Anchorage, Mike explained about the dangers of mud flats like the one below us. Because water depth varies significantly with the tide, people sometimes get stuck in the mud only to drown when the tide rolls in. It seemed like a crummy way to die.

En route to Lake Hood, I had Ted Stevens International Airport in sight well before I spotted the smaller seaplane base alongside.

On final approach and cleared to land by tower, the rain started. I was uncomfortable by what looked to me like a short landing distance. The landing was surprisingly smooth and I was amazed (and relieved) by how rapidly the 206 decelerated on its floats.

Returning to Rust's, I silently coveted the Beaver again.

Photo by Kristy

Naturally, The Bear immediately found the airport dog and made a new friend. We thoroughly enjoyed our glacier tour by seaplane and the entire experience at Lake Hood was exciting for those of us used to wheeled airplanes.

The Mountain

Though our goal to see Denali by air was not met that day, it was met the next day in the most surprising way. We were riding the Alaska Railroad back into Anchorage after a day trip to Seward when we sighted the mountain 133 miles away. Our tour guide indicated that the air is only clear enough a couple of days each year for Denali to be visible from Anchorage. Evidently, July 11 was one of those days.


  1. Did you get any stick time? I really like the deep blue on the "bergie bit" that had calved from the face of the glacier. More great pics.

    1. I wish. No, the 206 actually had the right seat controls completely removed so that it was not even an option. I really enjoyed the seaplane experience and being at Lake Hood. It was just a very fresh environment from what I'm used to.