Last summer, while on a flying trip to Alaska, I visited two popular tourist destinations in the backcountry.
One of them, Chena Hot Springs, was half an hour by air from our home base at Chena Marina Airport (AK28) in Fairbanks. The other, 184 air miles south, was the historic town of Talkeetna, aerial gateway to Denali, North America’s highest peak.
Chena Hot Springs was first and the weather on the mid-July morning of our planned flight was questionable with light rain and fog. But our host, 20,000-hour bush pilot Will Johnson, assured us that conditions were more than adequate. And they were.
We flew from AK28, the private gravel strip and water runway in the shadow of Fairbanks International Airport where Will keeps N73036, a Cessna 207A that is the primary aircraft for his company, Yute Air Taxi service. His wife Debbie and my co-pilot for the Alaska trip, retired U.S. Army aviator Albert Finocchiaro, joined us for the flight.
On the ground, visibility was about three miles, or at least as far as we could see in the direction of the Tanana River beyond the end of the runway. We climbed briefly, perhaps to 500 feet, turned to starboard and watched Fairbanks International go by a half mile off our right wing.
A couple of minutes later we passed Ladd Army Airfield on Fort Wainwright, then turned back to the northeast and flew up the narrow valley of the Chena River North Fork. Twenty minutes later Will announced our imminent arrival at AK13, Chena Hot Springs Airport.
The pattern was Alaska unique: It consisted of overflying a ridge with perhaps 250 feet clearance, crossing a hilltop, turning away from the airport on an outbound heading, banking steeply back toward the runway and finally turning smartly onto short final with the runway 45° to our left.
Will solved the off-center problem with a deft half S maneuver, rolling out 31 minutes after departure onto a perfect short final for the 3,000- by 60-foot-wide crushed brown stone and sand strip.
A middle-aged man, of moderate height with a face mostly covered by a salt and pepper beard, walked briskly toward our plane in the parking area.
“That’s Bernie Karl, owner of the place,” Will said.
“I was going to give you hell for landing in this weather,” Karl called. “But then I saw it was Will. He knows exactly how to fly in here.”
For the next two hours Karl escorted us around the Hot Springs complex, including the geothermal electrical energy plant, the heated greenhouses producing lettuce and tomatoes, and the outdoor vegetable gardens.
Exhibits and newspaper stories framed on the building walls showed the worldwide attention Karl had garnered for his energy and recycling projects since buying the Hot Springs Resort from the state of Alaska in 1998. At the power generation center, geothermal energy, warm water, is used to produce the electricity for the complex of 44 buildings.
The most unusual tour stop was the Aurora Ice Museum, described in the Hot Springs brochure as the world’s largest year-round ice environment. Parkas were provided inside the modified ice A-frame chapel built of 1,000 tons of ice and snow collected at the resort. Inside, Bernie poured drinks at the appropriately named ice bar.
The best part of the Chena Hot Springs tour for most visitors is the swim. The air temperature was in the high 40s, but the water in the springs was over 100° Fahrenheit. The average springs temperature is about 106° while the indoor pool is kept at 90°.
There are accommodations and amusements at the Chena Hot Springs, about 60 highway miles northeast of Fairbanks.
It was almost nine in the evening but still daylight when we buckled in for the return flight. Will did a brisk back taxi followed by a Hot Springs flying tale on takeoff.
“A veteran airline pilot,” he began as he advanced the throttle, “flew a pristine Cessna 180 into the strip and went around.”
We were now airborne and climbing slowly with the view of a tree-covered mountainside filling most of our windshield.
“On the way out, just like we are taking off,” Will continued, “the pilot was confronted with the mountain in front of us.”
He pointed ahead with his right hand for emphasis.
“He smashed the 180 into the mountain about there,” Will said, pointing directly ahead. “If we kept going straight we’d find the exact spot. You know, the pilot just walked away from the wreckage and left the plane. The parts of the plane that haven’t been salvaged are still there.”
“What you have to do,” Will continued, “is bend your climb-out to avoid the mountain and the pilot did not.”
And with that pronouncement he deftly turned the yoke to the right, the wing dipped and the mountain was now on our left. Visibility was still poor, but in a few minutes we were out of the valley and over the broad strands of the Tanana which flows past Fairbanks. Five minutes later we were back on the ground at Chena Marina.
Talkeetna, Alaska’s flightseeing center
The following morning Albert and I hoped to fly to Talkeetna, about two hours south. My aircraft, N3245G, a 1956 Cessna 172, had experienced tailwheel problems on the flight from South Carolina, and Fairbanks A&P Todd Murray of the Brooks Sheet Metal Division was doing a rebuild. However, he told us that although parts had been secured, the plane wouldn’t be ready for the trip.
Our hosts, the Johnsons, offered one of their HughesNet company service vans for the journey. Cooler weather was forecast so we also got installer jackets with the company logo and Hughes caps.
We had already plotted an air route for PATK, Talkeetna, 184 miles distant, but would now follow Alaska Highway 3, the George Parks Highway, connecting Fairbanks and Anchorage. The driving distance was 272 miles, almost six hours.
Highway 3 is for the most part a two-lane road with expanded sections for passing. The primary attraction en route is Denali, North America’s highest peak at 20,310 feet. Broad Pass, 152 miles from Fairbanks, is the highest point on the route at 2,300 feet.
The Parks Highway parallels the boundary of Denali National Park and Preserve and eventually passes through Denali State Park en route to Anchorage. The park entrance is 120 miles south of Fairbanks and the visit to the Denali Visitor Center is free. It is open from May 15 until mid-September.
An Alaska Railroad stop and a commercial bus stop are located within walking distance of the Visitor Center. For noncommercial general aviation, the 3,000- by 68-foot McKinley National Park Airport (PAIN) is also within walking distance of the Visitor Center.
The comments on the airport in ForeFlight’s information section warn of nearby downdrafts plus wildlife and pedestrian traffic on the runway. There is an airfield camera view at Avcams.FAA.gov and an automatic aviation weather reporting station (135.75).
We arrived in Talkeetna, 90 miles from Anchorage, in late afternoon and got clear photos of the Denali Massif from a viewing point near the junction of the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna Rivers at the north end of town.
The Massif is so large it creates its own weather system, which means it is rare to get a view of the peak. But this was one of those days.
The next order of business was lodging. The touristy places on Main Street were booked. That was understandable since the town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and routinely crowded with out-of-state vehicles. We backtracked to the edge of town beyond the airport and found the Latitude 62 Motel/Restaurant/Lounge.
The bartender/motel manager had two small rooms, $78 each. The bed looked larger than a single and there was a separate bathroom with sink, toilet and shower. The air conditioning control was a latch that allowed the window to be opened far enough to permit air to waft in from the side parking lot.
We drove to Talkeetna Airport (PATK), and watched the stream of planes ferrying sightseeing passengers up to Denali. In the span of 20 minutes two turbine Otters and a Beaver dropped off passengers, reloaded and departed. The aircraft were equipped with wheel skis that allowed hard surface landings at Talkeetna and also glacier landings. Several firms offered flight tours, all with optional glacier landings. Prices ranged from $210 to $450.
Glacier landings were a specialty of legendary Talkeetna bush pilot Don Sheldon. He learned his craft from Alaska mountain flying pioneer Bob Reeve who became his father-in-law. A good read on Alaska flying is James Greiner’s “Wager With The Wind,” which chronicles Sheldon’s flying exploits and pioneering glacier landings on Denali.
We tried to visit the Sheldon Air Service at the airport, but it was closed for the day. It is run by Don Sheldon’s daughter Holly Sheldon Lee and her husband, veteran bush pilot David Lee. They also offer tours ranging from the Ruth Glacier flight with landing for $285 to the Denali Grand Tour, which circumnavigates the mountain plus a glacier landing for $450.
Locals told us Talkeetna was not an international tourist magnet in Sheldon’s time, more a climbing center.
Sheldon, a decorated World War II airman, achieved fame by becoming one of the most skilled high altitude bush pilots to ever fly in Alaska. He died of cancer at 53 in 1975. In Sheldon’s time the grass and gravel Talkeetna Village Strip (AK44) near main street was in use daily, but only a couple of taildraggers were still parked alongside the 1,600- by 30-foot strip when we visited.
Denali is the star of Talkeetna and one of the financial rocks for the little town of 800-plus year-round residents. It is easy to imagine the dusty main street area as the inspiration for the fictional town of Cicely in the 1990-95 TV show, “Northern Exposure,” although the filming was actually done in Roslyn, Wash., in the Cascade Mountains.
You can’t come to Alaska and not eat salmon and we did our duty that night, ordering the deluxe meal ($26) in the Latitude 62 restaurant. It was superb, the fish, rich and sublimely salmony tasting, if that can be a descriptor.
Talkeetna is well served by public transportation. The Alaska Railroad links Anchorage and Fairbanks with stops year round in town. There is regular bus service to Talkeetna and Denali National Park with packages offering the railroad one-way and return by bus.
The best single publication for a trip through Canada to Alaska is The Milepost, a 720-page guide ($34.95) published since 1949. Check online at TheMilepost.com or call 800-726-4707.