Flight-seeing Over Gates of the Arctic National Park, Alaska

Bettles Air, at your service

The bush plane is tiny, just two rows of seats, sized for people who like each other a lot. It’s equipped with winter survival equipment, and before we take off, we get instructions on using the emergency radio and the survival gear.

I know that bush plane is the way people get around in the Arctic, but just now, in March, with the thermometer securely below O degrees Fahrenheit, climbing inside for a flightseeing tour over the frozen tundra of the Yukon River and the ice-covered peaks of the Brook’s Range seems a bit like taking my life in my hands. Or, more accurately, putting it in the hands of my pilot. Who, contrary to stereotype, is no cowboy.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Staggering beauty and Alaskan immensity combine in a landscape of pure Arctic drama.
  • You’re not going to see some of these peaks any other way.
  • Good for families, photo buffs, adventurers.

Gates of the Arctic National Park

Indeed, caution is the watchword around here: “There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.” I’ve heard this catchphrase for mountaineers and for scuba divers, and it fits for bush pilots, too. Ours wouldn’t guarantee that the tour would be possible due to weather concerns, and he spent a fair amount of time checking both the plane and the forecast before okaying the flight. Where we’re going there are no emergency landing facilities. No second chances. And the tolerance for hubris is merciless as the sharp Arctic air.

Located 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the small town of Bettles, Alaska is a main entry point to Gates of the Arctic National Park, one of America’s biggest but least visited national parks. In summer, the fields around the airport (more accurately, airstrip) become tent cities, strewn with the bright outdoor gear of  hikers, hunters, fishermen, and paddlers who are heading into and out of the backcountry. In winter the population shrinks, but the opportunities for adventure expand, if that is, you like all things icy.

Flight-seeing over the Yukon River Floodplain

The Yukon River has no idea which way is “down.”

Flight-seeing tours are available year-round, weather permitting, which it doesn’t always do. In summer, drop-off flights can be booked to leave you in the wilderness; you arrange for a pick-up later in the week. But this was winter, and with air temperatures in the double-digit negatives, being dropped into the wilderness, let alone left there on purpose, was most certainly not on the itinerary.

Bush plane tours take 6 – 8 guests over the Arctic landscape, which is sculpted and sliced by the twisting, winding Yukon River. It’s a slow flat river here, with not much vertical drop per mile, so the water wanders this way and that, seemingly unsure of which way is even downhill. The marshy edges are thick with vegetation — alder and willow. If you’ve ever hiked on arctic marsh, you’ll be able to look down and imagine the tussock grasses that wiggle underfoot, threatening to tip you over into icy pools, and the clinging flexible branches of alders, which seem to want to hold you in an endless scratchy embrace. Moose are better suited than people for foot travel through this terrain, and when we flew low, we could see them picking up their spindly legs and navigating the frozen marshes.

Flightseeing Over the Brooks Range

The Brooks Range

In dramatic contrast to flat floodplains and squooshy swampland, the Books Range is all about rock-hard sky-piercing pinnacles: The kind of mountains that make you wonder whoever would actually come up with the idea of climbing one, let alone think it was a good idea.

The range is not, technically speaking, all that high, at least not compared with 20,320-foot Denali, which looms over the Alaskan imagination. By contrast, the highest peak in the Brook’s range is a scrawny 9,020 feet. Then again, those 9,020 feet aren’t merely above sea level — they are above Arctic Ocean sea level, and that is a distinction with a difference.

We pass alongside the mountains at eye-level, and the rocks seem close enough to touch. Some of the slopes are covered with snow, others are too steep for snow to stick and the rocks are bare and unforgiving. It’s a striking, beautiful landscape — all of us have fingers on camera shutters, and there isn’t much chatter: We’re all enveloped in our personal reactions to the drama. But this is an impersonal, rigid beauty, and it is  combined with ferocious power. You wouldn’t want to mess with it.

Practicalities

  • The bush plane to Bettles has limited luggage space, so take only what you need for your stay there. The lodge has plenty of winter gear, including extra-warm jackets and the famous Alaska military “Bunny” boots.
  • The six-room Bettles lodge also offers viewing the Aurora Borealis, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing.  Dogsledding and snowmobiling can also be arranged, as can a host of summer activities.


About 

Karen Berger is the author of 16 books, most recently "America's Great Hiking Trails" (Rizzoli, 2014). She has hiked, ridden horses, kayaked, scuba dived, climbed, sailed, skied, and marveled on six continents.

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