This will be my last trip between home and Fairbanks before the snows have melted, so I thought I would bring you along on my return flight. I know some of you are a bit weary of all my white posts, and I completely understand. The whole world has gone green and who wants to reminisce over winter? Christie, you and Mark and Mom are already into the 80’s, it is sunny one day and rainy the next, and the yard must be growing like weeds (here’s hoping it isn’t). So please be patient and enjoy the ride!
Today we are flying Wright Air, a reliable air service that connects rural Alaska (the bush) to Fairbanks. David will be our pilot today, and I like him. He is competent and friendly. You will be allowed to ride in his co-pilot’s seat and wear headphones so you can talk with him along the way. I’m glad because I know he will point out landmarks for you.
Our plane is the Grand Caravan, I versatile aircraft that can hold up to fourteen passengers. The seats can be removed easily to make room for cargo, and on today’s flight that is the plan. You, I, David and a thousand boxes of freight will fill the plane to the max.
The Crossing of the Whites
Fairbanks lies against the southern foothills of the White Mountains. The Whites are a minor range, not at all as grand as the Alaskan or Brooks Ranges. But having crossed them at low altitude so many times, I have become intimately familiar with them, and to me they are like old friends. As we climb and leave Fairbanks airspace they stand brilliant in the dazzling sunlight. They are about 50 miles away and looking like we could reach out and touch them. It takes no time at all to reach them. As we pass over, you notice that the ridges and peaks are rounded and worn, and many small streams, now frozen, wind their way through the valleys. You notice how some of the spruce trees seem to follow them, while some grow scattered on the mountainside, and others create unique patterns that hint of past geological events.
At the midpoint of our passage over the Whites stands a series of ridges from which rise the most interesting vertical rock formations. I have been trying to get good pictures of them on every flight, but they are usually lost in clouds. Today they are on the wrong side of the plane for us to photograph them, and here is all this beautiful light! David the pilot comes to the rescue and uses our camera to take these images of them. Every time I see them I want to bail out and go exploring.
Coming Into the Clouds
Clouds begin to gather as we approach the north side of the Whites. They swirl in to meet the mountains, finding passage down valleys and partly but never completely obscuring the peaks. We enjoy watching the battle for supremacy between the adamant and rugged land and the ever-changing cloud formations. We are above them all and the show is immensely satisfying.
“You Can See For Miles and Miles and Miles…”
Finally the northern flank of the Whites falls under the shadow of our wing and you can look out across the Yukon Flats. You ask what the white line is in the far distance and I explain that is the Yukon River (you can see it in the picture below). It is at least 50 miles away and we both remark how good it feels to be able to see so far. Then David points off further into the distance, north and west, and see faintly on the horizon a line of mountains, the Brooks, the white of their snow crusted slopes clearly visible. We both fall silent as we consider just how remarkable this is, because more than two hundred miles separates us from the Brooks. I have never seen, never expected to see, that far in my lifetime. It is a sight that I am still replaying in my head as I write this post.
We are over the Flats now. Streams meander their way across it, looking today for a pathway they not tried before. Spruce and birch, respectful of the natural order of the boreal world, create their own observable patterns in the landscape below us. It is a thermokarst region, pockmarked by depressions that have become ponds filled by the summertime melting of ice wedges in the permafrost. but only one thing holds our attention on this sunny day. The shadows! Everywhere we look the spruce are casting needle-like shadows from the southeast to the northwest. They fall long and deep across across the frozen streams. One shadow spears another, clothing the Flats in pinstripes.
The Yukon River and Home
We have been so intent watching the Shadow Games that we haven’t noticed our gradual decent until the alarm rings to announce we are nearly home. You can see the Yukon River below us, Fort Yukon nestled on its opposite bank. The runway is plain to see, all 5809 feet of it. Our town is no bigger than that either, 11 feet short of a mile. But it’s our mile. One last look at the Yukon shows stretches of open water, and I can tell that some of these have visibly enlarged in the 4 days that I have been away. Last year the river ice broke in early May, but I believe that was later than normal. I was in Fairbanks when it broke and did not get to witness it. I hope I can this year.