Alaska by Air: Flying Anchorage

This is a city of pilots, and I was riding with one of the best. In America’s last frontier, a state that you could fit Texas into twice and still have plenty of room left over, things aren’t often close at hand. So here in Anchorage, the easiest solution is often this: just fly.

Rusts takeoff at Lake Hood Roy Neese
A Rust’s Flying Service float plane departs Lake Hood in Anchorage, Alaska. (Roy Neese/Visit Anchorage)

Alaska has the largest per capita number of pilots in the United States (six times more than the national average), and this little lake alone is home to 1,100 planes, 1,000 of them privately owned. Brian Carlin’s regular gig is flying a medivac helicopter, which can be a bit stressful, although you wouldn’t know it when you chat with him. “It’s rooftop to rooftop stuff,” he said, rather nonchalantly, in that trademark, super-calm pilot’s drawl. But lately, he’s also been flying visitors around in a float plane, and, today, Carlin was ready to show me everything that’s so remarkably close to the glassy skyline downtown.

Pilot Brian Carlin standing on his float plane. (Tim Johnson)

Home to just under 300,000 residents, Anchorage is a curious and fascinating place. In the city center, you could squint your eyes and believe you’re in a medium-sized Midwest city with streets lined with shops and a multi-story downtown mall with a JCPenney. But there’s perhaps no urban center that provides such easy access to super-wild places. And riding today with Carlin on a little Cessna 206, I was about to swoop high above so much of it.

The view from the plane is exhilarating. (Tim Johnson)

Pilots have been navigating Alaska’s tricky terrain and tempestuous weather for more than a century. Some became legends, including Joe Crosson, a bush pilot who was the first to land a plane on the glaciers of Denali, North America’s highest mountain. Another named Carl Ben Eielson was the first person to airmail envelopes and packages in Alaska in the 1920scrashes ended his contract, and the mail returned to its previous mode of transportation, dogsled.

Alaska Railroad Turnagain Arm Nicole Geils
The Alaska Railroad runs along Turnagain Arm on its way south from Anchorage, Alaska to Girdwood, Whittier, Portage, and Seward. (Nicole Geils/Visit Anchorage)

With these daredevils in the back of my mind, I walked out on a dock jutting into Lake Hood, lined with the distinctive red planes employed by Rust’s Flying Service, the largest seaplane operator here, a family-owned business that started up in 1963. I squeezed into the rear seat of the very small plane and donned my headphones to chat with the pilot and my fellow passengers.

Anchorage Skyline Ken Graham Photography
An aerial view of downtown Anchorage with the Alaska Range in the background. Denali is on the right. (Ken Graham Photography/Visit Anchorage)

Taxiing out, Carlin says that this is the world’s busiest seaplane base, with almost 200 flights every day. “They even have a special machine just to cut the weeds on the bottom of the lake,” he says. It feels like a busy hub airport, but with the docks where float planes are tied replacing the concourses and jetways and the runways filled with water rather than paved in asphalt. It even has its own control tower and airport code: LHD.

Glaciers including Knik and Colony glaciers are popular destinations for sightseeing flights out of Anchorage. (Juno Kim/Visit Anchorage)

Taking off in a float plane is a strange experience, in all the best ways. One moment you’re floating, bobbing across the waves like in a boat. The next, you’re zooming, skimming along the surface, feeling that first sensation of lift as you’re just about to leave the watery runway. And then, finally, the plane is airborne, the whirring propeller in front somehow powering you up and away from the lake or pond or river or sea where you started.

Flightseeing Boarding Plane Nicole Geils
Boarding a bush plane at Lake Hood for a sightseeing flight. (Nicole Geils/Visit Anchorage)

Moments later, we were high over the city, the towers of downtown off to our left, snow-capped mountains and deep green valleys straight ahead. As we continued out toward the suburbs, we buzz over a series of big houses, some like humongous, luxurious log cabins, climbed the rises and lined ridge lines. Seconds after that, we enter a big, green valley and spotted the white forms of Dall sheep, somewhat impossibly just hanging out, right up near a mountain top.

Setting up headphones and mic before takeoff on a flightseeing tour. (Mikhail Siskoff/Visit Anchorage)
Rusts Flying Service Savanah Evans
Viewing Alaska mountains during a flightseeing tour from Anchorage with Rust’s Flying Service. (Savanah Evans/Visit Anchorage)

And then, after what feels like two minutes, we were in a land of glaciers, the sun flashing off the Knik Glacier below, huge snow-capped mountains behind it. Running 25 miles long and five miles across, the glacier had small pools of shockingly blue water pooling on top and rivers rolling off its toe. “See those crevasses down there?,” Carlin said, pointing to ripples that look tiny from up here. “Those are big enough to swallow this whole plane.”

Knik River Lodge Ashley Heimbigner
Filming Knik Glacier after a helicopter dropoff. (Ashley Heimbigner/Visit Anchorage)

We zoomed across other glaciers, then made a turn, away from this land of snow and ice. “We’ll make our way toward 20 Mile Creek, and, you’ll see, the whole ecosystem changes,” said Carlin. Moments later, we landed on Carmen Lake with its surrounding lush, green slopes. The pilot angled us to a small beach and we climbed out, hopping onto the plane’s pontoon and then the shore. It’s a world away from both Anchorage and the glaciers, calm and quiet; an oasis in the mountains.

Lake Hood Juno Kim
Planes takeoff and taxi at Lake Hood Seaplane Base in Anchorage. (Juno Kim/Visit Anchorage)

After a few photos, it’s time to squeeze back into the 206 and take off again. We flew along the edges of Turnagain Arm, named by William Bligh, sailing master for Captain James Cook, because it had no outlet and they were forced to “turn again.” Just ahead, Lake Hood, and Anchorage awaited. But for the moment, I was happy to relish being high above it all, with views to beauty in every direction, close to the city but still in the heart of the last frontier.

Woman At A Glacier Nicole Geils
Viewing a Glacier in Prince William Sound from a day cruise boat. (Nicole Geils/Visit Anchorage)

If You Go

Fly: Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport connects Alaska with the Lower 48. From there, all major United States carriers fly to various major hubs across the country, including Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Denver.

Getting Around: While the city does have a serviceable public transit system, it is a huge place, covering more than 1,700 square miles. To truly explore Anchorage and its surroundings, you should probably have a car. Or, even better, take a plane tour with a company like Rust’s Flying Service.

Stay: Located in the heart of the city, the Hotel Captain Cook is Anchorage’s landmark property, and just steps from shops and restaurants.

Hotel Captain Cook Room Hotel Captain Cook
A king room in the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, Alaska. (Courtesy of Hotel Captain Cook)

Take Note: Some amazing wildlife can be spotted right in the middle of the city—eagles soaring in municipal parks, salmon fishers casting their lines along Ship Creek, and, if you’re lucky, you can spot belugas frolicking off the nearby boat launch.

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