The sky is crystal-clear, bright blue. Our plane has been fueled by a lady who now leans against the doorway at ACE Hangars. She wants to come with us on the flight, but I took the last available seat. "I'm jealous," she smirks.
It's a busy day at Merrill Field, and we wait a few minutes before take-off. And then we're in the sky, rising above bustling traffic and the buildings of Anchorage, out over the glittering waters of Knik Arm and Cook Inlet.
On this cloudless day, we can see the mountains that surround us -- the Chugach Range, the Aleutian Range across the inlet. North of Anchorage, the Talkeetna mountains give way to the Alaska Range, the great backbone of the Great Land. Denali is visible -- no clouds obscure its monumental peaks. This is good news, because that's where we're headed.
We're looking for Mount Stevens, named in honor of former Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens. Just a few days before, clouds spoiled the view, and our pilot and photographer had returned from their mission unsuccessful. Today, we may have better luck.
We head over the flat, marshy lands of Susitna valley. Rivers snake through the landscape, including the mighty Susitna itself, a massive silt-laden river winding toward the inlet.
We fly higher and higher, and level off around 7,000 feet. We're getting close to Denali now. The land rises into luscious green hills and cumulus clouds fill the air beneath us, pock-marking Earth with giant shadows. Even closer now, green ground gives way to mountain ridges jutting toward our Cessna 206. Snow and glaciers and ice caps mingle beneath us.
We fly over a massive glacier. In stark contrast to the dirty, brown ice, glacial pools sparkle bright blue, like tropical waters -- except these pools have spent most of the last 10,000 years frozen. And in the midst of the jagged ridges and snow, Denali, The Great One, looms before us. It's an amazing sight, and we take turns exchanging single words of astonishment.
Our pilot has the coordinates for Mount Hunter on the GPS. From there, we spot Mount Stevens. We're level with it. Our photographer opens the small Plexiglas window designed specifically for camera shots. We circle in front of the peak as he furiously snaps off photos.
We have one other mission today: find the fabled, elusive window tower in Talkeetna.
We have rough instructions as to its location. We're flying over the wide, silty Talkeetna River. Lower to the ground now, I can see trees uprooted and languishing in the water. But still no tower.
"We're going to stay out here until we find it," our pilot proclaims. And then, to the left, our pilot spots it. A tower of windows, mismatched in true Alaska fashion, rises up above tree line. It looks like it's been built in successive stages, one 360-degree view after another, each portion a different size. The top window structure is larger than the ones beneath it. It is, quite frankly, bizarre. But this is Alaska, after all. Anything less would be disappointing.
We circle back, and our photographer gets his shot. Another success!
With our two goals completed, it's time to head back to town. The Talkeetnas are green and luminous. We cross the valley and head out over water. Our photographer spots seals basking on the coast, and it doesn't take much to convince the pilot to turn back around.
After a few shots, we continue on, passing Fire Island, where wind turbines have been erected startlingly fast. Denali provides a gorgeous backdrop to the view -- it's hard to believe we just came from there. We head back over shimmering waters, home.
Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at)alaskadispatch.com