Cat travel week: To Denali in a Beaver

Kittehs are a bit tangential here, but so be it.  A while back I was invited to Anchorage to address, strangely enough, the Alaska Bar Association.  They were interested in the evolution/intelligent design “controversy,” and brought me up north to talk and debate the notorious creationist Hugh Ross.  Alaska was one of the two remaining states I hadn’t visited (North Dakota’s the other, still unsullied by my footsteps), and I eagerly accepted.

Besides footing the expenses, they paid me something like a thousand bucks, which I vowed to apply toward seeing as much of the state as I could in five or six days after the conference.  One thing I was determined to do was fly to Mount McKinley, also called “Denali.” It’s the highest mountain in North America, rising 20,320 feet (6,194 m) above sea level.  I love mountains and never miss a chance to see the biggest ones. (I’ve hiked to Mount Everest twice and the Annapurnas once).

Seeing McKinley is best done by flying over it in a very small bush plane; these run out of the tiny town of Talkeetna. Many climbers take the planes to base camp, while tourists like me simply want to fly over the mountain.  It’s dicey, since the weather doesn’t always cooperate, but I was in luck. The weather was perfect and—double luck—some climbers were going to the mountain, and had to be dropped off on a glacier.  I gladly plonked down some bucks to go on that flight, as landing on a glacier is a rare experience.

Before the flight, I checked out the airport.  And I found the airport mascot, a small fluffy tabby whose name I’ve forgotten (click to enlarge all photos):

UPDATE: An alert reader informs me that his name is Beaver, and his official title is “Hangar Cat.” He’s still on the job.

We made friends (I didn’t have any cat food).  I was told that this kitteh was known to sneak into bush planes before takeoff, hitching rides over and to the mountains.

The plane was small (the legendary de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver, from whence the cat got his name), the pilot—a woman—was amiable but all business.  They’re brave, these bush pilots, but not foolish.  She took a long time loading the plane, making sure the weight was distributed correctly.

The flight, sans cat, was stupendous.  There’s a certain feeling of insecurity flying in those tiny, bumpy planes, as if the only thing between you and death is a half inch of metal under your feet, but the views more than compensate. I rode shotgun to the pilot, and this is what you see approaching McKinley (it’s the biggest peak in the photo):

This is the glacier on which we landed:

After depositing our climbers, we found that the snow was too deep to take off.  This, of course, caused a moment of panic. But no problem for the pilot: she simply plowed a runway by driving back and forth several times across the glacier:

Made it, thanks to good luck kitteh!

22 Comments

  1. Posted September 15, 2010 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    What a fantastic experience!

  2. CDubya
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Have you ever flown shotgun in a helicopter? Highly recommended!

    Nice pictures but could you see Russia?

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 15, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

      With or without doors? I tend to bring enough heavy equipment to convince the pilot to take the doors off.

  3. eheffa
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    How was the debate with Hugh Ross?

    I used to really like his books when I was still a Christian & looking for Old Earth Creationist explanations. Now though, it is clear to me that his apologetics are just so much excuse-making for the fatally flawed Book of Genesis. His presuppositions kill any possibility of doing real science.

    -evan

  4. Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Wow! That is so cool! All of it.

  5. justsearching
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    I envy you.

  6. Bill
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    That is cool. So…why don’t you have your own cat?

  7. JBlilie
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Awesome Jerry! Looks like you landed on the Ruth Glacier, by the looks of the cliffs around it.

    I tried to clmib McKinley many moons ago.

    Approaching the peak

    Watching a perfectly good airplane fly away(at bottom, slightly right of center, Mt. Foraker behind)

    It’s another world

    • Darrell E
      Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

      Looks awfully cold and windy. I don’t mind winter, but I prefer no less than a dry 0 degrees F with clear skies and no wind

      • Darrell E
        Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

        See? The wind blew that period right off the screen.

      • JBlilie
        Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

        It was the coldest, windiest, driest place I’ve ever been. And then the storms hit and every passing scrap of cloud dropped absurd amounts of snow on us. The temp. never exceeded 0 degrees F the entire 2.5 weeks we were on the mountain. The wind was often too strong to be able to walk about safely.

        And I live in Minnesota and grew up here in the much colder 1970s.

  8. Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Learn the early history of flying around Denali in the biography of bush pilot Don Sheldon, Wager with the Wind. An excellent read.

    • JBlilie
      Posted September 15, 2010 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

      I agree enthusiastically.

  9. daveau
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    North Dakota is so much nicer than that.

    Alaska hs been on my short list for a while now. Now I need to see Denali by Beaver.

    • Posted July 28, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

      I miss North Dakota, but it’s changed since I left. If JAC still has never been there, he’s missed the “good old days” before Big Oil suddenly decided to move in and swamp the place. Alaska was on my list, before. It’s on my shorter and shorter list, now. Hmm… Maybe, if enough of us atheists move there…

  10. Posted September 15, 2010 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    Awesome. Shotgun ride in a Beaver onto and off of a glacier. Just awesome. I need to see Denali by Beaver also.

  11. Grendels Dad
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I’m soooo jealous. My first, and so far only trip to Alaska I didn’t get to see Denali. Oh, I spent a night in the park, and several nights in the area, but the low clouds and rain just never let up.

    -mutter- a couple of lousy miles from the highest freaking mountain on the continent and I can’t see the damn thing! -mutter-

    • Posted September 15, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

      Aw! How frustrating.

      • Grendels Dad
        Posted September 16, 2010 at 1:59 am | Permalink

        I appreciate the sympathy, and I really shouldn’t complain. It was a fantastic trip, and getting to cross ‘living through an earthquake’ off the bucket list makes up for having an asterisk by “visit/see Denali”. Those several, surreal seconds I rode a swaying picnic table in the campground overlooking Homer made up for all the chilling drizzle Denali could be bothered to wheeze on me.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    If the snow was too deep to take off it’s a wonder you didn’t have a very rough landing; the snow is a bit like an arresting wire and you have 3 tailhooks (or 2 in that short period before the nose touches down).

    Shouldn’t a flying cat be called “Ceilingcat”? I guess a cat named beaver is funnier; some might even imagine that to have a double meaning.

  13. sasqwatch
    Posted September 15, 2010 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

    Makes me nostalgic for the Alaska I grew up in (Anchorage, 1968-80)

    Back then Ted Stevens wasn’t insane, Jay Hammond was Governor — the place before 1976 was almost completely lacking in twangy-sounding redneck types, and weed was legal. Outlying streets were mostly Russian and Athabaskan names, not named after Texas war heroes.

    My dad was the first public health Ob/Gyn in the state… the ONLY one for five years. He was on-call for five years straight. He did the first known appendectomy through the vagina, in the outback near Bethel, I believe. Only last year (or two?) was the first such procedure – documented in the media (he had never written it up).

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/m17u7626177x42r6/

    My dad, however, did not have the benefit of a laparoscope. There was a chance he was actually clamping a penlight in his teeth instead.

    A few years back, he went back up there to visit my brother, a bush pilot. They flew from Fairbanks to Denali, and up that same glacier. Perfect conditions as well. My bro said dad seemed cool — but they got way, way up the glacier before having to turn around… cliffs on both sides. My bro reported that dad had a few white-knuckle moments.

    Some friends of the family were the Tremblays. Ray died right before the release of his book in 2004. It gives a magnificent account of what is was like to be a game warden, flying around Alaska in the 50s and 60s. Someday maybe I’ll go back to visit.


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