Inger and Jeff Latreille
To the Alaskan Skies!
~Monday, August 29, 2022~
Day 70 of Alaska Trip
Well the sun gods appear to be watching over us as we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day…..a day like no other. This was our flightseeing tour over the Alaska Range, including the big daddy…….Denali! Eager to get up to the sky before Mother Nature changed her mind, we hurried to our 8:30 tour only to have a little something else to worry about….another flat tire. Are you kidding me? The truck has a TPMS system of its own (not the one for the trailer) which was alerting us that the rear passenger side tire was at 47 PSI and dropping; 62 is normal. This is usually an indication that something’s compromised the tire. We’ve lost count now of how many flat tires we’ve had over the course of our journey. Thank goodness the drive to Talkeetna Air Taxi from our campground was only 2-½ miles or we wouldn’t have made it. And this was no slow leak. It was nearly on the rim by the time we got there. Once again, we couldn’t have asked for a more convenient spot to leave the truck and return to the situation later, AFTER our tour. The day was just too perfect otherwise to let a flat tire spoil our fun.
Once we got checked in, we completely forgot about our tire situation and became completely immersed in the unique once in a lifetime experience of flying in Alaska! As you know, Alaska is a land of few roads making air travel the only way to view the remote regions of Denali Park. And with the weather in our favor, we certainly would be able to see Denali from every angle.
We were introduced to our easy going pilot, Clay (in his late 30’s) who from the get go, was super friendly but with a dash of sarcasm. You could tell he’s one of the rare birds who really loves what he does. He invited us to sit in any of the 8 cushy seats, all providing a window seat view. Headphones and barf bags were ready at our disposal, and no, no one got sick! But we all wore headphones to get the full narration of our experience. I’d never flown in a small plane like this before, but Jeff’s been on several occasions. With 2 other young couples joining us, it just so happened that there were 2 vacant seats directly in front of us, giving us more viewing opportunities. The plane….a de Havilland Canada DHC-3 designed for short take-offs and landings and considered a classic, first flown in 1951. And Talkeetna Air is the company that many climbers use to get to the base camp for their climb on Denali. Once climbers are dropped off, it takes about 20 days on average to summit the 20,000 foot peak. 2020 was the only year in Denali’s climbing history where there was no climbing because of……you guessed it……COVID. Our pilot has been in the biz for 20 years, 7 with Talkeetna Air. And if that wasn’t enough reassurance, I took comfort in hearing that this was one of the best weather days he’d seen in a long time. Our attire…lots of layers since we weren’t sure how well the weather would hang in there, nor did we know the heating conditions inside the plane; there really wasn’t any.
After seat belts were fastened and we gave Clay a thumbs up for our readiness, we were off. Take-off was thrilling,
feeling as light as a bird, and within seconds,
we were transported to the skies with a totally different perspective below. Having 80 air miles to go before hitting the Alaska Range, it gave us the opportunity to see the Matanuska-Susitna Valley below with its ribbony, braided rivers, and the vastness of the valleys or basins carved by glaciers over thousands of years. What those glaciers have left behind is a fertile, lush landscape juxtaposed to the majestic white capped mountains which provide the most spectacular backdrop.
As we approached the jagged peaks of the Alaska Range with Denali its “Crowned Jewel '' was absolutely breathtaking, leaving us on the edge of our seats the entire time. The peaks seemed so pristine and the icefalls frozen in place.
It was hard to get a sense of the sheer size of the mountains, especially Denali since we’ve only seen this from afar for so long, if at all. The strange thing was that up close, Denali seemed more like all the other mountains surrounding it, as they’re all a powerful sight. There’s something about Denali that from a distance,
seems more monolithic in nature, that sets itself apart from the others. What struck me too, was thinking about the many climbers that have tried to summit or died trying. Though I love big, challenging hikes, climbing in white-out conditions with crampons on for days at a time, praying you don’t run out of food, does not appeal to me whatsoever. But I DO have the utmost respect for the many who have made this their mission in life…..to execute their plan and push the boundaries. Clay did such a great job describing what we were looking at and gave both sides of the plane equal opportunity to see Denali’s many faces,
banking to the left and banking to the right. He was certainly taking advantage of the clear visibility to fly us quite close to many saddles and ridges, as if you could reach out and touch them.
The deeper we got into the Alaskan Range, it became more difficult to comprehend the scale of the many crevasses and glaciers we were seeing until he landed us on one….a glacier that is. As we came in over 3,800 foot thick Ruth Glacier, the 2 other Havillands had already landed and noticed them filming us coming in for our landing. As we got closer to the ground, the glacier glistened like jewels. Clay spun us around and before you knew it we were on the ground, lined up with the other planes.
Standing on this glacier, near the base of Denali was truly a life-changing experience. We had about 20 minutes to play in the snow, take pictures and chat with the pilot.
In the distance, we all took notice of a cabin looking structure known as Sheldon Chalet. Opened in 2018, named after a glacier pilot, this quaint cabin lies on a rocky outcropping above the Ruth Glacier giving it a perfect landing place and stunning views (when it’s clear), to the many prominent peaks, all at a price of $35,000 per couple for 3 nights. The steep price tag includes an inbound/outbound helicopter flightseeing tour, personal chef, guided explorations and a sauna with views of the summit. If money’s no object, I can see why this would be on someone’s bucket list. The only other way you’d be able to see the night sky near Denali is if you were climbing it.
Just before we were leaving, we got to watch the other 2 planes take off not needing much runway to do so. And the great weather hung in there the entire time!! When it came time to land, I was rather sad that it was over, wishing we could go back and do it all over again. But, we had something waiting for us in that parking lot of Talkeetna Air. What, the Alaska tire elves didn’t do their magic while we enjoyed the friendly skies?
As we thanked our pilot for an experience we will never forget, Clay suggested the perfect spot in town for the repair…..North Fork Auto. “And make sure you talk to Ed!” he said. He even offered us his truck to get us where we needed to go to get the tire fixed. Wow, such a nice offer, but Jeff thought he could just put the spare on then drive us to the repair shop. It wouldn’t be that easy. First problem…..the jack stand which is a piece of $^%*. The stands that came with the truck are absolutely cheap and louzy. It seemed to lift the truck ever so slightly, but not even close enough to get the tire off the ground. Before we knew it, we had 3 airline mechanics and a tourist helping us…..the ultimate display of Alaskan friendliness. Everyone takes care of each other here! If it weren’t for the mechanic’s hefty jack stand, and the tourist’s 4-way lug wrench we would have had to call a tow service. For some reason, despite our routine tire rotation, it took a lot of wiggling and oil to get the tire off. In the end, we could see a bit of rust around the inside of the rim which we attribute to all the dust and wet, rainy conditions we’ve had since the last rotation. But there was the culprit…….a good-sized rock the size of a walnut embedded in the center of the tire. But would it be repairable? We couldn’t thank our new friends enough for their assistance. The least I could do was to drop off some homemade cookies or my popular banana muffins as a thank you.
After we got the spare on, we were on our way to see Ed. Luckily, he was available immediately. In his early 70’s I’d say, he was the sweetest mechanic you’d ever want to meet, and eager to help. I’ve never seen a shop so organized and so clean…..you could eat off the floor. You can tell he takes great pride in his work and being of service to the residents of Talkeetna. If you have any auto troubles, Ed’s your man! He and his wife share a beautiful home just behind his “office” and also offer other services such as propane fills and laundry. Anyway, within seconds, Ed knew he could fix the tire even though it took a lot of tugging to get the darn jagged rock out of the tire.
Once we saw the rock up close, we knew where this happened. The road to get to our campground is pretty rough with loose rock, not compacted. We would later find out from our camp host that that road is notorious for flat tires due to the way they level it. The machine actually fragments the rocks more, causing jagged, sharp edges. No wonder everyone drives slow on it. Once you’re off that road, it’s just a paved highway until the airport. Anyway, it was the wake up call we needed to get new tires ordered. Prior to the drive to Alaska, we had the tires inspected where Ford said they looked in great shape for the trip but would need to think about replacing them later in 2022. After all, these Michelins have taken us 70,000 miles under grueling conditions. We couldn’t ask for more.
But here was another dilemma…..we were supposed to check out today after our flight adventure with a 4-hour drive to Fairbanks. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. So I phoned our host to tell her of our situation to which she was very understanding. So one more night in Talkeetna it would be. While Ed was working on the fix, I phoned several tire shops, even back in California to compare them all. In the end, we found Purcell Tire in Fairbanks to have the best deal….$500 less than everyone else and they said they could have the new tires by next Monday, Sept. 5. Perfect!
As we wrapped things up with Ed (he even offered to put the tire back on for us), settling up on the $40 repair, we found out he didn’t take credit cards. So instead of taking our driver’s license as collateral, he asked Jeff to leave ME instead 😉……such a flirt!
By the time we were back on the road, the day felt more like 7:00 p.m. than 2:00. Starved, we went back to the campsite to have a late lunch, grab our Sadie and head to Denali Brewing (yes, they have another location in Talkeetna near the syrup farm we visited yesterday).
After all, we couldn’t let a beautiful sunny afternoon go to waste and we were way too exhausted for a hike. We noticed several people walking out with unique looking bottles that didn’t appear to be beer. Tequila? I’ve never known a brewery to dabble in tequila, but several people we talked to said it was amazing and to give it a try. They were right. It was very good. In fact we would bring home that as well as a bottle of gin for Jeff’s martinis. Yes, they also make gin.
Watching all those delicious pizzas coming out of the oven at Denali Brewing, Jeff was inspired to make his own, crust and all. A great meal celebration to an amazing day. Yes, it would have been nice not to have the headache of car issues, but we will never forget our amazing experience of flying over Alaska, and Denali no less. And just for the record, despite having had several anticipated mishaps on this Alaska journey, we would do it all over again in a heartbeat.