FAIRBANKS - Unlike Alaska snowbirds who flock south during the winter months, Eric Denkewalter heads north from Talkeetna to Fairbanks, piloting a Piper Chieftain for a long winter stay.
The lure isn't the snow or subzero temperatures, but the influx of Japanese tourists who arrive in Fairbanks by the 747 planeload between mid-December and mid-March.
The majority of Japanese who visit Alaska during the winter months are intent on viewing the northern lights. Denkewalter doesn't cater to nighttime celestial excursions. He and another pilot with Talkeetna Aero Services, Inc., offer a different tourist attraction - daylight winter flights over Mount McKinley.
On Friday afternoon, Denkewalter and his wife Geri, were busy passing out Mount McKinley summit certificates and personal photo mementos to each of the nine passengers disembarking from the twin-engine Chieftain.
The conversation was lively and mostly in Japanese as the tourists looked over their photos and enjoyed coffee and homemade chocolate cookies in a reception area in the Sadler Building on Airport Way where the flight business maintains a small office.
Neither of the Denkewalters speak fluent Japanese, but they do know and understand Japanese words related to Alaska animals and nature. And when their limited vocabulary is combined with body language, it's obvious they get their message across.
Bobbing heads and smiles all around attest to the cross-cultural communication.
Denkewalter is convinced that the majority of Japanese passengers understand a great deal of his conversation.
"They know a lot more English than Americans know Japanese," he said.
"They want to have a good time, and I want to have a good time, so it all works out great," he said.
The daily McKinley flights take a little more than two hours and usually lead to great views of the highest peak in North America.
"In winter there are much better weather patterns," Denkewalter explained.
Even if the ground weather is cloudy, the pilot can fly above the clouds for a clear view of the peak.
On a typical trip, flightseers pass over the 20,320-foot peak a couple times for a close-up look of it as well as the surrounding glaciers and snowfields. Denali Base Camp, where mountaineers embark on the challenging mountain climb, also is on the itinerary as is an overview of Denali National Park and the Alaska Range.
Each passenger sits next to a window and is provided with interactive earphones and a map with points of interest marked in both English and Japanese.
Denkewalter always selects a "co-pilot" from each group to help him narrate interesting geological and wilderness features along the way.
The experienced pilot said the fast-moving, small plane ride is usually a first for the majority of passengers and they are awed by the wide-open space and natural beauty of the mountains, blue glacier ice and vast wilderness.
"It's like a real IMAX theater film," he said.
Denkewalter said passengers on the winter flights may see a remarkable optical phenomenon - a fata morgana - where alternating warm and cold layers of air bend and shift light rays.
"It's a type of mirage caused by temperature inversions," Denkewalter said.
"When you go from 20 below zero to zero and up, the mountains rise up like palisades and there are moving things on top that look like flying saucers."
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