The view from above

Custom flightseeing offers opportunity to do it your way

Posted: Sunday, September 22, 2002

For less than the price of a pair of Xtra Tuffs boots, it's possible to cover 150 miles of Juneau's high country and still get home for dinner.

Late summer and early fall are a great time for hiking the snow-free high country around Juneau, but this year there were precious few days when the ridges and alpine valleys were not shrouded in clouds. After what seemed like a month of rain, the sun came out and the skies cleared briefly in early September.

I was determined to pack a month's worth of trips into one afternoon and make the most of the break in the weather.

A chartered flightseeing trip offers a chance to see the high country on short notice. Three to five people splitting the cost of a one-hour flight brings the price to $55 to $75 per person, depending on the size of the plane and which company you choose to fly with.

The stock icefield flights designed for tourists are impressive, but the beauty of a custom trip is that locals can pick their route and see exactly what they want - and for half the price. Hunters, cross-country skiers, hikers and backpackers can scout trips in advance to pick travel routes or find highlights to visit. Folks who are less mobile can access country they would not otherwise be able to see.

A five-passenger Cherokee flies about 150 miles an hour. At times sights whiz by too fast; other times it seems like a perfect pace. On a calm day the flight is no rougher than a car trip down Egan Drive.

I've taken flightseeing trips before, custom and stock, and flown over much of the Juneau region and to most of the outlying communities. I've flown with private pilots and most of the local carriers. This time I called Air Excursions.

I called at 9 a.m. and set up a one-hour flight for 5 p.m. Even in the midst of the tourist season, a half-day's notice was sufficient. I rallied people in the office and quickly found four who could go on short notice.

Shortly before takeoff that afternoon, pilot Mike Loverink of Air Excursions took me into the room behind the reception desk. A map covered the wall.

"Where do you want to go," he asked.

I wanted to fly over North Douglas, in particular Mount Meek and Mount Ben Stewart and check out the ridgelines. I was curious about hiking in the area and wanted to scout the best routes up. I also wanted to hike Heintzleman Ridge back to Nugget Peak, but I wasn't sure about the back end of the ridge - parts looked pretty precipitous.

Andrew Krueger wanted to take pictures of downtown Juneau and the Mendenhall Valley from the air. Kristan Hutchison and her husband, Mark Sabbatini, plan to ski across the icefield next summer and wanted an advance look. Our fifth member was game for anything.

We put together a route that ran the length of Douglas Island, crossed the south end of Gastineau Channel, headed northeast and ran the length of Heintzleman Ridge.

An ancient faultline runs the length of Gastineau Channel and continues northwest in a straight line to define the Montana Creek drainage. It runs beneath Windfall Lake and past Yankee Basin to Berners Bay, where it plunges into Stephens Passage. We wanted to follow that route, then fly over the Antler and Gilkey rivers, looping back over the icefield and flying between nunataks - the barren rocky peaks jutting from the mile-deep ice - and return by flying the length of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Once we were in the air, Loverink asked which side of the ridges we wanted to fly over. He was willing to linger and circle back or provide different perspectives if we desired.

We found mountain goats and vast areas of beautiful alpine terrain that is out of view from the roads and trail systems. Thousands of acres of open meadows, gorgeous mountain lakes, waterfalls, sheer cliffs and active glacial landscapes were revealed.

We were able to see what we'd missed hiking up Nugget Creek Basin or Davies Creek, when we'd exhausted the light on daytrips and been forced to head back.

The late afternoon sun was ideal for pictures and sightseeing. We noted areas to explore later on foot, side ridges that branch off Heintzleman and Blackerby ridges, and ridges above Yankee Basin and in North Douglas.

"Now I know there's plenty of things I can check out," Sabbatini said.

Krueger observed that the lay of the land was surprisingly different from what he'd expected from perusing topographical maps. The aerial view shows where the treeline ends and the alpine begins, and reveals that routes that appear passable on a map may not provide the easiest access.

Sabbatini said they had debated whether to begin the icefield crossing by carrying skis up to Camp 17, at the end of Blackerby Ridge, and starting from there, or by getting dropped off on the icefield.

"It's fun to see the town from the different perspective," said Sabbatini, "but the more useful thing is being able to scout out areas."

Riley Woodford can be reached at

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