AOPA Pilot Magazine
August 2007 Volume 50 / Number 8
It was 11:30 p.m. as the commercial airliner broke out of the scattered cloud deck on approach to Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The small cabin window filled with sparkling city lights that painted the city's glimmering skyline against the snowy, majestic peaks of the Chugach Mountains. The evening had settled into dusk as I peered through the little window in search of the world's largest and busiest floatplane base nestled adjacent to the international airport Lake Hood SPB.
Lake Hood, sanctuary to thousands of Alaskan pilots, is the launching point for many a floatplane owner bringing him closer to the wilderness that defines Alaska. It was this southern cutout in the wilds that first attracted Russian sailors to setup trading posts years before British explorer Capt. James Cook reached the coast of Anchorage. Yet Cook has been credited with discovering southcentral Alaska in 1778, while on his third attempt at finding the Northwest Passage. He mistook one of the arms of "Cook's" inlet for a river, and when his "river" (now known as Turnagain Arm) washed ashore he turned around and set anchor nearby the settlement, which later became Anchorage. Russian explorers continued to establish trading posts across Alaska, but in 1867, the United States purchased the territory from Russia and 92 years later Alaska became the forty-ninth state.
Alaska is part of the "Pacific Rim of Fire," defined by the ring of volcanoes around the Pacific Ocean. Anchorage itself was struck by a massive earthquake on March 27, 1964. The quake, measuring 9.2 on the Richter Scale, was the largest ever recorded in North America. The control tower of the international airport was destroyed, and Lake Hood SPB tower provided services until the main airport tower was reconstructed and operational again. Today, Lake Hood's pilots coordinate with the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Tower for arrivals and departures at Lake Hood.
What to do
Frontier to the heart of the great Alaskan wilderness, the town offers incredible wildlife and sightseeing opportunities nearby. The surrounding state and national parks offer an opportunity to see moose and Dall sheep. Just 50 miles south of Anchorage is Portage Glacier. You can also climb aboard a glacier cruise ship to traverse the beautiful and serene waters that permeate the spectacular glacier cliffs or you can hop aboard one of the flight-seeing tours that cross golden tundra and majestic snow-capped mountains to bring you close up to Alaska's black bear, brown bear, and grizzlies. A daytrip away, you can watch bears fishing salmon right out of the streams.
Only a 45 minute-drive from Anchorage along the road that meanders next to Turnagain Arm is the Alyeska Ski Resort in Girdwood, originally a gold mining town that was located on the inlet's shore. During my visit in the month of May folks were still packing skis and snowboards in the gondola where at the bottom of the slopes temperatures were a comfortable 70 degrees. But at the top, snow was still plenty abundant for the boarding and skiing enthusiasts. The drive to Girdwood passes by Beluga Point where you might spot Belugas chasing salmon that come in with the tide or in a twist of fate killer whales hunting Belugas. Just before you turn off the road to visit Girdwood, you'll spot a remnant ghost forest all that is left of the original location of Girdwood after salt water penetrated the soil when the town sunk into the inlet during the quake in 1964.
While you stroll through downtown Anchorage to visit the many shops, eateries, and native art galleries, you can see two active volcanoes and the surrounding mountain ranges, which include the Tordrillo Mountains and the Aleutian Range.
And then there is Mount McKinley, in Denali Park. The mountain, which reaches 20,320 feet, is the highest point on the continent of North America, and well worth grabbing a flight seeing tour for. There are several tour operators that fly out of Lake Hood (LHD) and also Talkeetna (TKA), a mountain-climbers paradise about a two-and-a-half-hour drive by car northwest of Anchorage.
If you are looking for a fantastic opportunity to combine a seaplane rating and a mountain-flying introduction, look no further. I had a great chance to carve out several hours to get reacquainted with float flying at Alaska Floats and Skis in Talkeetna. To add to the lake flying experience, I flew the Piper Pacer on floats from Christiansen Lake (AK8) near Talkeetna, into the spectacular Denali mountain ranges. We crossed the granite peaks of Mooses Tooth and Broken Tooth Pass, transitioning in a sheer drop off (a climber's delight), flew at the base of Huntington Mountain, around Mount McKinley, and across the Great Gorge with its crevasses along the surface flanked on both sides by 5,000-foot granite cliffs (from the top of the cliffs to the bottom of the glacier is a height exceeding that of the Grand Canyon). The entire area was snow-covered. We spotted a small airplane on skis with several tents nearby, way below us near the Don Sheldon Amphitheater. Our flight continued along the vast west fork of Ruth Glacier with its beautiful azure glacier lakes before coming down to sea level again.
Anchorage is bordered on the northwest by the Knik Arm and on the southwest by the Turnagain Arm, both upper branches of the Cook Inlet, which itself is the northernmost reach of the Pacific Ocean. But despite being on the water, there are no coastal beaches to speak of. There are, however, vast mudflats or coastal wetlands that form when mud is deposited by the big tides.
If you are tired of wandering around, take a trip back into the history of Alaskan aviation with a tour of the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum, located at the south shore of Lake Hood SPB. Should you have a special event planned, you can hold it amid the great attractions the museum has to offer.
Where to eat
There are numerous restaurants in Anchorage and surrounding areas. One warm evening we mingled with sun- and warmth-hungry folks on the deck of the Snow Goose Restaurant & Sleeping Lady Brewery just off Christensen Drive and Third Avenue to enjoy every bit of late evening sunshine. The deck overlooks the Coastal Trail and brings vistas of the mountain ranges across Cook Inlet.
But you'll hit jackpot if you want to mix with fellow aviators at the Flying Machine Restaurant in the Millenium Hotel Anchorage. The hotel and restaurant are situated right at the lake, a wonderful opportunity to critique several of the more than 800 takeoffs and landings on a busy day. You'll have an impressive view of Lake Spenard, while the restaurant's ambiance takes you back through Alaskan aviation's past. The food is delicious from fresh seafood to steak. My favorite dessert was a chocolate "moose" prepared from bittersweet chocolate, sporting edible "antlers" and chocolate "droppings." The restaurant is open daily from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and 5 to 9:30 p.m.
Adjacent to the restaurant is the Fancy Moose Lounge, for a quick bite and a drink while taking in the spectacular view of the lake. During summer months you can sit at the outdoor patio to watch seaplanes taxiing up to the dock, while you take in one of Alaska's brilliant late night sunsets.
Where to stay
The Captain Cook Hotel spiked my interest. It is billed as one of the luxury hotels of the area and recommended as a very pleasant place to stay. A general aviation pilot at heart, I decided to go with my instincts and booked a reservation in the Millennium Hotel Anchorage, with its own floatplane dock for flight-seeing adventures or fishing. And, I was not disappointed. The hotel lobby incorporates spectacular wildlife displays (my only encounter up close with a grizzly) and a trip through history with a nice photo gallery near the elevators. There is an interesting six-foot diameter globe in the lobby, as well as a warm and cozy fireplace to enjoy after a long day flying or fishing.
Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport (ANC) is located four miles southwest of the city. Lake Hood SPB (LHD) and Lake Hood Strip (Z41) are located adjacent to Anchorage and reside in a cutout of Class C airspace. When traveling by commercial airlines from the lower 48 states there are many connections available through the Colorado and Washington areas. Just check AOPA Online Travel, but beware that travel times are long.
If you are lucky enough to live in Alaska, you're probably familiar with operations at Lake Hood and the Strip. Lake Hood is connected to Lake Spenard by two channels, one used for taxiing, the other for takeoffs and landing. The floatplane base has three water lanes: N-S is 1,930-feet by 200-feet; E-W is 4,540-feet by 188-feet; and NW-SE is 1,370-feet by 150-feet. Lake Hood Strip is made up of a 2,200-foot by 75-foot gravel runway with grass and gravel ramp and tie-down areas. There are numerous signs posted along the roads that meander between the international airport, the seaplane base, and the strip. All warn of giving way to taxiing aircraft. Flashing lights at road and taxiway intersections reinforce the written signs. It takes some getting used to when you're stopped at the flashing light and see aircraft on tundra tires or high up on amphibian floats crossing in front of your car.