In Alaska, scrubbed plans lead to new adventures.
When three days of advanced seaplane flying in early May with Alaska Floats and Skis in Talkeetna were canceled by cold temperatures that held on longer than expected and kept Christiansen Lake (where the flight school is based) frozen, my heart sank. The school’s half-dozen Piper PA–22 Super Cruisers fitted with straight floats and perched atop the ice didn’t help. (The gear had been swapped so that they would be ready to fly as soon as the ice melted).
Alaska Floats and Skis owner Don Lee, AOPA Senior Photographer Mike Fizer, and I piled into a tailwheel-converted PA–22 at the Talkeetna Airport and headed out to explore Denali National Park. The views are unparalleled: Sheer rock faces extend thousands of feet above and below the aircraft, and glacial blues peek through snow pack. Sometimes, I forgot that I was flying the airplane and just sat spellbound by the splendor of the creation surrounding me. Later, Lee and I flew 200 feet above the Susitna River south of Talkeetna, following its every curve to hone my stick-and-rudder skills while searching for gravel bars long enough to land the aircraft. Gravel-bar hopping is the perfect way to get away from it all and enjoy unspoiled nature.
At the end of those aviation-filled three days, memories of my original float flying itinerary were long gone, replaced with priceless experiences, sights, and memories.
“Where the road ends and life begins" reads a bumper sticker spotted in Talkeetna. This is certainly a place where you can live life to the fullest, especially if you love the outdoors and flying.
The crown jewel that keeps tourists flocking to the small town at the end of the road system is Denali, the highest mountain peak in North America at an elevation of 20,310 feet. People from all over the world come to climb, fly around, or just get a glimpse of Denali from the ground on those rare but breathtaking days when the summit isn’t shrouded by clouds.
Even with all of the tourists, Talkeetna has managed to keep its quaint feel for more than a century. Inns, cabins, lodges, and bed and breakfasts house hikers and sightseers; pubs and restaurants serve portions so large they must be designed to nourish climbers who have been stranded on Denali by a snowstorm and run out of food; and art and souvenir shops are filled with local crafts, Alaskan stones, and more. The town sits at the end of the Talkeetna Spur Road, just 112 driving miles northwest of Anchorage, so it’s a popular remote location in the state because it can be accessed by road. A lack of through traffic helps to shelter the town.
Whether you fly yourself, book some bush flying lessons, or take an aerial tour, when you visit Talkeetna, you need to go flying. The Alaska Range and Denali to the west are stunning, but the Talkeetna Mountains and their tiny glaciers (comparatively speaking) to the east are also beautiful. Really, in Alaska, there’s no bad view from the air.
Talkeetna Airport sits just across Talkeetna Spur Road from the town and is a hive of activity with flight training, sightseeing, and transient general aviation operations—there’s no shortage of de Havilland Twin Otters and Beavers; Cessna 185s; and Piper Super Cubs, Navajos, and Cherokees. Talkeetna Village Strip located in town (the two airport patterns overlap), and nearby lakes with seaplane operations keep the area busy. I’ve flown in a handful of times, and the best thing you can do if you are flying in yourself is to watch for traffic, provide clear position reports, and do your best to fit in with the flow of the sightseeing operators.
If you fly with Lee or any of his instructors at Alaska Floats and Skis, ask to fly by attorney Phillip Weidner’s cabin, called Goose Creek Tower, on the way to your lesson (if you are heading to the south). The 185-foot structure features several log cabins stacked on top one another as if straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss himself, something you’ll probably only see in Alaska.
Talkeetna Air Taxi, K2 Aviation, Sheldon Air Service, Alaska Bush Float Plane Service, and N2 Alaska provide tours of Denali. AOPA Opinion Leaders blogger Leighan Falley flies for Talkeetna Air Taxi, so if you want to go for an aerial tour or land on a glacier, consider checking out her availability and let her know you’re a fellow AOPA member! Before becoming a flightseeing pilot, Falley worked as a mountain guide and has summited Denali six times.
Mountain climbing is extremely popular, with expert climbers coming from around the world to try to summit Denali, which is one of of the Seven Summits, the highest peaks on each of the seven continents. Hiking is also popular, with several trails around the town.
In the winter, Nordic skiing, dogsled tours, and snowmobile tours are available. Don't forget skiplane flying!
No matter what time of year you visit, remember, Talkeetna is where the road ends and life begins—live it up!