Flights of Fancy: Plane trip to town reveals signs of spring

by • May 18, 2016 • Feature, Feature Photos, Highlights, Home DisplayComments Off on Flights of Fancy: Plane trip to town reveals signs of spring621

Kevin G. Smith/ AlaskaStock This aerial view of lakes and forest in the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge in Southcentral Alaska is similar to that seen by the Emersons as they make their annual spring trip to town.

Kevin G. Smith/ AlaskaStock
This aerial view of lakes and forest in the Susitna Flats State Game Refuge in Southcentral Alaska is similar to that seen by the Emersons as they make their annual spring trip to town.

Alaska is filled with microclimates tucked between mountains and bodies of water. In our case, our home is about 10 days behind the warming and cooling trends of the towns a mere 20-minute flight from us. So an annual treat is the first flight from home to town after breakup, when I am hungry to see the sights of spring that won’t reach us for another week or two.

Flying away from a late winter home landscape of mud and slushy snow, our little Piper PA 20 cruises at 1,200 feet and 90 mph over the increasingly lush Susitna Valley. Snow and ice still huddle in the shadows, but open areas pop with spring color. From my elevated vantage point, the soft, pea-green bogs always remind me of fairways in a golf course for giants. Most open spaces are dotted here and there with little lakes and ponds and fringed with black spruce, which tries, valiantly to populate the acidic peaty soil until the trees keel over, like acres and acres of pixie sticks. Dense woods of birch, poplar and white spruce divide the open greens, sometimes spilling over a ridge, other times opening up to expose a creek that meanders so tightly that it often balls up in oxbows that form parentheses on either side. An occasional cabin, soon to be obscured by summer growth, piques my curiosity, especially those near no body of water. How do the owners get there? What do they do?

Along the edges of the green expanses are deeply etched tracks that one might mistake for those of golf carts or ATVs. But these bogs are far too spongy to support such weight. Rather, the tracks are long, slim dead zones created when well-traveled snowmachine trails pack the snow so densely that no oxygen can penetrate the ice crystals to feed the vegetation below. So the surface plants die, leaving trails visible for many years, from thousands of feet above.

If this were a golf course, it is thoughtfully arranged north-south, so the giants would not have to peer into the sun. This is because the entire valley drains the snowmelt and glacial silt from the massive Alaska Range to the sea. Bogs, rivers, creeks, ridges and drumlines all coordinate to collect, store and move massive amounts of eroded material. In the spring and after protracted rains during moose hunting season (fall), the bogs in large, flat regions are overwhelmed. Their surfaces become wrinkled east to west, like the face of a Shar Pei or Walter Matthau, because the water pushes south but has nowhere to go. The wrinkles create additional surface storage area until the next tide or two can suck a few million gallons into Cook Inlet.

As we fly, an occasional dark movement below catches my eye and I swivel to figure out what it was. If along a creek, it is usually a bear fishing to feed its hungry cubs nearby. If it is within a bank of trees, it may be a moose, with a wobbly newborn or two nursing whenever she pauses to nibble some delicious spring shoots after her long winter diet. Sometimes, it is an eagle, swooping beneath us on an airstream.

We taxi into Willow Lake, landing into the wind, whichever way that may be during this variable time of year. When I step out on the float, ready to jump onto the dock, I can smell fresh paint and varnish in the air, as local residents ready their decks and docks and picnic tables for the long-awaited summer season.

We climb into our truck and drive to Wasilla and Anchorage with a long list of spring errands. The highest priority is to replenish depleted grocery stocks with much-missed bananas and other fresh produce. We also collect and send many weeks’ worth of accumulated mail. I get a required haircut, a longed-for restaurant meal, a few forgotten gardening supplies.

The sights and sounds of town are jarring after our silent, black-and-white winter. We hunt and gather our supplies and then retrace our flight home, to await the arrival of spring.

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