Airplane ride over Anchorage offers new perspective for locals
The red and white floatplane rumbled to life with a throaty cough, then bobbed toward take-off on Anchorage’s Lake Hood, the busiest seaplane port in the world. Peering out the window, my son turned and gave an enthusiastic thumbs-up as the plane, a single-engine Beaver owned by Rust’s Flying Service, churned up water and ascended into a warm, Alaska evening. Overhead, we passed familiar landmarks: Seward Highway, Costco, the Coastal Trail, school, and shouts of excitement reached my ears, made fuzzy from a headset and microphone.
“Look, look, there’s downtown! There’s the beach! Can we find our house?”
Most Alaskans fly a lot, and our family is no exception. Whether taking a trip to the Lower 48 or embarking upon a weeklong fishing expedition, airplanes have always been a key to our independence. However, flying is viewed by many residents as a conveyance rather than an attraction, and more than a handful of Alaskans would scoff at paying for the opportunity to sit beside an out-of-town tourist in a small aircraft for a view of the Last Frontier.
It can be tricky to connect locals with a flightseeing adventure; after all, mountains, wildlife and glaciers are part of the daily landscape for many, myself included. But this summer I’ve discovered the value of flying for the experience rather than simply flying away.
Rust’s has been in the flightseeing business for 50 years, ferrying people and gear around the state to both transport and delight their passengers. While many visitors utilize the services of Rust’s sister company K2 Aviation, in Talkeetna, the Anchorage Safari tour with Rust’s is a quiet part of the flying service, but one I found to be a stellar example of the “tourist in your own town” concept. With three possible routes taking passengers over Anchorage, Cook Inlet, or Turnagain Arm, depending upon the weather, the tour provides a sweeping view of Alaska’s largest city. Even residents will appreciate the transparency between urban and rural, with neighborhoods blending into wilderness at imperceptible boundaries, and raw Alaska, nearly void of human contact, just beyond that.
A good value as well, the Anchorage Safari begins at $99 per person, making it a perfect outing for visiting friends and relatives who want to experience a flightseeing tour at a more affordable price. The 30-minute adventure also adds a more reasonable timeframe for families with potentially wiggly kids, or those new to small plane travel.
With a stiff breeze and heavy clouds lingering over the Chugach mountains to the east, our pilot steered west, over Cook Inlet and the forested Point Mackenzie and clearer skies. Mount McKinley was a hazy presence to our north, and Mount Susitna loomed large in the plane’s front window. Below us, moose browsed along the fringes of muskeg bogs and near braided streams, and a patchwork quilt of dirt roads and power lines gave my son a new, more linear perspective of his surroundings. As we banked a sharp left over steely-blue Cook Inlet on the return to Lake Hood, Anchorage appeared to welcome us back with a brilliant sunshine reflection upon the windows of its few high-rises. The plane landed with a splash, and as the motor quieted, the only sounds we heard were the gentle nudges of water to float, and a pair of ducks quacking a soft “welcome home.”
If you go
The tours: Rust’s Flying Service offers day tours that take passengers anywhere from the Anchorage Bowl to Katmai National Park and the Alaska Peninsula. Visit www.flyrusts.com for a complete listing of trips. Prices range from $99 for the 30-minute Anchorage tour, to $500 for a full day Mount McKinley flyby.
What to expect: Small planes are noisy and cramped, so be sure participants are prepared to wear headphones and sit for extended periods of time. Parents should brief kids on airplane safety, including seatbelt use, headsets, and following directions at all times. Infants and toddlers, while welcome (remember, too, you’ll pay by seat, regardless of age), may find the experience to be a sensory overload. Carry earplugs for kids too small to wear bulky, heavy, headsets.
Tips for kids: Bring a camera and/or smartphone with video to fully capture the adventure. Create a scavenger hunt and offer a reward for the person who finds all the items on your list; add wildlife, glaciers, boats, planes, and landmarks to the lineup.
Erin Kirkland is a freelance journalist and publisher of AKontheGO.com, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She is the author of “Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children,” due for release in March 2014.