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Glacier Bay

Glacier Bay Flightseeing from Skagway

by Murray Lundberg

June 23, 2007

Click on each photo to greatly enlarge it

Twin Otters at Skagway, Alaska Back in the first week of May, I was wandering around Skagway looking for new sights when I spotted this pair of de Havilland Twin Otters that I'd never seen before. A quick look on Google when I got home showed that N147SA and N232SA were most recently operated by Scenic Airlines for Grand Canyon flightseeing. Intriguing indeed!

Promech Air Twin Otter When I returned a few weeks later, the Twin Otters both had their new Promech Air paint jobs complete. Based in Ketchikan, Promech is the largest air taxi operator in the region, so I went into the terminal to see what they were offering in Skagway. There I met Skagway base manager Steve SueWing, and he explained their new Glacier Bay flightseeing trips. It's a one-hour flightseeing trip to the eastern side of Glacier Bay, for $200 per person. Cathy and I will be visiting Glacier Bay on board the Amsterdam next month, so couldn't pass up an opportunity to see the park from the air first. [ 2009 update - Promech Air is no longer offering these flights - but Mountain Flying Service does, from Haines and Skagway ]

Tutshi Lake, British Columbia It wasn't until June 19 that our work schedules meshed with good weather, but there were seats available on one of the 11:30 flights, so we loaded up the car and headed south on the South Klondike Highway. Tutshi Lake was so calm that we just had to stop and take a picture or two.

If you enjoy discovering the details about new places, it pays to do some research in advance, either with one or more of the excellent guidebooks listed to the left, or at least by looking at a good map of the Glacier Bay region, to orient yourself somewhat.

DHC-6 Twin Otter N232SA A few minutes after a quick check-in (be prepared to state your weight), we were escorted out to our aircraft, N232SA. These Twin Otters are both DHC-6-300 VistaLiners, built about a decade before production of Twin Otters ceased in 1988. The Twin Otter is widely considered to be the most successful aircraft of its type, and these Series 300s were the pinnacle of its development, with a pair of powerful PT6A-27 turbine engines. The VistaLiner configuration provides the extra-large windows that everybody wants when flightseeing.

Interior of a DHC-6 Twin Otter While the VistaLiner configuration can allow for as many as 22 seats, this aircraft has only 19, 13 of them with windows. When he saw the camera gear that Cathy and I were carrying, our pilot, Tony Haugh, suggested quietly that the two rear seats are the best for photography, but they were taken by the women who boarded just before us. As it turned out, the single seat across from the door is the best, because with a bit of twisting you can shoot out both sides.

Settled into the captain's seat, Tony gave the standard safety briefing, and we taxied up to the north end of the paved runway. The Twin Otter is a two-pilot aircraft - our co-pilot was Kerry Glavich, who also did the tour narration.

Lutak Inlet, Alaska Even at maximum weight, the Twin Otter can be off the ground in as little as 700 feet, less than 1/5 of the available runway at Skagway. That STOL (Short Take Off and Landing) ability is a major reason that they are so popular in remote regions.

From Skagway we flew south down Taiya Inlet, which is the northernmost extension of Lynn Canal, one of Alaska's most well-known glacier-carved fjords. At 11:46, seven minutes after takeoff, we passed Taiya Point in the foreground, and the beautiful blue waters of Lutak Inlet. To really understand the vastness of this country and the scarcity of human intrusion, only flying can provide the necessary perspective.

Haines, Alaska Looking back at Haines from an altitude of about 2,000 feet, with the wide Chilkat River to the left and Taiya Inlet stretching up towards Skagway to the right. The usual mode of travel between Skagway and Haines is by ferry, either a State car ferry or private passenger ferry. Haines is only 15 miles from Skagway by air, but it's 359 miles by road, through Whitehorse, Yukon!

Rainbow Glacier, Alaska Our first close-up glacier was the Rainbow Glacier, a particularly fine example of a hanging glacier. This shot was taken at 11:50 - at the Twin Otter's normal cruising speed of about 170 mph, things happen in a hurry.

Davidson Glacier, Alaska Less than a minute later, we were looking straight down at the toe of the Davidson Glacier, a piedmont glacier. The sea is just a few hundred yards beyond the bottom of the photo.

Davidson Glacier, Alaska When co-pilot Kerry announced that we were going to fly up the Davidson Glacier, Cathy's reaction was "What do you mean we're going to fly up the glacier? It's right there!". But with a climb rate of 1,700 feet per minute, up the glacier is exactly where we went.

Twin Otter shadow on the Davidson Glacier, Alaska The shadow of our plane shows how low we got climbing up the Davidson Glacier - what an incredible way to see the details of a glacier. I have a commercial multi-engine pilot's rating, and love the security of having two engines and lots of power to spare in spots such as this.

Alaska glaciers Cruising along at 6,500 feet, listening to a fine music selection on the headphones. There are so many glaciers here that most such as these two flowing from the peaks of the Takhinsha Mountains don't even have names. The dark stripe in the middle of the glacier is a medial moraine, piles of glacier-scoured rocks lined up when two glaciers meet.

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska Flying over the toe of the Casement Glacier, looking at Adams Inlet, which is within the boundaries of Glacier Bay National Park.

McBride Glacier, Alaska The south arm of the McBride Glacier, a tidewater glacier. This photo was taken at 12:04.

McBride Glacier - Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska The McBride Glacier was dumping lots of icebergs of all sizes into Muir Inlet, which joins Glacier Bay proper about 20 miles off in the distance.

Riggs Glacier - Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska Two branches of the Riggs Glacier meet Muir Inlet in this photo that looks toward the head of the inlet. The speed of retreat of some of the glaciers in recent years has been astonishing - only 40 years ago, the Riggs reached far out into the bay, and in 1960 it met the Muir Glacier which is now 8 miles up the inlet. This is the point where we turned around and headed back to Skagway on a different route.

Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska The view up Wachusett Inlet.                                

Takhinsha Mountains, Alaska We flew up the McBride Glacier and through the Takhinsha Mountains to the Tsirku and Takhin Rivers on the way back to Skagway. Away from the sea, the dramatic glacier-studded peaks seem to go on forever. This is country that was virtually unknown until aircraft arrived in Alaska - even Native Americans and prospectors saw no reason to attempt to penetrate the wall of rock and ice. I feel honoured to be among the very few people who have ever seen this sight.

Takhinsha Mountains, Alaska You'll need to carry a GPS to positively identify the many glaciers flowing from the Takhinsha Mountains. Because of the changes occurring in virtually all of the glaciers (most of them retreating, but a few advancing), maps are rather inaccurate guides by the time they're printed.

Chilkat River, Alaska At 12:25 we were back over the mouth of the Chilkat River at Haines.

Skagway, Alaska An eagle's-eye view of Skagway, looking north towards the White Pass. The furthest mountain in this view is in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

Approach to landing at Skagway, Alaska When an on-shore wind is blowing, the approach to the runway is tight, as you can see in this photo taken as we were lining up for the landing.

    Back at home, editing photos and thinking back on the experience, Cathy and I agree that this flight provided a remarkable opportunity to see a corner of Glacier Bay National Park and some areas that are even more rugged and remote. Many people thinking about an Alaska cruise hear that Glacier Bay is a must-see. While we don't believe that, being big fans of Hubbard Glacier in particular (in a large-ship contex), a flight like this may allow some people to go on a cruise that doesn't visit Glacier Bay, yet still see the park. For locals, it may be a reminder of just how blessed we are to live in a place like this.


Promech Air

Alaska Cruises - YourAlaskaCruise.com

A Guide to Skagway

Map of Glacier Bay