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Where Roads Don’t Go (Lake George, Alaska)

Written by Mark McElroy

We are an unlikely pair to go flightseeing.

I have a morbid fear of falling from a great height. Standing too close the railing on our balcony, eight floors above Midtown Atlanta, unnerves me. Clyde, on the other hand, prefers to avoid small, enclosed spaces. Just sitting in the middle of a back seat, sandwiched between other passengers, can sometimes make him anxious.

So when we arrive at Alpine Air Alaska for a flightseeing tour of the glacial wilderness around Lake George, I’m antsy. And when we see our helicopter — fire engine red, about the size of a Volkswagen — I’m even antsier.

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But long ago, I decided I didn’t want to live a life ruled by fear. You can drive yourself crazy fretting over a thousand possible outcomes … or you can trust the odds, be reasonably safe, and experience amazing things.

And so: up we go. Kevin, our pilot, turns out to be exactly the sort of guy I’d choose to ferry us around 2,000 feet above the mountain tops. He’s got the kind of open, laid-back professionalism I associate with people who love their work — and within minutes, it’s clear he’s doing the work he was born to do.

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Unlike a tour we took in Manhattan in a bumpy, stuffy, overcrowded aircraft, this helicopter flight is smooth as glass. Alpine Air Alaska uses little helicopters affectionately called “Robbies” — small, fast aircraft with huge, ultra-clear windows designed to offer eye-popping views.

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As a result, all my qualms drop away about as quickly as the ground does. We feel safe. We don’t feel claustrophobic. And soon, there’s nothing on my mind but the sweeping landscape below us.

On the way to our glacier landing, we spot two moose, a small herd of reindeer, and, to everyone’s surprise a bear:

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By this time, most bear have turned in for the winter, but this guy is still out charging around. Even from 2,000 feet above him, I can tell he’s huge and burly — and fast. At one point, he breaks out into a full, galloping run, moving much faster than an animal that big has any right to.

About half-way through out flight, we land on the Knik Glacier: a river of ice and sediment that’s 3,000 feet deep. Kevin cuts the engines. Once we’re outside the helicopter, we hear the wind squealing over ridge, the patter of light rain on ice, and the murmur of a temporary waterfall cascading over a jumble of glacial debris — and nothing else.

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We’re just 50 miles from Anchorage, but we feel like we’re on a different planet. Blue-white ice stretches as far as the eye can see. We walk around, but progress is slow because, well, we’re walking on rough, uneven ice. Stepping in muddy spots turns out to be the best strategy — that, and holding hands with Kevin, who’s quick to offer help and say, “There’s no shame out here.”

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The highlight of the stop? A quick Dixie cup of glacial run-off: cold, pure, sweet water.

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When we take off, I switch to the front seat, and Clyde takes the back. That puts me in the cockpit, which is, essentially, a little bubble of glass. I expect the view to trigger my fear of heights, but all it does is stoke my sense of wonder:

On the way home, we travel over Lake George and the congregation of receding glaciers that plow between the mountains here. And then, all too soon, the flight is over.

At about $400 per person, our hour with Kevin was one of our most expensive adventures. (In fact, this short flight can cost more than bargain basement Delta flights from Atlanta to Anchorage.) But worth it? Absolutely, positively, no question.

If you’re in Alaska, set the money aside for a helicopter tour — and call Alpine Air Alaska. Everyone we met, from the front office crew to Kevin the Pilot, was friendly and professional. Trust me on this: you’ll have a great time. Highly recommended.


Full Disclosure: Clyde and I pay our own money for the experiences we have when we travel. We don’t accept discounts or free tours or services, and I don’t identify myself as someone who regularly writes about and advises others on travel and dining options. If I recommend something, I do so because I loved it and felt it was worth an investment of my own hard-earned money. As a result, you can take my recommendations (and avoid the places I don’t recommend) with absolute confidence.

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Mark McElroy

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