Thursday, January 3, 2019

#26: Flying "Over the Top" Into Skagway, AK.

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"Are you getting excited yet, about going to Skagway?" my daughter-in-law asked the night before I was to fly out of Seattle for Juneau--and on to Skagway, AK."

"No, not yet."

I've been splitting my time between the Seattle area and Skagway, AK, for eight years now, and I'd not been up for two and a half of those years and was missing all my friends and the little Alaskan gold rush town. "You can write up there as well as down here," I decided one day just before Thanksgiving. And so began my plans.

Bagge ticketed for SkagwayThree days after Christmas, the morning's flight to Juneau was uneventful. Just another airplane ride in the rain. But when I checked into Seaplanes at the small Juneau airport and they ticketed my bag, I got excited.

And then more excited. The sun came out. A young man all of thirteen, I swear, called my name. "You ready?"

"I am!"

"Lucky you. This is our first sun in a month. We'll go over the top."


Instead of going up Lynn Canal, pretty enough, we'd go over the mountains, stunning, unimaginable, a world of ice and snow. I'd done it once, and knew I was in for a treat. I grabbed my computer bag and trotted outdoors, into the icy air. "Am I the only one?"


Seaplanes, a ride to Skagway

I settled into my seat, breathless. The pilot, I'll call him Dan, gave the propeller a few good whacks, it whirled and whirred into motion, and soon we were taxing out for take off.

We veered away from Lynn Canal and headed straight for the Mendenhall Glacier...

...rising swiftly, steeply, straight for the ice, up, up, up toward the tree line, a layer of fog, sunshine beyond, and the snowy mountains. 

Dan dipped and leveled out, wings just yards from the tectonic uplift of mountains unbelievably beautiful, their tops jagged, uncompromising, the tips sharp enough to have bitten through the earth's crust eons ago and tall enough to escape the glaciers of yore that grind smooth the lesser heights.

And then my phone died. No more pictures to capture the ragged snow-covered mountain tops that framed vast valleys stuffed with snow--heaped atop the Mendenhall Glacier; a snake of crushing weight, a river of ice bent on carving out stone and rock and gouging deep troughs, pressing the earth as it winds north to meet the ice sheath that goes 100 miles up and to the Yukon.

As far as eye can see, ice cream as silky as a cat's ear. Whipped cream. Way, way down, ribbons of navy blue cut through the ice and snow and run out to sea. Sometimes the whipped cream tumbles, with lines like hen scratches, then gives way to cobbled snow. Where the glaciers drop steeply, turquoise sparkles brilliant against the blinding white.

Serrated mountains tops circle like Roman amphitheaters, plunging down to fields of white fluff. A high range sends spikes up like a dragon's back, rounding out to make a sculpture of a fat, plodding Tyrannosaurus Rex frozen in time.

To the west, Lynn Canal sometimes shows up, a deep cobalt blue, then the mountains rise straight up and spread to the horizon. All razor sharp mountain tips, endless white. To the east, they stagger and coil and tower with nothing to tell me they don't circle the world and meet east to west.

Curling away from the white castles in the air, I worked up enough nerve to ask the pilot to take a picture of Skagway for me when we made our final descent. He pulled out a charger. Well, darn! For once I should have spoken up earlier. He plugged in my phone and by the time we eased down to the tree line and wound west and north, Haines hoving into view, he handed me my phone. 47% charged. Yes!

Skagway AK
Seventeen miles on, I spot my home-away-from-home. Caught between two mountain ranges, this gold rush town of 1898 is five blocks wide at the docks and narrows to just three. The only road out crosses the river and winds up White Pass to Canada. And while it's gorgeously sunny from the plane, the mountains drop shadows. It's 11:00 a.m., and I know it's cold down there and veiled.

In the twilight, though, my friend Judy Mallory is waiting at the airport to welcome me home.

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