May 2013, Alaska
Karina Yager, South American Program Manager, Extreme Ice Survey
This is my first trip to Alaska. I joined the Extreme Ice Survey team this year as program manager for South America. I’ve worked for more than a decade in the Andes, with a focus on glaciers, alpine environments, and mountain communities. I jumped at the opportunity to head north—I’d always wanted to see the Northern Arctic landscapes, and, even better, from a helicopter!
On our arrival into Anchorage at eleven p.m., I am reminded of the long hours of daylight that occur here this time of year, with a prolonged sunset highlighting the Alaskan mountain peaks that jut straight up from the water’s edge. The mountains are indeed majestic. I am already thoroughly impressed.
The following morning, our helicopter is scheduled to take off at ten with Alpine Air. We check the weather cameras online to see if we even have a chance—the Alaskan winter is persistent this year and the snowy forecast for the week isn’t especially promising for flying over mountain passes. Our mission is to visit Extreme Ice Survey cameras on the Columbia Glacier, change out equipment, and, if especially lucky, do some repeat photography of the glacier. If we don’t make it out today, there doesn’t seem to be another window of opportunity for the next several days. Despite the cloud cover on the weather cam, we head out with hope, along with plenty of reading material to pass the time while waiting for a break in the weather.
We drive south out of Anchorage, along the Seward highway that hugs the shoreline of Turnagain Arm, a branch of the Cook Inlet. Turnagain Arm has the largest tidal range in the U.S., with a turbulent bore reaching more than six feet high and traveling up to fifteen miles per hour. We pass a lookout for beluga whales, with gorgeous views of the Alaskan Mountain Range that reflect across the water. Alpine Air is located at the Girdwood airport, tucked away in a small residential neighborhood situated below Aleyska ski resort.
It’s difficult to make the call on whether or not to fly, comparable to a coin toss, given the weather conditions. We wait a few hours and finally decide to go—more like, now or never. We quickly load our equipment into the Robinson R44 helicopter, including heavy 12 volt 55 amp battery and new solar panel, to be switched out at our first camera site. Up and away, we have gorgeous aerial views of the braided rivers, alpine forests, and snow-capped mountains of Chuagach State Park and National Forest. Avoiding opaque skies over Harriman Pass, we approach our destination flying over Prince William Sound. I spot nearly a dozen bald eagles during our flight. One swoops overhead, and our pilot comments on the bravery of eagles, demonstrated by their sometimes-dangerous habit of showing their claws to the helicopter. The flight is surprisingly smooth, likely due to our pilot’s expertise. Average flight speed is about 90 knots, or 100 mph., and with a strong tailwind, we reach 130 mph. I think to myself, “Gee, he certainly makes flying a helicopter look easy.” I simply can’t wait to see the Columbia Glacier…
Karina Yager, South American Program Manager Extreme Ice Survey