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McKinley shows the scale of Alaska



On a day when most flight-seeing trips over Denali National Park and Preserve in south-central Alaska had been cancelled due to inclement weather, our trip with Denali Air was on.

From an airfield near the village of Healy, just outside the six-million-plus acre park, we flew along meandering rivers and low-lying mountains dotted with big-horned Dall mountain sheep.

Dark clouds didn't daunt the pilot of our eight-seat Piper Navajo, a Texan who'd been head pilot for the U.S. Marshals Service. When we hit a nasty patch of rough air he advised his passengers to look for the paper bags in the back of the seats, while declaring: "I only do round trips."

The plane flew along the vast Muldrow Glacier, then climbed toward the gloom that surrounded Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America at 20,230 feet. The pilot told us he was "flying up onto an opening" to see if we could at least get a glimpse of the snow-covered massive, with its north and south summits.

However, the clouds "have closed right up on is," we heard through our headphones. And after apparently flying around both summits we dropped down again and bounced back along the barren slopes and valleys of the spine-like Alaskan Range.

The two-hour flight was a suitable introduction to a mountain that less than 50 per cent of visitors to this region see at all (we'd see the mountain in its entirety from the porch of the Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, on a rare afternoon when the sky cleared). But it was also an opportunity to take in something of the vastness and wild that is much of Alaska - and on a trip of relative comfort and modest expense.

We were in the Denali region on a four-day land tour operated by Princess Cruises, to be followed by a cruise between the Whittier, west of Anchorage, and Vancouver. And while enjoying the Princess wilderness lodges and associated pleasures, we ventured into the wilderness and experienced a little of Alaska's idiosyncratic culture.

The Nenana River is part of a network of glacier-fed waterways that flows from the Alaska Range. While sometimes broad and always incredibly fast-flowing (its surface freezes in winter, creating tree-crushing ice flows), it's also so shallow in places that only propeller-less jet boats can safely negotiate its further reaches.

Boat operator Doyle Williams, who lives seasonally in a one-room log cabin with a fluctuating flow of solar power on the edge of Denali Park, took us upriver a few miles. Desolate is the only word for this terrain that is outside park boundaries. Said Williams of the miles of river leading up to the source glacier: "If you get lost in there no one comes looking for you. You're on your own."