The past week went by so fast that I hardly know where to begin. I’ve been doing quite a bit of organizing to prepare for the trip to Kendesnii tomorrow. Countless hours of purchasing food, sorting tents, labeling equipment, and planning a work schedule meant I spent a lot of time running errands instead of working with the YCC students. As much as I would have preferred to clear trails in sweltering heat, surrounded by mosquitos, there was one distinct perk.
On Thursday, my supervisor, Glenn, and I spent a lot of time driving between the grocery store, the maintenance yard, and the hanger to assemble all the supplies we would need this week. As we were looking around the hanger, Mr. Christian, the Chief Ranger for all of Wrangell-St. Elias, pulled up with his tiny two-passenger airplane. Apparently he was about to scope out a lake up in the mountains for the Bureau of Land Management to see if it was close to thawing. Glenn asked him if he was alone and Mr. Christian replied that he was. Without batting an eye, or even looking in my direction, Glenn said, “Can you take Rose up with you?”
All I could do was blink a couple times and say “sure” when Mr. Christian asked me if I wanted to fly around the largest National Park in the United States with him for a few hours. So, before I knew it, I was stepping into a full-body army green jumpsuit and neon orange vest. Each pocket was filled with food, flotation devices and other necessities. Mr. Christian gave me a rundown on all the important safety features on the plane, which, for a vehicle barely big enough for two people, there certainly were a million different flips and switches and compartments to keep track of – and I wasn’t even flying it!
As overwhelming as it all was, I found myself scrambling into the backseat, snapping the three different buckles, and pulling on the headset without a moment’s hesitation. Glenn peeked in the window and said, “Bet ya feel like Top Gun now.” He let out one of his signature cackles and then disappeared into the hanger without a glance back. That man sure likes to throw me into things. But, in this case, I’ve never been more thrilled about an unexpected opportunity.
Mr. Christian squeezed into the front seat and started throwing switches like he’d done it all his life – and indeed he later told me he’s been flying these planes for over 20 years. After a couple coded exchanges with the radio team, we were down the gravel runway and into the air in minutes. The takeoff was fairly smooth, but we were bounced around once in the air. I tried to figure out if I was nervous, but I couldn’t tell if my heart was racing or if that was just the deep rumble of the plane vibrating my body. I decided it was the latter and put nerves out of my mind.
As Mr. Christian pointed out towns, land formations, fishwheels and park boundaries, I watched in open-mouthed fascination. My head snapped side to side as his voice crackled in my headset. We flew with the Copper River until we hit a mountain range. We rounded one mountain until we reached a hidden lake tucked away among receding pocket glaciers. My job was to snap photos on his iPhone so he could bring it back to one of the Wildlife Biologists. We decided the lake would be completely thawed in one more week.
After circling the lake a few times and taking a couple detours on the way back, we touched down again in the Gulkana airport three hours later. I have an experience now that tourists pay hundreds of dollars for a fraction of the time. This summer is quickly becoming the experience of a lifetime. I can’t wait to see what other adventures these YCC kids will get to do, which means I get to do. I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this!