6/15/19 Blue Heron Bed and Breakfast, Gustavus, Alaska
The only way to see this part of Alaska, in fact, just about the only way you can move around at all, is by plane or boat. We did both of them the last two days and what experiences they have been. We have seen things that few people get to see and are getting a very personal and in depth feeling for Glacier Bay National Park.
Our experience began on Thursday, when we boarded for our first small airplane ride. Although our intent was to use the ferry system to get around the Inland Passageway, I discovered that not all towns are served by ferries and if they are, service is sparse – sometimes just once a week. So when I wanted to get from Skagway to Gustavus, a distance of barely 45 miles, as the raven flies, it would require taking the ferry all the way back to Juneau, hang out in Juneau for a day or two and then take a two-day ferry ride, all the way around the islands, ending up in Gustavus. Alternatively, you can take an Alaska Airlines plane from Skagway to Juneau, spend a night, and then fly Alaska Airlines late the next day back to Gustavus. All of those trips seemed to waste huge amounts of time – time I wanted to spend in the parks.
So I contacted private charter airplane companies. Several of them didn’t want to fly the short hop from Skagway to Gustavus. But finally I connected with Paul Swanstrom of Mountain Flying Service. He and his wife Amy own a small plane and operate a charter service which, if I understand things right, mostly flies hunters and fishermen into wilderness areas for long camping trips. But he also, when the timing is right, will make short hops to get people around the towns of Southeastern Alaska. At the time I called him, he was in Sedona, Arizona and we sort of connected by being in the southwest but talking about Alaska. Although he normally requires four people to make his flights economical, he agreed to fly Joan and I the short hop from Skagway to Gustavus. (At the last moment he managed to line up a sightseeing passenger. I don’t know if he ended up making much money for this flight, but he certainly helped us out. I would definitely recommend his service.)
Now, I have never been in a small plane before, so this was an interesting experience. We all put on radio earphones so we could hear him and talk to each other over the din of the single engine plane. Thank goodness, there was no TSA security agent to hassle me getting on board. In fact when I inquired via text how early we needed to be there, Amy replied ‘lol ten minutes?’ So boarding was simply hopping up a step ladder, stepping onto a seat and buckling a seatbelt. I wasn’t sure how I would react to being in a small plane. I already find take-offs a bit frightening. (I don’t mind landings, but on takeoff, I start counting the moment the wheels leave the runway and I don’t stop clenching my fists until I reach sixty – long seconds.)
But with this plane, we were in the air after just a brief hop down the runway and quickly we began to climb up and over the inlet that leads to Skagway. As we climbed, I waved goodbye to the three huge cruise ships, slowly becoming smaller and smaller. From the air, the landscape of the Inland Passage becomes dramatically different. Instead of being at the bottom of these massive, mile-high mountain tops, in an airplane you are flying with them. The silvery blue of the ocean water below, breaks on brown, yellow, and gray rock strips at the shoreline. Then the earth colors turn into shades of green, identifying different types and densities of plant cover. As the plane continues to rise, you see the dark grays and blacks of massive mountain rocks, covered in white snow and, occasionally, blue ice. Finally, wispy white clouds flow around and between the snow-capped peaks, occasionally breaking to expose a perfect blue sky.
The next hour has to be one of the most exhilarating I can remember. Although I’m sure we were further away than it seemed, I felt we could just reach out the airplane window and touch the mountains as we flew in and around the peaks.
And the glaciers! From Skagway, we headed more or less in a western direction, crossing into airspace over the Eastern Arm of Glacier Bay National Park. From a boat, you get to see the faces of four or five glaciers as they end right at the water’s edge. From a plane, though, you can see the glaciers in their full glory. From the origins high in mountain cirques, down into glacial valleys as smaller rivers of ice merge to become bigger ones. Dark lateral moraines show where rock and mountain debris have created long parallel marks as they march downwards. As the ice descends, it opens up crevasses appearing to be hundreds of feet deep. Though of diminished stature now, they are strong testament to the full power of Mother Nature. Flying over them is just thrilling. At one point, as Paul considered flying into some ugly looking clouds, I got a little nervous, but he changed his mind, curved the plane around, giving us a thrilling view of the backside of a mountain we had just passed, and we headed down a different glacial valley towards our destination.
And this is what they call an ‘air taxi’ in Alaska. Just another mode of transportation. We landed at the smaller runway at Gustavus. (There is actually a much larger runway used by Alaska Airlines to fly a 737 jet into this airport.). The airport is the remnant of military operations, established in World War II as part of the effort to support troops in the Pacific theater. Today, Gustavus is a town of barely 400 people and the economy is almost entirely to support the Glacier Bay National Park, just a few miles away on one of two roads that connect everyone in town. A few planes and a few boats come here on daily or weekly basis, otherwise the place is pretty isolated.
We could have stayed at the Lodge, in the park over at Bartlett Cove. But Joan decided she wanted a different experience, so we are staying at the Blue Heron B&B. Deb, the owner and hostess, is wonderfully attentive to our needs and is available to make reservations for all kinds of excursions. We are considering a whale-watching tour for Monday morning. In a town this size, she obviously knows everyone and that is a real plus to getting things like cab service (Yes, Gustavus has a taxi service: Strawberry is her name and she runs a regular taxi service with her car, sort of like Uber but without the overhead.). There is a small school, a museum, thrift store, even three restaurants within walking distance for lunch and supper.
We’ve eaten two breakfasts here and they have both been terrific. She made delightfully fluffy blueberry pancakes and served them with syrup from the Sitka Spruce tree – the main tree in these forests. This morning, she offered up a vegetarian omelet with some great ham on the side. Unfortunately, we are going to miss strawberry season this year, which is about to start. We also missed a mama moose and her two calves who, for several weeks, bedded down in the bushes just three feet outside of the breakfast room door. (The pictures were darling.)
This was all on Thursday, Yesterday was another big day, but I’m saving that for a separate post.