A friend once advised me to not overwhelm my out of town guests. Remember, she said – what you’re used to in Alaska is once-in-a-lifetime level adventure for many people. Take it easy and don’t cram too much on an itinerary.
I remembered this as I looked suspiciously at the helicopter. I was standing in what is practically my backyard, at the beautifully perched Knik River Lodge located just 20 minutes from my home in Palmer and a 50 minute drive north of Anchorage. The view was stunning; the braided shining river on expansive flats framed by deep green mountains cutting into the sky. I briefly wondered if I really needed to get in for my first helicopter tour, or if perhaps I could call it a day. Maybe this was just enough adventure. The lodge has a lovely restaurant with big windows, a deck, and wine.
A little girl on the helicopter flightseeing tour to the Knik Glacier was all confidence. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “It’s just like a plane, only a bubble.” We walked toward our ride, the little girl and her family of five buzzing about getting to go see the glacier.
It was a classic early August day in Alaska, feeling like early fall most other places. The air was cool. Silver clouds threaded the mountaintops, shifting slowly and revealing new scenery. Yet, I was dressed as though I was going sledding.
I followed the girl and the others in my group aboard the helicopter, stiffly pulling myself up into the compartment. I had my very own pair of headphones, like all the other people I’d seen in helicopters! I supposed that even if I was scared during my first helicopter ride ever, at least I’d get a crazy-eyed selfie.
The helicopter rumbled to life. And then it just kept rumbling and vibrating in a bigger and bigger way. Finally Pam, our pilot asked, ready? We rumbled our way right off the ground. As we gained height, we slowly started to turn. Now we were in the view.
The little girl and her cousins were excited and asking Pam questions as quickly as their microphones would allow. Pam was all smiles and answers, and it made me relieved to have both her calm and competent energy, combined with the kids’ enthusiasm. For me, my fear of heights was eclipsed by rounding the corner past the first mountainside.
Knik Glacier came in to full view
The whites and shocking bright blues of the massive, frozen waves of ice filled our windows. As we flew, I could see new cracks revealing deeper blues; the occasional aquamarine pond stood out in sharp relief to the white ice. I’d viewed Knik Glacier from far away, and even skirted it in the winter by bike. But I’d never seen it like this before. I had no idea how far it went and how massive it is, until that moment.
And, I had no idea that there was yet another glacier beyond Knik called Colony Glacier, which we now passed on our left.
I marveled, how is this all right here, in my backyard, and I didn’t know? How many people in Anchorage, a fifty minute drive away, have no idea that this is so accessible? How many tourists drive right past the Knik turnoff, on their way to catch a train as they try to somehow cram in all of Alaska to a seven day trip?
Meanwhile, the cousins continued questions over the headphones as we banked a turn toward yet another glacier: “Do bears like ice?” Pam laughed. “No, they don’t like ice at all!” She pointed out white dots on the steep shoulder of a mountain below and asked us if we knew what they were. “Those are Dall Sheep,” she said. The kids gave another round of “woah’s”.
The only time Pam politely told the kids she’d reply to their question in just a minute was when she was concentrating on landing the helicopter on the glacier. That seemed fair. We lowered down until we softly settled, then we waited for the rumbling to gradually subside. In a few minutes, we took turns stepping out onto the ice until we were all there; standing on the ice next to a helicopter in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
We had spikey crampons if we needed them, but the spot we’d landed was crusted with sand-like debris that made it easy to walk. There were small natural bores and holes that revealed deep blues. There was nothing nearby big enough to fall in but I still watched my step. The air was at least twenty degrees cooler than it was back at the lodge, and I was glad for my winter clothing. I stooped down to touch the ice. Underhand, the glacier felt slick and enormous – not like the rutted cavities of freezer cubes; but condensed. Pam explained that the deep blues were created by the enormous pressure of so much ice pressed down for so long. When I examined it up close, I noticed it was perfectly clear, with no bubbles.
Surrounded by undulating walls and jagged, car-sized spikes of ice, it was still difficult to really grasp the enormity of the glacier – even when I was standing on it.
Now that I was an old hand, getting back into the helicopter and taking off made me less anxious. Even easier was arriving back at the lodge, where the restaurant and my glass of wine were waiting. I walked the few steps back to my (freestanding!) cabin with the equally beautiful view; a porch with a flower basket framing the river valley, and took off my hat and snow pants before returning to the main lodge.
I’ll bookmark this place for my next visit of out-of-towners because while it’s Alaska at its best, it’s all the experience without the overwhelm.