Flying to and from the "lower 48" up to Alaska can present some very unique scenic opportunities, especially the flights to or from the west coast. When flying to Alaska, particularly Anchorage or even Fairbanks, I like to sit on the landward side, or the right side going north, and the left side going south. I tend to schedule my flights around daytime, as there’s nothing viewable at night. If the weather isn’t cooperating, and it’s overcast, there still isn’t much to see, but you don’t really lose anything. If it’s clear, then you’re in for a real treat as you can see a good portion of southeast Alaska from the unique perspective of an aircraft. Even better for me since I’m a photography buff now.
At worst, you’ll see some mountaintops sticking through the cloud layers. At best though, you’ll see a whole lot more, from immense mountain ranges, majestic glaciers, cities, ships, farms, even other aircraft. On my particular flights, I didn’t see much going north from Portland to Anchorage due to the cloud cover, but my flight back from Anchorage down to Seattle was full of wonderful sights to see.
I took an Alaska Airlines flight out of Anchorage to Seattle on the early afternoon of August 6, 2011. Taking off out of Anchorage, you’ll see where the Turnagain and Knik Arms meet at Anchorage. We turn southeast over Turnagain Arm and towards the coastline, where you can see the Seward Highway and the Kenai Peninsula.
After a brief climb up to cruising altitude, we cross over the Kenai Peninsula and pass Seward. You can already see a few glaciers, and I think I saw the Aialik Glacier, which is one of the glaciers the Kenai Fjords Glacier Tours took me to visit a few years back. After that, we pass over Prince William Sound and I can see the oil terminals of Valdez off in the distance.
A few moments later, the aircraft cuts away from the coastline for a little bit, then turns back towards the Alaska panhandle, the land formation that connects Alaska to the western coast of Canada. Here, we can activate our electronic devices and I eagerly take out my camera. I wish I had a better zoom lens, but I ended up bringing the opposite, a wider telephoto lens, which is a poor choice for photographing objects far away.
We see the Tyndall Glacier, which empties out to Icy Bay. Just south of Icy Bay is an odd sight with huge concentric rings just barely visible through the clouds. I already knew this was Malaspina Glacier. It’s an odd formation in that it is a piedmont type glacier. It doesn’t resemble a river of ice, but a slump of ice, similar to pancake batter pouring out on a griddle. The Malaspina Glacier is the world’s largest piedmont glacier, easily larger than Rhode Island. It’s cool in its own way, being one of the oddities of the geography world.
Just past Malaspina Glacier is Yakutat Bay. Yakutat Bay turns into Disenchantment Bay where the Hubbard Glacier empties out to. Hubbard Glacier is one the main glaciers that the cruise ships out of Seattle usually stop by. Although we aren’t up close like the cruise ships, I can see from a distance where the glacier starts as huge snow packs on the peak of Mount Logan. The Hubbard Glacier ends up in Disenchantment Bay. I learned in elementary school back in Laska that Disenchantment Bay was named by an explorer who thought it was the opening to the northwest passage, but found it dead ended at Hubbard Glacier. South of Yakutat Bay is Yakutat, a sparsely populated town that is renowed for its fly fishing.
Further south is Glacier Bay National Park, which is much larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Due to the cloud cover at the moment, the numerous glaciers are obscured, but the roots of the glaciers at the peaks Fairweather Mountains and Mt. Elias ranges are visible.
Continuing south, we pass Alaska’s state capital of Juneau. Further south we can see the shipping terminal of Ridley Island in British Columbia, where they load coal onto bulk cargo ships. South of there, we see the Coast Mountain Range, which straddle the border of Alaska’s Panhandle and Canada’s British Columbia. Regions. The Coast Mountains’ peaks are not nearly as snowy as the mountains just a little north, as we’re getting into warmer climates now.
We see the rich blue waters of Owikeno Lake in British Colombia. The lake is surrounded by high mountains and probably carved out of glaciers. Just south is the Ha-Iltzuk Icefield, which is the largest ice field in the Coast Mountains. The ice field isn’t a glacier in itself, but feeds two glaciers, the Klinakini and Silverthrone Glaciers. Think of the icefield as a lake of ice, while the glaciers are a river of ice. A little further south, we can see the Franklin Glacier, which comes off the Franklin Glacier Volcano, an ancient volcano caldera in British Columbia.
Our aircraft is now almost directly over the inside passage. Most of the islands we pass over are Canadian, not Alaskan anymore. What look like odd little sets of boxes below are actually fish farms. I took a photo of one by Sonora Island and Florence Lake. We pass by the larger town of Powell River, which is up against the Malaspina Strait. Malaspina Strait was named for the same explorer that discovered the Malaspina Glacier.
A few short minutes later, we can see the massive metropolitan area of Vancouver, British Columbia, off in the distance. As we descend lower, it’s just a little past 5 PM on a Saturday and I can see three cruise ships steaming up Puget Sound on their way to Alaska. They’re almost in a line, following each other by maybe less than a mile. I’ve been the port area of Seattle on a summer Saturday before, and the cruise ships from the various cruise lines really do set sail one after another at 5 PM. We circle around and I can see Lake Union and Lake Washington beyond that. We pass over downtown Seattle, and I can make out the definite shape of the Space Needle just outside of the downtown area. South of downtown, I can see Quest Field and Safeco Park.
Depending on the cloud cover and time of day, you can see a lot of interesting things on your trip to or from Anchorage. Some people on the plane slept, others watched a movie or did something else to occupy their time, which is their choice. But for me, I really enjoyed seeing the sights, albeit at a distance. I enjoyed seeing the majestic glaciers, enormous mountain ranges, and other things not normally viewable at ground level. I saw places that humans probably have never set a foot on. I saw places that were only described in textbooks in my geography classes back in school in Alaska. I think going places is also part of the adventure, and this mode of flightseeing is not only convenient and educational, but also quite a cool experience.