As I climb into my tattered beige seat in the eight-passenger Cessna, I feel a flash of trepidation. I’ve never flown a plane, yet somehow find myself playing co-pilot for my first scenic flight from Juneau, over Alaska’s famous icefields.
As a professional traveler, I prowl the edge of my comfort zone daily and – irrational, Jaws-inspired shark fears aside – I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. Nevertheless, as the engine sputters to life with a cough and a jolt, I send up a fervent prayer: if I’m going to die, please let it be after I’ve flown a stone’s throw above more than 140 breath-taking glaciers.
The plane pulls off the narrow, grassy runway. The second steering wheel, directly in front of me, moves as if a ghost were sharing my seat. We glide just feet above vibrant braided rivers, and I realize I’m not sure what to expect. It’s my first visit to Alaska. I’ve hiked the Athabasca Glacier, tunneled through the Jungfrau and gazed up from below the Tasman glacier, but I’m a West Coast island girl, and I’m more familiar with beaches than mountains. I’ve heard about the glory of Alaska’s glaciers; I’m excited to see them for myself.
They don’t disappoint.
Blanketed snowy domes juxtapose jagged, saw-toothed rock. The dappled sun and shadow contrast magnificently, blending blinding white with stunning cerulean. The ice-covered ridges and valleys are alien; as far as the eye can see, the planet is frozen. From 200 feet above, the 360 degree view is mesmerizing.
Some of Alaska’s glaciers stretch more than 115 miles – blocks of solid ice, thousands of feet deep, with no end in sight. Stark and unrelenting, zigzagged with crevasses that could devour a thousand wooly mammoths. Others drop off dramatically into the deep blue ocean or trickle into emerald lakes with the early spring thaw.
As our plane skims the mountain peaks, the humming engine is deafening next to the hush of the expansive snow and ice. Each time I stow my camera I rush to dig it out again, desperate to capture a feeling even the most beautiful images will never explain: the strange unease of being perched on the edge of another world, yet somehow cloaked in a blanket of comfortable serenity.
Lost in my thoughts, and awed by my experience, I hardly realize as we bump to the ground. Being co-pilot wasn’t so hard after all.