The September Alaskan air was cool but not cold. Nevertheless, I didn’t begrudge the coat I brought with me. I was too excited by what lay ahead to feel anything but anticipation in any event. It was my first trip to Alaska, and the second for my wife Judi. Today, we were going to have the opportunity for a special adventure. Our destination: the glaciers of the Knik River Valley, a mere 45-minute drive north of Anchorage, where the Alaska Glacier Lodge would serve as our departure point into the vast, icy wilderness.
Our chosen vessel for this journey was none other than a helicopter, courtesy of Alaska Helicopter Tours. The Grand Knik Glacier Tour, renowned for its three distinct landings, promised not only an aerial spectacle of Alaska’s natural beauty but also an intimate encounter with the glaciers themselves.
We climbed aboard our helicopter with three other couples and our pilot, Will Ratz. With a few flips of switches, Will brought the Helicopter, an AS350 B3, to life. The noise from the engine was not the roar of an airplane engine but rather the whirr of the blades cutting with incredible speed through the air. We all donned headsets, as much to cancel the noise as to be able to speak to each other. As we lifted off, the world below us transformed into a canvas of white, blue, and rugged greens and browns.
Will navigated through the air with an expertise born of familiarity with the equipment and respect for the terrain. He went through flight training in Arizona, worked as a helicopter flight instructor in Prescott, Arizona for two years, and flew scenic tours out of Sedona before he moved to Alaska. It was clear as he guided our trip that his knowledge of the geography and geology of the glaciers and surrounding mountains was a matter of passion. As we soared above the first scenery down below, we witnessed mountain goats perched precariously on rocky outcrops and a black bear with her cubs picking their way through the landscape.
Our first landing was adjacent to Lake George Glacier. The glacier sits at the top of a steep, vertical cliff. Hoping to see the glacier calf into the valley below, everyone brought out their cameras. This time we were not so lucky, but a visiting bald eagle stole the show in any event.
Our second landing provided a view of the Knik glacier below, with Colony and Cataract glaciers across Lake George, observing another Dall sheep sitting on a knoll below our copter. The sun cast a strong, bright reflection on the ice, and the temperature, a comfortable mid-40s, allowed us to fully take in the experience.
The third landing was directly atop the Knik Glacier. Will landed the helicopter next to a large, brilliant blue melt pool, its color vivid against the white of the surrounding ice. With safety gear provided and guided by Will, we carefully treaded on the glacier, feeling the crunch of the ice beneath our boots. The blue of the glacier, explained Will, resulted from the ice absorbing the red wavelengths of sunlight, allowing the blue wavelengths to scatter and paint the ice in blue hues.
The return to the Alaska Glacier Lodge brought an end to our adventure. As we disembarked from the helicopter, Judi and I shared a silent, knowing glance I knew well. The Knik Glacier tour had satisfied our criteria for success – there was nowhere else we would have rather been.