North to the Future

About one of my photos and the plane featured in it.

I was in Alaska this past week. My friend George has a house up there and he’d told me I was welcome to come any time. Last month, when I was feeling kind of stuck in a rut — long story there — I decided that a trip to visit a friend might be a good idea. I texted George to see if he was going to be around, then bought plane tickets to go see him.

This was my third trip to Alaska.

The Alaska Cruise

The first trip, back in 2007, was with my wasband. We were married at the time and we went on a cruise out of Seward. He had friends living in Anchorage and we spent two nights at their home before heading north on the tourist train to Denali. After Denali, we got on another tourist train to Seward where we picked up the cruise ship.

The trip was memorable, but mostly because both Alaska Air and the cruise line had managed to lose various pieces of luggage in Alaska. It was a huge relief that the one remaining missing bag found its way into our stateroom on the ship.

Although I didn’t hate the trip, I was extremely disappointed. I detest being treated like a tourist and because my wasband had booked everything through a travel agent, that’s exactly how we were treated. I particularly hated the Princess-affiliated hotel we were stuck in near Denali with the boardwalk outside our room that people thundered by on at all hours. Even the cruise was a disappointment. Shuffled here and there, every port full of the same tourist crap shops and cooked-up attractions, and hundreds of midwesterners on the ship who bragged about how they kept their costs low with an inside cabin and no port excursions. Clearly most folks were on the cruise so they could say they’d been on an Alaska cruise. I was hoping for a more unique and positive experience.

Anyway, I blogged about the trip when it was over, so you can read a lot more detail and see some of the photos. Personally, I’d rather forget it in favor of some new Alaska memories.

The Job Interview

My second trip was in March 2008. I flew up to Anchorage for a job interview.

Robbie book cover
Alpine Air Alaska was featured on the cover of the 2009 book, “Robbie: The Robinson Helicopter Experience.”

The interview was at Alpine Air Alaska. I’d met the owner of Alpine Air, Keith, via email when we were both featured in Jon Davison’s coffee table book about Robinson Helicopters. (Can’t believe I didn’t blog about that, but I can’t seem to find an entry.) Keith’s operation was on the cover. I was looking for a summer job that would keep me out of Arizona’s brutal heat and Alaska seemed like a good idea.

I did a few flights with Keith — including one where we landed an R44 on a glacier and got out for a walk with the passengers — and got a chance to see how incredibly beautiful Alaska is in the spring. There was snow on the ground, but not much, and when the low clouds moved out, there were tantalizing glimpses of the snow-covered peaks around Alpine Air’s base in Girdwood. I had my camera with me — it was a Nikon D80 in those days — and I shot a photo right outside the hangar of a bright red and yellow airplane with the mountains beyond it. Later, I entered it into a state-themed photo contest. That’s where it got its name, “North to the Future,” which is the state motto of Alaska. (It didn’t win.)

North to the Future
Shot in March 2008, I call this photo “North to the Future.”

And that’s really what this blog post is about: the photo. You see, although it looks like a photo of a plane, it’s really a photo of a scene. The snow covered runway, the fresh snow in the trees, the clouds clinging to the mountains, the blue sky beyond, and this brightly painted plane looking as if it’s waiting for an excuse to take off. I just thought it was a great image, and the aviation theme didn’t hurt. It’s actually one of my very favorite photos. The colors and clarity still blow me away.

But the photo has a history beyond the day it was shot.

Condo Living Room
I happened to find this 2009 photo of the condo living room in iPhoto while looking for something else. You can see the photo hanging over the red leather sofa. (Seeing this photo reminded me how much I hated that place.)

It was among the first photos I had enlarged and framed in 2009 to hang in the condo my wasband lived in part-time in the Phoenix area. Back when he bought the condo in late 2008, I thought I’d be spending a lot of time there with him. Instead, he got a roommate, a friend who made me feel very unwelcome every time I came around. With my wasband living in the condo four nights a week, our marriage was suffering. In the summer of 2011, I asked him to get rid of the roommate so I could move in. By the time I moved in that autumn, it was pretty clear that my wasband didn’t really want me there; he was likely already planning his exit strategy for our marriage. By the summer of 2012, the marriage was over.

Still, the photo hung over the red sofa in the condo. Several of my other photos, enlarged, matted, and framed, hung in the condo with it. I wanted them back — I couldn’t understand why my wasband and the desperate old whore he was living with would want my artwork in their home. When the court allowed me to retrieve my things from the condo in November 2012, the photos were near the top of my list. My wasband made me ask permission to take each and every item, including the photos. Later, back home, I packed them up with plenty of bubble wrap in big, flat boxes, and moved them first to my Wickenburg hangar, next to my Wenatchee hangar, and finally to my new home in Malaga. (Oddly, I later got the red leather sofa the Alaska photo had hung over, too.)

Back to Alaska. The job interview that March went well and Keith made me an offer. After some thought and a discussion with my wasband, I turned it down. Ironically, I was worried that being so far away from my wasband for five or more months that summer would hurt our marriage. (It wasn’t the first or last time I turned down work because of him.)

It turned out for the best. I started cherry drying that summer — with a mere seven weeks away from home — and it was far more lucrative and better for my business than a tour job would have been. It also gave me a firm basis for my Wenatchee-based business when the divorce finally freed me up to follow my own path in life.

Trip Number Three

I went to Alaska for the third time this past week. I was feeling in need of a trip and had a free week on my calendar when George would be there, too. I invited myself and he welcomed me.

I’ll blog about the trip in some detail later this week — if I can find time. For now, I just want to talk again about that photo.

You see, when I showed the photo to George — I keep a copy in my phone — he said, “Oh, that’s Wrangell Air‘s plane. I use the same mechanic.” (Although George doesn’t fly for a living, he is a pilot with two planes and a gyro.)

A few days later, we took a drive down the Turnagain Arm. On the way back, we went through Girdwood. I wanted to see the Alaska Air hangar and try to better remember those few days in March seven years before. The hangar looked much the way I remembered it. But there was no fresh snow, no blue sky, and no red and yellow plane.

George wanted to talk to his mechanic, so we went to another hangar down the runway. Inside were a bunch of planes in various stages of undress as they were being worked on by two mechanics. Although the guy George wanted to talk to wasn’t there, he talked to another guy while I wandered around.

The red and yellow plane was in for maintenance.

And there was the red and yellow plane, in the back corner of the hangar, in for its annual inspection.

It would have been great if it had been parked outside in the same place and I could get a cloudy autumn version of the same shot. I doubt it would have come out nearly as nice, though.

But maybe I’ll get it the next time I’m in the area. Alaska isn’t that far away and George didn’t seem to mind me being around.

The Photo Today

Back home, I hadn’t unpacked any of my photos. My new home has limited wall space and I’m not quite sure where I’ll fit the large framed photos.

But today I went down into the garage where the big, flat boxes marked “Framed Photos” are leaning up against a wall. One by one, I opened the boxes and pulled out the bubble-wrapped frames. I stacked the boxes on the floor, ready for my next trip to the recycling center, and repositioned the wrapped frames where my other packed boxes remain. There’s room there now — I’m about half unpacked. When I found “North to the Future,” I set it aside.

Later, I brought it upstairs. I’d been thinking about how nice it might look on the wall over my desk. I unwrapped it and held it up to the wall. It was a lot bigger than I remembered it. It would be a bit of a squeeze.

I found a picture hanger and tapped it into place. Then I used a damp rag to wipe the Phoenix dust off the frame and plexiglas over the photo and mat. The wire at the back of the photo found its way into the hook without any trouble. I straightened it and stepped back to look at it. It’ll do.

My Office
I think my office is now officially finished.

Now that I’ve been thinking a bit about this photo and Alaska, I realize that the second two trips are far more meaningful to me than my first visit. Those trips were for a purpose other than trying to cram as many tourist destinations and photo opportunities into the shortest amount of time. They remind me how much I hate being a tourist and how much I love being a traveler. (If you don’t know the difference, you haven’t traveled.)

This photo is the perfect reminder of those trips to Alaska — and great trips yet to come.

7 thoughts on “North to the Future

  1. I so enjoy reading your many many blogs. i am a helicopter fan – as a passenger- and planes in general.. I know however very little about them but i have ridden in several over the years.. a few days ago i rode in a R66 Turbine. A few questions – How is that different from your Helicopter? Are they both equally easy to pilot ? Whats the difference in cost ..



    • Your question has absolutely nothing to do with this post. In the future, please add your comments to a post related to it.

      I have not flown an R66. Perhaps you want to talk to someone who has flown both an R44 and an R66?

  2. That photo of the DHC Beaver/U6A is superb, whenever it cycles as your header I wonder about those huge wheels. Tyres that large are usually associated with rough rural strips or even landings on sand-bars in rivers, when collecting game hunters. My favourite aircraft by far, that huge radial is iconic. Thanks for the background.

    Agree 100% about The Princess cruise crowd. We drove from Whitehorse to Skagway, which at that time had less than 1,000 people living there. A huge Princess liner disgorged several thousand lost souls who complained that “There’s nothing to do here”. They all headed to the cemetery and complained some more. These huge liners have ruined Venice too. Vast numbers wander around St. Marks Square refusing to buy anything, just clogging-up the place. Their sheer bulk spoils the skyline.

    I took a float course on Vancouver Island in 2012. It was on C-182 but we did some time on DHC Beavers. A classic aircraft. Hope your Alaskan dreams come true in the Spring. (Bit cold and dark now, I suppose).

    • They’re called tundra tires and they’re designed for exactly that: landing on rough terrain and/or the Alaskan tundra. In Arizona, they could occasionally be seen on taildraggers that landed in dry river beds and on dirt roads.

      The cruise ship industry isn’t doing anyone a service with their giant boats and rates aimed directly at cheap tourists. I love the floating hotel idea, but hate the way port cities have changed to accommodate the masses of people who come and go. I think Alaska cruises are probably the worst offenders, mostly because of their “bucket list” aspect for people who don’t have much in the way of a life. Ironically, I’m planning a short Caribbean cruise in November; hoping it’ll be better than my last cruise experience.

      One of the tours we took in Alaska on that first trip was a seaplane tour. I really did like landing on water.

  3. Forgot to ask…did you stop at Juneau on your way through the inside passage?
    I thought their state museum was a little gem.

  4. As a Juneau resident, I can tell you that the cruise ships are a mixed blessing on this end as well. There are lots of summer days when we have five big ships in town at the same time, meaning that we add an extra 8-12,000 people to a town of about 30k. While that does mean a lot of tourism-related jobs, almost all of them are seasonal and no-benefits, many worked by out-of-towners brought in just for that purpose. On the positive side it means that we have more choice in restaurants (many close for the winter) but on the negative side it means that the downtown is clogged up with useless rip-off jewelry and junk shops. Most of these are owned by out-of-towners, virtually all close down for the winter. If a local wants to go hike at the glacier or drive downtown, we have to plan around the crowds. Skagway is much worse, there are only about 300 full-time residents. The vast majority of the businesses there are owned by cruise-ship specialty companies which bring in about 3000 temps, many of which are foreigners on special visas.The lucky few Alaskans who can afford to own one of the very few locally-run businesses are stuck paying high commissions to the cruise lines, it’s totally a pay-to-play system if you want their business. Skagway virtually shuts down for the winter, you could set up camp on the main street and hardly anyone would notice.

    Perhaps the best compromise for visiting Southeast Alaska is in places like Haines, where the cruise ship (as in one, single ship) comes in once or twice a week. You can visit there without having to endure the herd mentality of the cruise ships if you know the right days. There are also activities like rafting trips and ATV tours that wouldn’t be there without the ships. Real people can still live there, and all of the shops are locally owned. You can also drive to Haines which is unique for SE Alaska, though there is a lot of Canada to go through first.

    Another good option is to book one of the small cruise ships (<100 passengers) which can poke around the bays and locations that a big ship could never reach. The smaller ones can adjust their schedule to fit the weather and the location; if the whales are putting on a show they don't blow past at 20 knots just because that's what the schedule says. Of course this doesn't come cheap, you are not going to find a $1000 / person week-long cruise in a ship with 30 passengers.

    Having lived in the Anchorage area and flown around most of SouthCentral Alaska for a living, I'd have to say that while it IS pretty, it's got nothing on SouthEast scenery-wise. Once you've seen Denali and waited out a stubborn caribou or a bear blocking the road you've pretty much seen what there is to see. Anchorage is just another city, albeit with way more moose than average. It'd be worth seeing Fairbanks to catch the ice sculpture competition and the aurora, but that's a wintertime activity. Only the Japanese seem to be willing to brave the legendary cold for that. The fjord land country in SE and the inside passage is much prettier, IMHO. Do bring your rain gear, and plan on it being damp and cool most of the time even in summer. If you wait for one of the rare-but-gorgeous bluebird days you could huddle indoors for weeks, so do like the locals and change your outerwear instead of your plans.

    If your budget dictates that you must take one of the giant cruise ships, book one or two big-ticket activities (helicopter glacier tours, etc.) and then make a point of getting out of the downtown tourist core, it's worth the effort. Alaskans are generally very friendly people and they'll often clue you in on good hiking trails (Juneau has tons of them) and places to see without having to be stuck with the rest of the white-tennis-shoe herd. Grab a taxi with another couple and go see something a bit off the beaten path. Don't let the commission-only cruise-ship activity shills talk you out of exploring a bit on your own.

    You DO have to use common sense, of course. Order a forest service or hiking club map ahead of time so you're not totally lost. Pack a lunch and a fleece layer along with the rain gear, even if it is a sunny day since the weather changes quickly. Get just a couple miles out of town and you're in some pretty wild country compared to down south, often with little to no cell-phone coverage. If you miss the boats departure you're out maybe a few hundred bucks to catch it at the next town, but the flight will be an adventure in itself.

  5. Thanks Sean. A very interesting analysis of the impact of the mega cruise ships.
    We drove to Skagway in a SUV hired from Norcan. Took our place in the queue for a Temsco heli trip up the glacier where we landed and looked at the tarns and whirlpools in the glacier. We were very lucky to get a late place on the last car ferry to Haines. Ate at the Lighthouse ( what a view) and flew down the Lynn Canal to Juneau the next morning. Great visibility and a wonderful thrill. You live in a very special place. (Is that where Northern Exposure is set?)
    Took a C180 trip to Glacier Bay and glimpsed Mt. Logan in the distance. Did some brisk paddling down the Chilkoot river and saw lots of Eagles. Back to the SUV for Haines Junction and some hiking in Kluane. Our host insisted I took his hunting rifle for protection but we did not see the bears we were warned about. Glad I had it handy though. Took a two-hour float trip with Sifton Air then back down the Dalton Trail. We buried some of my Dad’s ashes on the summit of White Pass. He never went there in life but always longed to see those huge views.
    You are so lucky to have them on tap, but I imagine winters can be testing times in the far North?

What do you think?