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Alaska Travel Magazinenext

By Barry Murray
Editor, AlaskaTravelMagazine.com

Cruise ship advertising of Alaska is all about seeing sights. Little attention is paid to cultural tourism. ‘Shore package’ guides on their private railcars may point out Mt. McKinley, and talk about the legendary mountain rescues of Don Sheldon, but miss his real legacy —a love of flying “into” Denali. The combining of two very special things to Don. Flight, and seeing. A lot of his vocabulary was such combined, colorful phrases.

Flightseeing, a word used in Alaska to describe the way to really see this ‘Great Land,’ is not in the dictionary. My Word program underlines it in red as incorrect. But as so many new words in English, this coined expression will come to be accepted as proper one day. For the record, I first heard it from Don. And, since the words of Robert Service —“ A promise made, is a debt unpaid.”— are very true, I am using this article to explain a bit how Mt. McKinley, or more properly Denali, “flightseeing” came about.

I first met Don Sheldon, who was soon to become a friend, in 1968. He and Cliff Hudson were the two flying services operating out of the tiny village of Talkeetna, at the base of what Alaskans call Denali, the tall one.

At this time Talkeetna —besides being full of pre-pipeline characters as Carroll Close of the Roadhouse, and Jim Beaver the trapper, “The Colonel” Johnson who had helped lay Alaska Railroad track through this wilderness, climber Dave Johnston of course, and Johnny Kimball a prospector who had come North after his discharge from the Navy in World War I and had never been outside since— was a place where dogs slept in the middle of main street. Talkeetna, the gateway to Denali was the end of a gravel road from Anchorage. The parking meter outside the historic Fairview Inn was an absolute joke! This was long before cruise ship busses (is that an oxymoron?). The Parks Highway to Fairbanks was still being surveyed. Struggling to make gas and plane payments, Don and Cliff had sort of a feud going on, fighting over what business there was. Cliff catered more to hunters and trappers, Don to miners, and mountain climbers.

How it happened that Sheldon became known for his Mt. McKinley rescues came about through a charter early on by Bradford Washburn —mountain climber, photographer, cartographer— from the Boston Museum of Science. Thanks to Don having equipped his Supercub with those new retractable ski-wheels, and the daring to experiment with landing uphill on glaciers, the two made history. Officially the end result of the Washburn-Sheldon expedition was a suite of beautifully done maps, and Ansel Adams quality black and white photographs giving the world a peek at the awesome beauty of McKinley/Denali. Sheldon, with his dry sense of humor liked to brag, “Hey, we added 20 feet to the mountain.”

At an official 20,320 feet the peak is the tallest in North America. However, as the base is at near sea level, instead of Mt. Everest starting at 20,000 feet , Denali/McKinley (which is the last time in this article I shall refer to the honor for a presidential candidate from Ohio) is the highest in relief, and as a whole, considered the largest mass in the world.

The height and fuel limitations of single engine bush planes, and the fact that the prevailing winds in from the Gulf of Alaska soared upward over Talkeetna, coupled with the happenstance of the Great Gorge of the Ruth Glacier leading to a protected amphitheater brought about the practice of flying “ into” the mountain. That certainly is the feeling you get looking upwards on both sides of a “bird,” as Sheldon was wont to call his Supercub (call letters 23 Zulu), or unpainted Cessna 180 (42 Uniform) passing by the Moose Tooth.

The Great Gorge has became the route to reach a popular mountain climber’s base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier. While Washburn had been mapping physical features, Sheldon was noting where uplifting thermals existed, and had eyeballed possible landing “strips.” This led to Don getting business flying climbing parties. He also was called upon, sometimes with no pay even to cover his gas, to rescue said same climbers.

So, Don was delighted to spend the Spring of ’68 doing some aerial mineral claim staking on a stampede to grab off a large sulfide mineral deposit that eventually stretched 30 miles across unnamed peaks of the Alaska Range. I, the son of a prominent mining attorney, Chief Council of the Alaska Prospectors Association, and the grandson of a Klondike argonaught, had been hired —thanks to experience in surveying, and topographic map reading— for a two week stint packing wooded claim posts high up a perilous peak, on skis, that was subject to avalanching. I found myself in a horse-race with large Canadian mining company that had latest in helicopter support.

Reasoning that slides, or the melting snow would wash the posts down the mountainside anyhow, and not having the resources to hire a helicopter, I employed something even better. Sheldon. Our method was to load the Supercub with 10 4x4x6 foot posts at a time, climb to a vantage point over a mountain, and then communicating with touches on the shoulder we would start “turning about a point” as shown on a topo map. As we got close, Don would open the door (this at 10 to 20 below temperatures!) while I positioned a post with the appropriate notice against the wing strut. I would hold it there until I felt the path downward would work, and then shoved with all my might. If one had hit our tail in some of the tight turns we were pulling, close to jagged pinnacles, you wouldn’t be reading this story!

We spent almost three months on this project, followed up with supplying spike camp crews that summer, standing the posts upright. We had become so good at aerial drops (one post was within 25 feet of where intended) that once back at Talkeetna, I found myself in the back of 23 Zulu doing a drop for a competitor. What a trip it is today to see that same plane suspended from the ceiling of an air museum.

Anyhow, the point to this long story. As Sheldon was very aware I was building a career as a freelance photographer, before the season was over suggested we experiment in a “family picnic” idea he had in the back of his mind to drum up business. Don had just finished a “mountain house” situated on a crag (shown on the video in a fly-by in what is now called the Sheldon Amphitheater) only reachable by a glacier landing. The idea was warmly appreciated by climbers. But, Don was wondering if flightseeing into the mountain, gawking and exclaiming our way up the Ruth Glacier for a “tea party” might be something worth advertising to outsider’s wanting to visit Alaska. Would my family like to be his, “crash dummies.”

I enjoyed the busman’s holiday. I supplied Sheldon with some transparencies of the trip, but due to other things occupying my time, and then Don’s unfair battle with colon cancer, I more or less ignored his project, and my promise to help spread the word about Denali, until my daughter Colette began building an Alaskan tour company for independent travelers. I remember well how thrilled she had been to have experienced flying through a rainbow that day on the way “into” the mountain. When she chose Rainbow Mountain Adventures as a company name, I understood. I also have heard her on the phone telling a RainbowMtnAdventures.com client from New York, or London, or Australia that, “Flightseeing Mt. McKinley from Talkeetna is one experience you just cannot miss.”

I am mentioning Colette to sort of solve a publishing problem. Bobby and I have been relying on the win-win attitude of a Google adsense “partnership” when recommending services to our readers through “click for more information” links. But, when it comes down to making a personal recommendation as to what Talkeetna flight service has the skill and enthusasiam to carry on, “Sheldon style,” I can only answer out of my personal experience, Cliff Hudson’s (Don’s arch rival)son, and Doug Geeting, the fellow flying the red plane we photographed back-dropped by the Moose’s Tooth.

Besides Doug’s skill as a Denali flyer, I really like his music — issued as a CD as "Tree Top Flyer". But, in other things (i.e.: the business of photo copyrights) we really clashed. It seems that the best pilots are such individualists, and so in love with what they do, that they cannot delegate, which in a business where seconds cost dollars, leads to financial failure. I heard Doug was working for one of the “corporate” flightseeing services in Talkeetna, but if I were looking for a flying “photo platform,” over Denali, failing to track him down, I probably would turn to some of the more experienced flight services out of Anchorage, which as a Cessna flys, really isn’t that far away.

If you have a fear of flying, but still want to venture “into the mountain,” call 1-800-99-YUKON, which happens to be my daughter, Colette, and ask her who she trusts, at the moment, to “thrill-em, but not kill-em,” her Rainbow Mountain Adventures tour customers. Bush Alaska style, even if you are not a potential customer, she will talk your ear off. Dare you to ask her about an 8-year old being the perfect size when Don was paying attention to a weight to balance problem.

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