Alaska Travel Magazinenext

Alaska trivia buffs oft makes fun of the fact that the official state bird is the Willow Ptarmigan. Some have trumpeted that the choice should have been a swan. “Tarm-e-ghan,” the miners ‘chicken,’ —and village— is a truly unique bird (besides being hard to spell) changing color with the seasons, and it does not migrate. However, I feel the official choice of a bird should have been —the Alaskan float plane.

Nowhere is this more true than at Anchorage’s Lake Hood — the largest float plane base in the world. A must-see sight. But, don’t make the common mistake of calling a plane on floats a ‘sea plane.’ Aircraft aluminum and salt water do not mix very well. Those ferrying fisherman from this busy airport cringe at the thought of ‘salt charters,’ as there are 3 million freshwater lakes in Alaska large enough to land.

Even if you are not headed out for adventure, it is exciting just to watch a Supercub on floats take off from the outdoor restaurant and lounge of one of the hotels bordering the lake. Nobody seems to mind having their conversation interrupted by a full throttle pitch, as this is Alyeska at it’s best. As less than 2% of the total area of the state has been disturbed by man,and there are very few roads, Lake Hood truly is the gateway to this, “Great Land”.

The shoreline of Lake Hood is surrounded by docks, and taxi-ways, which makes for some exciting photographs. There also is a superb museum of flight well worth a visit.

In the wintertime many Lake Hood planes are converted to skis. Landing on the frozen lake is ‘interesting,’ as there are no brakes. Sometimes, on icy mornings, this really warms pilot and passenger by adrenaline rush.

Touring the airport, right next door to the North American aviation hub for the polar route to Europe and the Far East, you will also find a gravel strip just like the ‘Main Street’ of a bush village. This inside the city limits of what is Alaska’s only true metropolitan experience (Los Anchorage).

Here you can drive down taxi-ways (though aircraft have right of way) past classic ‘birds,’ as a Grumman Goose amphibian, to photograph a Supercub with tundra tires head out over wilderness, in a few minutes of flying.

The ultimate way to sample the adventure of float planes is to call a Lake Hood air taxi operator and ask if they have an hour or two open to go flightseeing. To land on a wilderness lake, even if you aren't a fisherman, for a picnic.

Bet you they will understand. Bet you they know a special place to share with you. These guys are in love with their life, and like to show off Alaska to outsiders.

Picture yourself experiencing the smooth thrill of going “up on step,” just before the magic moment of realizing you are free of the earth as graceful as a swan, climbing upward into a unbelievable panorama with wilderness as far as the eye can see, back dropped by the majesty of Denali —otherwise known as Mt. McKinley to tourists who spend their visit to Alaska buying postcards.

Instead of visiting Alaska to proclaim, “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt,” you can simply say —if the subject ever comes up at a dinner party— “Sorry. I can’t really describe the float feeling. It is something you will just have to do yourself.”

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