We parked in the gravel parking lot of the Interagency Visitor Center just before 4:00am. The building serves as both the visitor center for Gates of the Arctic National Park as well as the local headquarters for the Bureau of Land Management and the Division of Fish and Wildlife Conservation.
It may have been before 4:00am but the sun was brightly shining…just the way it had been for the last several continuous days and nights.
Our journey had begun the prior evening just outside of Denali National Park. Ten hours of driving overnight while staring directly into the Sun along the road ahead had done quite the number to our equilibrium.
Uke managed to fall asleep almost immediately after parking the truck. After that long intensive drive, I wasn’t sure how he could have possibly stayed awake any longer.
Myself, on the other hand, of course, lay awake staring directly into the Sun which was perched well above the horizon.
After laying in the truck seat until nearly 5am with an eye mask and all, I had fallen asleep for maybe 60 seconds. I had to use the restroom urgently, and not the kind you can just quickly unzip and do anywhere in a gravel parking lot. Naturally, I got out of the truck and walked toward the visitor center in order to research and investigate the location of the nearest shitter facility.
Just as I previously suspected, the location of the nearest authorized shitter facility was located in a very secure area…inside of the visitor center.
Behind two sets of strong locked doors and an obviously active security system lay the porcelain thrones. Worst of all, the center didn’t open until an absurdly late 11:00am. I accepted temporary defeat (but not permanent failure. You should never accept permanent failure as a condition for anything), and went back to the truck.
Driving Around Coldfoot
Uke awoke from his deep, grizzly bear like slumber for the first time around 8:45am. Much later in the undefinable morning (as the Sun continued to spin around the entire sky) the activity in the small camp of a community had not changed much.
We drove across the gravel Dalton Highway to the main camp and found a bit of activity occurring. Most of it involved idling semis scattered around the massive gravel lot, along with a few cars parked in front of the small and remarkably questionable diner.
Uke shuffled over to where the Coldfoot Airstrip was located and parked underneath some evergreen trees. There were several other cars parked around and upon closer look some small cabins that appeared to be occupied by those who had chosen to simply park their cars along the trees rather than attempt to sleep and eat in them as well.
I proceeded to get out of the truck in order to investigate where we may be able to ride an airplane into the unforgiving wilderness.
Down the small tarmac where three bush planes were parked, there was a small cabin-like building decorated with various aviation artifacts. It was labeled Coyote Air.
Gates of the Arctic Visitor Center
After hanging around inside for several minutes, peeking at the various fascinating aviation decor and random airplane artifacts, I went outside and spent at least ten minutes walking around the entire area in order to find someone—anyone, other than our two roaming selves.
With not a soul in sight, we decided to return back to the Gates of the Arctic Visitor Center, where we proceeded to extend our nap until something decided to happen in this desolate camptown.
After we reawoke, the visitor center was finally open. It had been over seven hours since we had arrived at this doodaa camptown in the middle of nowhere’s nowhere, and we FINALLY had something to do, somewhere to go……and somewhere to go….
The inside of the visitor center was indescribably nicer than I could ever have expected! The facility seemed to be almost brand new. (The best information I can find indicates the visitor center may have been built in 2017)
After spending about 20 minutes at the visitor center, we went back to Coyote Air in hopes of finding a way into the sky.
This time there was an additional plane on the tarmac, and it was idling. I made my way back towards the nifty airplane office shed and quietly snooped around for someone. I still couldn’t find anyone at first. I heard the plane stop running outside on the tarmac.
Just a couple of minutes later, I met a blonde woman who didn’t seem to be much older than myself. Her name was Danielle. I quickly disclosed our interest in taking any available flight into the wilderness if possible.
I should mention that I had attempted to call Coyote Air’s number listed on Google Maps earlier in the morning, but had no luck. There were also no reviews or remarks on Google at the time about Coyote Air, so I was a bit skeptical about whether they were operating for the general public at all.
Besides that, I couldn’t find anyone around at all until this moment. I had a slight fear they might also be full for the day, given that everything in Denali is frequently booked full through much of the summer.
“Yeah I can take you into the park! We can go now or later this afternoon, I would recommended now as there is going to be turbulence later on in the day.”
We can just go right now? Uh yeah sure!
“Did you say you were with someone? I generally only go with at least two passengers.”
“Yeah, my buddy is just hiding in his truck.”
Uke came walking up just several seconds after this.
We discussed the situation briefly, and then Danielle proceeded to turn to the four side-by-side planes and ask us which one we’d like to take.
Neither one of us could come up with a good answer, so we eventually decided on taking the float-plane in which she had more or less recommended at the start of the conversation, despite her needing to do a bit of extra work on this particular plane.
Danielle went into the Coyote Air office for a moment, which I was increasingly wishing was my own office at this point.
How amazing would it be for “work” to be a 500 sq foot hut filled with nav charts and aviation decor, which you only visited briefly between sessions of soaring alongside craggy ice-covered peaks in one of the most untouched areas of wilderness in the world??
Much to my surprise about how payment might work in the most remote part of the western world, Danielle came out with a Square reader tablet that looked to be almost brand new. We swiped our cards, signed with our fingers, and now it really was going to happen.
“Okay so give me about twenty minutes to fill her up and check over everything, and we’ll get ourselves in the air!”
We hung around the tarmac for probably only 15 minutes before we began to climb into the plane, which was much more difficult than I expected.
First, it was necessary to climb up the large float apparatus of the plane, which is a bit larger than it appears. After this, you must balance on the floats and climb upward into the small cabin of the plane, where it is highly likely you will bang your head on something if you aren’t paying close attention to your every move.
Overall, the actual boarding process wasn’t really difficult for an average person, but does require quite a bit more effort than walking onto a commercial jet. A much larger or older person might have a bit more problems.
Preparing for Takeoff
After we had all made it to our seats, Danielle explained how to operate the seatbelts and the headsets. Yes, we had large over the ear headsets that allowed us to talk to each other during the flight.
Having never been on a small single-engine plane before, I knew the propeller noise would be loud, but not how loud.
As Danielle pulled the seaplane onto the runway and pulled the throttle to max for takeoff, the sound was immediately near deafening. Not exactly painfully loud, but loud enough that yelling at the top of your lungs to the other passengers was completely futile.
Luckily, the headphones provided plenty of noise suppression and a shockingly loud and clear output for all voice inside the aircraft.
We were now several hundred feet in the air, and the beauty and massive openness and isolation of the northern Alaskan landscape was really beginning to show itself.
As we soared higher and higher, we could see the faint line of the Dalton Highway rolling across the landscape from the northern horizon to the southern horizon. We turned left and began heading west into the park, and the mountains grew much taller and more rocky into the distance.
It was nearly impossible to understand what was actually happening at this moment…we were soaring in a seaplane over one of the most remote and unaltered areas of wilderness in the world.
The blue dot on Google Maps confirmed we were now well over Gates of The Arctic National Park….the least visited of all 58 major national parks.
As Danielle continued to pilot the plane with graceful expertise, the scenery increased into intense beauty and awe. Out of my left side window, we passed remarkably close to a tall and remarkably pointy mountain peak. It was covered in large patches of fluffy, softserve looking snow patches. You really felt as if you could reach out of the plane and grab the top of the mountain.
Uke and Danielle were chatting away through the headphones in the front of the plane. I could clearly hear everything through the surprisingly good headphones, but I was hardly listening.
Instead, I was too entranced in the scenery all around us. Knowing we were in one of the most beautiful places in the world for only an hour, with few realistic chances of ever returning, it was hard not to be scanning every point of the landscape.
Down below, there were lines down the sides of the mountains where snow melt flowed into lower elevations, forming beautiful rolling river beds in between the mountains. Evergreen trees dotted the landscape here and there, but far from everywhere…as if someone had flown over 100 years ago and sprinkled pine cones from a plane.
“Have you ever had people freak out about being too close to the mountains?” I chimed in when the opportunity presented itself.
Danielle responded quickly and precisely anytime we asked her any questions. She stated that several people have freaked out, and a few legitimately thought they were about to crash into the mountain.
Splash Down into the Wilderness
“Well if you guys want the weather is perfect right now, we can try to land on a lake but we certainly don’t have to if you don’t want.”
Are you kidding? Hell yes we want to land on a lake..
We circled around a few peaks and Danielle pointed out where we would be landing. She said there might be some turbulence due to the warm conditions.
Danielle greatly reduced the propeller’s speed and roar and we rapidly descended toward the lake.
We were now over the lake, and were gently falling closer and closer to its surface. After many commercial flights in my life, the visualization and sensation of being on a plane headed for a body of water in the wilderness was everything but normal.
Confusing. Surreal. Breathtaking. Frightening. Unnerving. Awe-inspiring. Much more dreamlike than reality.
I could throw in almost any word to describe the several seconds of the plane hovering over the water.
Seemingly without a bump or a splash, a bounce or any jostle, we were suddenly in the water. The only way you could even notice was to see the large plumes of water spray the plane’s floats were creating.
“Well, sorry, I was really hoping for a smooth landing but we had a bit of a bounce there.” -Danielle
“Oh..What? No, that was awesome. Completely perfect. You’re an amazing pilot.” -Uke
To this day, I’m still not sure if Danielle was being humorous or actually thought her landing was anything short of complete perfection.
She taxied the plane closer to the dock and then turned off the propeller. We drifted up to the dock and very gently bumped into the side by design. Danielle asked us to hang tight until we were tied up.
She climbed out of the plane with great agility and hopped over to the dock. Grabbing ropes, she pulled the plane a bit closer and began tying us to the docks. We were no longer on a plane, but on a small covered boat with wings.
We climbed aboard the dock, and walked out onto the tundra. The ground was nearly as soft as an endless pillow, your foot sank into the mosslike tundra with every step.
The air was so clean and quiet and the Earth so soft, I could have laid down the ground and taken a nap. It would have been by far the most expensive nap of my life. Not to mention….bears, moose and wolves.
After a few minutes spent walking around near the dock and lake, we were delighted just to have had this opportunity, and thus headed back to the plane.
The process for boarding the plane was a bit more complicated than on the ground, and much more complicated than being on a commercial plane yet again.
As I can remember, I essentially jumped from the dock onto the float, attempting to maintain balance without falling into the water or causing the plane to rock too much.
Danielle was working on untying the plane as I stood on the float. This meant that she had to untie and board the plane before it began drifting away.
Somewhere along the lines, it seemed that we were all halfway into the water, losing our balance, and I had a rope wrapped around my ankle. I’m pretty sure this was completely due to our inexperience, along with the fact that, like the Sun, we had been awake for entirely too long and no longer had any concept of time.
A Watery Takeoff
After Danielle somehow managed to turn the plane outwards from the dock by using her feet, hands, and some sort of ventriloquist-like rope motion, she hopped back into her seat of expertise and we began to slowly drift away from the dock.
As she powered the propeller up, we began swiftly sailing through the water. We could easily assume the perspective of riding on a speedboat at this time. We smoothly cut through the water faster and faster, with a large wake forming behind us. With a couple of small bumps, we quickly lifted off of the lake and back into the air.
Sailing above the tops of the evergreen trees, we had an incredible low-altitude view of the park. Just ahead on the right, Danielle called out that there was a moose on the tundra.
Around three hundred feet below us, there was clearly a moose on the tundra who appeared to be munching away at the ground. He looked more like a small figurine from our view, so it was hard to tell exactly what was happening.
Further ahead during the flight, we spotted additional moose hanging out in a lake. It was as if I was watching a NatGeo documentary on Alaska. This was not something I was ever supposed to experience first hand…
First Air Sickness Experience
It was a warm day over the Arctic Circle. Unreasonably warm, in fact.
Before we arrived at Coyote Air, the temperature was already 75F. As our flight went on and we gained higher and higher altitude, you would assume that the cabin would naturally cool down.
In fact, quite the opposite happened. As we were at our maximum altitude, probably around 6,000 feet, the cabin temperature rose into the upper 80s.
Now, I have no idea how to describe this phenomenon….but anyone who has experienced it will agree. 87 degrees in Alaska is a whole hell of a lot hotter than 87 degrees in Florida….or almost anywhere for that matter. Even 75 in Alaska feels hotter than 85 in Alaska.
There is no explanation for why. Couple the unusual heat with the more prominent factors, including but not limited to: staying awake for the majority of 33 hours, not having eaten in nearly 24 hours, clearly being dehydrated, flying in circles in the back of a small plane…and now encountering some heat related turbulence.
I focused straight ahead on the horizon for the remainder of the flight. This was definitely the first time I had any flight related dizziness, and only the second time I ever had any motion sickness at all (Cambodia BoatShack Ride)
Fortunately, we landed just about 15 minutes later. On the approach, we could see the small village of Wiseman, where Danielle told us we could drive just up the road to see the Wiseman airstrip, along with a campground, some old bunkers and a few other things.
“That thing she was talking about north of here or whatever? We aren’t going to that. We aren’t going a foot north of this spot.” – Uke
“Uh, yeah. No thanks. Maybe next year or decade.” – Me
As if this wasn’t far north enough. We already had a 14 hour drive home on the desolate Dalton Highway, and who knows what we would find on the way home.