Monday, June 25, 2012

Float plane to Redoubt Bay


Fishing boats below bob like children's toys in a bathtub, and hulking white mountains in the distance loom like a painting, too still and perfect to be real. We've just climbed to 10,000 feet after my first takeoff in a float plane, rising from the cloud-shrouded waters of Tutka Bay and curving around the coastal town of Homer, Alaska. Now we're heading across open water toward a wall of mountains, the red wings of the de Havilland Beaver contrasting sharply with the summer-blue sky. We carve the air like a giant metal bird, hurtling 500 miles an hour toward a wall of snow and ice.

From above, the dynamic force of these waters are revealed. Cook Inlet has some of the largest tidal fluctuations in the world, with more than 30 feet of water flushed in and out daily with the change of tides. I look down at the push and pull of currents, the undersea shelves and fault lines, the play of clouds on the open ocean. Aquamarine, teal, turquoise, cerulean, blue-gray: all the blues in a 64-color Crayola box scribbled across the surface of the sea. Clouds and sea birds drift on the wind. 

We fly straight straight across the inlet, into the heart of the mountains. The sea suddenly gives way to the boreal forest, clumps of spruce scattered over muskeg, grasslands criss-crossed with animal paths. Veins of snow taper down from the mountains, white seeping into green. A braided river cradled by lush ravines empties into the sea in a miasma of sand and silt and mud flats.

As we fly between the massive peaks, we lose our ability to comprehend the landscape. It is too big to name. Our human brains cannot make sense of it, cannot fit it into the scale of what we're able to know and understand. The unnamed peaks and snowfields and crevasses stretch on like the teeth of a comb, on and on until infinity, until they disappear into the horizon.

That evening, we board the Beaver again and take a different route home, skipping the mountains and instead following the Otter River back to Cook Inlet. Our pilot, Bruce, has been flying in the Alaskan bush since he came here after high school in the 1970s. He plays Led Zeppelin over our headsets and talks about the most beautiful sight he's seen in 30 years as a bush pilot: the lights of Anchorage on a fall night, returning home after getting caught in an early storm. Storms behind him, home ahead. He flies us low over muskeg and boreal forest, the spindly green pinnacles of spruce piercing the air. We see a moose browsing the brush, the only sign of life in this vast, wet-dimpled plain that looks as rich and undisturbed as the Serengeti. Ribbons of light snake through the green expanse, their tributaries branching out like tendrils of gold in the evening sun. Nonchalantly, Bruce steers the plane over a route he knows well, while in the back I marvel that this hunk of nuts and bolts and red paint assembled nearly 70 years ago can still offer us a glimpse of the impossible, or at least the improbable: a glimpse of the world, as Isak Dinesen wrote, through God's eye.


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