Tick a helicopter ride in Alaska off your bucket list. // © 2016 Chris Batin
Feature image (above): Taking in the scenery on a helicopter flight out of Girdwood. // © 2016 Heather Fries
To adventure seekers in Alaska, a helicopter has become the optimal mode of transportation — and it’s easy to understand why. Due to a lack of roads, reaching wilderness locales in Alaska on foot could take weeks or even months. But via helicopter, explorers can arrive at remote destinations in less than an hour, where they can hike, camp and explore spectacular nature areas that receive few, if any, visitors.
Past helicopter adventures have taken me to isolated bays where I’ve had curious seals follow me as I walked a shoreline dotted with icebergs. I’ve also enjoyed fishing where I was probably the first to drop a line into the water. Best of all, at day’s end, I was able to fly back to camp or a lodge and enjoy my freshly caught supper prepared by a gourmet chef in comfort.
Helicopters are also perfect for cruise ship visitors who want maximum adventure while making the most of their limited time on shore.
Helicopter tour companies are springing up all over Alaska. Alyeska Resort, located in Girdwood, recently installed a helipad within 150 yards of the front lobby because guests have shown a strong interest in helicopter sightseeing and adventure tours to remote sections of Prince William Sound and the Chugach Mountains — discovering sights that are often out of reach to most road-based visitors. Some guests are so moved by their nature encounters that they use helicopter transportation to get married in these remote settings.
“Weddings are a fast-growing component of our business,” said Eric Fullerton, marketing director for Alyeska. “It takes about 20 minutes to fly out to a glacier for the ceremony, followed by a reception at the resort.”
Alpine Air Alaska, Inc., in Girdwood, offers 30-minute to one-hour helicopter excursions, as well as helicopter tours, followed by dog mushing rides with Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey on the snowfields of a glacier. Getting goose bumps from the cold air while bouncing along on a sled behind a team of yapping sled dogs is an unforgettable sensory experience.
Another company, VS Helicopters, out of Valdez, offers a bit of everything, from glacier landings to exploring mountain peaks that would take weeks of overland travel to reach.
Shane Patrick, a VS Helicopters’ pilot, says he enjoys his job because the tours are different each time due to changing conditions. I flew with him on a Columbia Glacier tour that included landing on the glacier. I’ll never forget the sounds of the ice grinding on its bedrock and boulders tumbling down underground rivers that run under the ice.
My favorite part of that trip was exploring “growler ice” on a remote beach near Columbia Glacier. These melting icebergs — some two stories tall — are sculpted by saltwater, wind, waves and temperature into unique shapes before high tide carries them back out to sea to eventually melt away. I felt like I was enjoying my own personal natural art gallery — so exotic and isolated, yet just a short helicopter ride away.