The experience of flying over a glacial mountain range in a Cessna is difficult to describe. As the overwhelming and awe-inspiring landscape pours into your eyeballs, your language functions are rendered inoperable. Sights like this can make even the Hitchens-iest of atheists reconsider their faith if only for a moment — I did. But God didn’t make this. It’s just too good (and also: Science). That aside, the journey across the Lowell Glacier in Kluane National Park and Reserve is a “must do” for any adventure traveller.
The Lowell Glacier is a massive ice field 70km long, 5km wide and nestled between two enormous mountain ranges. This particular mass of ice and snow has recorded five glacier surges (short periods of rapid glacial advance) in the past 3000 years. The most recent slide occurring in 2009 huge sheets of ice and snow advancing 4km over the course of a year—seismic 100m dash if you will.
Getting Off the Ground
A sunny and unseasonably warm day breaks as Lisa and I prepare to take our flight. The Haines Junction Airport consists of a few small buildings, a runway and a teensy weensy plane. Both afraid of flying, Lisa and I pinky-swear to set aside our anxiety in an effort to maximize what we believe will be a once in a lifetime experience.
Today we are Flight Seeing with Whitehorse Air Services in a C-GFJN by Cessna expertly guided by our pilot, Melissa. We sign our waivers and Melissa outlines the 60 minute route on a wall map. She asks us if we like roller coasters because “the feeling of being in the plane can be like a drop on a roller coaster.”
We board the plane donning microphone headsets that allow for in-flight conversation in the noisy cockpit. I am feeling very badass as I “check, check, check” my mic before takeoff. Melissa fires up the engine, and within minutes, we are climbing to 10,000 ft. and heading toward the snowy mountain range.
Once at altitude, I see the immense snow covered mountains coming into clear view. I am amazed, begin to cry, and no longer feel badass. As the glacier approaches, Melissa identifies some of Canada’s biggest mountains. We are riding the air over the largest ice fields outside the polar icecaps—the Saint Elias Mountains, which consists of two monstrous ranges that make up two-thirds of the Kluane Park.
The Kluane Mountain and Icefield Ranges are separated by the Duke Depression and contain giants like Mount Lucania (elevation 5,226 m) and Mount Logan (elevation 5,488m), the second highest peak in North America. They are jagged ice, unending snow, blue sky and black rock. They are badass.
The plane winds through range revealing bright blue pools (below) resting between sheers of white ice — all the product of thousands of years of geological chaos. At the halfway mark, we pass over Lake Alsek. Drained in 1850 after a glacial surge, Lake Alsek is now chilled mixture of rippling ice, rock and gravel seemingly frozen in an instant.
Barf Buddies for Life
I take a break from snapping pictures to assess my growing motion sickness caused by the bouncing and rocking of the aircraft. Having been quiet for some time, Lisa casually deposits her breakfast into an airsickness bag and carries on snapping pictures and taking in the view. She too, is badass. I fight my nausea for another minute or two before examining the bottom of my own airsickness bag. Now we are “barf-buddies for life”.
As we head back toward the airfield, I crane around for one last view of the immense landscape hoping to sear the vision in my memory for life. Once back on the ground, we head for a picnic table to steady the last of our motion sickness. There, in the sun, our stomachs turning, we are laughing and content; two insignificant earthlings who are very lucky indeed.
The writer was a guest of Travel Yukon. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.