I’ve always been fascinated by glaciers. From the moment I stepped onto the first glacier I’ve ever seen, Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, I knew we had a special bond. Subconsciously, maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was so drawn to Alaska. We are surrounded by glaciers here. There are more than 100,000 glaciers in Alaska (only 616 of them are named) and roughly 60 glaciers that you can reach within a day’s travel from Anchorage. It’s hard to comprehend the size of this ancient ice, and the best way to get a glimpse of it is from up in the air.
Knik Glacier, one of the biggest and easiest glaciers to visit from Anchorage is about 29 miles long and 5 miles wide. I didn’t really understand these numbers until I saw it. The glacier is so big it fills the entire horizon. I’ve been to Knik Glacier a few times (all by helicopter) and it’s always a tremendous experience. And you don’t have to fly long to reach it. As soon as we lifted off, we could see the glacier in front of us. That’s what’s really amazing about this place.
This week I went on the Grand Knik Tour with Alaska Helicopter Tours. It’s their most popular tour in any season because it provides three different landings: on a glacial lake, on the mountain top, and in front of a massive ice wall.
It was one of the coldest days of this winter but also it was such a clear and beautiful day. These usually go hand in hand. We drove to the Knik River Lodge, about an hour’s drive from Anchorage, to meet Steven Ritter, the pilot. He’s been handling all the winter tours at Alaska Helicopter Tours so he understands the landscape like his backyard. Our friend Lars, who’s the general manager of Knik River Lodge joined us. We got on the iconic red Robinson R44 helicopter, and lifted off!
I’m always amazed by the helicopter experience. It feels so effortless compared to planes. It just lifts, hovers, and then off we go. As a trained engineer I understand the mechanism and aerodynamics behind it but I’m still amazed.
As soon as we started flying, the massive Knik Glacier was in front of us. The forest below was covered with hoarfrost and we spotted a few different groups of moose sitting in clearings. They didn’t seem much bothered by us flying above them. We flew close to the glacial lake and found our first landing spot on a big rock. As we are getting closer to spring, the sun has been stronger and up longer each day. We got the full force of the sunlight shining through the glacier and frozen moisture particles in the air. Then it was time to fly to our second landing spot.
We flew over the glacier to the top of a mountain. Flying over a glacier of this size, seeing all the cracks of blue, patterns, and shapes, I will never get bored of this. Glaciers never look the same because they are constantly moving, as if they were a living being.
We landed on a narrow peak on a mountain, looking over a very active icefall and Colony Glacier. For a moment I forgot that we were just a short ride away from civilization. Every trip here in Alaska, I’m reminded how fortunate we are to live in this pristine wilderness, so accessible from our home. It was perfectly peaceful and calm, just us four and the slowly moving glacial ice below us.
Onto the next landing, in front of an ice wall of Knik Glacier. It didn’t look that big when we landed but my eyes weren’t adjusted to seeing it yet. It was so tall and so blue. So many different shades of blue! Lars led us to a gap between glacial ice chunks which turned into an ice cavern. When you’re near a glacier of this size, you can hear it sing. It’s like a low humming sound. And that’s a great reminder that glaciers are living beings.
Just like that, two hours quickly went by. It was already time to head back to the lodge. Once again we saw fascinating shapes and patterns of glaciers on the way back, and many different animal tracks on the snow. It’s fun to have a chance to observe the behavior of wildlife in the wilderness because it’s hard to see anything through the thick forest in summer. Flying over the whitened forest covered in hoarfrost, we landed back to where we started.
Seeing Alaska’s wilderness via helicopter is more than having fun. Although, it is extremely fun. It gives me a sense of gratitude and perspective, seeing such an ancient landscape, the grandeur, the pure environment. In comparison, my earthly troubles and existence seem so trivial. It doesn’t mean that the experience makes me feel less worthy, it’s the opposite. I want to take it all in, be thankful for what I have, and make every moment count.
Alaska Helicopter Tours is the only helicopter company in Alaska that partners with CarbonFund.org to contribute to lessening their carbon footprint. They are also Adventure Green Alaska program certified. Sustainability is an important topic of discussion in adventure tourism and I’m glad to know that they are taking the right steps.
The Grand Knik Tour left me with awe (and about a thousand photos). Now I want to see in summer to compare the experience. It was so fun to cover such a vast distance in just two hours, including all the different glacier views. If you have a short amount of time to spend in Alaska, this is definitely a tour to do. It’ll be worth it.