We already explored the effects of living in virtual darkness during Alaska's winter solstice. But what about the flip side of living with 22 hours of light during the summer solstice - what would that do to your psyche?Photographs by Chad Windham.
With the exception of obituarists and Dear Abby, journalists tend to be gluttons for life-threatening situations. It was for this reason that my photographer, Chad Windham, and I found ourselves on a white-knuckle flight around the summit of the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley in Alaska's Denali National Park during last year's winter solstice, and it's the very same reason why we decided to return during the summer solstice. Only this time, we decided to up the adrenaline ante by actually landing on a nearby glacier, God willing.
Of course, this isn't the sole purpose of our journey. After hanging out in Fairbanks last December to see what life without light was all about (the town plunges into 22 hours of darkness during the shortest days of the year), it was decided that the opposite would be interesting as well. How does one sleep when there are 22 hours of daylight, especially when those other two remaining hours aren't really all that dark, anyway?
Naturally, we had to find ways to fill all those hours - and how better than with perilous activities, like landing a five-seat Cessna 185 prop plane on a pack of ice high up in the jagged peaks of the 600-mile Alaska Range? After getting my will in order, I quiz the pilots at Fly Denali as to the exact stupidity level of an excursion such as this. "How do you know you aren't landing on top of a crevasse?" I inquire. "You don't," says pilot James Hoffman. Fabulous.
Weather had thus far squashed this crazy idea on three separate occasions over the past two days, and we were tempted to take the hint, but on this day, it's gorgeous. There would be no pardon. While our pilot, Eric Denkewalter, finishes off his preflight checks, we chat with his wife, Geri, who does little to relieve our apprehension. It turns out she has just returned from having lunch on our destination, Ruth Glacier. (Things are done a little differently around here - the local deli simply won't do.) "There are lots of avalanches," she tells us. "You can hear them all around you." I feel the tears well up.
It turns out, however, that our fears are unfounded. The 45-minute flight over Denali National Park to Mount McKinley feels like a trip to heaven itself. The melt ponds of the glacial environment look like small pools of electric-blue popsicle juice scattered around the numerous glaciers that converge from nearly every direction. We fly as close as 500 feet (the closest we are legally allowed to get) to monstrous peaks, though it appears as if we are one sudden wind gust away from planting a big, wet kiss on them. Then we see the "airport."
The Don Sheldon Amphitheater, a part of the massive Ruth Glacier, looks just like it sounds. The towering peaks of the Alaska Range form a natural amphitheater on three sides, and somebody, at some point, was brave enough to test its surface as a landing strip. When the whole thing didn't cave in on itself or tumble down the nearby mountains in a roaring fit of snow and ice, the idea for one of the most spectacular tourism spectacles I have ever been privy to was put in motion.
The plane slightly jolts when Eric lowers the landing skis, and though it's a completely unnatural thing to do, touching down here suddenly seems quite obvious. We hit the snow at an elevation of 5,700 feet and bounce around a bit - much in the same way a beginning skier might depart a chairlift. Then all is quiet. We pop out onto the 1,000-foot sheet of ice like giddy schoolchildren.
Ten miles to the northwest, the north and south peaks of Mount McKinley loom over us like sentinels of the fortune of Mother Nature herself, though they seem a snowball's throw away. It's around five p.m., but the sun remains intense, just as it does pretty much the whole time we're in Alaska. Though we're surrounded by snow, it's hot enough to remove our jackets. We realize man has no business being here - we're witnesses to something that represents little more than a postcard to the majority of people.