Tall Mountains and Long Shadows on the Ice.

August 18, 2020

Trains used to have names, evocative names, descriptive names, geographic names, names honoring heroes.  There were (and, in some cases there still are) Coast Starlight, Sunset Limited, The Broadway Limited along with the competing 20th Century Limited, Phoebe Snow, The Pioneer, Rock Island Rocket, Western Star, California Zephier, Super Chief, Hiawatha, The North Coast, The City of New Orleans, Panama Limited  and The Empire Builder.  As a kid we used to sit by the tracks to watch Phoebe Snow, a pure white train with a white locomotive steam by, and she did steam, painted white to demonstrate how clean her coal was.  “Travel the route of the anthracite.”

The trains had numbers but aside from “The Old 97” who remembers them?  And just as folks, like my young self, sat by the tracks to identify the trains or the types or locomotives, people sit by runways to watch planes.  On a fine Anchorage summer day this week folks sat in lawn chairs, with picnics, at a social distance, watching freighters with liveries from Fed Ex, Eva Air, UPS, China Airlines, KAL, JAL take off, as well as passenger planes with the familiar Chester, the enigmatic Inupiat, smiling from the tail of Alaska Airlines planes (Chester Seveck was a reindeer herder from Kotzebue.)  They can identify specially painted Alaska Airlines Jets, jets for sports teams, for Disneyland, and for special promotions.  They can identify MD-11s, 747s and the UPS 767, which, with their paint job look, from some angles, like evil Klingon Birds of prey with winglets turned up rather than down.  If the plane spotters turn their heads, they can watch a flight of fighters taking off from Elmendorf Air Base.  And while their heads are turned, they may spy a moose wandering along the Coastal Train.

Wouldn’t it be cool if plane routes had names like trains?  Ok, flights AS66 and 67 are called “The Milk Run” but what about others.  Could one of the JALs be called “The Great Circle?”  And Alaska Air planes, what evocative names could they conjure up?

Yesterday morning we flew up from Juneau on Flight 73.  We took a connector flight (AS176) from Sitka at 5:40 and AS73 out of Juneau at 7:25.   Although we took off from Juneau almost two full hours after sunrise the sun was still low in the sky allowing the mountain peaks to cast long shadows over the ice fields and giving the mountains either that dawn blue cast or, in the case of the highest peaks, a touch of Alpenglow.   

We took off over Mendenhall Glacier into the clouds.  At 34,000 feet and didn’t see much until we got over the Wrangell-St. Elias range, featuring the second tallest mountain in North America (Mt. Logan) and the second tallest in both the US and Canada, Mt. St. Elias.  AS73 travels along the Gulf of Alaska coast, crosses over to Prince William Sound at Cordova, and then over the Portage Glacier and up Turnagain Arm with an Anchorage flyover.  It makes a turn at the Fire Island windfarm, and lands to the East over the Cook Inlet mudflats.  Over the Portage Glacier, we caught a glimpse, through the mist, of the unmistakable profile of Denali, not visible by the time we were over Fire Island.

What name should we give this flight?  In June it’s in full daylight, in December, full darkness.  In between it can reflect so many different lights at so many different angles, weather permitting.  I’ve thought “Glacier Runner” or “Gulf Coaster.”  In the dark winter it could be “The Aurora.”  It used to be known as “The Costco Run” before they built a store in Juneau.  So, what do you call a flight where even at 34,000 feet the mountains come up more than half way to meet you?   Perhaps “Shaa Tlein” one of the two Tlingit names for Mt. St. Elias?    

I await your suggestions.

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