Backcountry Flying in Alaska — WildSnow Girl Style


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | August 10, 2012      
My chariot to backcountry bliss outside Haines Alaska.

My chariot to backcountry bliss outside Haines Alaska. Click all images to enlarge.

Most girls do not dream of being an airplane mechanic when they grow up. But my childhood wasn’t that typical anyway. Raised in Colorado with a father whose hobby was flying small airplanes put a spark in my eye from the age of three. Family vacations, visits to relatives in the Midwest, birthday flights with my friends and Saturday cruises over to Moab for breakfast were adventures I loved. Which is why, nine years after I got my pilot’s license and only five months after passing my Airframe and Powerplant exams making me a certified airplane and helicopter mechanic, I found myself in Haines, Alaska – Mecca to backcountry flying.

Skinning in paradise.

Skinning in paradise.

Haines is not only famous for it’s world-class flight-seeing around Glacier Bay National Park, it is also home to two heli-ski companies and ski-plane operator Fly Drake.

Best job a WildSnow girl could have: Fly Drake.

Fly Drake


If I’m not fixing or flying airplanes, I’m dreaming about skiing. This is where Drake comes in. Eighteen years ago, pilot Drake Olson moved from his hangar in Rifle, Colorado to the mountains surrounding the Lynn Canal, the doorstep to Glacier Bay. An avid skier himself, Drake self-taught himself to land his Cessna 180 with skis on these glacier tops. The idea has caught on and now groups from all over the world are coming to experience Alaska’s epic snow and steep lines via glacier camping and human powered skinning. I scored a job working in his hangar this winter–keeping the planes clean and running, answering phones, scheduling flights and drop-offs, and doing my best to keep this one-man show on the fly.

Spectacular Alaska where even a casual outing is breathtaking.

12 minutes outside of town: spectacular Alaska where even a casual outing is breathtaking.

The first time Drake landed us on a glacier my heart swelled so big in my chest I thought it would pop. It was the same feeling I had catching my first wave in the surf off of Costa Rica: pure ecstasy. I already had my ski boots on, so while I waited for Drake to catch up I soaked in the views. Three hundred and sixty degrees of the most beautiful peaks I had ever seen, all glistening in a blanket of pure white. We were alone for as far as the eye could see. It would take over a day to navigate the glaciers and valleys to the sea, and yet we were a mere twelve minute flight from town. We started hiking and the next thing I knew the airplane was a small blue speck far below. We had to get back for work and settled on a longer skin followed by luscious turns over terrain that only God could create. I knew then there is something special about this place and I was forever changed.

Looking back at our landing strip.

Looking back at our landing strip.

Amy Heuer, airplane mechanic.

Guest blogger, Amy Heuer, backcountry skier, airplane and helicopter mechanic.



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Comments

41 Responses to “Backcountry Flying in Alaska — WildSnow Girl Style”

  1. Sue August 10th, 2012 2:10 pm

    Wonderful story! Amy, I love your adventuresome spirit. Hope we hear more of you.

  2. Charlie August 10th, 2012 3:43 pm

    I always enjoy reading about life in Alaska. Thanks for the good read

  3. Lisa August 10th, 2012 4:53 pm

    Very cool!

  4. Xavier August 10th, 2012 4:59 pm

    Very nice post.
    I fully intend to use FlyDrake services one day soon I hope .
    Glad you have found a place that inspires you so much, and that joy comes across in your writing.
    The bit about “only God could create” kinda turned me off at the end as many of us are agnostics and atheists and find that sort of writing off putting frankly.
    But I guess you are entitled to write about your belief in God just as I’m entitled to express my disdain for those beliefs….. so fair enough.

  5. Pete August 10th, 2012 6:51 pm

    Xavier – You’re making us atheists and agnostics look bad by being a total ass.

    Amy – nice post! You’re definitly living the dream.

  6. California Dream'in August 11th, 2012 7:43 am

    A mild mannered helicopter mechanic for the Daily Planet….

  7. Carl August 11th, 2012 8:06 am

    Amy – Great post! Just the usual….girl from Carbondale, CO heads up to Haines, AK to become a helicopter mechanic and backcountry skier. I’ve seen it a million times before.

    It sounds like you have found your bliss, such an important part of the journey. Enjoy it up there. Have you bumped into Heather Linde and read her book “If You Lived Here I’d Know Your Name: News from Small Town Alaska”?

    Great story. Nice photos!

  8. Dragos Toma August 11th, 2012 12:41 pm

    Great story and great photos Amy!

    You make me envy your location and what you’re doing 😀
    I’m currently studying aerospace engineering and doing an internship in Ireland in aircraft maintenance, so it means I’m away from my beloved mountains back home in Romania.

    Hoping that after I graduate and get the experience and exams for an avionics license I will be able to find a job in a more ehhhhh “suitable” location :))

    Anyway, great stuff you’re doing up there and I’m really glad I saw you story; good to know there are other people taking this route and they made it in the end and are living the dream.
    Keep up the good work!!!

  9. Scott Nelson August 11th, 2012 5:49 pm

    Hey Amy, super nice write up! Wow, great accomplishments too. Looks like you’re in for some great skiing this winter. Could there be anything better, being a plane/heli mechanic and backcountry skiing in AK? Don’t let the atheists and agnostics bother you, they’re just jealous…. Have fun up there!

  10. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 12:52 pm

    Xavier, here at WildSnow we encourage people to share their spirituality and philosophy if they feel inclined to do so in a non confrontational manner. If you wanted to write a guest blog and included something like “it awes me that random chance could create this,” that would be fine. Seriously, that would be fine. Just as a friendly aside, I’d suggest not being so thin skinned about such things. Life is too short and the truth will become very obvious once one dies, so before than, why not have some faith in whatever and express it, whether that faith is in God or not? And not let other peoples’s faith bother you whether you agree on it or not? Indeed, isn’t tolerance and diversity something we strive for?

  11. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 1:41 pm

    having a little trouble with the blog commenting system, tested, think I fixed it… was just continuing thoughts above but that’s enough…

  12. Dan August 12th, 2012 2:12 pm

    Can’t help myself: We all have to cope…give folks a break.

  13. ptor August 12th, 2012 2:20 pm

    I wonder who “created” those sunglasses? 😉

  14. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 2:22 pm

    Conversation heard in a coffee shop:
    Blogger 1: “How does Wildsnow get so many blog comments?”
    Blogger 2: “The writers just mention God once in a while.”
    Blogger 1: “Wow, I’ll have to try that!”

    (grin)

  15. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 2:24 pm

    Ptor, I guess those sunglasses are proof there is a God, or is not, depending on your point of view! (grin)

  16. ptor August 12th, 2012 2:39 pm

    Those glasses, Amy and the mountains around Haines prove that The Universe is a funky place.
    Using the G word definitely needs foot notes these days to qualify the writer’s own subjectivity as to what they actually mean. Many non-religious people still say “OMG” as a default expression regardless of their actual beliefs. I’d say denying the underlying and omnipresent intelligence of the Universe is denying one’s own consciousness. However, anthropomorphising this concept is where the trouble begins and turns people towards either extreme. What actually is that joy in your heart when you experience the mountains?

  17. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 2:50 pm

    Ptor, since you were and are one of the guys who isn’t afraid to share about your views on faith, religion, spirituality and whatnot, I would expect nothing less than a few pithy comments! So thanks. Your question, “what actually is that joy in your heart when you experience the mountains?” is an excellent provoker! So good on that. Lou

  18. See August 12th, 2012 7:03 pm

    I stopped by to find out if the new afd equipped Dynafit brakes will work with Verticals (I’m guessing they do) but was drawn in by Amy’s great pictures and interesting story. And, since our august host seems OK with it, I’ll share a little philosophy of my own.

    Tolerance and diversity are all well and good until one starts tolerating really bad stuff. Appreciating the beauty of creation would not seem to fall into that category. But I am reluctant to judge other people’s sensitivities too harshly, especially when I don’t know where they’re coming from. There are places where the level of religious sanctimony would try the patience of a saint.

    Nevertheless, I would say, save your disdain for the Taliban, or the local equivalent wherever you happen to be.

  19. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 7:16 pm

    See, I’d agree… and one must draw a distinction between religion and spirituality, they are two very different things… and sanctimony, well, that’s just plain ugly. As for tolerance and diversity, indeed, one doesn’t have to tolerate everything!!! More, everyone is entitled to their opinion!

  20. See August 12th, 2012 8:10 pm

    And (as it seems people around here appreciate) spending time in nature can really clarify the distinction between religion and spirituality.

    (Also, I found the info. regarding the brakes. Thanks again.)

  21. Lou Dawson August 12th, 2012 8:20 pm

    See, yeah, exactly my feelings and I’m sure many other’s!

    And to do my job and change our focus to backcountry earth, I’d ask Amy something I’ve always been curious about. Amy, are the ski plane skis a standardized thing regulated by the FAA, or can you design and run anything you want even in commercial applications? Is there a huge market for the things, or do just a few companies make them?

  22. Jim August 13th, 2012 1:43 am

    Is Fly Drake the pilot that flew Jeremy Jones in on Deeper? Are there valleys and glaciers with nice base camp possibilities up there that he flies skiers to?

  23. RDE August 13th, 2012 8:54 am

    Just re-reading David Suzuki’s “Sacred Balance”. Now that is my idea of spirituality, grounded in the natural world. Especially like his chapter on air, “The breath of all green things.”

  24. Amy August 13th, 2012 9:19 am

    thanks for all the comments! i look forward to sharing more of my experiences in beautiful Alaska with you all.

  25. Amy August 13th, 2012 9:23 am

    hi jim, yes Drake is the pilot that flew Jeremy Jones in Deeper. Find out more about him http://www.flydrake.com. The possibilities for base camps are endless. This past season alone Drake flew over 200 skiiers and snowboarders into the mountains. And those groups never even saw each other out there. Check out a topo map of Glacier Bay National Park. You’ll see what i mean when i say…possibilities are endless!

  26. Matt Kinney August 13th, 2012 9:41 am

    Actually before helis, fixed-wing flew skiers around Valdez. Been there, done that. When the helis showed up, those bush pilots were put out of work, work they were really happy to have. Prices soon tripled, WESC, brat pack, etc…. In AK, heils were banned from National Parks and Preserves mainly by the pressure of bush pilots and climbers who saw them as threats to their livelihood as part of ANILCA. Hunters saw using helis as an unfair advantage (as do I) when it comes to sporting efforts, be it hunting a sheep or doing a first ascent/descent of a peak. Ski and float planes remain a traditional form of access to high and lofty places around the world.

    The fixed wing is back in the Chugach and ears has it a new company is coming to Valdez next season offering cheaper rates than rotor for base and expedition access. If you use a heli in most place in AK you must also hire the heliguide, even for a drop off for a day or touring and booting or longer. Not the case with fixed wing. All in all it’s a huge money savings for skiers. And of course its much “greener” as a plane only uses a few gallons compared to barrels for a rotorcraft.

    Blue Ice Aviation services the Chugach north of Valdez. And yes there are a gazilllion places to land a ski plane,(i.e. top of the Science Glacier! shhhh) This type of access for skiers and climbers in AK is nothing new. Ski planes have been dropping climbers, hunters and mechanics all over AK for decades. …… cheers

  27. Jordan August 13th, 2012 1:24 pm

    Well maybe I will have to come to Alaska again next spring… twist my arm. Sorry we missed you up there this year Amy.

  28. Amy August 14th, 2012 9:44 am

    Lou – back to your question about skis for the airplanes. In commercial applications, everything is heavily regulated by the FAA, meaning you best have your paper trail in order and every component that is on the aircraft must have a certified part number. There are several companies that manufacture skis giving you options in size and styles. Some companies specialize in a certain type of aircraft. I haven’t heard of anyone making their own skis…

  29. Lou Dawson August 14th, 2012 10:03 am

    Thanks Amy, some of the ones I saw in the old days looked jury rigged, but now they look slick. That explains it. Lou

  30. Scott Nelson August 14th, 2012 12:23 pm

    Speaking of plane skis, I thought this pic was kinda cool:

    http://tinyurl.com/d586yv9

    Wouldn’t think you’d have to wax those things, but hey why not?

  31. Rob August 14th, 2012 4:51 pm

    Amy – really enjoyed your post, thanks for sharing! I miss Alaska a lot….back in the 90s, I was fortunate to fly over the Chugach and the Alaska Range all the time in an F-15, but sadly that was long before I got into backcountry skiing. To think I could have been scouting lines! Hope you have a long and happy stay up there…everyone I know who has lived there wants to go back.

  32. Lou Dawson August 14th, 2012 5:12 pm

    Everyone has to live in Crested Butte once, and probably Alaska (grin).

  33. Njord August 16th, 2012 1:21 am

    Interestingly enough… I’m looking for an A&P in Carbondale for 9 months of the year and then 3 month in AK.

  34. Dragos Toma August 16th, 2012 1:48 pm

    Njord, do you also need trainees :P?

    On a more serious note, this post and some of the comments here got me really excited. Maybe there actually is a chance in the future that I will get to work in maintenance and live somewhere close to the mountains and not be condemned to continue living in the plains.

  35. Amy August 16th, 2012 3:47 pm

    Njord, what do you have that requires an A&P? and where in Alaska?

  36. Amy August 16th, 2012 3:49 pm

    Dragos – i’ve been searching after this dream for years… stick with it and i’m sure something amazing will happen for you!

  37. Amy August 16th, 2012 3:51 pm

    Carl – i haven’t had the privilege of meeting Heather Lende yet, but i am midway through her book and absolutely love it! Anyone yearning for Alaska or just overall curious about life up there should pick up her amazing and quite accurate read.
    Thanks for the good wishes 🙂

  38. Frannie Reinier August 16th, 2012 4:00 pm

    Amy…. Amazing photos and great story… You are one awesome young woman, filled with adventure and grace… I never know what you will try next or go next… but it will a wonderful story… just like this one… Can’t wait to see what you do or where you will go next!

  39. Dragos Toma August 16th, 2012 5:18 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement Amy!
    I hope giving up summer holidays to do internships at Part145 organizations located in places away from the mountains will pay off eventually; though I have to admit I kind of miss living out of my car and rock climbing like back in high-school.
    Keep up the good work! Looking forward to reading your next post here 😀

  40. Beth August 17th, 2012 12:10 am

    Haines is indeed ‘something special.’ We are going to have some magical days in our backyard this winter Amy!

  41. tyson warner August 24th, 2012 6:00 pm

    AMY! Good to see you’re still rocking life!

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