Flying 2,000 feet above the tundra on a partly cloudy day, the slant of the sun breaks across my face, and the proximity to the earth below is tangible and intimate. In good weather, everything below is visible. Flying this low is a sensuous activity, whirling out over the earth, close enough to see colors and patterns sketched into the land, far enough to detect movement of animals in migration. I am winging my way across the Alaskan lanscape, stopping at a myriad of villages to pick up and deliver people and freight. There is breathing room and a great sense of freedom in the experience of flying over vast, seemingly empty space. Wide-eyed, I watch a herd of caribou glide in a northerly direction, then gracefully shift like a wave toward the east, coursing toward a boggy pond to drink.
The engine’s hum sounds like a lawn mower motor, typical of the Cessna 180, a small, high wing aircraft with ample horsepower and capable of many different arrangements of space. Today, the four seats behind me are removed and the space filled with cases of soda pop, mail, peanut butter, Pampers, and straw for sled dog bedding, all herded under thick nylon nets. For villages only accessible by air or water, short stops in quick planes are vital to the commerce and communication among residents.
On a typical jaunt, you never know who or what will share the space: a family attending a birthday celebration 50 miles upriver; evangelists with opened Bibles in their laps setting out to “save” a village; a petty criminal on his way to town for a court hearing; or, on one occasion a body was laid to rest in a coffin directly behind my seat.
I am the only passenger on this flight and the monotony of the engine drone becomes a soothing comfort to my senses. We are aloft on a draft of wind that feels like waltzing or being lifted up on a swing and gently set down, rolling on the pitch and lull of soft air. My mind strays into emptiness, as open and expansive as the unencumbered geography below. In good weather, flying is the one place where clarity of mind becomes effortless. I can think up there; a sentiment I imagine is shared by many passengers and pilots who enjoy the intimacy of flying in small planes, winging their way across Alaska.