Have you ever sailed over a mountaintop? Soared between glacial peaks? Cruised on pristine Arctic lakes? For Travis Dalke, these sights and more are business as usual. Travis works as a wilderness pilot in Alaska, flying passengers and cargo to places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Mt. McKinley.
Growing up in sunny Texas, Travis’s grandparents would take him out to watch the acrobatic crop dusters at work.
“I always wanted to be a crop duster growing up. As I got older I realized that I wanted to move up to Alaska, and there are no crop dusters up here,” says Travis.
Still, Travis’s interest in aviation persisted, an interest he says is born from the simple “adrenaline of flying.”
Travis wasted no time making his goals a reality. “I got my pilot’s license on my 17th birthday,” he says, and he knew he made the right decision.
MOST EXCITING PART OF YOUR WORK
What makes work exciting for Travis is what would make it terrifying for almost anyone else. “The terrain up here and the unpredictability of the weather always puts you on edge . . . it’s not push-button flying like auto-pilot. It’s a lot more hands-on.”
“The first flight you do into the mountains is always incredible. When you’re doing it by yourself and you’re in control there’s no one sitting next to you, you know that you’re the last resort and people depend on you. It kind of hits you on that first flight. That was really memorable for me.
“Coming up here [to Alaska] you get to constantly relive the excitement everyday. What people do for fun I get to do for a job.”
MOST DEMANDING PART OF YOUR WORK
While concerns about challenging weather and terrain are an everyday issue for Travis, he says the most difficult part of his job is ensuring that his clients see the best of Alaska. “You have a lot of pressure to show these guys a good time and make their trip worth it—give them a once-in-a-lifetime chance to come up here and see the mountains and land on a glacier.”
Travis has also had to maneuver out of some tricky situations. “Last week I had an engine failure in one of my glacier planes. That was one of the most exciting, stressful, scariest points in my life . . . . We got very lucky and I was able to land on a bog right in between these two big [glacial] ranges.”
HOW DO YOU DEFINE GEOGRAPHY?
Travis cites the dynamic physical geography of the region as one of the main features that draws his clients to the Alaskan wilderness. “There are a lot of changes going on—the climate is constantly changing which changes the geography up here, the landscape.”
Alaska boasts an incredibly varied physical geography and climate. The climate is heavily influenced by ocean circulation in the areas where warm water from the Pacific Ocean mixes with the cold Arctic Ocean, creating a low-pressure system known as the Aleutian low. The majority of the land is covered in permafrost, but Alaska does have more than 3,000 officially recognized lakes and countless smaller bodies of water. Alaska also boasts a number of mountain ranges and tall peaks, including Mt. McKinley—at 6,194 meters (20,320 feet), the tallest mountain in North America.
It’s no wonder that Travis says, “with my job, the geography is the reason people come up here.”
Exploring the geography of Alaska has given Travis a fresh perspective on the relationship between people and the environment.
“When I first started the job I didn’t know much about how everything came to be up here. And after flying up here and studying the land and the history of the Alaskan Range and all that, it puts everything into perspective on what a short time we’ve been here and how much power the land really has up here.”
Not only has Travis developed a familiarity and appreciation for the Alaskan landscape, he also relies often on geographic tools like the global positioning system (GPS), particularly when the weather gets rough. Travis says that while most pilots in Alaska become so familiar with the landscape that they can get by on “pilotage”, weather conditions and visibility don’t always allow for it. For example, low-pressure systems like the Aleutian low are known for especially high wind speeds, which causes turbulence. Pilots use GPS in order to avoid hitting storm systems like these and to navigate out of difficult conditions safely.
“In flight school you just take [GPS technology] for granted, but once you get up here you actually realize the importance of having it, why you’re using it, and why it’s so important to be accurate when you’re flying and using those tools.”
Travis also says that changing peoples’ geographic perspectives is one of the highlights of his work. “A lot of people say they’ve been everywhere—all around the world—and they come up to Alaska and they all say, ‘This is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life.’ When they land on a glacier or they see the summit of Mt. McKinley, they say it’s one of the highlights of their vacation or their life. It really makes you remember what you’re doing, because you can take it for granted.”
SO, YOU WANT TO BE A . . . WILDERNESS PILOT
Travis recommends that anyone interested in exploring Alaska “come up and visit; just see what it’s like.”
But before you make the trek up north, be prepared! “If you do decide to come up here,” Travis says, “the geography classes really do mean a lot . . . because then it all makes sense as far as climate change and how everything was created.”
You can even begin preparing yourself for the harsh Arctic conditions before making the trek up north—something Travis wishes he had done more often. “My school offered survival classes, kind of like outdoorsy stuff. I wish I would have taken those,” he says.
Interested in exploring Alaska or getting some firsthand aviation experience? Travis and his colleagues conduct "flightseeing" tours around Mt. McKinley and Denali National Park every year from May to September.