Within moments of entering the plane, I smelled the rich aroma of freshly ground coffee. The java, however, wasn't being brewed by a flight attendant in the galley, because neither existed on this four-seater floatplane. The coffee was cargo. More on that in a minute.
Through headsets that thankfully muted the engine noise, pilot Paul Norden's voice crackled, "All right, we're out of here." The plane began to race across a runway of water at the Lake Hood Seaplane Base, the largest such airport in the world, an aquatic version of New York's JFK. A few seconds later, the Cessna 206 was airborne.
In most any other American tourist destination, I'd typically grab a cab. But these planes are the "cabs" of the Alaskan wilderness — and the limos and the supply trucks and the ambulances and vehicles for anything else that needs moving over this gorgeous, unforgiving land.
As the Anchorage skyline quickly disappeared behind us, Norden pointed out myriad lakes and rivers as he headed northwest. Flying only 700 feet above the ground, it was easy to spot an occasional moose — once the pilot pointed it out.
This particular flight, one of the many operated by Rust's Flying Service, was taking passengers to Winterlake Lodge, a destination for adventure travelers. The place is truly off the grid, accessible only by planes fitted with floats for landings on the adjacent lake. In winter, skis replace the floats for runways of ice and snow.
Our landing was incredibly soft, without the typical jolt. For a few seconds the other passenger and I didn't even realize we had touched down. A lack of wind had left the water like glass.
"It's not just people that come out here by air," said Carl Dixon, who with his wife, Kirsten, founded the wilderness lodge in 1983. For them, Rust's pilots and their fire-engine-red aircraft are the lodge's lifeline.
All of the supplies that keep the resort running, from mattresses to propane tanks, have to be flown in. It was Carl Dixon's stash of coffee, wedged between a couple of mail sacks, that produced the familiar smell during the 50-minute flight from town.
Though the bush pilots might make it all seem routine, inherent hazards remain. Tales of close calls and actual crashes are "sobering experiences," said Bob Glen, a Rust's pilot who used to fly for the Alaska State Troopers.
When something goes wrong, the fickle weather usually is to blame. Though Glen has never had an accident in nearly 50 years of flying, he said changing conditions can make a familiar landing spot alien.
"You're constantly closer to the edges of performance," he explained. "We scare ourselves once in a while.
"If it's exciting, you're doing something wrong. You don't want to be thrilling yourself or your passengers too much."
It's all part of being that lifeline.
"Alaska has 200 communities that have no road access whatsoever," said veteran bush pilot Orin Seybert, who learned to fly as a teen while growing up in the Aleutian Islands of southwestern Alaska. "It's us guys who flew those little airplanes and landed on gravel beaches or rivers, whatever you had to do to make a buck."
Seybert turned his teen desire to explore his native state into a big business. In 1955, when he was just 19, he founded Peninsula Airways, hopscotching between the isolated island villages. His single plane "grew into a fleet of 737s." In 1991, the company got its current name: PenAir.
Now retired after more than 30,000 hours at the controls, Seybert spends his time leading tourists through the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum on the shores of Anchorage's Lake Hood.
From the lake, visitors can find the wilderness in a hurry just by taking a half-hour sightseeing flight by floatplane. If they prefer to keep their feet on the ground, however, the museum's fascinating exhibits, including various aircraft, chronicle the unique history of Alaska's bush pilots and their unsung contributions to the development of America's 49th state.
As a plane with lumber strapped to its floats noisily zipped across the water — no doubt bound for one of those many remote settlements — Seybert passionately shared his admiration for the pioneering pilots who began crisscrossing the sprawling territory nearly 100 years ago.
"They totally supported those communities," he said. "If you got sick or hurt and had to get to a hospital, you had to call an airplane to get you out of there. Groceries (and) business people traveling back and forth had to rely on these airplanes."
Back at Winterlake, the guides, who often form friendships with guests, gathered on the dock to say goodbye as passengers climbed aboard a plane for the return to civilization. With a full complement of travelers and luggage, there was no room for rubbish.
Without any roads, garbage trucks are nonexistent in these parts. Responsible stewards of the land send their double-bagged trash out the same way everything else comes: by plane.
It has to be the most elaborate method on Earth for taking out the trash. Just what you'd expect in airborne Alaska.
If you go
Rust's Flying Service (4525 Enstrom Circle, Anchorage; 800-544-2299; flyrusts.com) also offers an assortment of sightseeing tours. Prices begin at $110 for a 30-minute wildlife viewing "safari." For an extensive directory of other Alaskan flying services, visit flyalaska.net.
The Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum (4721 Aircraft Drive, Anchorage; 907-248-5325; alaskaairmuseum.org) is open year-round, but hours vary by season. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students and $6 for children ages 5-12.