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Out in the Great Alone

           "I landed Anchorage in the middle of the night. The next morning, I drove an hour north to Wolf Lake Airport, a private airfield near Wasilla. You know those old photo-backdrop screens that little kids in department stores used to have their portraits taken in front of? It was like driving into one of those. National-monument mountains framing a sky that was chemical blue. Highway as straight as a rifle sight. Until you actually get to Alaska, it's hard to prepare yourself for the scale of it, the sheer felt immensity. The numbers barely do it justice. Sixty percent of the nation's parkland is in Alaska. Four of the parks — four — are bigger than Connecticut. If you stood Mount McKinley, which Alaskans call "Denali," next to Mount Everest on level ground, McKinley would tower over it, thousands of feet higher; Everest is taller only because it rests on an elevated plateau.
            The majority of this extreme vastness can't be reached by road. Juneau, the state capital, isn't on a highway network. Head north, into the semipopulated reaches, and you'll find nothing connecting the villages at all. Alaskans depend on bush pilots, fliers who take small planes into remote and dangerous places, for transportation, mail — almost every type of contact with the outside world. I had come to watch what might be the least spectator-friendly sporting event on earth: To follow the Iditarod requires not only a bush plane, but a bush plane equipped with skis, capable of landing on frozen rivers and lakes.
            Jay Baldwin met me at the hangar. He'd flown F-16s back in the day and put in a couple of decades with Delta and Northwest before moving to Alaska to be a bush pilot. He was retired, in some theoretical sense, but he had a flight school, Alaska Cub Training Specialists, at Wolf Lake Airport, near Wasilla, and from what I saw still knocked out around 19 high-intensity daily hours running that, tinkering with airplanes, and educating anyone within earshot (children, small animals, whatever stray Iditarod reporters happened to stroll past) about the perils of bush flying. Jay was 60 years old and tall and he had white hair and a smile so enthusiastic it hinted at actual anarchy.
            His best friend was a musher, Linwood Fiedler, who'd been the Iditarod's runner-up in 2001. They'd grown up together in the Lower 48, then lost touch before reconnecting as adults in Alaska, having in the meantime become a bush aviator and a professional dog musher, respectively, because obviously that is life. Every year, Jay led an expedition to follow the Iditarod from the air, partly for the flying and partly as a show of support. This was what I'd signed up for.
            "You're not a pilot in Alaska," Jay said, fixing me with a blue-eyed and somehow vaguely piratical stare, "until you've crashed an airplane. You go up in one of these stinkin' tin cans in the Arctic? Sooner or later you're gonna lose a motor, meet the wrong gust of wind, you name it. And OH BY THE WAY" (leaning in closer, stare magnifying in significance) "that doesn't have to be the last word."
            Having lost more friends than he could count to wrecks in the remote Alaskan wilderness, he was obsessed with crash reports, fatality statistics, replaying weird scenarios. One wall of the ACTS hangar was plastered with newspaper clippings from accounts of gruesome accidents: "5 killed as small planes collide," "Sisters among dead in plane crash," "Flying to die." My favorite clip was titled simply: "Pilots: Grief." I pictured tiny mosquitoes of flame blooming against the side of a mountain, torn hulls rolling in black water. "This is the junk that keeps me up at night," Jay said, smoothing his hair under his ACTS baseball cap. "I've flown just about every dangerous kinda bird you can fly. Why are they gone and I'm still here?" One of his mentors had vanished without a trace while transporting a couple of bear-watchers over the Shelikof Strait from Hallo Bay to Homer; the authorities didn't know for sure that the plane had gone down until the body of a passenger washed up in a fishing net about 10 days later. And yet Jay wholly, truly loved flying, the way some people can love it. I have a brother-in-law who's like that. When he's not in the air, it's like he's seeing fewer colors.
            This was the paradox of Jay Baldwin: One of the most infectiously happy guys I've ever been around, his every waking moment was a kind of prolonged existential debrief. He was never not working on how to outwit the horrific eventualities he was forever expecting to befall him, and he was never not just extremely cheerful about this. Jay was a Vermont kid, raised in a small town, and there was a mordant New England pluck in the way he gazed into the abyss and said: "I see what you're trying to do there, abyss."
            The plan was for me to spend a few nights in the apartment connected to the hangar — live with the planes, get the feel of them. I'd read that some Iditarod mushers slept with their dogs, to make themselves one with the pack. I needed flying lessons because the little Piper Super Cubs that would carry us to Nome were two-seaters, one in front, one behind. Jay wanted me prepared in case he had a fatal brain aneurysm (his words), or a heart attack (his words 10 seconds later), or keeled over of massive unspecified organ failure ("Hey, I'm gettin' up there — but don't worry!") at 2,200 feet.
            Choosing an airplane — that was the first step. Jay had four, and as the first ACTS client to arrive, I got first pick.
            They were so small. Airplanes aren't supposed to be so small. How can I tell you what it was like, standing there under the trillion-mile blue of the Alaska sky, ringed in by white mountains, resolving to take to the air in one of these winged lozenges? Each cockpit was exactly the size of a coffin. A desk fan could have blown the things off course. A desk fan on medium. Possibly without being plugged in.
            "God love 'em," Jay said. "Cubs are slower'n heck, they'll get beat all to hell by the wind, and there's not much under the hood. But bush pilots adore 'em, because you can mod 'em to death. And OH BY THE WAY … put 'em on skis and come winter, the suckers'll land you anywhere."
            Two of the Cubs were painted bright yellow. I took an immediate liking to the one with longer windows in the back. Better visibility, I told myself, nodding. Jay said it had the smallest engine of any of the Cubs in our squadron. Less momentum when I go shearing into the treeline, I told myself, nodding.
            The name painted in black on her yellow door read: NUGGET. She had a single propeller, which sat inquisitively on the end of her nose, like whiskers. Jay told me — I heard him as if from a great distance — that she'd had to be rebuilt not long ago, after being destroyed on a previous trip north. Was I hearing things, or did he say destroyed by polar bears?
            I patted Nugget's side. Her fuselage was made of stretched fabric. It flexed like a beach ball, disconcertingly.
            Into the cockpit. Flight helmet strapped, restraints active. Mic check. Then Jay's voice in my headset: "Are you ready!" It wasn't exactly a question." ¥¥
— Brian Phillips, from "Out in the Great Alone," (May, 2013, Grantland)
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