Besides listening to the wild, remote silence
of the tundra, NOLS students traveling in Alaska’s
backcountry have something else to listen for — the
sound of Mike Meekin’s plane descending from
the clouds. For more than two decades, Meekin’s
sturdy Piper Cub airplane has dropped down into some
of Alaska’s most far away places to bring NOLS
students food and gear. Meekin has become known as
NOLS’ “Eye in Sky,” and his arrival
is always met with great anticipation.
“When Mike’s plane comes, everybody stops what they’re doing
and cocks their heads to the side,” says NOLS Instructor Shari Kearney. “Then
out of the sky this airplane comes, and we’re all like, ‘Yea! We’re
going to eat good tonight!’”
In the Alaskan bush, the word “airstrip” has a fairly loose definition.
There are no concrete runways where Meekin’s small plane can land, so oftentimes
any patch of tundra, lake, sand bar or glacier must do. Sometimes mountaineering
courses have to set their snowshoes out in the snow to mark a landing spot for
the Piper Cub. Managing his plane with an agility he’s become famous for,
Meekin just needs about 150 feet of space to take off and land. The plane’s
great big tires help it absorb boulders and rocks during the landing.
|Meekin’s plane on a patch of gravel that
serves as a remote airstrip.
Kearney remembers walking in circles trying to find
the “airstrip” Meekin
had marked for her on a map. “Sure enough, the plane comes into sight and
lands in what looked to us like a patch of brush,” Kearney recalls. “So
I said to myself, ‘Well, I guess that’s the airstrip.’”
Meekin spent his childhood just up the road from
NOLS Alaska, located in the small town of Palmer,
Alaska. He developed an attachment to the mountains
his father, who had his own guiding business. In those days, remembers Meekin,
about every third person in Alaska was a pilot to make up for how few roads
there were. Meekin began flying re-rations for NOLS in the early ’80s.
Cruising above Alaska at 90 miles an hour, Meekin
gets to see a lot that you’d
miss on the ground. From the air, he has watched up to 40,000 caribou spread
out below him, as well as bears, wolves and other Alaskan wildlife. He spends
part of each year counting caribou for wildlife surveys.
If there’s one thing NOLS students can’t go without for long, it’s
food — so Meekin often has to fly in rain, snow and crud to get to eagerly
awaiting groups of NOLS students. When the weather’s unsafe to fly in,
hungry students must get creative with whatever’s left in their rations.
But all hunger is forgotten when Meekin’s plane touches down. “I
show up with the food, so I’m always a hero, even if I’m a day late,” says
Meekin. “I can’t do anything wrong.”
|Meekin (far right) sometimes
brings in special treats for students — in
this case a well-deserved round of ice cream
for a NOLS Alaska Mountaineering course.
Once on the ground, the pilot gets hit with a lot
of questions. Besides their course mates and instructors,
Meekin’s the first person students have seen
in weeks. “People ask you a million things,” he says, “like
who won the NBA game, or if you can take their boots out and bring them another
It’s hard to estimate just how many NOLS students have been
Meekin’s cheerful wave out the window of his Piper Cub, or how many thousands
of pounds of food (and garbage) he’s flown in and out. But one thing’s
for sure — everyone’s glad when his plane breaks the silence of the
Alaskan wilderness. As NOLS Executive Director and former NOLS Alaska Director
John Gans says, “The sound of Mike’s plane is the one non-natural
sound I’m always pleased to hear in the backcountry!”