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NOLS' Eye in the Sky
By Kerry Brophy

Mike Meekin refuels the tiny Piper Cub airplane that he uses to bring food and gear to NOLS students in Alaska.

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!’”

Meekin’s plane on a patch of gravel that serves as a remote airstrip.
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.

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 from 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.

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.
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.”

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 pair.”

It’s hard to estimate just how many NOLS students have been greeted by 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!”

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